O'Connell, a persuasive and enterprising retired NYPD detective, has spent the past 25 years quietly buying up property in Red Hook -- decrepit buildings and vacant lots that nobody wanted, both on the waterfront and in the interior (called the Back). He favors overalls and drives a pickup truck, and his voice gets thick when he talks about his feel for the place. "I can remember when I came down here, it was Cyclone fences, packs of dogs running wild, cars abandoned, garbage everywhere," says O'Connell, an imposing man with a folksy grin. "But I saw something. I saw the spirit here."
Banking his holdings and cultivating close ties with powerful local figures and city politicians, including Borough President Howard Golden, O'Connell has been gambling that Red Hook's unique beauty eventually would spur a revival and that he would be in a commanding position when that revival came. He has a major ownership stake in all the big warehouses on the waterfront except for 480-500, which sits plumb in the middle of his property and directly across the street from his chief accomplishment, the Beard Street warehouses, which he lovingly restored and then filled with small businesses.
With Red Hook one of the city's designated sites for a new high-tech wiring initiative in postindustrial neighborhoods, both 480-500 and Beard Street will be plugged in. O'Connell's proposal for 480-500 includes space on three floors for Fairway (the store at ground level, its offices, food preparation, and a café upstairs) and a mix of high-tech media firms; nonprofit arts, education, and environmental groups (including the locally based performance company Dancing in the Streets); and artists' studios.
For the opposition, Fairway isn't itself the issue -- many residents would love the chance to shop there -- but they don't want the store in that location, and more important, they don't want O'Connell to control 480-500, especially if he's planning to put it to commercial use.
O'Connell's nemesis in this fight is John McGettrick, also a neighborhood fixture, easily recognizable by a formidable handlebar mustache and ever-present armful of files and papers. A veteran activist (the antiwar movement, working for Robert F. Kennedy and Paul O'Dwyer), McGettrick is a security consultant and has lived in Red Hook for twelve years. He intends to help get this beaten-down place back on its feet by remaking the mixed-use character that Red Hook once had, with housing and industry co-existing right down to the water.
Local real-estate agent Frank Manzione handles a constant stream of inquiries, especially for homes on the cobblestone streets. "A small frame house with a front yard and a lot of detail and charm recently sold in the 280s," Manzione says.
"We need to bring people in, owner-occupiers who can't find housing in surrounding communities," he insists. "And for low-cost housing, we'll rely on government subsidy and taxpayer money." As new people arrive, he says, so will stores and small businesses, bringing life back into the shuttered storefronts along Van Brunt Street. McGettrick et al. would be happy to see shops and restaurants in 480-500's ground floor (which by law cannot be residential since the building sits on a flood plain), but they see Fairway as disastrously impracticable. It's not just the clutter and chaos caused by trucks unloading their contents. Most of the customers would be driving in from the brownstone neighborhoods of Park Slope, Cobble Hill, and Brooklyn Heights. Where would they park? (The developers have the answer to that one: in the ideally located empty spaces O'Connell owns around 480-500, which until recently were ugly car-impoundment lots.) And how would they get there? "You have to go through nineteen blocks of small streets to get to it," says McGettrick. "You know, they'd never allow this in DUMBO."
The bitter animosity between O'Connell and McGettrick originated in a change of mind that O'Connell describes as simply pragmatic but McGettrick and others call a betrayal that had lasting consequences. In 1992, O'Connell wanted to buy 28.3 acres of waterfront property, including the Beard Street warehouses. The Port Authority sold it to him at the fire-sale price of $500,000, for two reasons: Nobody else wanted them, and O'Connell's bid was backed by the community. In return for this support, O'Connell had promised to provide a half-mile-long public esplanade on his newly acquired property, plus two acres of park and parking, and to participate in a community proposal for Red Hook's future, the so-called 197-a plan.
Two years in the making, this heady document was the work of residents and urban planners who were trying to find ways to lift the neighborhood out of its postindustrial blight. Its guiding principle was to ease zoning regulations to bring back jobs and homes and make the waterfront accessible to all. It was imaginative and feasible. But the scheme approved by the City Planning Commission in 1996 was a pale shadow of the original. O'Connell had withdrawn his support, testifying that its emphasis on housing mixed with light commercial use wasn't appropriate. Since then, O'Connell has held firm. He wants the waterfront to be wholly commercial.
"Say you're a teacher," he says. "You want to come home to a bedroom community and sleep. A small businessman has truck traffic, noise, smells, in the course of doing normal business. This can create a conflict."
As the grand rezoning plan evaporated, Red Hook was left hanging, vulnerable to the kind of mayhem that happens in postindustrial neighborhoods. Garbage, for example. Retired teacher Sue Peebles worked with O'Connell on 197-a. "What he's done," says Peebles, her voice nearly choking with rage, "is to put a lot of Red Hook people in the position of forever fighting garbage."
O'Connell also took his time making good on his end of the Beard Street deal. In 1997, he was fined $56,000 for environmental violations, including the discharge of raw sewage into New York Harbor. The people who'd poured their energies into 197-a never forgave him. And they've never stopped watching him. (It hasn't gone unnoticed, for example, that he drives into Red Hook each morning from his home in tony Cobble Hill.)
It's a complicated fight, not simply a case of smug gentrifiers vs. blue-collar locals. Both McGettrick and O'Connell have made Red Hook a better place to live. McGettrick and his fellow newcomers (in this neighborhood, you can be a newcomer indefinitely) have plunged into community life; they fought successfully for Independence Savings Bank to establish a branch here, volunteered with Easter-egg hunts and sports leagues for the kids, put up strings of Christmas lights on Van Brunt Street. They prodded the city to renovate the ball fields and a pier. They drove out fourteen illegal garbage dumps, blocked two sludge plants, and won the transfer-station war. In the process, they built bridges to the residents of the Red Hook Houses projects and to the old-timers from the waterfront days.
As for O'Connell, for years he was the only person with the desire and the ability to get things done in Red Hook. He donated mooring space to the barge, and both the annual Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition show and a new trolley museum are housed for free in the Beard Street warehouses. He's on numerous local boards, involved with cultural and mentoring programs and kids' activities. He's begun to convert one of his buildings in the Back into affordable housing for residents of the overcrowded projects and to deliver on the promise of waterfront access.
Partly as a result of all these improvements, partly because of the real-estate squeeze in surrounding neighborhoods, Red Hook is looking a lot more desirable as a place to live. Frank Manzione, the local real-estate agent, grew up in the neighborhood and has witnessed its convulsive changes. Now he handles a constant stream of inquiries, especially for homes on the cobblestone streets. Brick and wood-frame houses that sold for $50,000 in the eighties now go for $200,000 and up. "A small frame house with a front yard and a lot of detail and charm recently sold in the 280s," says Manzione.