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Red Hook Catches the Wave

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Businesses are also beginning to find Red Hook attractive. The California-based Valencia movie studio wanted to buy the old Revere sugar works, only to be outbid. The Park Slope Brewing Company brought its beer-making operation from Park Slope to Van Dyke Street in 1997 and set up, in the words of owner Stephen Deptula, a "bona fide regional craft brewery," supplying specialty beers made in Red Hook to the five boroughs. Deptula is planning to open a taproom and food-service establishment with a brick oven for thin-crust pizza.

"I think Fairway would be a fabulous thing," says Deptula. "Thousands of people in the neighborhood would get jobs."

O'Connell's supporters feel he speaks their language. Emma Broughton, a redoubtable woman who raised her children in the Red Hook Houses and toiled for years to keep the projects' residents safe and productive, would happily shop at the Fairway instead of the lackluster Big R. But more important, she says, "I would like to see that building be commercial. It brings jobs in, and we need jobs."

Fairway will provide more than 200 union jobs, O'Connell says, in addition to training local labor (as the owners have done in their hugely successful West Side Highway branch in Harlem). The high-tech outfits also intend to provide opportunities, particularly for local kids.

David Sneddon of Fairway describes his project in glowing terms. He says that in addition to training neighborhood people, his Harlem business packages family meals for people on food stamps, organizes transport for the elderly, and donates to organizations such as City Harvest. He thinks 480-500 is the perfect location. "I love the quaintness of the building," he says, "and I love what you can do there."

O'Connell's opponents remain skeptical. Where's the promised park? Everything takes time on the waterfront, O'Connell insists, because everything involves multiple agencies, multiple permits. After so many years in Red Hook, why doesn't he have more local people working at the businesses on his properties? "With employing local people, you have to go step by step," he says. Why has he been so slow to build housing on all those lots he owns? He explains in detail the problems of funding and construction in Red Hook, and then, if you give him a minute, he waxes eloquent about all the grand plans he's hatching -- for a public fishing jetty, a boardwalk, extending the trolley tracks.

When it was a question of fighting for the community's very survival, all these issues could be put aside. Now they're inescapable. Wally Bazemore, a Vietnam veteran and community activist who lives in the Red Hook Houses, speaks for many when he says, shaking his head, "Greg and John have been going at each other for years. Two titans swinging at each other. It's a waste of energy. They are both an asset to the community." Maybe, but nobody's talking compromise.

"Fairway's going in there," O'Connell insists. But his proposal has to be publicly reviewed by Community Board 6 and then by the City Council. This means going up against Rodriguez, who has made it clear that he can -- and will -- block any vote in favor of the sale. "It's just not going to happen," Rodriguez counters. "To me, 480-500 is not the issue. The issue is Red Hook's future."

When he looks at that future, the councilman sees ferries linking it to Governors Island, which is just a narrow stretch of water away, and for which the state has just announced plans to build a mix of public and private works, including hotels and cultural facilities. And he sees housing in 480-500 as the key to it all: "If people lived in it, the mind-set would change." Although he's sympathetic to the artists, Rodriguez wants mixed housing in there. He knows that would be more costly (nonartists usually want their space divided up into rooms, each of which is required to have adequate light and air, and that means constructing interior air shafts or courtyards), but he's undeterred. "Quite a few developers have told me that it can work," he says.

A very ambitious politician who's currently popular with constituents for his aggressive stance against the garbage, Rodriguez has staked his future on the principle of public access to the Red Hook waterfront. "It's a political fight for me," he says. "Greg is powerful politically. But he still has to learn to share."

Rodriguez recently told Fairway that another site was available with better parking and access, minimal environmental impact, and no community opposition. (The site, which Rodriguez didn't specify at the time, is leased by the Big R supermarket, across from the Red Hook Houses.) Sneddon turned him down without asking for particulars, and admits he's not interested in another site. "If the community doesn't want us, we won't buy there." That attitude infuriates Rodriguez. "Now I am extremely upset," says Rodriguez. "It was never about Red Hook. It was always about acquiring a piece of real estate."

Red Hook is attracting lots of attention these days from would-be homeowners, aspiring entrepreneurs looking for space, and assorted urban planners mulling the future of the waterfront. With the garbage war won, the troubles of peacetime have begun. No one person or entity can control this place anymore -- whether it be the mob, the city planners, or a wealthy developer. Says Neal, "We don't have one guy who rules. It's time for other people to step up and make this the community it can be."


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