Investigating the India Street Ferry (Or lack thereof)
We’re well aware by now that the imminent five-week G suspension this summer (from late July through the end of August) has many commuters spooked. Adding insult to injury, the New York Waterways ferry landing at India Street—by far the second-best option for many—has been suspended indefinitely since February, when a gangplank failed and plunged into frigid East River waters moments after passengers climbed aboard.
This looming transportation brownout has raised eyebrows for months. At an April 3 meeting organized by State Senator Daniel Squadron at the Polish and Slavic Center on Kent Street, officials addressed community transportation concerns, including the ferry, but they declined to announce a reopening date. Now, almost two months later—and only eight weeks before the G shutdown—that date is still elusive.
The road to Pulaski bridge traffic jams and sweltering MTA shuttle buses is paved with good intentions. So, for the past several weeks, Greenpointers has been investigating the India Street Ferry closure to determine whether anyone can say with confidence that the ferry landing will be operational before the G shuts down.
(The answer: very likely, but not entirely certain.) Here’s what we found out:
Incidents like the one in February are rare. According to engineering sources, the underwater equipment that failed and caused the gangplank collapse typically functions properly for decades. So the episode in February—at which point the ferry had only been operational for a little over two years—rightfully raised serious questions about what went wrong. In response, our local elected officials State Senator Daniel Squadron and Councilman Stephen Levin promptly called for a full investigation into the matter to determine how and why the equipment, before repairs could be authorized.
The party responsible for the investigation and repairs is the ferry landing owner RedSky Capital, our neighbors de jure—they own development rights immediately north of the ferry landing and many other buildings in the area—is a
major Brooklyn-based real estate investment firm whose thirty-something-year-old head, Ben Bernstein, is tied to the Bernstein Real Estate Group, headed by none other than Donald Trump’s former personal attorney Jonathan Bernstein.
RedSky is heavily invested in Greenpoint and has a lot riding on the successful completion of new residential construction projects in the area. In a 2012 interview with The New York Times in which he disclosed ownership of the India Street Ferry landing, Ben Bernstein made public the vast extent of his family’s interests:
“Besides two luxury waterfront towers currently navigating the city’s approval process,” said The Times, “Mr. Bernstein’s Greenpoint portfolio includes 100 apartments and 15 condominium units. On the commercial side, he is installing a [now open]
Sleepy’s franchise at Manhattan and Meserole because, thinking ahead, he figured, ‘Hey, when the residential thing blows up, everybody’s going to need mattresses.’”
The other key player in the equation is the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which legally runs the East River Ferry and contracts New York Waterways to provide services. When first contact for this article, EDC insisted that it was working with RedSky to ensure that an investigation was conducted and repairs completed before the shutdown in July.
The plot thickened on April 22, when The Daily News and Capital New York in close succession published articles indicating that an apparent eight-week standstill in progress was being precipitated by RedSky Capital’s refusal to pay for a crane required to complete the investigation.
When asked to comment for Greenpointers after The Daily News article, Councilman Levin said, “RedSky would rather bring in a crane one time [to do repairs] instead of two [to do the investigation, then repairs]…The pier was built by a private entity and that entity is acting in a recalcitrant manner in doing what needs to be done to repair the landing,” said Levin. Senator Squadron concurred, saying it was clear that there was an issue of cost: “RedSky is being exceedingly difficult; I am exceedingly frustrated and angry; and the clock is really ticking,” he said. RedSky declined several requests for comment.
When first asked in early May, EDC declined to confirm or deny that there was any disagreement with RedSky about the repair process. Then on May 6, when presented with credible allegations that RedSky was being difficult, EDC was emphatic: “We are very much on the same page with RedSky, and continue to work with them to implement a solution that will allow for the ferry landing to reopen safely as soon as possible…We can’t reiterate enough that it’s false to say that there is disagreement about the process.”
You do the math…
Disagreement or not, news finally arrived in mid-May from Councilman Levin’s office that RedSky—facing mounting criticism (and pugnacious Greenpointers inquiries?)—had finally agreed to hire two cranes, instead of one, and that the investigation was back on track.
So, where do things stand?
As of Greenpointers’ most recent contact with Senator Squadron, confidence is growing behind the scenes that RedSky has agreed to do what is necessary to reopen the ferry. It is rumored that the investigation will be completed in short order, after which it will undergo a brief peer-review process and EDC will authorize repairs.
However, the lack of transparency about this vital public resource, coupled with RedSky’s cost reluctance, head scratching, and hand wringing about how to proceed doesn’t inspire much confidence, especially with the looming brownout.
We need to ratchet up community pressure. Our local political leaders should stop providing vague assurances that the ferry “will be opened as soon as safely possible” and demand that RedSky and EDC come out of the shadows to commit publicly to a process and a timeline that will ensure that the ferry is up and running by late July. That’s the neighborly course of action. If not, Greenpointers far and wide will certainly know where NOT to buy their mattresses.
*Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that RedSky Capital has an ownership interest in Greenpoint Landing. While RedSky owns development rights in the immediate area, it is unaffiliated with Park Tower Group’s Greenpoint Landing project.