No one paid too much attention when retired New York Police Department detective Greg O’Connell began, in the early 1990s, to buy up tumbledown warehouses on an overgrown pier in Red Hook, Brooklyn. O’Connell — a burly, bearded man prone to rumpled overalls and sunburns — didn’t appear to be much of mogul. The lonely industrial pier seemed just that: A dark peninsula jutting into the Buttermilk Channel that separates south Brooklyn from forgotten Governor’s Island.
Red Hook sits apart from gentrifying neighborhoods such as Carroll Gardens and Gowanus to its east, separated by Robert Moses’ Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the largest public housing development in Brooklyn — monochromatic brick towers accommodating some 5,000 residents. When O’Connell arrived, there were a handful of artists already in Red Hook, drawn by cheap rents and waterfront views. But his investment in the neighborhood jumpstarted its slow but steady transformation into a relatively high-rent hamlet of Brooklandia DIY hipness. These days, a Fairway Supermarket topped by high-end lofts fills one of O’Connell’s warehouses. Wild herbs grow in a small park overlooking the channel. Artist studios, artisanal manufacturers and a super-amazing key lime pie bakery occupy other buildings on the pier. A few years back, an Ikea opened on an adjacent pier.
With his vision largely realized, O’Connell has in recent years moved on to the admirable project of turning the lights back on in the small and forgotten downtowns of upstate New York’s Genesee Valley. We called O’Connell to find out what advice he has for developers like Tony Hsieh, the Zappos CEO whose efforts to turn around Downtown Las Vegas (in a very Greg O’Connell-like way) are detailed in this Forefront story.
Next American City: Both you and Tony Hsieh are kind of one-man shows. You came into Red Hook — and are going into the villages of upstate New York — with a vision, and the money to buy up the properties that you need to manifest that vision, similar to what Hsieh is doing in Vegas. What advice do you have for him?
Greg O’Connell: Get some good tax abatements. Whether residential or commercial, you don’t want to make the investment and then have to make the huge tax payments. You have to have abatements so you can keep rent low enough to attract small businesses. You also need to find out what the assets are in the community. You have to look at what that is — look at the history and why it developed and what you can take from that history.
NAC: It’s pretty easy for tensions to develop in a community when a developer comes in with a strong vision and money enough to realize it in a way that begins to affect people. How do you deal with the inevitable conflicts?
O’Connell: Get everyone involved. They know better than a developer what the community needs. Once you hear people, you can figure out solutions to the conflicts.
NAC: Involvement can’t solve everything. How do you deal with trickier gentrification issues?
O’Connell: Make the development cost-effective. Energy efficiency keeps costs down so you don’t have to charge as much for rent. Create a main street manager to organize community events throughout the year. We also made arrangements with non-profits and sold land to them for affordable housing. It can be done but you need to think about it beforehand. It’s hard to do affordable after the place is happening, when people know its happening.
NAC: How many years beforehand?
O’Connell: At least 10-15 years in advance. Affordable housing non-profits and arts groups have to be involved from the beginning.
NAC: Despite pressure to redevelop the Red Hook waterfront with housing, as has been done with similar industrial tracts in Williamsburg or Dumbo, you’ve prioritized maintaining Red Hook as a hub for manufacturing and light industry. Why?
O’Connell: There is no doubt there would be great demand for housing. Perhaps even the city would gain more tax revenue from housing than industry — we could probably triple the rents if we went residential. But the thing to remember, is that you can’t push the small businesses further out from the businesses they serve in Manhattan, and once you lose the working waterfront, you are never going to get it back. You have to take a long-term look and ask: What does the city need to keep going? The city needs to perform certain functions to work — goods need to come in and out, energy must to produced, goods must be manufactured. There are only a limited number of spaces to do those things. The industrial waterfront is a big one.
NAC: Looking at Red Hook now, is the neighborhood what you wanted it to be? Do you feel like it’s done in the sense that your vision has been realized?
O’Connell: It’s just about completed. As I go back there, I can see so many more people on the street, so many restaurants looking to expand. That infill on the main street is happening now. As far as my development goes, the residential is full. I think we may have one vacancy in our commercial space on the pier. Is Red Hook finished? No, there are still vacant lots throughout, but that’s not Red Hook. That is the economy.
It’s better than I even thought it would be. It was dead as a doornail when I came down. You could drive down [the main street] with no clothes on. No one was there to see it. The amount of people there now is more than I ever expected. It may have taken a while to happen, but it happened.
Ariella Cohen is Next City’s editor-in-chief.