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Red Hook residents want more say in development of Norman Foster office complex

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Thor Equities presented their plan to a critical community last night

Brooklyn’s Community Board 6 met with Thor Equities last night to discuss the developer’s plans to bring a 7.7-acre office and retail complex to the former site of Red Hook’s Revere Sugar Refinery. While community members had some positive things to say about the project, concerns about a lack of community engagement in the development process dominated the meeting.

Ethan Goodman of project planner Fox Rothschild and Catherine Dannenbring of Thor Equities presented an overview of the office complex, dubbed Red Hoek Point, offering new details about its planned retail and amenity components, and allowances the developer will need from the city to activate Foster + Partner’s vision for the site.

The project can be built as-of-right under the area’s current zoning—the plan is far from maxing out what could come to the site—but Thor is actively seeking two variances from the city. The first would allow the developer to bring fewer parking spaces to the project than what’s mandated by zoning. Under current regulations, the building would have to give way to some 2,000 parking spaces—just look at Ikea the next lot over—but Thor wants to build just about 1,100 spaces.

“The people who work in these kinds of buildings don’t drive,” Goodman pointed out, reinforcing that Thor is courting tech, arts, media, and internet companies that tend to attract urban commuters who bike or take public transportation to work. A parking analysis commissioned by the developer assessed that with an office population of between 2,500 and 2,700, which Thor is anticipating, about 900 parking spaces would suffice. Dannenbring pointed out that the study’s numbers were “very conservative,” and she imagines even fewer employees and community members will drive to the site than that.

An in-progress rendering of the courtyard between the two office buildings.
Visualhouse New York

Any changes to the plan as it stands would significantly affect the building. If the city grants the variance, parking spaces will be provided below grade through a valet system that includes stacked parking. “We have to do this to get over 1,000 spaces at the site,” Goodman said. The garages will be accessible by Beard Street, on which the development actually fronts despite taking the address of 280 Richards Street.

The second variance Thor is seeking from the city would affect the bulkhead underneath the project. As a part of the development process, which kicked off in mid-October, Thor is rebuilding the bulkhead that will support the entire project. The developer wants to cut back sections of the bulkhead to work with the ebb and flow of the tide.

Foster + Partner’s design for the site includes two buildings identical in their appearance that rise 60 to 75 feet. Jim Barnes and David Burton of the firm were in attendance to discuss the design of the project, which they say tries to echo the vernacular of the area with its dual-building design and its inclusion of brick. Barnes calls the design a “contemporary take on the warehouse.”

The bases of the buildings will be surrounding in brick, while the office portions up top will be covered in low-reflectivity glass. “The top is intentionally lighter and more ephemeral to not appear so massive on the site,” Burton noted. “We’re not trying to be a shiny glass box.”

The project includes three public esplanades along the perimeter of the development, that will also be lined with small retail spaces and food purveyors, and one mixed-use courtyard between the two buildings where pedestrians and cars cautiously entering the parking garages will mix (the plan is inspired by a Scandinavian parking model, Goodman said).

SCAPE Landscape Architects was brought on to design the 1.6 acres and 2,000 linear feet of public esplanades that pad the perimeter of the site. These areas would include a kayak launch off of Beard Street and a promenade with a boardwalk, landscaping, and amphitheater at the far end of the pier. Goodman says Thor would like to bring food trucks to the end of the pier should they get the okay from the city. The courtyard between the two buildings will include a dog run, seating area, and small food kiosks.

An in-progress rendering of the public and private space at the far end of the development.
Visualhouse New York

Community members spoke out en masse to say they felt left out of the planning process. “Have you done a community study? There’s already free kayaking in the neighborhood and food trucks hang out at the park,” said one community member.

“This is our first time seeing you,” community activist Karen Blondel said. “We're still looking for you to be a good neighbor and include us in our conversation.” Goodman reiterated that, despite Thor’s thorough plan for the site, this is still the beginning of the development process. “We want to be good neighbors. We want to start the dialogue.”

Caroline Salguero of Portside New York questioned the plan’s esplanades. “If activation is what you're after, I think esplanade is not your answer,” she said, pointing to Ikea’s privately-owned—and underutilized—Erie Basin Park just down the street.

David Estrada, chief of staff for City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, spoke on behalf of the councilman. “Engagement means nothing if the input of the community isn't demonstrated in the outcome. Engagement represents real changes in projects that the community asks for,” he said, “I don't doubt those are aspirations but if they're not commitments they don't serve the community.”

Red Hoek Point will appear in front of Community Board 6 next on December 22.