National News

Tucked Into Governor’s Speech, an Unusual Proposal for Subway Growth

Posted January 3, 2018 8:24 p.m. EST

The proposals merited just two sentences in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech on Wednesday, but if they came to pass they could mean a dramatic makeover of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, and its stretch of still-industrial waterfront.

The idea would be to extend the subway from Lower Manhattan to the neighborhood, using a tunnel underneath the East River. The container terminal along the shoreline would be relocated to Sunset Park, potentially clearing the way for the redevelopment of more than 130 acres of publicly owned waterfront.

With a new subway stop with direct access to Manhattan, the now relatively isolated Red Hook could draw thousands of low-income, working-class and middle-class residents to affordable apartments that would be part of the development, a priority of both Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The scale is staggering. The potential redevelopment area is larger than Battery Park City, the community built on landfill in Lower Manhattan, and about six times as big as the largest private real estate development in the United States: the $25 billion Hudson Yards complex now taking shape on the Far West Side of Manhattan.

“This proposal opens up all of southern Brooklyn,” said Mitchell L. Moss, director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. “You can’t build enough housing by piecemeal rezoning. It would allow the maritime facilities to be concentrated in Sunset Park and it would provide more housing than any mayor could possibly do.”

But it is also fraught with huge political, environmental and engineering challenges.

Although Cuomo provided scant details and merely called on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to study the measures, engineers, architects and developers have also been working on ideas for the redevelopment of Red Hook.

Two years ago, Chris Ward, a former executive director of the Port Authority and now a senior vice president of AECOM, an international engineering firm, publicly discussed a $3.5 billion plan to extend the No. 1 train to Red Hook from Lower Manhattan and to develop 45,000 apartments along the waterfront.

More quietly, Related Cos., one of the city’s biggest developers, and William Wachtell, an adviser to the company, have circulated a similar draft plan called “New York’s Next Big Thing.” Their plan calls for a one-mile extension of the R subway line from Lower Manhattan to Red Hook.

Both proposals envision a stop on Governors Island, which they say, would allow for development there as well.

The starting point would be a “stub,” or capped tunnel, extending about 50 feet into the East River near the Battery Maritime Building that was created a century ago by some of the original builders of the city’s subway system.

The estimated $2.9 billion cost of the subway extension could be paid through the sale of land and the development of 45,000 apartments, one-third of which would be subsidized for low- and moderate-income tenants, under Related’s plan.

Under this so-called public-private partnership, a Related-led consortium would design, manage, construct and guarantee the subway. New development plans would emerge from discussions between developers, community groups and city officials.

But any proposal would require the focused political will of two prominent officials who seem to spend more time sparring with each other than working together: the governor and the mayor. Much of the land along the waterfront is owned by the city and the Port Authority.

The mayor has planned a different transit solution for Red Hook and the waterfront: a light rail system stretching 14 miles from Sunset Park to Astoria, Queens, although the two projects are not mutually exclusive.

Scott Rechler, a developer and a member of the MTA’s board, said that Red Hook was a unique opportunity for a “subway redevelopment corporation,” not the MTA, to oversee construction and unlock the value of the waterfront land. The corporation would solicit proposals from developers and award the contract at a set price, he said.

Perhaps the biggest environmental challenge is that Red Hook, portions of which are built on landfill, sits more or less at sea level and is vulnerable to rising seas and flooding. The neighborhood is also dominated by the Red Hook Houses, whose 6,000 residents account for 60 percent of the population, and who must be involved in planning what the new development would look like, planners say.

The plans would also need the support of U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, who has long supported maintaining the working waterfront in Brooklyn, either by keeping the container port open or consolidating it with other facilities at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park.

Nadler said he has had “positive discussions” with the Port Authority and the city’s Economic Development Corporation. But, he said, the container port should not close before a new facility is up and running in Sunset Park. “We must protect what we have in Red Hook,” he said.