Realities of 'working waterfront' visions

Brooklyn's Red Hook terminal might finally be on the move. Credit: William Avery Hudson Brooklyn's Red Hook terminal might finally be on the move. Credit: William Avery Hudson

COMMENT: The inevitable is likely to happen to the Red Hook Container Terminal in Brooklyn, New York, writes Peter de Langen.

After decades of policy to keep the terminal open to ensure that Brooklyn continues to have a blue collar ‘working waterfront’, the only container terminal in the state of New York may finally close down and give way to the development of urban functions.

The state governor Andrew Cuomo has suggested a “more productive community use” for the approximately 80 acres of waterfront land. Even though the announcement was cautious - with a call on the bi-state Port Authority to study a move of the terminal - this development was inevitable. The surprising part is that this transition has taken so long.

Brooklyn has long ceased to be the right place for deep-sea container terminal activities, in view of both the scale increases in container shipping and the fact that virtually all cargo for the New York metropolitan area flows through warehousing in New Jersey. Because of this, public funding of container shipments from the Brooklyn terminal to New Jersey was required to keep the terminal open. Over time, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has had to invest significant amounts of money in this, based on flawed ‘working waterfront’ policy ambitions.

While the call on the port authority to study moving the terminal is sensible, the suggested new site for the terminal, another spot on the Brooklyn waterfront, namely the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park undermines the move. This terminal, for which the city of New York has tried to attract significant maritime activities for many years, is also not well suited as a site for a maritime container terminal for the same reasons. This idealistic and unrealistic ‘working waterfront’ vision may continue to lead to ill-advised port development choices.

All of this serves as a telling tale for other ports in metropolitan areas: if port development is about creating value for society, an approach to fight for the continuation of port activities in central areas may be much less attractive than taking a fresh look at alternative developments with a more productive use of the land.

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