n 1994, Greg Berman was hired as the lead planner for the Red Hook Community Justice Center. The following are excerpts from his Planning Diary, which he wrote as a record of how he negotiated some of the challenges of early planning, including community needs assessment, fundraising and program design. To read the entire document, click here.
Siting a new project is almost always a tricky business, particularly in a city like New York, where real estate is an extremely precious—and political—commodity. Thankfully, Red Hook offered one major advantage in this regard. Because of the dramatic population and business flight out of the neighborhood over the preceding 25 years, Red Hook has a number of vacant and abandoned properties. After investigating all of the city-owned sites in the neighborhood—and inspecting several privately-held properties as well—eight sites emerged as viable options. Each was close to public transportation and each was large enough to house both a courtroom and social service programs.
In an effort to narrow the list further, we organized a bus tour for local community leaders from the Community Board 6 task force. After looking at all of the possibilities, their clear first choice was Visitation School, a vacant parochial school that had closed its doors in the 1970s.
Visitation struck their fancy for several reasons. First, it was located in between "the front" and the "the back." In Red Hook parlance, "the front" signifies the public housing projects. "The back" is the area closer to the waterfront, which is composed of single-family row houses that are occupied primarily by Italian and Irish Americans. Visitation, in effect, is situated in neutral territory—it "belongs" to neither the front nor the back. This is an important political consideration in Red Hook.
On an emotional level, many residents were drawn to Visitation because it had once been an important community resource. They looked at the Justice Center as an opportunity to bring back to life a magnificent old building. And magnificent is precisely the word to describe it: built at the turn of the century, Visitation School has the kind of dignified street presence that you might expect from a neighborhood courthouse. And, as it turned out, Catholic Charities, which owned the building, was willing to lease it to us for a reasonable price and play an active role in making the project happen. End of story, right? Wrong.
Visitation was not without its drawbacks. Although the structure itself was in good shape, the interior was a disaster. Asbestos and lead paint were major problems. The roof needed to be replaced. None of the windows were worth saving. It took several months to investigate the building properly—conducting tests, analyzing results, meeting with engineers and construction managers, preparing preliminary architectural drawings. After all was said and done, we got the bad news: it would cost several million dollars to renovate the building.