Red Hook wants ‘contract’ from Ikea

The Brooklyn Paper
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A public hearing Wednesday on Ikea’s plan to build a suburban-style store on the Red Hook waterfront highlighted for the umpteenth time the bitter rift that has emerged between neighborhood residents seeking jobs and those who see the community’s demise in the thousands of cars and trucks the Swedish furniture giant would bring to their streets.

But aside from all the usual bluster, at the June 30 hearing at Borough Hall, came a call for the home furnishings giant to put its promises to the community in writing.

Several of the more than 90 people who testified before Borough President Marty Markowitz voiced doubt that Ikea officials would make good on their promises of jobs and traffic remediation without a legally binding agreement, commonly known as a community benefits agreement.

“There’s no question. If you have to accept Ikea then you have to negotiate an agreement,” said traffic consultant Brian Ketcham, executive director of Community Consulting Services.

Despite verbal and written commitments by Ikea following Community Board 6’s vote to approve the store’s rezoning application, none have been legally binding. Board Chairman Jerry Armer said that a list of recommendations he helped draft were not guaranteed unless City Council members agreed to adopt them as conditions of their approval of the Ikea application when it comes before them this fall.

Among those conditions are stipulations that would bar Ikea from opening until all traffic mitigation measures are put in place. The company has also agreed to finance traffic studies after the store opens and to pay for any consequent improvements determined to be needed.

The Swedish home furnishings giant hopes to construct a 346,000-square-foot store at the former New York Shipyard site between Dwight and Columbia streets along the Erie Basin.

The plans also include 1,400 parking spaces and more than 70,000 square feet of additional retail and restaurant space along the waterfront.

While opponents of the plan say the store will draw upwards of 50,000 cars a week to the neighborhood. Ikea officials maintain that on the store’s busiest days, Saturday and Sunday, they expect 5,000 cars each day.

Ikea officials have shied away from guaranteeing any number of jobs to Red Hook, or to residents living in the 11231 ZIP code that encompasses the neighborhood. Instead they have promised to provide job training and to accept applications from residents living in that ZIP code two weeks before the hiring process is opened to the general public.

“It’s rather astonishing that Brooklyn’s leaders have not mounted any of the challenges that Ikea routinely faces, which if it doesn’t defeat Ikea, it at least earns them more tangible benefits than CB6 has asked for,” Ketcham said in his testimony before the borough president Wednesday. “These smart communities negotiate lucrative community benefits agreements. We give Brooklyn away for free.”

Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, believes that negotiating a community benefits agreement between Red Hook and Ikea is still within the realm of possibility. The former executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a tenants rights group, did not attend the hearing on Wednesday but told The Brooklyn Papers that if a large enough faction from the opposing groups came together, they could still demand a legally binding agreement from Ikea.

Lander said he has discussed the idea with Rep. Nydia Velazquez, whose district includes Red Hook, and that she was intrigued. Velazquez could not be reached for comment by press time.

Red Hook Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez has not taken a stance on such an agreement. But she has already stated her support for Ikea’s plan. No one from the councilwoman’s office attended the hearing on Wednesday.

Pat Smith, a spokesman for Ikea, said that the company has already committed to the community board’s recommendations. He said a community benefits agreement was not feasible, citing the polarization in the neighborhood.

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