Revisiting the Red Hook IKEA Controversy 10 Years Later

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If you ever visit the IKEA in Red Hook, you might think it a buzzing furniture-shopper’s paradise. Admiring the store’s striking views of the Statue of Liberty, your shopping bags filled with particle board and your stomach filled with lingonberry, you might assume that the IKEA couldn’t have inspired an ounce of controversy. But oh how wrong you’d be.

In the great tradition of Brooklyn mega-developments, the construction of the Red Hook IKEA was passionately opposed on multiple fronts. Here’s a brief look back at the dramatic saga of the Red Hook IKEA.

In 2004, Swedish furniture behemoth IKEA set its sights on building its first New York City store at the former New York Shipyard along a 22-acre swath of industrial Red Hook waterfront. IKEA offered the creation of 500 to 600 new jobs and an economic draw for the area, in addition to a new water taxi and shuttle bus service. And Swedish meatballs.

But from the beginning, a contingent of neighborhood residents fought vehemently against the store, saying that the swarms of shoppers would create traffic gridlock, that the introduction of one big box store could lead to more, and that IKEA would irreparably erode the neighborhood’s authenticity.

Preservationists rallied to save a historic drydock and five historic buildings at the construction site, including a Civi War-era pumping station.

Community members filed a lawsuit against IKEA to halt its plans — citing a faulty environmental impact report — but the suit was rejected by a judge in the spring of 2005.

“I think it’s sad but inevitable,” one Red Hook resident told Brownstoner in 2007. “I’m from England so I’m not really privy to the history of gentrification or development here, but it’s sad to me to go and see the blue and yellow where the sugar factory used to be.”

At the end of 2007 and into the spring of 2008, IKEA built their 346,000-square-foot store.

Just before it opened, the Times took to the streets to ask people how the store would affect the neighborhood. One man called the store “a blessing”; another said “if it was a Walmart, I’d be protesting.”

In August of 2008, after the initial furor over the store opening had calmed, residents weren’t so opposed. Some community members even started using the shuttle service to speed up their commutes. One resident begrudgingly admitted to the Times, “It isn’t awful.”

But by then a new facet of the controversy had taken hold. The City’s Economic Development Corporation decided that Brooklyn needed more ship repairing facilities — drydocks just like the one IKEA had filled in to make room for their parking lot. Building a comparable dry dock would cost an estimated $1,000,000,000, leading John McGettrick, co-chair of the Red Hook Civic Alliance, to call the dock’s destruction a “billion-dollar boondoggle.”

But, short of IKEA building a flat-packed time machine, it was too late. They couldn’t un-fill the drydock.

When the DOT planned a bike lane running in front of the store in 2010, IKEA opposed it and threatened to go back on their promise to work on traffic control in the area. The bike lane was painted anyway.

After the furor died down, Red Hook found new rhythms and attracted some new visitors. IKEA surely didn’t “suck the neighborhood dry of any authentic culture” but the store’s construction wasn’t without compromise.

In the end, Red Hook lost a drydock and a handful of historic buildings. But it also gained something new.

IKEA Coverage [Brownstoner]
Photo by Luigi Novi via Wikimedia Commons

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