The Waterfront

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If a New Yorker knows anything at all about Sunset Park, it’s this: Scandinavians built the neighborhood in the 19th century, and in 1941 Robert Moses destroyed it.

As any older resident will tell you, the Gowanus Expressway, four bleak miles of elevated highway, drove a lance through Sunset Park. Moses’ road disconnected the waterfront from the houses upland and replaced a thriving avenue of newspaper stands and bakeries with a dark corridor of speeding tractor-trailers and rusting green steel.

“For more than 30 years, blight in South Brooklyn was confined to the waterfront area,” wrote Robert Caro in his biography of the infamous urban planner. “Now, thanks to Robert Moses and his parkway, it was on the loose, spreading across Sunset Park.”

But you might also want to thank Robert Moses for saving 14,000 industrial jobs.

By walling off the waterfront, the towering expressway preserved a bit of Brooklyn’s industrial past. Residential incursions–luxury apartment towers in Long Island City and artists’ lofts in Williamsburg–have pushed up rents everywhere else on the harbor coast, but western Sunset Park still menaces pedestrians with looming brick factory buildings, scant access to the water and more trucks than trees. In short, it’s a real working waterfront, just about the last self-contained industrial ecosystem in New York City.

When Bob Moses ran the Gowanus through Sunset Park, he broke new ground in hostile, high-handed urban planning. Now, it seems like every planner with a grandiose public-works dream wants to make his mark on the neighborhood. The Regional Plan Association (RPA) would run the Gowanus underground. The city is considering building the East Coast’s biggest port on the piers. And Congressman Jerrold Nadler wants to lay a 2.5-mile-long freight tunnel under the harbor from Brooklyn to New Jersey.

There are countless obstacles in the way of these plans. They are the most ambitious, expensive and technically difficult redevelopment programs in New York City. They’ve been called “reinventing the wheel,” “a dream,” and simply “cockamamie.” Worse still, any one of them could destroy the only good that ever came to the neighborhood from the Gowanus: a thriving industrial district where small manufacturers, supplied with low rents and cheap labor, have flourished.

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Down by the piers, the harbor is unexpectedly beautiful, the standard postcard view in reverse. Here, the Statue of Liberty is just a glint among the lights of the bay’s ships and cranes. Manhattan’s towers rise far to the north; to the south, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge dwarfs everything else.

But to get to the piers, you have to cross beneath the expressway. It’s like walking underneath a DC-10 ready for takeoff: loud, dark, dirty and not such a good idea.

To build the Gowanus, Moses ripped down every building lining the east side of 3rd Avenue between 39th and 63rd Streets, evicting 1,300 families and more than 100 stores. With no easy way to get to the waterfront, people stopped going down to watch the ships in the harbor at night. The Norwegian merchants were replaced by prostitutes working the lanes of traffic beneath the highway, and families abandoned their little frame houses on the blocks between 3rd and 4th avenues.

Sunset Park became better known for traffic jams than Scandinavian pastries. Each day, 150,000 cars and 10,000 trucks thunder down the Gowanus, covering nearby blocks with silty exhaust. The highway ices up well before the ground below, so accidents are constant, and its steep northern grade slows trucks, snarling traffic. There are no shoulders and the ramps are badly designed–during the daily rush hours, cars pour off the highway at 38th Street and rush down side streets. The Automobile Association of America has deemed the Gowanus one of the 10 worst highways in the country.

But bad highways make good barriers. Despite being overcrowded and dangerous, the Gowanus gives local manufacturers a direct link to the rest of America. And its sheer ugliness has helped keep industrial space cheap, from the 200-acre complex of Bush Terminal at the north end to 57th Street’s massive Brooklyn Army Terminal. While the rest of the Brooklyn waterfront has been colonized by higher-priced studios and lofts, rents in Sunset Park have stayed low enough for some 700 industrial businesses to prosper.

In the summer, the waterfront stinks with success. At 39th Street, the 10-year-old cocoa port handles nearly all the cocoa consumed on the Eastern seaboard; a coffee roaster is a few blocks away. To the south is a four-block-long meat market, a storage pier for garbage barges, and furniture and framing shops.

The biggest employer is the Lutheran Medical Center at 55th Street, but most of the other firms tend to be small and new. Garment cutters, distributors and food processors dominate, but there are also printers, platers, leather workers and light manufacturers making everything from antennas to musical instruments. They’ve filled most of the old buildings, even though few use the harbor at their feet.

Sitting in his white-tablecloth Harborside Cafe, Dominick Massa explains that, for years, even Sunset Park couldn’t overcome New York’s post-war industrial decline. Until recently, when garment manufacturers started fleeing Manhattan’s $12- and $14-per-square-foot rents for Brooklyn, much of this industrial wonderland lay vacant and neglected.

Massa manages Harborside, a 16-building, one-million-square-foot complex of lofts, piers and train yards. When he first leased the land from the city 10 years ago, industrial vacancy rates in the neighborhood were close to 20 percent, and the buildings were wrecked. “The roofs were out, there were 2,700 dumpsters of garbage to take out, 100 abandoned cars,” he remembers. “We went $100 million in the hole. But I had a belief that Brooklyn could revive itself. I was standing on the piers with [Borough President Howard] Golden, and Golden put his arm around my shoulder and said–‘go for it.'”

Massa, whose grandfather and uncle both worked the waterfront, saw his gamble pay off. Today his buildings are completely full, and he oversees businesses that employ 1,400 workers. “Now, up and down the streets of Sunset Park, every empty lot is getting built on, every building occupied as soon as it is finished,” he says. “Buildings I’ve had empty for four years are now occupied.”

Space is tight because rents are still pretty good. The waterfront is zoned for industrial use, which permits back offices and superstores like the Costco at 38th Street, but keeps high-rent houses, lofts and kitsch shops out. City subsidies and renovations also help. The renovated and landmarked Brooklyn Army Terminal, looking something like a cross between an airplane hangar and a cathedral, rents some space for $4.75 per square foot; a planned garment incubator at the other end of the waterfront will charge only $2.50 a square foot.

“We still have reasonable rents here. That’s why the garment industry is moving into the area, with reasonable rents in Bush Terminal, the Army terminal and the waterfront buildings,” explains Frank Spinner, a longtime owner of a small factory on 43rd Street that makes parts for car washes. But prices are on the rise. He bought his two-story building in 1953, and says the building would now cost nearly $1 million. “A normal rent here would be hard,” Spinner admits.

Vacancy rates for industrial space across the neighborhood’s waterfront are in the single digits. “Ground floors and one-story buildings are in demand and move very fast,” says Israel Dolgin, head of Kalmon Dolgin, a commercial realty. Dolgin says good buildings now rent for $5 to $7 dollars a square foot, up by half from a few years ago. “The demand for space has increased considerably over the last two to three years,” he says. “Sunset Park is hot.”

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But the bulwark of Sunset Park, the Gowanus, is falling apart. The State Department of Transportation estimates that it will cost $600 million to $800 million just to shore it up. People in the neighborhood fear the job would be the second coming of Moses: The repairs would last at least six years, route about 6,000 cars a day through the neighborhood’s streets, and make truck deliveries to the waterfront a nightmare.

Because the project is expensive and difficult, Sunset Park’s old-timers may finally get to see their most heartfelt desires realized. The RPA, New York’s elite nonprofit planning group, is plotting to rip down the Gowanus and replace it with a tunnel. Huge boring machines would burrow two four-mile-long tubes beneath Sunset Park. The project would cost somewhere between $1.5 billion and $8 billion. According to the RPA, the tunnel would soon pay for itself in lower maintenance costs.

The project would undo Moses, restoring Sunset Park by removing a highway that the community neither wants nor uses. It would mean no extra traffic jams from construction. No more pollution. And the end of the wall that has barred Sunset Park from its waterfront.

It would give the community what it yearns for-access to that beautiful harbor. “Nowhere else in Brooklyn is like that–where they say we are going to drive 50 million cars a year through your neighborhood,” says Sunset Park City Councilman Angel Rodriguez. “We recognize we have a responsibility to the region, and we comply, we understand. But in Sunset Park, we’re not poor anymore–we’re a working-class community, and we matter.” What that working-class community would do with a newly accessible waterfront sounds surprisingly suburban. Hardscrabble Sunset Park doesn’t want the land to be used to build factories or new housing. More than anything, the residents want a park-just like Chelsea.

The irony is that Congressman Jerry Nadler might stand between the neighborhood and its park. Nadler’s gerrymandered district includes western Manhattan, Bay Ridge and a sliver of Sunset Park, the part from 1st Avenue to the waterfront, which has almost no voters. It’s a safe bet that Nadler-the pro-jobs, pro-industry liberal-would never think of putting a port on the Upper West Side.

But for decades, he’s wanted to rebuild New York’s shipping and rail freight system, and now that he has Mayor Giuliani on his side, he may get a chance to see his port built in Sunset Park. This fall, the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Port Authority are all conducting studies to figure out how to rebuild and re-dredge the Port of New York and New Jersey. They need to accommodate the mammoth ships, faster turn-around times and cheaper cargo charges that the international shipping industry now demands, or see the 7,000 ships that come to our docks each year diverted to Nova Scotia or Virginia.

Early EDC reports target Sunset Park as ground zero (the final report was to be ready at the end of November). At the South Brooklyn waterfront, the EDC would build a 1,129-acre super-port, making it the shipping nexus for the entire Eastern Seaboard. The plan would fill in the derelict piers, creating new berths and space to unload four 1,000-foot freighters at once. The harbor would be dredged to 50 feet below sea level, deep enough for the new breed of container ships. And to move all that tonnage onto the mainland, the EDC is considering running a rail tunnel beneath the harbor. The whole project is projected to cost $3 billion.

The EDC, worried about public opposition, has agreed to include some 30 to 50 acres of public park along the waterfront, and says the port would create 20,000 jobs. But a new port would also swallow up all the land west of 1st Avenue-including Massa’s turf, Bush Terminal, the Brooklyn Army Terminal and everything in between.

Fixing the piers and berths could make Sunset Park a port again-and also engulf much of the industrial waterfront. Tunneling the Gowanus could make it a beautiful place to live again-and jack up the rents. The problem with improvement projects is that they improve things. Both projects could do a lot of damage to Sunset Park’s small businesses.

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As you can tell by the long lines for the bus on 1st Avenue at the end of the day, Sunset Park still works the waterfront: Community board president Eugene Moore estimates that 65 percent of the waterfront laborers live locally. “Unskilled workers tend to come from the neighborhood, but the skilled workers come from all over,” says Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation’s Teresa Williams, who runs a job readiness program to help train locals. “These are good jobs, at eight or nine dollars an hour.” But the hub port would demolish dozens of buildings, shutting down many of the small businesses that employ Sunset Park.

“It seems to be a cockamamie thing to do,” says Sigurd Grava, professor of urban planning at Columbia University. Grava explains that Sunset Park will never have enough space to do the job, no matter how many billions are spent for public works. To unload, each container ship requires 120 to 200 acres, he says. The whole waterfront is only about 440 acres. “The hub port would obviously have to have a hinterland, and if you look at a map of the U.S., you’ll find that all the hinterland is west of the Hudson River,” he says. “It’s a simple thing to do: Look at a map.”

And while the port would employ a lot of longshoremen and truckers, it wouldn’t necessarily provide jobs to Sunset Park. “We have to think about people that can’t work in a mega-port,” Massa says. “Ninety-nine percent of the people in this area wouldn’t be eligible to work there. And what do you do with the businesses already in the area? Moving is costly. And even if the city pays for it, there’s just not enough space.”

Since Robert Moses was forced from power 30 years ago, New York City been unable-or afraid-to start any major new public works projects. A hub port or expressway tunnel would be the first since his time, and that, in the end, will probably determine the fate of Sunset Park: Without a Moses to bully through a project, all the plans could stay on the shelf.

Moore is enthused about the prospect of a tunneling the decrepit expresway. He’s also skeptical. “There’s a section that has been around the block and believes that there won’t be enough money to do it,” he says. “I think things will be held up in court until the damn thing falls down.”