Ravaged by Superstorm Sandy nearly a decade ago, Brooklyn’s Red Hook Recreation Center is finally on the cusp of revitalization — two years after New York’s congressional leaders secured $8 million in federal funds for repairs.
Last week, the city Department of Parks and Recreation began seeking architects for the 85-year-old center’s reconstruction, even while most of its surrounding ballfields remain shut — some into their tenth year — for cleanup of lead contamination. Under the most optimistic scenario, the rec center work won’t be completed for five years.
“I also share my neighbors’ frustration with government and the delays with completing construction projects,” said City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn), who lives in the area and is running for mayor. “The city needs to follow through on the latest timeline it has presented, especially for the ballfields to reopen.”
Red Hook’s struggle to resurface from Sandy and the neighborhood’s toxic industrial past coincides with part of the tenure of Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 and announced this week that he will be leaving his position later this year.
Silver, who’s an architect, presided over more than 800 Parks construction projects — but also came under scrutiny for repairs and building running late and over budget, including a restroom that cost $4.7 million and took 12 years to build.
Systemic issues predated Silver, according to past Parks leaders, and watchdogs have praised measures the departing commissioner took to streamline bureaucracy.
But the seemingly never-ending Red Hook parks reconstruction, combined with ongoing work to shore up nearby public housing developments hit by Sandy, have residents exasperated.
“This is beyond chaos,” said longtime resident and Red Hook West Houses Tenant Association president Lillie Marshall, 77, of the persistent sights and sounds of construction work. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Marshall noted she isn’t against repairs, but said the city should have staggered the projects so the neighborhood wouldn’t feel like a construction site.
New Life for New Deal Facility
In the fall of 2012, Sandy pummeled Red Hook, devastating the neighborhood and leaving thousands without heat and electricity for days, and even weeks in some cases.
The storm flooded the basement of the rec center on Bay Street with seawater, corroding the tunnels and other systems needed to maintain its massive pool. The damage dealt a hard blow to the New Deal-era facility, built by Robert Moses with the backing of the Works Progress Administration.
The adjacent Red Hook Houses, Brooklyn’s largest public housing complex, also flooded, resulting in weeks of power outages for residents. A $550 million resiliency project to repair and reinforce the housing development began in 2017 and is projected to finish in 2023, according to the New York City Housing Authority.
In 2019, then-U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-Brooklyn/Manhattan/Queens) helped secure Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to address the recreation center’s architectural, electrical and mechanical damage.
For the center’s revamp, an anticipated 18-month design phase will likely begin in late summer, according to the parks department. After what officials expect to be a year-long procurement phase, followed by about two years of construction, the project is slated to be finished by spring 2026.
The reconstruction will include built-in fortifications against future flooding, protecting the facility against damage and ensuring that the center will be eligible for FEMA aid in the future, according to department officials.
The call for architects on the Red Hook recreation center project came a day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that pandemic-stalled capital projects could resume around the five boroughs.
Directly to the west and south of the recreation center, most of the baseball and soccer fields at Red Hook Park are fenced off for construction. A running track is open, but a soccer field in the middle of it is not, hosting tall, bushy weeds instead of ball players.
A sign hanging on a fence reads: “Soccer Field 3 is closed until a removal action is completed” — referencing a project overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remove lead in the soil produced by a metal smelting plant that predated the parks and the rec center.
Some ballfields closed to the public in 2012 after environmental scientists discovered lead. Three years later, more fields were shuttered as Parks and the EPA began a phased remediation of the Red Hook Park, projected to cost $109 million.
In June 2017, the EPA informed parks users that rebuilding of the fenced-off fields directly adjacent to the lead smelting site “will begin in spring 2018 and will take about 12-18 months, re-opening by fall 2019.”
But that work hit a snag when crews found an underground fuel storage tank requiring removal, according to Parks. The pandemic pause further delayed progress.
Now, those fields are scheduled to reopen in the summer, according to Parks, with the last of four phases of work currently scheduled to be completed by 2023.
On the Horizon
Local leaders are trying to maintain a positive outlook.
“Red Hook suffered a lot during Hurricane Sandy, and now with COVID. But this neighborhood is incredibly resilient,” Menchaca said.
Egbert White, a 20-year resident of the Red Hook Houses who was exercising on the Red Hook Park track last week, noted that construction has blocked numerous walkways in the area, forcing pedestrians to trek farther to reach their destinations. He looked forward to more of the greener parts of the park opening up.
“Better for walk on the grass than the hard surface,” said White, 67.
Construction on the soccer and baseball field closest to Clinton Street is scheduled for completion by September, according to a capital projects report from the city’s Office of Management and Budget.
As for the recreation center, it’s currently in active use as a COVID-19 and antibody testing site.
Some who came for swabs in the center’s gymnasium last Wednesday said they looked forward to the reconstruction.
“There’s not a lot of these spaces in Brooklyn to begin with,” said Luis Torres, 31, of Carroll Gardens. “The preservation and the maintenance is super essential.”
Tracey Heaton, who stopped by for a test with her daughter Sigourney, 16, said that investments in the public space is crucial for bringing communities together.
“It would be good to see more development of Red Hook, but like really smart development that’s community focused,” said Heaton, 51, of Gowanus. “We don’t just need more $2 million condos.”
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.