The Columbia Waterfront is a landlocked community in an area due south of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade sharing perhaps the most spectacular viewplanes of the Manhattan skyline in the entire City. The waterfront is exclusively occupied by the Red Hook Container Port a busy off-loading cargo facility that provides raw materials to the region and a source of local employment. This Port Authority-leased facility has seen an explosion of business in the last decade, with the potential to grow even further, and handles both containerized and break-bulk cargo. It boasts the highest amount of cocoa imports from overseas in the United States. Continuous efforts are underway by local residents lobbying for greater access to the waterfront; the Port Authority is attempting to accommodate its residential neighbors in this regard and will be initiating a perimeter improvement project to beautify the edge of the facility where it abuts local streets. New signage, ornamental lighting, entrance gateways and landscaping have been included in the plans and are eagerly anticipated. The neighborhood is effectively delineated by the waterfront to the west; the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) trench to the east; Atlantic Avenue to the north; and, to the south, Hamilton Avenue, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel plaza, and the Gowanus Expressway.
This neighborhood is a mixed-use community, zoned for both heavy manufacturing (working waterfront maritime area), and a mix of light manufacturing and residential uses. A resurgence of low- to moderate-income housing development in the past decade, largely flowing from the City’s Columbia Street Urban Renewal Plan, has resulted in a tremendous influx of residents. The Columbia Street merchant sector could benefit from organizational support in order to promote the area and leverage additional private market goods and services that are lacking; commercial growth has not kept pace with the residential growth and the neighborhood could benefit from targeted commercial revitalization and economic development efforts. Further compounding matters is the use of Columbia Street as a common detour route for excessive volumes of traffic diverted from the BQE, for traffic seeking to avoid construction on the Gowanus Expressway, and some Red Hook-bound truck traffic. The general condition of this main corridor and side streets is deplorable with exposed patches of cobblestones, trolley tracks and uneven street grades with pronounced crowns from years of strip paving. Under the leadership of the Community Board, a task force was convened to work on the final design for this critical project that included numerous stakeholder agency representatives and representatives of the local residential and merchant communities. It is expected that the Reconstruction of Columbia Street will not only improve the roadway surface, but will provide opportunities for much-needed recreation, open/green space and enhanced waterfront access, and improved roadway geometry. Proper truck route street widths, adequate signage, and smooth riding surfaces should discourage the illegal and unsafe movement of traffic, particularly the current lack of adherence to the City’s designated truck routes.
Interestingly, one of the first Puerto Rican enclaves in the United States formed on Columbia Street in the 1950's and to this day the neighborhood has the highest proportion of foreign born residents (22.8% of the neighborhood is foreign born per 1990 Census) relative to any other neighborhood in the district. Language barriers and cultural differences have led to distinct growth patterns for the diverse ethnic groups residing in the area. Future development efforts include the now underway final stages of the Columbia Street Urban Renewal Plan, the Atlantic Avenue Master Design planning efforts, the Brooklyn Bridge Park project, the Reconstruction of Columbia Street and the continued organizing of the residents and businesses into active groups that help to refocus efforts toward balanced community development designed to address currently unmet needs. It is widely hoped that all of the communities to the south of Atlantic Avenue will have a fair and proportionate amount of input into the planning process for the Brooklyn Bridge Park. What is clear to these communities is that the impact of this world-class regional waterfront park will be shared by all neighborhoods abutting this stretch of Brooklyn’s waterfront, particularly around the Atlantic Avenue approach. Residents have shown widespread interest in preserving and enhancing the local streetscape and open spaces, particularly among artists and active community gardeners living in the area; local artists have taken to using some of the open space as public art display sites. Some of the long-time residents of the neighborhood attribute Robert Moses’ dictatorial style of urban planning, coupled with the post-World War II decline in the maritime industry and a disastrous interceptor sewer line installation along Columbia Street in the 1970's, for the deterioration of the community. Ample evidence exists throughout the Columbia Waterfront that the neighborhood is undergoing a true twenty-first century renaissance.