Cormorants nest on the abandoned piers along Brooklyn’s Sunset Park waterfront. Herons, egrets and wild parrots make their homes amidst the toxic tidewater remains where a half century ago the bulk of war materiel bound for Europe was loaded by thousands of muscle-backed stevedores. On the waterfront today, birds far outnumber union cards. New York’s shipping business, for anyone who hasn’t been asleep for half a century, is sunk, and the twisted remnants of Bush Terminal’s piers jut from the bayswater like a beached wreck.
But earlier this year, Jerry Nadler, a liberal West Side Democratic Congressman, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced plans to begin a port salvage operation in Brooklyn, a task akin to raising a thousand litanies. Rep. Nadler, whose district includes neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and Giuliani both support a $4.1 billion plan to rebuild a 1,129-acre section of the derelict Brooklyn waterfront into a “superport.” To link their dream to the continental U.S., they are also proposing sandhogging a new rail tunnel under New York Harbor to New Jersey or Staten Island.
The plan is a boon to those who believe New York’s commercial future lies with its seafaring past. Build the port and tunnel, they argue, and just watch the factories and warehouses sprout up in job-hungry neighborhoods like Red Hook, Sunset Park and Gowanus.
“If New York becomes the hub port, it can add at least 50,000 new jobs, and probably much more than that,” Nadler told City Limits.
“He’s thinking about expanding [the port] and keeping jobs,” says Robert Fitch, author of “Assassination of New York,” which pilloried city officials for allowing the port-linked industrial economy to disintegrate while they subsidized the financial services and real estate sectors. “Nadler’s singular among politicians working to put infrastructure in place.”
Not everybody feels that way. Instead, a growing number of Brooklyn community leaders–people who have been redeveloping neighborhoods brick by brick for years–think the plan could be a disaster. They fear it will kill the small, hardy industries that have managed to thrive on the waterfront–and waste a once-in-a-century chance to develop the area. Get ready for the next big development brawl.
“I’m not buying into the plan until I know what will happen to local people affected by it,” says Tom Angotti, chairman of Pratt Institute’s graduate planning department. “The potential for an active and viable port is enormous.. but who gets the jobs? Are they permanent? Will they sustain local communities? Can we have industry, waterfront development and at the same time, public access and recre-ational use?”
“They are panicking over intangibles,” responds Nadler. “Right now we don’t even know how big it has to be or where it should be placed.”
The notion of a coming age of super-ports has been spawned by shipping companies, who are moving aggressively to consolidate costly operations in ports throughout the country. The development of a new generation of monster-sized cargo ships with unheard of 46-foot drafts is the key; double-hulled ships being built to tote payloads of up to 6,000 truck-sized containers each will render current ports with shallow channels and limited offloading areas obsolete.
The prototype for 21st century ports is Rotterdam, Holland–Europe’s “mainport”–a 62-foot-deep channel through which flows a majority of Europe’s containerized freight. The New York Harbor, which includes Newark, is currently the East Coast’s largest port, but it handles only half of the tonnage Rotterdam does. And almost all of the freight now passes through the vast container ports on the Jersey side.
The best place in New York City to put a Rotterdam-type facility–which would require acreage almost equal to Central Park and Prospect Park combined–is the curved expanse of waterfront between the Red Hook piers and the Brooklyn Army Terminal rail yards on 65th Street in Bay Ridge. Its feasibility and exact placement will be determined by a two-year, $2 million study funded by the city with federal transportation money.
Nadler believes that the East Coast will only be home to one such port. “We have to recognize we’re in a race with Norfolk, Virginia and Halifax, Nova Scotia [cities that have their own superport aspirations],” he says. “[If we fail it might lead to our losing as much as half of the 180,000 port-related jobs the Port Authority estimates the area has now.”
If all goes according to plan, Nadler thinks construction could begin in just four years and be completed by 2010. “We can’t afford to be held up by lawsuits’ Nadler adds, in an acknowledgement of how seriously he takes the brewing neighborhood opposition.
There is no question that the neighborhoods Nadler represents could use the economic boost the superport plan promises.
Columbia Street, the waterfront drag that runs from the pierheads in Brooklyn Heights to the end of Red Hook, saw tracts of land cleared for a container port decades ago that was never built. Red Hook is scarred by sprawling car-tow pounds, sanitation facilities and home to a fast-gentrifying industrial building stock. The pier-feeder streets in Sunset Park are a mostly weedy waste of produce emporiums, half-empty factories and cavernous strip joints.
But to establish the new port, the city would probably have to bulldoze many of the buildings that huddle along the whole waterfront in order to clear enough tarmac “staging area” to accommodate large freight containers. Even if the neighborhoods look dead, there’s a lot left in these mixed-use areas, including small factories and some low-rise housing.
In fact, the state Department of Labor estimates there are some 15,000 jobs in the Sunset Park waterfront section alone, providing employment to some of the poorest New Yorkers. The Brooklyn Army Terminal houses more than 50 employers and provides some 3,000 jobs, according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation. The South Brooklyn Marine Terminal houses NYNEX, Federal Express, a large beverage distributor as well as textile firms hiring new immi-grants. Within a block of the water sits the 500-bed Lutheran Hospital, also a significant employer.
“The scheme will just destroy work here–jobs done by minorities. It’s anti-job:’ predicts Ben Meskin, a Park Slope community leader who is one of the plan’s harshest critics.
A recent Sunset Park Restoration hous-ing survey even found more than 5,000 residents living in the heavily industrial waterfront sector. The group’s Tony Giordano calls the strip, which is severed from the rest of the neighborhood by the Gowanus Expressway, “a land of missed opportunities and communication between players.”
Reflecting these concerns, Community Board 7 has drafted a resolution demanding that any new port plan “must build on, not over, what is already there.”
Nadler responds by saying that the vast tracts of space needed for the port could be built by filling in adjacent parts of the harbor–avoiding the need to close any existing businesses. “With landfill, there is ample land to do what we need to do without any real dislocations,” he says.
Still, whether “what we need to do” can be accomplished without unleashing a tsunami of green opposition is an open question. In addition, community leaders also question whether the billions spent on the tunnel and port would be just another ambitious plan that dies on the docks. They point to the Red Hook Fishport, opened in 1987 on the site of the Erie Basin cargo terminal as a fish-processing center to rival the mobbed-up Fulton Fish market. It failed to generate much commerce, was poorly managed, generated very few jobs and closed in 1990. Even the Red Hook mini-container terminal isn’t making money, according to the Port Authority.
“If we keep on dreaming about a return to the glorious 1950s, we’ll end up with nothing and stay a third world waterfront”, says Carroll Gardens community leader Buddy Scotto, who has developed housing on the Columbia Street waterfront.
Even those who have followed the evolution of the ports in Europe say it is unclear if the superport will evolve as America’s transportation paradigm. “The [superport] theory is popular among people who think they’ll be the load center,” says Allen Wastler, transportation editor for the Journal of Commerce. “It’s not so popular among those who don’t.” Even if one East Coast superport wins out, there will always be some role for smaller ports, he adds.
Nonetheless, there are a number of Brooklyn leaders, including officers of key local economic development corporations, who support the plan. That’s not surprising in a borough with an 11 percent unemployment rate.
Dominick Massa, vice chairman of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and president of Sunset Park’s Harborside Management, an industrial park that would likely abut future development, calls it “an opportunity that can’t be missed. Sure we should spend a lot of money on parks, and we need waterfront access. But what good are parks if the people aren’t working?”
The scheme also has the support of the once-powerful International Longshoreman’s Association whose Brooklyn membership has dwindled to a mere 400 members. Recently, in a bit of merciless irony that demonstrates the utter death of the old port, ILA’s Carroll Gardens headquarters was converted into a Mormon community center.
Another irony is that Nadler, champion of West Side Manhattan Democrats, known for his support of West Side community groups in their battles over Westway and Donald Trump’s Riverside South proposal, is being accused of high-handedness by his Brooklyn constituents.
Ben Meskin, for one, thinks Nadler has forged an unholy alliance with City Hall Republicans content to sell Brooklyn a port in a poke. “How come Giuliani can know enough information to be for it, but we’re told there isn’t enough to know to be against it?” he asks.
Pratt’s Angotti wants significant community input early on in the city’s multi million dollar study, “not at the end when people only have the option of approving or saying no” and seek to scuttle the project.
Despite promoting the plan to local development groups, meetings have been held or are scheduled.
“I’m opposed to any process that doesn’t involve the community boards and other local people in the planning,” the congressman ripostes.
But, as Nadler knows well from his West Side development wars, an unhappy community can hamstring even the most ambitious plans: John McGetrick, whose Red Hook Civic Association recently won a state Supreme Court decision against the city over waste-transfer station siting requirements, says the congressman needs to heed Brooklyn’s concerns in a hurry. “I certainly would go to court to demand an environmental impact statement,” he said.
Michael Hirsch is a Manhattan-based freelance writer: His father was a merchant seaman.