Red Hook on the Rise

O’Connell Organization Looks to Establish Legacy in Brooklyn

Greg Jr. (left) and Greg Sr. (far right)

Over the past 45 years, the O’Connell Organization–started by former NYPD detective Greg O’Connell Sr., and now including his sons, Greg Jr. and Michael who has rehabilitated dozens of residential and commercial properties in the Red Hook, Columbia Street Waterfront, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill areas of Brooklyn.

We sat down with Greg and Greg Jr. and talked about their philosophy behind their investments, their unique take on what constitutes a “bottom line,” and their plans for establishing a legacy for the future.

Dave Behin: What first interested you in developing?

Greg Sr.: I had worked a bit in uniform [NYPD] before I became a detective. In the City between Central Park West and Broadway. The City wanted to get rid of rooming houses. I needed $15,000 to buy one of those buildings. By the time I saved enough money, there was nothing left. I got started in ’67, in Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens, at 432 Henry Street.

DB: What did you learn about developing?

Greg Sr.: I learned that if you buy one building and renovate it, the price of neighboring properties would go up. It took me 2-years to renovate it, but it tied up my capital, so after that, I took the approach to assemble it all (first before developing it). You want to be thinking 10-15 years ahead.

DB: You said the building of the BQE was good for you. How? 

Greg Sr.: Red Hook was really effected by Robert Moses. He did a lot of great things, but separating Red Hook from Brownstone Brooklyn disastrous for the development of Red Hook over subsequent decades but good for me in terms of ability to invest in a sizeable amount of square footage in order to implement his vision. Years ago, we made the decision to buy a group of buildings and have an impact. It’s working.

DB: Tell us about the future of Red Hook.

Greg Sr.: The game is long-term sustainability. Rent is not sky-high and we’re finding businesses that complement each other. What’s going to make this work for small businesses and the creative industry is bringing tourism in, to be a part of, for example, Pulley Collective. You don’t want it to be a hodgepodge. You curate the properties various units in order to bring in an innovative, diverse tenant base that has no need to compete against one another. They come down here and they see the activity on the waterfront and you see the fog and hear the horns and it’s a special place.

DB: Is Red Hook over-priced?

Greg Jr.: It’s going to be cheap compared to Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Whatever they’re asking now, it’s going to be worth so much more in the future. There isn’t much action, and when there is, it’s usually kept quiet.

DB: How do you feel about new developers coming in?

Greg Sr.: There’s not that much product here. For us we wanted to be the first, now we want to be the last. We like to work with new developers and share with them what we do and adapt that. We have these fellas that came in and they’re buying a lot of property on the waterfront. There’s a strip of six or seven blocks between Van Brunt and Ferris and there’s opportunity there.

DB: What market factors will effect the future of this area?

Greg Sr.: I’m hoping the economy keeps strengthening and the water taxi ferry service comes back this year. [As a developer] I’m conservative, you want to catch your breath a bit. We’re long term investors and this is for the family for generations to come.”

DB: How does the waterfront play in?

Greg Sr.: You have to rebuild all these piers. Beard and Robinson Stores Pier (133 Beard St.) and Merchant Stores Pier (175 Van Dyke St.) are the only two filled piers in New York Harbor. We’ll be putting up a marina in another portion of it. We’re going to do Dinner Boats. We currently do parties and catering at The Liberty Warehouse. The passengers can do a cocktail on the way to the statue. It took over three years to get plans approved. A private marina will be installed adjacent to Beard and Robinson Stores Pier.  Dinner boat, commercial vessel marina to be installed adjacent to Merchant Stores pier.

DB: Tell us about your investment philosophy.

Greg Sr.: If you can’t afford it, you don’t buy it. We have no debt. Stuff is more expensive, but we don’t know how to spell the word sell. We keep everything. We’re long term. It changes the way you plan. We’re landlords and we’re maintaining our property.

DB: What are your thoughts on Hurricane-Proofing Red Hook?

Greg Sr.: Can we put barriers up to stop it? It’s only an 8-hour event. We’re meeting with the Port Authority, addressing environmental concerns. The city is also looking at the economic effect of four months of closed businesses. We have a co-generation plant on the Fairway parking lot to remedy that. After Sandy, our Red Hook Stores property was back on line after three days. Other properties took up to 3 weeks to get electric back on. The mayor came down and we had to make connections to get Con Ed down here. Where Ikea is, it was a ship yard, and they already had heavy electric. This area was warehouses.

DB: What does Red Hook need now?

Greg Jr.: It’s the infrastructure, transportation, schools, healthcare, utilities, the interconnecting sewer, affordable housing, open space and public access. Before any big development happens you need infrastructure. In terms of electric power, the outages are consistent, because of above-ground lines.

DB: Talk to us about community involvement.

Greg Sr.: Spot zoning doesn’t work. You need an overall plan for the whole thing. Two blocks away it might be different.  197A is part of the City charter that enables the community to get everyone involved and it’s very important. Red hook was the first community to use it.

DB: Talk to us about transportation.

Greg Sr.: There is someone in City Planning that we spoke to about the economic impact of bicycles. A smart entrepreneur would ask, “What do people need as they go along on their bicycles?” Transportation is an issue, but Ikea did their study and they got involved with the water taxi. That’s the fun part of Red Hook.

DB: There’s a lot of talk about self-contained mixed-use developments. Where do you stand?

Greg Sr.: Self-contained is a word I do not like. I like a creative thing and you can have it, but you need something moving in and out. I want to look outside and see the barges going. We want to develop something that is exciting. The Queen Mary docks right here before it goes down the Buttermilk Channel and all you see is the white lights as it turns and we want to make sure that people who come into the harbor keep that conversation going.

DB: How are you planning new developments?

Greg Sr.: We ask ourselves, “Do we put in 2-bedrooms or 5-bedrooms?” Sure, we’re looking to see what our neighbors are doing, but we want to see what’s going to be successful for another 50 years. Personally, I want to do it before I die, but I would love to see something happen. It’s long term, so we’re doing mixed use. What is intriguing to us is to satisfy the needs of the community. I was a detective for 17 years and I learned it from the street. We want to present the waterfront in a way that’s exciting.

DB: What are your goals for the future?

Greg Jr.: Present day, our goals are to maximize the properties we have preserving these buildings and the waterfront. The bottom line is not the driving source.