Issue 438 November 24, 2003

Sprawl and the City, Episode One: IKEA in Brooklyn?

This occasional MTR column will track prominent development proposals with strong likelihoods of extending car-dependent sprawl development in the region, discuss the impacts of far-flung, unplanned development on cities and towns, and illustrate what cities can do to transform the sprawling landscape into more sustainable, liveable communities.

IKEA in Brooklyn? A Whole Lotta Parking

Big box stores have become a fact of life in the U.S. and elsewhere. Huge retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target have staked out a growing role in the global economy. At the same time, the ongoing march of the big boxes makes municipal and regional efforts to curb sprawl and begin to chart a new course extremely tough. The big boxes’ attempts to get in on vibrant urban markets presents its own set of problems. Unfortunately, some city governments are set to transplant the worst features of suburban sprawl directly into the urban midst.

A few years ago, an attempt to bring an IKEA to the edge of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal was thwarted by community opposition. But IKEA is back. Earlier this year, the company began an environmental review for a store just a few miles away, on the Red Hook waterfront.

Why is IKEA so interested in this part of Brooklyn? According to the company, the north western section of Brooklyn houses the largest customer base for its Elizabeth, NJ store. So why not bring the store to its customers, rather than vice versa?

Fancy videos of the new store on indicate that the development is larger than most in this part of Brooklyn. The site is 22 acres and will house a 350,000 square feet store (the largest IKEA in the USA) with 1,400 parking spaces. The company says 85% of 3 million annual visitors will arrive by car. This translates into almost 9,000 vehicles per day, not including delivery and freight trucks. IKEA says that the other 15% will take advantage of a ferry from downtown Manhattan, which can transport up to 400 people per hour, and shuttle buses to subways at 4th Avenue, Smith St. and Borough Hall. IKEA will pay for these and infrastructure improvements to the BQE and Hamilton Avenue. IKEA claims the development will reduce current truck volumes to the site by half, but community leaders question the accuracy of this statistic. More extensive traffic studies are underway by IKEA consultant, the Sam Schwartz Company. Hopefully, these will indicate how a Brooklyn IKEA would affect traffic locally and regionally, including at Hudson and East River crossings.

The Red Hook Civic Association (RHCA), the Park Slope Chamber of Commerce, Sunset Park Business Improvement District, Care About the Slope and others are against the project. They cite traffic and say IKEA is an inappropriate use for some of NYC’s most beautiful waterfront. John McGettrick of RHCA also says Red Hook will see thousands of new vehicle trips due a new Fairway, a new Loews, a possible passenger terminal, and Gowanus Expressway reconstruction. He says this traffic future does not bode well for Red Hook, a struggling community that has successfully attracted new small businesses and artist centers.

Red Hook East and West Tenants Association and certain business interests are for the project, mainly attracted to the 500-600 new jobs it will produce. Community Board 6 and local politicians have yet to take a vocal stance on the issue.

From a transportation reform point of view, even if the IKEA plan does avoid some trips between NYC and Elizabeth or Hicksville, it is too car oriented. The site plan, with its massive parking lot and wide roads, is little different than the one abutting the NJ Turnpike. Why not choose a site with no new parking near downtown Brooklyn, for example, and offer affordable delivery for NYC customers? Far less parking and more extensive bikeways, parks, and impact development fees could also go a long way to improving the proposed Red Hook plan. It is unlikely that a three-seat lime green sofa will fit into a regular car or SUV anyway.

The IKEA case raises broad city planning questions. Why can’t big boxes in Brooklyn or edge cities work more as they do in Manhattan? Stores like the Herald Square Macy’s, Penn Station’s K-Mart, and Crate & Barrel prove that big box does not necessary mean big parking or out-of-scale footprints.

In favor of improving IKEA’s plan is that the company markets itself as "green," and is clearly self-conscious about its public image. Perhaps it can be led to show that big-box is not necessarily married to the worst features of sprawl.

The NYC Dept. of City Planning press office says the IKEA plan is undergoing environmental review and will begin the official city process in early 2004. This process takes about 7-9 months, but extended controversy over this project could draw it out for much longer. IKEA’s website says that it hopes to open shop in 2005.



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