Converting Red Hook

A lawsuit to preserve a working waterfront takes aim at condo zoning variance

Around the same time, the BSA finally made up its mind. Despite its previously voiced reservations, the board voted 3-1 on December 23 in favor of granting a waiver for the project. In its decision, the majority said they were persuaded that the owners could not find industrial tenants for the project, and had no other option but to turn it into residential units.

As written, the board's decision was a virtual death knell for similar industrially zoned properties of more than two floors: "The majority of the building's square footage is massed on the upper floors," the panel stated, "rendering it less desirable to modern manufacturing concerns that require ground-level space for immediate truck access."

The lone holdout was then BSA chairman James Chin, a Giuliani-administration appointee, who had been told by the Bloomberg administration while the board was still considering the matter that he would be replaced as chairman. A few days after the vote, Chin was replaced.

The board's vote surprised some people who had taken a close look at the proceedings. "My sense from talking to senior professional staff at the BSA was that the variance wasn't going to be approved. They thought it would be denied," said a Brooklyn legislator.

Among the arguments raised in the debate before the board was whether or not the owners had made an adequate effort to market the property to industrial tenants. Attorneys for the owners insisted they had tried—and come up empty. But Adam Friedman, director of a group called the New York Industrial Retention Network, said that his organization had proposed tenants and still has a list of 60 companies in search of affordable space.

"The impact of the conversion could be significant," said Friedman. "It has the container port in front, and it is surrounded by other industrial and manufacturing users. By introducing residents onto the block it sets the stage for a conflict over traffic problems and everything else that can arise when there are different types of uses. It changes the market and that fuels real estate speculation."

Some longtime residents are hoping Imlay Street will have exactly that impact. John McGettrick, who moved with his family to a 19th-century rowhouse on nearby Coffey Street in the 1980s, said that those trying to hold on to the area's industrial zoning are blocking revitalization and trapping the neighborhood in an obsolescent past. "No matter how this deal was done," he said, referring to the conversion, "it is going to be good for the neighborhood. This is an area that lost more than half its population. As a result, we've been beset by garbage dumps and every other usage no one else in the city wants."

A brief hearing on the lawsuit was held last Friday by Brooklyn judge Yvonne Lewis. Despite objections from lawyers for the property owners that their project was already well under way and that it had fairly obtained its variance, the judge agreed to continue her stop-work order. Another hearing on the matter is due to be held this week.

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