The BQE trench from Kane to Sackett Streets
It was a part of South Brooklyn without a name.
When the boom started, Tiffany Place was an oasis in a sea of empty storefronts, limited transportation, and cut off from its Brownstone neighbors by the ditch of the BQE.
Realtors began calling it Cobble Hill West, giving it legitimacy. The Columbia Street Waterfront District is poised to become a new playground. Unfortunately, the neighborhood is caught in a massive reconstruction project that brings back memories of the birth of Smith Street, now one of Brooklyn's hottest restaurant and nightlife locations.
The $17 million Capital Construction Project will change the face of the waterfront in South Brooklyn. Like Smith Street before it, the infrastructure of the waterfront has not been touched in over 30 years. The influx of residents to the area was a major factor in the timing of the efforts. Columbia Street is receiving new roadbeds, water mains, sewers, sidewalks, and street lighting.
Columbia Street is one of the few areas in South Brooklyn that still maintains a feel of the 20th century. Live poultry markets operate in close proximity to trendy restaurants. Trucks use the route as an alternate to the BQE causing untold damage to the roadbed. The stacks of cargo containers on the west side of the street block the Manhattan skyline from street level and remind us of our maritime roots. Some of the businesses have been there for years.
Moonshine, located at 317 Columbia by Hamilton Avenue, opened three years ago in a space once known as Rocco's, a bar that served the dockworkers from 1937 to 1975. Owner Nick Forlano discovered the former bar and immediately decided it was for him. As he renovated, he kept much of the original bar and woodwork intact. The kitchen gave way to a pool room with Blues Brothers' chicken wire seperating it from Big Buck Hunter II and Miss Pac-Man. The back yard replaced the kitchen with two gas grills and a Bring-Your-Own-Meat policy, drawing parties and those with no-outdoor-space apartments. It is a Cheers of the neighborhood, a place where everybody knows your name.
Automated slide show of Columbia Street reconstruction
"I knew that the 'shine would be the diamond in the rough for some time until people caught on to the potential of the neighborhood," he said. "Brooklyn is Brooklyn. People love it here. The growth potential on Columbia Street is enormous."
Mayor Bloomberg, in his PlanNYC speech on Earth Day 2007, proposed major changes to Brooklyn's waterfront and addressed the issue of the BQE ditch.
"Our plan calls for doubling the amount of land available for possible housing development," he said. "We can do it by decking over railyards and highways, and using government land more productively."
PlanNYC documents show a completely covered BQE opening nine-blocks of land two blocks from the waterfront to development. Columbia Street would once more become a part of the surrounding neighborhoods.
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway trench was rammed down the throat of the neighborhood during Robert Moses' great expansion of the highway system in the 1950's. The BQE and the Gowanus Expressway created a barrier, cutting off the waterfront and Columbia Street from its affluent neighbors.
In 1975 further setbacks struck the area. During construction of a sewer trunk line at Columbia and President Streets, water seeped into the constuction trench. As workers pumped it out, the water table fell, weakening the foundations of nearby buildings. Two buildings collapsed, and one man was killed. 33 buildings were demolished as a safety measure, and many remaining businesses and residents were pulled out. The area was designated for urban renewal, with the city pledged in part to assist in housing reconstruction.
In 1984, Columbia Terrace was constructed from President to Summit Streets. The first phase, consisting of 51 condominium units in three-story buildings, sold out instantly. Tiffany Place, a cobblestoned street one block east of Columbia Street, saw the former factory of Louis Comfort Tiffany converted to condos in 1986. The neighborhood seemed poised for recovery.
The recession of the early 1990's halted the march. Many projects were put on hold as property prices plummeted.
As property prices recovered, Columbia Street seemed to lag behind the fierce building boom in its eastern neighbors. The exception is Tiffany Place, which quickly became the hottest location west of the BQE.
The construction is causing new headaches for the businesses along Columbia Street.
"Columbia Street is the last vehicular route in South Brooklyn area to be exploited as an alternate route to the BQE," said Whitlock.
During the project, many of the streets suffered direction changes. Columbia Street is now one way going north from Hamilton Avenue to Degraw Street. Van Brunt Street is one way going south on the same blocks. Coming from Red Hook and the Cruise Ship Terminal, parts of Columbia Street are nearly inaccessible. Concrete barriers are in place and traffic agents are stationed regularly in the area.
The cranes on the waterfront and the views of Manhattan are side by side on Columbia Street.
"We are cut off from the Cruise Ship terminal by the Battery Tunnel, separated from the end of Brooklyn Bridge Park (ending at Atlantic Avenue) by working docks, and the ditch of the BQE is between us and the main residential areas," said David Whitlock of the shop Main Street Ephemera. Whitlock moved Main Street Ephemera from Smith Street in 2002 when rents spiraled out of control on the trendy boulevard.
Dealing in paper collectibles from movie posters to vintage postcards and magazines, Columbia Street was a complete change from Smith Street. The neighborhood businesses on the street were few and far between with many empty storefronts and little foot traffic. Whitlock was joined by Consuelo's Corner within his shop, featuring vintage cosmetic jewelry.
The Red Hook Container Terminal is the last vestige of large shipping in the Columbia Street Waterfront District. With natural 40-foot depths and up-to-date facilities, the terminal accommodates fully loaded ships with deep drafts. Its existence is the source of major debate on nearly every level of government and local residents. In negotiations with the city, American Stevedoring (which operates the container port) was unable to receive a long term lease. Granted a three-year extension in 2005, Economic Development Corporation officials refused to guarantee that the Red Hook port would remain open through 2009. The city wants to make way for a hotel and shops, a boat repair facility, a Brooklyn Brewery plant and tourist-friendly beer garden, as well as a smaller industrial port, a ferry connection to Governors Island and a second pier for cruise ships.
Residents point to EDC's claim that the new usage "would triple the number of jobs on the waterfront." In the past, however, EDC's projections have not come true. The addition of The Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, for example, created just 10 full-time jobs and 245 part-time jobs, while EDC originally said 370 full-time jobs would be created.
Now, the EDC is claiming that the container terminal currently supports just 133 full-time jobs -- a number it intends to greatly improve. But American Stevedoring, which operates the port, claims the number of jobs stand at 623.
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"It will be a sad loss to lose the Red Hook shipping terminal," said Mark Ehrhardt of MoversNotShakers, located at the intersection of Columbia Street and Hamilton Avenue. "They are good, steady jobs for Brooklyn." Ehrhardt moved into the former restaurant location four years ago. He worries that as the street gains reputation and status, businesses like his will be priced out.
"We felt much more out of the way four years ago," said Ehrhardt of the location for his moving company. "There are plenty of people who like the remoteness of Columbia Street and that is slowly being stripped away."
"The one ways are terrible. It makes it tough for the people getting off the BQE," said Lynette Wiley. "I Meet a lot more people giving out directions to Fairway."
Lynette and Geoff Wiley opened Jalopy, an eclectic performance hall with a community arts center feel. Sporting a vintage instrument store, espresso maker and wireless internet access, they quickly became a neighborhood hangout. With live music, movie nights, and music classes, they quickly joined and became a major player in Columbia Streets burgeoning nightlife scene.
The times will change on Columbia Street. If the BQE is covered, if the greenway is extended from Brooklyn Bridge Park, if the waterfront becomes accessible -- not quite as overwhelming as it sounds. The times, they are a-changing.