For years, Red Hook, a quiet corner of Brooklyn isolated from the hustle and bustle of the rest of New York City with multi-million-dollar townhouses near the harbor and the borough’s largest concentration of public housing a few blocks away, has always been the next destination neighborhood ready to be gentrified until it isn’t. In the early 2000s, it nearly tipped, and then, according to New York Magazine, the area degentrified. It subsequently drowned in the floodwaters of Sandy and has come back a bit tonier around the edges with destination dining, craft distilleries and popular bars lining Van Brunt St. Red Hook’s future remains a murky one, and one way or another, without flood protection, the area will be underwater in a few decades.
And yet, the forces that try to shape the city can’t help themselves. While Red Hook’s biggest drawback and obstacle is a lack of subway access, a new proposal put forward by AECOM involves up to 45 million square feet of development and a three-stop subway spur from the 1 train in Lower Manhattan that would connect this part of Brooklyn to Manhattan on one side and the F, G and R trains at 4th Ave. and 9th Street on the other. With the BQX, much closer to reality than this subway extension (though both are still just lines on pieces of paper and likely to remain that way), Red Hook is once again in the crosshairs of developers and urban planners looking to make something out of an area that often just wants to be left alone.
The AECOM report landed with an exclamation point earlier this week. The 1 train to Red Hook! A tunnel under the harbor! Three new subway stations! All of this could be yours for the low, low price of $3.5 billion! Act now before prices increase!
If it seems too good to be true, that’s because it likely is. The subway proposal is just one part of a larger discussion that AECOM SVP and former Port Authority head Chris Ward discussed at length in a forum at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. AECOM’s proposal includes a call for up to 45 million square feet of development and a massive re-imagining of Red Hook with floodwalls surrounding the area and high rises development near both the water and the new subway stops. The streetscape would change for the better, and the area under the BQE would be stitched into the community rather than serving as a dangerous six lane highway itself. It is, AECOM officials have stated, the company’s attempt to start a conversation on solving the city’s housing crisis by focusing on areas with untapped potential and room for growth.
According to AECOM’s report [pdf], the Red Hook extension of the West Side IRT would involve a spur from south of Rector St. under the harbor with stops at the Atlantic Basin and in the public housing complex before joining with the the F, G and R at 4th Ave. It could eventually include a stop on Governor’s Island as well that could open the park year round or provide access to a new area on the island for a campus-like development. The subway would usher in Red Hook’s development, and the development would pay for the subway. “New subway infrastructure could be partially supported and paid back by revenue generated under this scenario, but will require
additional tax measures or other sources of funding avenues to fully pay for support the new subway line,” the report says. “The 35M development scenario would potentially provide less investment capital for new subway infrastructure as compared to the 45M scenario.”
AECOM believes this subway extension would cost only $3.5 billion, and development financing could cover around 40% of that price tag. As Chris Ward repeated stated the AECOM plan was to be the start of a conversation and not a heavy-handed top-down approach to building up Red Hook, I’m not sure where to begin or how seriously to take any of this. An Outer Borough subway extension through a sparsely populated area should be cheaper than building in Manhattan, but this IRT extension — called the 1 train — in renderings would require reconstruction and a new terminal station on the Manhattan side, a tunnel under the harbor, flood-proof stations underneath low-lying Red Hook, a tunnel that snakes below the BQE and underneath the Gowanus Canal and a new terminal at 4th Ave. parallel to and underneath the BMT 4th Ave. tracks. How this happens for just $3.5 billion, let alone when, is anyone’s guess. Based on the MTA’s current priorities and the city’s transit needs for current development, it could be decades before Red Hook gets the subway it so badly needs, 9 train or otherwise.
On another level though, this AECOM thing — report, plan, conversation piece — lays bare an issue with planning-by-development. Already Red Hook residents, activists, NIMBYs and YIMBYs are upset with this plan because it came out of the blue. They want to be a part of a conversation about Red Hook, and even if Ward insisted this was to be the start of a conversation, a 61-page pamphlet with fancy renderings and calls for 45 million square feet of growth hardly feel like the start of an open process. So does Red Hook get its subway or is this just a blip — the next chapter in Joe Raskin’s book on planned subway lines that never went anywhere? It seems like the latter to me, but at least we’re all talking about it.