Red Hook: Memoirs Of A Planner

Prepared for the 1996 Planners Network Conference, “Renewing Hope, Restoring Vision: Progressive Planning in Our Communities.”

by Tom Angotti, Pratt Institute

The Red Hook Plan was praised by the Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission and Red Hook’s civic leaders. But it really became famous when it hit the front page of the Sunday New York Times. The plan was hailed as a unique collaboration between public and private sectors, industrial and residential communities, Blacks, Latinos and whites. People called from all over the country and wanted to know more about it. Foundations wanted to know what they could do. The old Red Hook image of a forbidden and forgotten community changed to a positive image of hope. And there was good reason for optimism in Red Hook.

Red Hook is a mixed residential and industrial neighborhood located on a peninsula in south Brooklyn, a community of 11,000 people, most of them in public housing, and 200 industries and small retail businesses. Robert Moses era planning made for an expressway that cut the community in pieces, concentrated the population in public housing, and killed off the maritime industry. A new containerport in Red Hook spurred further residential decline.

The Red Hook Plan calls for a doubling of the population to its 1950 level, better access to mass transit, public access along the waterfront, two greenways that tie together all sections of the community, contextual low-rise housing development, preservation of the mixed use pattern and industrial revitalization. It is a unique mixture of long-range visions, middle-range plans, and short-term proposals. It is comprehensive in that it combines physical, social and economic planning across many sectors, but is also unlike traditional cook-book master plans. The Red Hook Plan arose from the expressed needs and desires of Red Hook residents and not from the preconceived notions of planners.

The early lustre has worn off now. A year and a half after it was sent to the Planning Commission for approval, cracks in the fragile consensus that made the plan possible have widened. One powerful Red Hook property owner had second thoughts about specific parts of the plan that affected his property, and that was enough to hold it up. Whether or not the Planning Commission approves the plan, however, it will continue to be part of a gradual but historic process occurring in Red Hook and other low-income communities in the United States — a process of political empowerment.

Recently, the auditorium of PS 15 in Red Hook was filled with enthusiastic supporters of the Plan, defending their vision of a better future for the community. That more than anything else shows that the Plan matters. Besides changing the way government officials and other outsiders see the community, the Plan has made a difference in the minds and actions of people in Red Hook, restoring hope and vision.

The Planner as Advocate

I was technical advisor to the committee that put the plan together while I was a senior planner with the Brooklyn Office of the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) [Note: The Department is the city agency with professional staff, and the Planning Commission is the decisionmaking body made up of appointed officials]. I consider the Red Hook Plan one of the most important experiences of my career as a planner and remain entirely committed to its implementation. In the following I will tell my version of how the Plan came to be, and why I think it’s an important new milestone for community-based planning.

The Red Hook experience demonstrates that advocacy planning is alive and well today, though it is taking on new forms. As communities move from protest to development, and from development to comprehensive planning, planners who hope to aid in the empowerment of historically disenfranchised communities must now engage in these three actions — protest, development and comprehensive planning.

I first got involved in Red Hook in 1990. I had returned to the Brooklyn Office of City Planning after a refreshing six months as a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, where I wrote a book about global urbanization. After that lofty intellectual exercise on the Gianiculum Hill overlooking Rome, I began feeling irrelevant and neglected in the monstruous municipal bureaucracy. Noone cared about community-based planning or what I might have to contribute to it. City Planning’s traditional role of promoting real estate development through zoning was the agency’s mainstay, especially as government downsized.

In 1990 David Dinkins became the first African-American mayor of New York City. As a founding member of Planners for Dinkins, I had worked to get him elected on a progressive platform. But Dinkins and his Planning Director (the Director is also Chair of the Commission) made no effort to promote community-based planning, not even in the communities like Red Hook, long the victims of official planning, that strongly supported the Mayor’s election.

About that time I saw the Kurosawa movie Ikiru, about a bureaucrat who, upon learning he has only six months to live, works feverishly to help a community get a new park built. Previously, the bureaucrat had spent years filing away demands by the community for a park. After the park is built and our hero dies, we see a flood of bureaucrats and elected officials taking credit for the deed. I decided I didn’t want to wait for the last six months of my life to accomplish something of social consequence. It made no sense to spend any more of my time sitting around and carping about how little the agency’s caretakers cared.

I became the planner for Brooklyn’s Community District Six, one of New York City’s 59 Community Districts, and was responsible for studies of the Brooklyn waterfront and industry. As a result, I came in touch with community organizations that were fighting to get rid of several noxious waste transfer stations. Red Hook is part of Community District Six and a waterfront and mixed industrial/residential neighborhood.

A major struggle developed to prevent the City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from locating two sludge treatment plants in Red Hook, already the site for many waste transfer stations. This seemed to me a clear case of environmental injustice. The most noxious waste facilities seem always to be located in or near low-income neighborhoods populated by people of color. Planners justify this practice by following the traditional norm of “highest and best use,” which really means that poor neighborhoods get the lowest and worst uses. After much protest and mobilization that brought all sectors of the community together, Red Hook won the battle with DEP. I played my small part by arguing within City Planning that there were better sites than Red Hook for the sludge plants.

Soon after, I met with members of the Beard Street Association, a small block association in the section of Red Hook known as “the Back”. The Back is a racially mixed area where 30% of the population lives; 70% lives in Red Hook Houses, a public housing complex where the population is mostly African-American and Latino. Following up on the work of my colleague Sergio Rivera, who had left City Planning, I developed a land use and zoning plan for Red Hook that brought residential zoning to the waterfront and encouraged housing development in the Back. The plan was met with immediate enthusiasm. Residents and businesses saw it as a way of preventing more waste transfer stations and restoring the residential population that had been displaced over the years. The proposal eventually became part of the Department’s Waterfront Plan. The Chairman of the agency made the Waterfront Plan one of his main priorities, and the proposed rezoning on the Red Hook waterfront from industrial to residential uses would look good to the powerful real estate bloc.

Red Hook activists then approached Community Board Six and proposed that the Board sponsor a Red Hook “197-a plan”. Under Section 197-a of the New York City Charter, any of the City’s 59 community boards can prepare a plan and submit it for approval by the Planning Commission. Only one board, Community Board Three in the Bronx, had been successful in getting a plan approved. But there was a feeling in Red Hook that the Waterfront Plan could be the starting point in a process that would move from protest to development. Planning would help transform Red Hook from a community that always has to say no to things, and build a consensus about what it wants.

I had expected that there would be more of an enthusiastic embrace of the Red Hook effort from the City Planning Department in the Dinkins Administration. I proposed that the Red Hook plan be part of the agency’s work program. Instead, it fell off the bottom of the list made up mostly of zoning projects. My hopes for a new approach to planning dissipated. I joined the union-led picket to protest layoffs at DCP. The only visible progress under the Dinkins Administration was a more diverse Planning Commission and less explicit racial bias. But there was no real commitment to support grass roots planning initiatives in communities of color. So under the watchful eye of my boss, I set out on my own to work on the Red Hook Plan.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of my work was the contradiction between being an advocate planner and a DCP official. I tried to resolve the contradiction by doing a balancing act. Often this meant capturing the hopes and visions coming from the community and tempering them with some of the pragmatism emanating from city agencies without, hopefully, succumbing to the cynicism so prevalent in government. Sometimes the balancing act worked and sometimes it didn’t. One way that this contradiction was resolved was to distinguish in the Plan between short-term and more pragmatic proposals, and proposals that were acknowledged to require a long-term horizon.

Official acceptance of the Red Hook Plan can be explained by the tangible benefits it promises to the real estate industry, the industry that has the most influence on local government. Perhaps the human service recommendations were tolerated because of the promise the Plan offered for positive changes in real estate values.

At one point in the process, the Red Hook Tenants Associations, comprising residents of public housing, and the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, asked Ron Shiffman of Pratt Institute to help the tenants formulate their own planning ideas for Red Hook. The tenants developed their own proposals. The question then arose: would there be two plans for Red Hook? Both sides understood that the Planning Commission would not likely approve any plan that didn’t have general community support. Upon analysis, it seemed to me that the tenant’s plan complemented and did not contradict the plan under discussion by the community board. Indeed, it was striking how the underlying similarities in the problems facing Red Hook residents, and their fundamentallly similar class identification, led to similar outcomes. The tenants also brought some new and creative ideas to the table.

Setting aside underlying racial and “turf” issues, the two plans were consolidated, and three additional tenant representatives were placed on the community board’s planning committee.


One key lesson I re-learned in the Red Hook planning process is that planning is political. This should be self-evident, but it’s always amazing how professionals come to believe that “politics” interferes with planning, and that the key to their success is political neutrality. If planning is going to have any relationship to reality, it has to be treated as an instrument of political power by those leading the process.

The Red Hook Plan is not just a wish list or collection of hopes but a political manifesto. In the first place, many of the recommendations in the Plan come from the community board’s annual public hearings and their capital and expense budget proposals. [Note: Every year community boards submit budget requests to city agencies and may comment on agency priorities in public hearings.] A number of the projects in the Plan, like the Coffey Street Pier, renovation of Coffey Park, and improvements to Red Hook Houses, have been on the community’s agenda for years, and were nearing implementation. Their inclusion in the Plan helped to validate them and guarantee implementation.

Direct political action in short-term decisionmaking can enhance and energize the planning process. While the Red Hook Plan was being developed a $20 million project for a Police Department Evidence Vehicle Facility came before the City Planning Commission. The Community Board, Red Hook Civic Association, and Red Hook Tenants Associations opposed this facility which would allow for the storage of 2,000 confiscated vehicles on an old pier. They successfully put pressure on the Commission to exact concessions from the Police Department. The concessions included a public promenade and bikeway along the waterfront, and maintenance funds to be transferred to a nearby proposed recreational pier, the Coffey Street Pier.

The political leadership provided by Community Board Six was a key element in the success of the planning process. The process was not a “neat” one, however, that followed a cook-book approach to comprehensive planning. Indeed, I am always wary of rational, linear blueprints for community planning because they don’t allow for the integration of planning with day-to-day political action. They don’t take into account the internal tensions and conflicts that must arise along the way, inevitable consequences of the diverse class, racial, gender, age and other differences within the neighborhood. In Red Hook, the divide between businesses and residents proved to be the most profound and lasting. Other conflicts were generally dealt with in a way that led to consensus.

One political reality lurked behind the entire planning process. Most of the Community District is relatively affluent, and the political strength that goes along with that was key in completing and winning recognition of the Plan. This was a reflection of the imbalance in local power, and limited the extent to which the Plan helped to empower people in Red Hook.

Poverty and racism are continuing obstacles to a truly democratic planning process. Racism within and among communities, and within government institutions, is a chronic deterrant to the achievement of community consensus. In Red Hook, racial prejudices and stereotypes lay beneath many of the internal turf battles as well as the relations between the community and city agencies.

Advocacy Planning Lives?

The sixties are over, and the Reagan Revolution managed to further isolate the many forgotten communities and their advocates. But the forgotten communities have also become more diverse and politically sophisticated, developed their own advocates, and have less patience with “outside advocators.” Still, they continue to confront a planning establishment that locks them out of the planning process and is incapable of addressing the underlying problems of poverty and racism.

The case of Red Hook illustrates how the planning profession and main planning institutions are unresponsive to community-based planning as a means of empowerment. Because of this, advocacy planning lives.