A New Look for Red Hook

Signs of gentrification as artists move in, retail springs up

Nov.November 01, 2003 02:41 PM

As prices skyrocket in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the artists and trendsetters who initially fled to those areas from Manhattan are finding they must move once again in search of cheaper rents. For those in the market for affordable loft space, the gritty Red Hook area is becoming an increasing draw.

The Brooklyn neighborhood, traditionally isolated because it has no subway line, is soon likely to become more integrated with rest of the city through two giant retail projects and water transportation that will ferry passengers to and from Manhattan.

Along the waterfront, sailors, prostitutes and crime bosses once ran the docks in an area that is fast becoming a bastion for developers, retailers and artists seeking affordable commercial space. Even HBO s hit series, “The Sopranos” filmed this past October, detailed the once sketchy neighborhood that served as a home to real-life mobsters. Earlier, Red Hook was the southern terminus of the Erie Canal, with a maritime history dating back to the 1700s.

Today, developers are embracing the working-class heritage of the mixed industrial and residential area. At places like 64 West 9th St., in a new building whose architects are the late Nat Kirschenbaum and Frank Sellito, developers converted an industrial building that once housed the Larsen Bakery in its former life.

“The space is useful for artists because it is affordable, and space like that has been in strong demand but very scarce,” said Getz Obstfeld, who developed the property along with business partner John Lonuzzi. Obstfeld said that as more and more people get priced out of other gentrifying areas of Brooklyn, Red Hook is becoming a trendy alternative. “There are lots of people that need the open space that factory spaces provide, and a lot of them have gravitated towards Red Hook. It s become a relatively trendy community because the artists coming here are trend makers.”

Space at the building runs about $12 a square foot, with 10 duplexes occupying the first floor and the basement and eight apartments on each of the upper floors. There are four vacant apartments left. Apartment sizes range from 1,220 to 1,873 square feet, and run customers between $1,700 to just under $2,000, some of the cheaper housing left in Brooklyn.

Other blocks that are being converted are located on Commerce Street, Coffey Street, and Columbia Street.

As far as the building s style, Obstfeld said the building reproduces the old-school architecture once found in Brooklyn s mill buildings. The building also has a retro sign out front that reads “Red Hook Bakery” in old-fashioned lettering.

“We built a building that emulated the construction methods of the nineteenth century mill buildings that everyone loves so much and for good reason, because they create a great deal of wide open spaces, wood timbers that are warm and friendlier than the kind of construction methods today.”

Obstfeld also points out that the space is legitimately residential no small problem in Red Hook. “A lot of spaces in the area are converted illegally, and you ve got people living under commercial leases and those people are there at their own risk.”

Despite new projects, one obstacle that stands in the way of further development in the area is the lack of subway lines. Red Hook is set on a triangular grid, so residents must depend on bus transportation. The one-mile peninsula at the edge of Brooklyn is also cut off from the rest of the city by the physical barrier of the Gowanus Elevated Expressway and the Brooklyn Battery tunnel.

But water transportation may be a way around that isolation. Tom Fox, president of New York Water Taxi, will extend his services to Red Hook next year, according to long-time Red Hook developer Greg O Connell. The service would coincide with the opening of a new 52,000 square foot Fairway Supermarket slated in a Civil War-era warehouse at 480 Van Brunt Street. Last year the City Council agreed to allow the supermarket in the Van Brunt property, which will also house at least 40 units of affordable housing.

“It s probably one of the most exciting thing that has ever happened to transportation in the city, said O Connell, who is involved with the Fairway project. “In June of next year, [Fox] will be able to pick up from the Fairway building for commuter trips and on the weekends. He ll then extend that, so people will be able to come and shop by water taxi.”

Some long-time residents have voiced concern over the new super store, but O Connell said the project will bring jobs into the neighborhood.

“The people who are worried about it will be the first ones lining up outside the store, I think,” he said. “There aren t any grocery stores over in Red Hook, and it s something that is definitely needed over there.”

Under an even more ambitious plan, Swedish retailer Ikea is also seeking to build a store in Red Hook. The company said it s 350,000 square foot project, if it makes it through the public review process, could bring 600 jobs to the area. The store would be at the intersection of Van Brunt and Columbia Street, and would include a 5.5 acre esplanade. The project would also incorporate ferry service to and from Manhattan. Ikea hopes to start construction by the summer of 2004 and open by the summer of 2005.

Despite Obstfeld s comparison of Red Hook to Williamsburg, O Connell doesn t see many similarities. “Williamsburg is much different than Red Hook,” he said.

“The socio-economic condition is much different. Also, here you have a greater density of multi-story loft-like buildings, and the neighborhood is a triangle with water on three sides.”

O Connell also points out that Red Hook is a small community. There is a population of around 12,000 people living in housing projects in the area, and 4,000 in the back part of the neighborhood. According to the Red Hook Civic Association, median income is around $10,500. Ninety percent of the residents are African-American and Hispanic.

O Connell also said that the area is also home to many small businesses, with a 60 percent increase in businesses moving into the area. Culturally, the area is home to events like the Red Hook Waterfront Arts Festival in May, which features spoken word, dance, and music, and a monthly reading series at the century-old Sunny s Bar.

With the new Fairway, Ikea, water taxi service and high-end lofts, the neighborhood may never be the same.


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