Monday, August 25, 2008

Tales of Brooklyn: Retailing in Red Hook

I grew up in Brooklyn. Spent the first two of my six decades of life there. Thanks mostly to my father’s intimate knowledge of the streets of Brooklyn, I gained a pretty good feel for Kings County. About 18 months ago my daughter opted to reside in the “mother country,” so I’m reacquainting myself with the many ’hoods of my youth. Last year my wife, also Brooklyn-raised, and I did a nostalgia tour of the borough.

One area generally avoided in the past was Red Hook, a hardscrabble warren of narrow streets, run down, low-rise apartments and warehouses abutting New York’s harbor. Aside from a wonderful view of the Statue of Liberty, Red Hook had little to offer the casual visitor.

But Red Hook, as have many neighborhoods in New York, has undergone gentrification. Warehouses have turned into lofts. Renovations turned ramshackle buildings into modern apartment complexes.

Often, the presence of new retail revives a community. In Red Hook’s case, renewal preceded retail.

When it did arrive, retail came with world-class vengeance—an IKEA opened this summer, while 18 months ago a Fairway supermarket made its entry in a five-story, 150-year-old warehouse. IKEA is world-renowned. For those who believe New York City is the center of the universe, Fairway is world-renowned as well.

Though some Red Hook residents feared traffic congestion and the impact both emporia would have on their quiet streets, the stores have been successfully integrated into the area.

A visit Sunday to both stores that are about a half-mile apart could not have been more spectacular. Walking the 346,000-sq.-ft. IKEA, I couldn’t help but comment that one could hear more languages being spoken than at the United Nations. New Yorkers embrace value. IKEA fulfills their desires.

Fairway’s tag line is that it is “like no other market.” Its four New York area specialty food stores live up to the hype, none more so that the 52,000-sq.-ft. unit built inside a Civil War era, 230,000-sq.-ft. warehouse that includes workspaces for local artists, offices for community-based not-for-profit organizations, event spaces and 45 loft apartments. There is more electricity inside Fairway than a dozen regular supermarkets. Perhaps it’s from the co-generational power plant that utilizes waste heat to generate power.

Each store takes full advantage of its proximity to the water. From IKEA’s restaurant you can see the Statue of Liberty; its bedroom department has a large picture window with a harbor view. It also built a 6-1/2-acre waterfront esplanade open to the public. Outside Fairway patrons can sit at tables and enjoy the vista, or walk along a path beside the water.

Successful retailers try to build in theater. For IKEA and Fairway, stores that already are exciting venues inside, the allure of the ocean is an attraction bound to bring back shoppers again and again, if for no other reason that to sit with a cup of coffee and gaze out at Lady Liberty.

By Murray Forseter

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