Ikea Comes to Red Hook

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In three weeks time, the Swedish furniture giant Ikea will open its first store ever in New York City. Though millions of New Yorkers know Ikea from trips to outlets in the suburbs outside of New York, WNYC’s Ilya Marritz reports that this store will be different.

REPORTER: Every Ikea ever built in America – there are 34 of them now – sits next to a busy highway.

But the 35th Ikea, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is close to a mile from the nearest highway. It sits on a on a pier overlooking New York Harbor.

ROTH: Here we're close to one of the gantry cranes and what we also have are some of the old tools and equipment that were used in the old shipyard days.

REPORTER: Ikea’s Joseph Roth has been playing guide to the visiting press corps. The crown jewel on the tour is a six and a half acre park, which includes mementos from the area’s maritime past. Nearby, on a barge in the mucky water, construction workers are pouring gravel for a new pier.

ROTH: They're constructing the dock where the water taxi will dock here at Ikea Brooklyn.

REPORTER: If you could stand with the workmen at the end of that dock, you’d see this familiar form: a gigantic royal blue box with a yellow ribbon around the top. In the upper right corner: the word IKEA.

Inside the box, new employeee Shonda Washington has been building display racks, as forklifts zoom around the halls, carrying Ikea's famous flat-pack furniture.

When a store this big gets built, it has a gravitational pull that can be felt from miles away by job seekers.

WASHINGTON: I live in the Bronx. I take two buses and a train.

REPORTER: How long does it take you?

WASHINGTON: Maybe about an hour and a half.

REPORTER: In the next few weeks, Ikea will finish hiring about 560 workers. As a gesture to the community, Ikea gave locals a three week head start. But it won't say how many Red Hook residents it's hired.

What's clear is that with 346,000 square feet of cheap furniture, they will be busy. Ikea will be the biggest big box store in the city, almost three times the size of the biggest BJ's or Home Depot.

SCHWARTZ: A Red Hook has been a sleepy community. It’s going to wake up, starting June 18.

REPORTER: That’s Sam Schwartz, Ikea’s traffic guru. He estimates the new store could get as many as 17,000 visitors on a busy sales weekend. So how to get them to the store, with no nearby subway or highway?

SCHWARTZ: There will be free ferry service from Wall Street, Pier 11. Two bus lines have been extended to go into Ikea. In addition, Ikea is providing buses to the subway, it’s a free shuttle. Bike riders will have parking.

REPORTER: It’s a public transit experiment, and Schwartz isn’t particularly optimistc: he figures 85 to 90 percent of visitors will come by car. Eventually, he hopes, four in ten will come by bus, boat or bike.

Whatever the breakdown, the ferry and the shuttle represent a major expense at a time when all housing-related businesses are hurting. Lowe’s and Home Depot both posted sharp quarterly losses this week, and Home Depot has shelved plans for a big store in East Harlem.

Ikea's Joseph Roth says being a privately-held company allows Ikea to plan for the long-term.

And now, after six years of noisy planning battles that divided Red Hook, it's becoming clear that Ikea is just going to be a fact of life.

Like barnacles on a whale, local businesses expect a good ride.

BYRNE: Even just with their buildup, with the sort of staff that's been in here the past month or two, we're seeing a tremendous difference already.

REPORTER: Chris Byrne owns Rocky Sullivan’s on Van Dyke Street. If you turn around on your barstool, you can see the top of the big blue box from here. For Byrne, all that added transportation is like finding a $100 bill in the gutter.

BYRNE: Friends of mine from other parts of the city, that to them going to Red Hook is like going to Siberia or something, they can just get on water taxi and drunks like a nice ride on the water after they’ve had few pints, so I think it'll work out.

REPORTER: The first ferry sets sail for Red Hook on June 18.