Hook Ikea set, unless mayor moves in

The Brooklyn Paper
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The City Council voted 50-1 Wednesday in favor of zoning changes that would allow Swedish home furnishings giant Ikea to build a megastore on the Red Hook waterfront. Only East New York Councilman Charles Barron voted against the contentious plan.

The measure is expected to be signed into law this week — unless, that is, Mayor Michael Bloomberg decides to trade his Upper East Side townhouse for a Red Hook walk-up.

Talking to reporters a day after the council’s land use committee approved the Ikea project, Bloomberg said candidly, “I happen to be a supporter of it. But I think if I lived there, I don’t know whether I would be, quite honestly.”

Asked whether Bloomberg was referring to the traffic and noise the store is expected to bring to the streets of Red Hook, a mayoral spokesman said, “I think it’s clear what he meant.”

Opponents of the Ikea plan for Red Hook say it will choke the relatively quiet community with traffic and open the door for more big-box store development on the Brooklyn waterfront.

Houses hail project’s OK

But the council’s vote was hailed by proponents of the project, who include many residents of the Red Hook Houses, a public housing complex that makes up 75 percent of the neighborhood’s population, many of whom argued the need for jobs.

“The hard part is over with,” said Ray Hall, founder of Red Hook Rise, a youth empowerment organization in the area that has advocated for job training programs from Ikea.

“It is a God blessing for this community and for the surrounding businesses,” he said. “The little local restaurants that are struggling now, they should do well with this big business in the neighborho­od.”

Ikea is proposing to build a $70 million, 346,000-square-foot store on the former shipyard, between Dwight and Columbia streets along the Erie Basin. The company would also build 1,400 parking spaces and Ikea has proposed running a free ferry service to the store from downtown Manhattan.

The project would also include more than 70,000 square feet of adjacent restaurant and retail space and a mile-long public esplanade.

Arguments by opponents of the project suggested that the waterfront space would be better suited to building more small businesses that could employ an equal amount of local residents and take advantage of the views of Manhattan.

‘Monopoly capitalism’

“This was monopoly capitalism at its worst,” said the lone council dissenter Barron.

“There was no competitive bidding, no competing deals for that spot were considered,” he said.

“We should offer the people of New York more from the developer.” Barron said the role of the council should be building more alliances between large scale developers, businesses and communities.

“Since they love us so much, and always want to come in our neighborhoods, why don’t they involve us in profit sharing?” Barron asked.

But Red Hook Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez, who helped broker the deal with Ikea — which has promised to accept local employee applications two weeks earlier than others alter roadways to help mitigate the impact of traffic, and complete follow-up studies on traffic impacts — was not bothered by Barron’s anti-Ikea vote.

“She was quite pleased at the vote,” said Felix Palacio, a Gonzalez spokesman. Another aide to Gonzalez, Lois Marbach, said that Ikea had committed to her, in writing, to hire for at least 50 management jobs locally, “which is very important because we didn’t want to do just entry-level,” said Marbach, who also described the plans as a “work in progress.”

“There is still time to meet with [Ikea] and negotiate what’s best for the community,” she said, but mentioned that the promise of 600 jobs took precedence for Gonzalez.

“And because it has now been voted on by the City Council, they will have oversight,” she said, in ensuring promises are kept by Ikea.

Barron stands by himself

Up until the Oct. 13 vote, Queens Councilman Tony Avella, who chairs the zoning and franchises subcommittee and described the superstore as “a great project” thought Barron would vote in favor of it, presenting the appearance of unanimous support among the council.

“I had a talk with him after last week’s hearing, and he indicated to me that he was going to vote in favor of it,” Avella said in the council chambers just prior to the vote, referring to Barron’s abstaining from the land use committee vote on Oct. 6.

But Barron, sitting only paces away, shook his head.

“I’m voting no,” he said. “I already told [Gonzalez] and just told [Land Use Chairwoman] Councilwoman Melinda Katz. I commend my colleagues for all the work they’ve done and I’m happy for them, but I’d like to vote no on a statement of principle.”

Barron repeated a point about profit sharing, or entitling the community to 1 or 2 percent of profits to go towards a local development fund, but Marbach said Gonzalez thought those requests were “unreasonab­le.”

Ursula Hahn, a resident of the Concord Village co-op in Downtown Brooklyn, didn’t think Barron was so much unreasonable as insincere.

“I think to take such a populist stance for someone so removed from the area rings a little hollow,” she said.

But Lou Sones, an ardent Ikea opponent from Red Hook, felt much differently.

“The guy has balls,” Sones said.

‘Fight not over’

John McGettrick, a Red Hook resident opposed to the Ikea plan, said the council vote would not discourage those against the plan.

“Obviously, we’ll have to continue our opposition,” McGettrick said, adding that they would bring their opposition to city and state administrative panels and, if necessary, to court.

“We will seek legal measures to correct what is essentially an environmental disaster for not only Red Hook but for adjacent areas as well,” he vowed.

McGettrick mentioned his irritation that “highly paid lobbyists have totally distorted the true appraisal of the facts,” saying that despite the fact that Ikea officials have refused to guarantee jobs to Red Hook residents, their public relations consultant, Joni Yoswein, had done a good job with giving the impression they had.

“The only guarantees that were given were of pollution, destruction of numerous historic structures, guarantees of increase of accidents and guarantees of problems for our small businesses and manufacturers throughout the area that attempt to compete against this tax-subsidized entity,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ikea co-sponsored a luncheon for members of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Wednesday afternoon. Ikea, although more than a year away from opening, is considered a “Chamber Champion,” a designation used by the organization to denote major contributors.

Yoswein, whose firm represents both the Brooklyn Chamber and Ikea, was congratulated by chamber president Kenneth Adams at the luncheon.

“Everybody put your hands together for Ikea!” Adams said at the luncheon. “Joni Yoswein is here with us today — she is her own company!” He then called Yoswein a “champion of Brooklyn.”

“I’m sure that some of the same people who are pushing Ikea, would push the idea that Bush won all three of the debates,” said McGettrick, who characterized the legal basis for a lawsuit challenging the Ikea plan as environmental in nature.

“This will continue,” he vowed. “We have simply entered into another phase.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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