With the opening of a massive 346,000-square-foot Ikea in Red Hook on June 18, New Yorkers’ attention turns again to this tiny corner of Brooklyn waterfront. What they see is largely the legacy of one man, Greg O’Connell, the beat cop turned real estate baron.
At times, Mr. O’Connell can seem like a caricature of the down-to-earth developer. He has appeared in dozens of articles on the area, always in his trademark denim overalls, usually in his silver pickup truck, which he calls his office, and more recently with a copy of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities in one hand, like some patron saint of urban renewal.
“The man is a legendary character in Brooklyn,” said Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the nonprofit Fifth Avenue Committee, who has worked with Mr. O’Connell on affordable housing and job placement for local residents. “And he clearly cares deeply about this neighborhood.”
Mr. O’Connell’s development philosophy focuses on creating a mix of small business and light industry as a counterbalance to the rapacious residential gentrification of Brooklyn. “I could make three times the amount of profit with residential than I’m doing with commercial and industrial,” he said. “And I could get the zoning changes, but for me the key is balance, so you take a little less, and everybody gets a piece of the pie.”
This strategy has earned him some epithets rarely associated with real estate developers. Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, even called him a (gasp!) “socialist developer.”
“If Greg didn’t own the property he does, much of the Red Hook waterfront would probably consist of luxury condos today, and the neighborhood would undoubtedly have fewer jobs and be less interesting,” Mr. Bowles said. “Just about every other developer in the city has been singularly focused on building high-end housing, but Greg has been intent on providing relatively affordable space for light manufacturing businesses.”
Mr. O’Connell is not without his critics, including John McGettrick, chairman of the Red Hook Civic Association. “I think he’s terrible,” Mr. McGettrick said. “He has acquired huge amounts of government property for next to nothing, made huge promises in regard to them, and delivered next to nothing.”
MR. O’CONNELL WAS born in Queens in 1942, the oldest of four brothers, son of a teacher and a police officer. “All around my neighborhood there were civil servants—cops, teachers, firefighters, boom, that’s how it was, middle-class America after World War II,” Mr. O’Connell said in a flowing Queens brogue.
He went to college at SUNY Geneseo, got certified as a teacher, and after graduation in 1964 entered the police academy. For the first few years, Mr. O’Connell worked as a cop at night and a teacher during the day. Between his two jobs he managed to save up some money, and in 1967, with a small loan from his parents, he purchased his first property, a brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
In the years that followed, he continued to acquire, renovate and rent residential property in the borough. In 1981, after 17 years, he retired from the police force to focus on real estate. A year later, he bought his first property in Red Hook: “I had seen what had happened to areas on my old beat, like Soho. Red Hook has the same ingredients. It was the wild frontier.”
In 1992, Mr. O’Connell purchased 28 acres of Red Hook waterfront from the Port Authority for just $500,000. “Greg took a lot of risk going in there,” said Ms. Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee. The area had become a hotbed for drugs and prostitution. “The piers he bought were practically falling into the water.”
That was the appeal. “It was a challenge,” Mr. O’Connell said, “and it was taking the long term. If you really want to have an impact, you’ve got to be 20 years ahead. Working the city as a cop had shown me that.”
When Mr. O’Connell first renovated and advertised the 28 acres, the low rent attracted a lot of attention. “Businesses would call up, but when they asked about the location, and I said, ‘Red Hook,’ the other end of the phone usually went silent.” He built up the property tenant by tenant, starting with the smaller spaces and refinancing as he went along.
Since that time, Mr. O’Connell has seen the city’s fortunes reversed, and his waterfront property has become the backbone of a revitalized Red Hook. The property, in part, forms the terminus of Van Brunt Street, Red Hook’s main drag; and Mr. O’Connell is by far the area’s largest landowner, holding about one million square feet. His piers house 150 businesses that employ 1,200 workers. The capstone of his portfolio lies next to the piers: a Fairway supermarket that he developed out of an abandoned building purchased from the city’s Economic Development Corporation and opened in 2006.
Mr. O’Connell’s critics claim he has taken advantage of the community.
“When he acquired the pier, he promised a park, a half-mile public esplanade, promised to support housing because we had lost all our housing,” Mr. McGettrick said. “He reneged on all of those promises.”
The Fifth Avenue Committee just completed a lottery for 60 units of affordable housing in Red Hook, the largest influx of affordable housing to the area in years. Mr. O’Connell provided 16 of the 22 lots involved at below-market rates. There were over 5,000 applicants for the 60 units.
No park has materialized, however, and Mr. O’Connell keeps the pier gated at night. But during the day, he opens the property to the public. On a recent weekend, dozens of tourists strolled along his pier, stopping at a crafts fair and peeking in on an art show thrown by Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, in a space Mr. O’Connell donated to the group. A woman with a thick German accent turned to her husband. “Ve must see the Fairway before we get back on ze boat.”
Lou Sones, a longtime community activist, was one of many Red Hook residents initially opposed to the Fairway: “I changed my mind after seeing the amount of people and interest it brought into the community.” He’s not so forgiving about the new Ikea, a project Mr. O’Connell supported. “Did Fairway spawn the Ikea? Absolutely. It set a precedent for big-box stores on the waterfront.”class=”text” align=”left”>Mr. O’Connell supported Ikea in spite of traffic concerns because of the 600 jobs it would bring—unemployment in the Red Hook housing projects is 18 percent—but he says his heart remains with small business. He has become friends with his tenant Robert Kalin, the founder of Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods, and donated space in the pier for Etsy.org, the company’s nonprofit arm.
“I don’t use e-mail, computers; I don’t get that stuff, but I can feel what he’s talking about,” Mr. O’Connell said. “At 66, people think you’re ready for the rocking chair, but I’m not.”
The pair are looking to create local, human-scale manufacturing. “We could produce the stuff here and stamp it ‘Made in Red Hook’ then sell it on Etsy,” said Mr. O’Connell, breaking into a big smile. “It’s exciting to think what we’re doing here would go out to people around the world.”