Cargo Ships Leaving Red Hook? Maybe Not So Fast
The scene at the Red Hook piers in Brooklyn on Friday morning was a standoff between grit and glitz.
Librado Romero/The New York Times
On Pier 10, at Brooklyn’s last remaining cargo terminal, longshoremen hoisted freight containers off the backs of flatbed trucks lined up like roller-coaster cars and set them down on the deck of a mammoth freighter. Across an inlet on Pier 12, a different sort of seagoing colossus awaited: the Queen Mary 2, the biggest passenger liner ever built, just in from Southampton, England, with its payload of more than 2,000 vacationers.
For five years, the Bloomberg administration has seen the cruise terminal as emblematic of Red Hook’s future and the shipping operation as a relic, destined to give way to a tourist-friendly complex of more cruise ship terminals, shops and hotels, with condominiums nearby.
But after a five-year uphill struggle to transform the Red Hook waterfront, the city appears to be concluding that, for now, anyway, its future lies in its industrial past.
In recent weeks, city officials have publicly backed off plans to build a second cruise terminal and expressed interest in keeping the container port.
A City Council resolution introduced late last month, if passed, would effectively warn the Bloomberg administration of the Council’s intention to preserve the container port by holding up a proposed rezoning of the piers.
The Council also has the power to block the transfer of the piers from their owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to the city, a step that would be necessary for a major redevelopment.
And this month, officials from the city’s Economic Development Corporation and from the Port Authority will meet with the cargo port’s operator, American Stevedoring Inc. The company is operating without a lease, and the Port Authority has for years routinely denied its requests for lease extensions.
Although none of the players would speak about the agenda, American Stevedoring said the meeting was the first in at least three years that the city and the Port Authority have agreed to hold with company officials.
“In the context of what’s been happening in the last five years,” Matt Yates, a spokesman for American Stevedoring, said on Friday, “the up-and-downs and the tug of wars, things are great at the Brooklyn port, and we’re poised for success.”
Although the city has yet to take any direct action, even its comments signal a significant change of course from as recently as last fall, when the city unveiled a map for the Red Hook waterfront’s future showing a beer garden, a marina, art galleries and a second cruise terminal. The cargo terminal was still in the plan, but was shrunk to two piers from five, which supporters of the terminal said was too small to be viable.
City Councilman David Yassky, one of the shipping terminal’s most vocal defenders and the sponsor of the recent resolution, said that in a meeting with him last month, officials from the Economic Development Corporation were “sounding absolutely on target.” The officials, Mr. Yassky said, were saying, “We see shipping as a real opportunity for growth on the waterfront, and we want to make that happen.”
In an interview with The New York Observer on July 10, the development corporation’s new official in charge of Red Hook, Madelyn Wils, said that the city saw “no imminent need for another cruise ship terminal” and was “looking at putting out an R.F.E.I. for a container port,” referring to a request for expressions of interest from potential operators.
Since then, the Bloomberg administration has issued only boilerplate, noncommittal statements on the subject. A spokeswoman for the development corporation, Janel Patterson, said on Friday, “We continue to work with the Port Authority to plan for the future of the entire waterfront, including Piers 7 through 12, with a focus as always on striking a balance between job creation, waterfront access and preserving Red Hook’s waterfront character.”
The Port Authority, which for years has tried to move cargo operations from Red Hook to its much bigger ports in New Jersey and on Staten Island, said it awaited the city’s next move. “Obviously, it’s their decision as to what they want there, and how they want to proceed with whatever plan they want to come up with,” said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the agency.
The word bandied about most often by supporters of the shipping terminal is jobs. Depending on whether the city or American Stevedoring is doing the estimating, the shipping operation in Red Hook, a curving spit of land jutting into the harbor south of the Brooklyn Bridge, employs between 400 and 700 people altogether, mostly in the kinds of high-paying blue-collar jobs that are vanishing from the city.
The cruise terminal, which opened with fanfare in the spring of 2006, was projected by the city to create upward of 500 jobs. As of last week, Ms. Patterson said, it employed 14 people full time. An additional 279 people pick up a day’s work when a cruise ship comes in, an average of once a week, she said.
But jobs are only a part of the debate and a sort of proxy for a host of other issues: neighborhood character and New York’s eternal rivalry with New Jersey among them. In any case, the administration has not been able to sustain much support, either from other politicians with clout or from the public, to move forward with its vision.
Even the shipping terminal’s supporters agree that the terminal should eventually move out of Red Hook, which lacks storage space for containers and easy highway and rail access. A much larger and long-vacant terminal a couple of miles down the waterfront in Sunset Park is seen as the most logical spot for a bigger operation.
But officials like Mr. Yassky and Representative Jerrold Nadler have insisted for years that if the city closed the Red Hook port before opening its replacement, shippers would take their business elsewhere. The terminal’s murky future has already scared away some potential customers. In 2005, a German cargo company backed out of a deal to bring about 60,000 freight containers a year to Red Hook because, the company told reporters at the time, the city would not guarantee that the terminal would stay the same size through 2009.
Ms. Wils’s recent statements about keeping the cargo terminal in Red Hook but soliciting bids to run it from vendors other than American Stevedoring were met with considerable wariness on the same grounds. The bid process, Mr. Yassky said, “would just add to this years-long period of uncertainty about the waterfront.” He added, “The danger is this uncertainty is deadly in the marketplace.”
But a government official familiar with the situation concerning the pier battle, who spoke anonymously for fear of disturbing a delicate détente, interpreted the coming meeting with American Stevedoring as a sign that the city is ready to help the company strike a deal with the Port Authority.
By ANDY NEWMAN