On the Waterfront

In Red Hook, One Building Is a Tipping Point

O'Connell, wearing overalls and sitting in his office, a black Dodge diesel pickup truck, explained his Red Hook preoccupation, which even his critics agree is not just about money. He is holding a thick stack of grimy business cards. With a just-the-facts-ma'am delivery, O'Connell, son of a cop from a "typical Depression-era Irish family," explains, "I liked the history of Red Hook. I like stuff that's falling down, that nobody else wants. It was never the dollars and cents. I have a lot of properties [60-some total in South Brooklyn]. I have partners. We would make a lot more selling to private developers. I'm not worried about where my next meal is coming from. I have never sold a property. I finally found a location that I could help develop, a location that is defined—Red Hook is surrounded by water on three sides. You can have an impact in a defined area."

At some point over the years, O'Connell decided the way to do good and convince the city to sell him the building would be to bring in a grocery store: "Everything I read about getting a community on its feet—communities with half on the poverty level or below—it all said food." He went to Fairway, which he says is "community minded. Look at their Harlem store. They hire locally. That means 300 union jobs for Red Hook."

At the recent council hearing, Councilman Rodriguez reprimanded the EDC for not considering other proposals—some for "affordable housing" that "Red Hook needs desperately." "There were four or five people," he said. "You didn't meet with any of them." The EDC maintains the other proposals were not "serious," or as logical, since O'Connell owns "all the surrounding property around the warehouse." Rodriguez insisted, "That's not the way for this city to do business. You can't do it that way anymore. There's a new government now."

Watch this space: The Civil War-era ware-house at 480-500 Van Brunt Street that Red Hook has been fighting over.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Watch this space: The Civil War-era ware-house at 480-500 Van Brunt Street that Red Hook has been fighting over.

Community review began last September, creating just about "more brouhaha than any land-use issue in the last 20 years," says Community Board 6's Jerry Armer. The meetings began in Red Hook's firesides: David Sharps's 1914 wooden railroad barge with the upside-down rowboat on the cabin ceiling and the P.S. 15 auditorium with, at the time, a children's stage set of giant aluminum-foil-covered musical notes. Before each meeting, community board member Cecilia Cacace—Red Hook-born and proud of it: "My father was a dockworker, a chef, and a phenomenal brain"—would line up her different colored pencils to take notes. "Walking into those meetings was like walking into a Twin Peaks episode," says arts producer Michelle Moskowitz, who used to work with Dancing in the Streets and choreographer Martha Bowers, both longtime presences in Red Hook. Sometimes people accidentally testified on the wrong topic. But they always sounded like they were in Hamlet.

The contingent of O'Connell supporters was like a little army; they always outnumbered the dissidents because O'Connell and his Kings Harbor View Associates Partnership are very organized. This group's position: Of course O'Connell should own the building. He has brought in nearly 75 new businesses. He turned the Sullivan Hotel into affordable housing. He did beautiful renovation jobs. He gives free space to artists, the trolley restoration project, youth programs.

"I always wanted to get out the violins at this point," says artist Florence Neal, director of the Kentler International Drawing Space. She likes O'Connell, but she is not big on a giant Fairway with a 300-car parking lot in her neighborhood. No matter how politically correct a grocery store it is. Artist Tina Olsen goes on about how she never thought she would support a developer, but "Oh, I love Civil War warehouses and vegetables, and Red Hook, you know, has no vegetables."

The biggest protest always comes from those apoplectic about how the Fairway traffic and noise will ruin the neighborhood, turning Van Brunt Street, the only street that goes to the warehouse, into the Silk Road of Brooklyn with 14,000 car trips a day. Old people will get run over, they say. Children will get more asthma than they already have. Frail wooden buildings will shake in their foundations. The noise will be unbearable. Red Hook-raised Mauro Bacolo, who recalls the late '40s, when the waterfront had thousands of men and ships, says, "Big trucks had those heavy rubber tires, and nobody gave a shit about decibels back then." But now people talk about decibels all the time, even though most of the shipping industry, except for the Marine Terminal, is gone. Gone, too, is Bacolo's father, a "longshoreman in the morning and a numbers guy in the afternoon, but some were around here," says Bacolo. A woman at the Veteran's Post remembers Bacolo's father. "Oh, he was so handsome," she said. "He looked just like John Garfield. He had all his own teeth." The men in the Veteran's Post today—Gooch, Sharky, and Johnny Finger (he is missing one), the Village Elders, who spend their days watching the track on the big-screen TV—could care less about the Fairway. And those Fairway meetings were confusing, anyway. Fish, spices, calico—they used to come by water. That was the whole point of the waterfront. Now trucks, clipper ships with sails on their bumpers, will bring the food and the fish by land to the water. It is backwards.

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