Downtown Remains Contested Territory

Photo by: Taleen Dersedepanian
A view through the window of an empty storefront on Willoughby between Duffield and Bridge. The major rezoning of Brooklyn in 2004.

The major rezoning of Brooklyn in 2004, coupled with the recent economic slowdown, has produced mixed results for residents and businesses.

By: Neil deMause

Downtown Brooklyn--Joe Chan had every reason to be confident. The former aide to deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff, newly installed in 2006 as head of the business-run Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, had just watched as the Bloomberg administration pushed through a rezoning of a 22-block stretch of downtown Brooklyn intended to convert the once-sleepy government office and discount shopping district into a third central business district to complement midtown and downtown Manhattan. Already, developers had announced plans for several mixed-use towers to complement the existing MetroTech complex that opened in the early 1990s. As Chan told a reporter at the time, his mission was clear: “If our views are obscured, we’ll know we’ve done a good job.”

Seven years after the City Council approved the rezoning, the downtown Brooklyn skyline and streetscape alike have indeed changed, though not exactly in the way that Chan or his former bosses had envisioned. Instead of becoming a new office hub, downtown Brooklyn — an ill-defined space squeezed between Metrotech to the north, Brooklyn Heights to the west, Boerum Hill to the south, and Fort Greene to the east, and centered around the historic Fulton Street shopping strip — has become the latest Brooklyn neighborhood to become remade with luxury housing towers, including the Brooklyner, which surpassed the Williamsburgh Bank building as the tallest in the borough. And several new projects are in the works to bring national retail chains — H&M is the prize so far — to the Fulton Mall’s traditional collection of discount clothing and electronics stores.

Whether this is success depends on who you ask.

“We’re all very happy with how downtown Brooklyn has progressed over the years,” says Michael Burke, who has served as interim president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership since Chan left to take a job with the state-run Empire State Development Corporation last summer. “Particularly given the economic dynamics of the past few years, where it has continued to thrive and continued to grow even with the significant economic downturn.”

Yaakov “Jack” Fuzailov, meanwhile, takes a more jaundiced view. The former owner of a barbershop that was twice evicted from storefronts along downtown’s Willoughby Street — the first to make way for a new office tower that never arrived, the second because of rising rents — he now cuts hair as an employee of another barbershop across the street from his old storefront. Fuzailov, like many longtime residents and shopkeepers in the area, sees the battle of downtown Brooklyn as one of condo owners against tenants, and visions of high-end retail against those of the unflashy stores that were there before the rezoning hit.

“There is no middle class,” he says. “Either you live in the Brooklyner, or you’re out of here. The middle class like myself is a worker now. I downgraded - I’m poor.”

A long-sought transformation
The current push to revive downtown Brooklyn began in the 1980s, when Polytechnic University (now City Tech) was selected by the city to lead the charge to turn the area into the next Silicon Valley. School officials soon tapped former city consumer affairs commissioner and real estate scion Bruce Ratner to put together a deal for Brooklyn’s largest development ever. Metrotech, as the project soon became known, would replace several blocks of apartment buildings and small business with mammoth office towers that would become home to back-office operations for the likes of Chase Manhattan and Bear Stearns — helped along by $300 million in city rent subsidies to Ratner’s new tenants.

In 2001, a working group of corporate, labor, and city leaders convened by Sen. Chuck Schumer upped the ante, declaring that with city office space filling up fast, downtown Brooklyn needed to become another commercial hub: “Without taking action to create more space, New York City will miss out on hundreds of thousands of new jobs and increased economic activity in the next 20 years,” the so-called Group of 35 wrote in its report. The Bloomberg administration responded with a massive upzoning of downtown, allowing much taller buildings and more residential uses than had previously been allowed. The City Council passed the measure near-unanimously in June 2004, with only Charles Barron abstaining.

Walk around downtown Brooklyn — or, as the real estate press has perhaps inevitably dubbed it, “DoBro” — and you’ll see a neighborhood in transition, but transition into what isn’t entirely clear. Most of the local storefronts remain taken up by the jumble of cellphone stores, beauty parlors, and discount clothing outlets that have long made the Fulton Mall and its surrounding streets a Mecca for working-class Brooklynites, especially African Americans. Perhaps the prototypical Fulton Mall store is the combination pawn shop, cellphone store, and tattoo parlor with a sign in the window offering “Gold fronts — same day.”

Yet signs of change are all around. The Brooklyner, completed last year, is now mostly full; the nearby Telephone Building has been converted to condos, and after a slow start and some price cuts, is now about two-thirds occupied. Across Flatbush Avenue, a string of stylish condo towers with names meant to evoke 21st-century grandeur — Oro, Toren, Avalon — are complete, if slow to find buyers.

On the Fulton Street shopping strip, meanwhile, the sidewalks and public plazas have been rebuilt, as part of a multi-year project that has cost the city $10 million. A construction site alongside the landmarked Offerman Building, once home to the flagship Martin’s clothing store, marks where developer Al Laboz — a major landholder in the area who also serves as chair of the Fulton Mall Improvement Association — plans to open the borough’s first H&M clothing store (though demolition work is currently stalled by a Department of Buildings stop work order). And a trio of hotels now tower over the block of modest row houses on Duffield Street between Fulton and Willoughby, disgorging tourists onto a street otherwise occupied by 19th-century row houses.

Other projects, though, seem to exist more as aspirations than as steel and concrete. City Point, a massive mixed-use building that was supposed to rise on the site of the Albee Square Mall after developer Joe Sitt razed the structure and sold the land at a tidy profit post-rezoning, for now exists only as a tiny retail space going up at the corner of DeKalb and Fulton. Like much of the rest of the neighborhood, the former mall is ringed by construction fencing, dressed up in a brightly colored strip of canvas dubbed a “Breathing Wall.” More construction phases are supposed to follow, and though there’s no set date for construction to begin, $20 million in federal stimulus funding is in place — obtained with the help of Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, whose charities it was recently revealed received $300,000 in donations from City Point’s developers.

On nearby Bridge Street, across from the idled backhoe waiting to work on Laboz’s H&M project, is a site where ground was broken in 2008 for a proposed 49-story housing tower. Today, it’s marked by still more construction fencing, which hides a sandy pit that appears to drain rainwater into the bowels of the earth. (Community Board 2 district manager Robert Perris quips that it reminds him of the “solar stills” he learned to make in his Boy Scout days: “All it needs is vegetation and a very large piece of plastic, and I’ll be able to keep all of downtown Brooklyn from getting thirsty.”)

At the north end of the block, across from the now-condoed Telephone Building, is the set of buildings that once housed a thriving retail strip, Fuzailov’s barber shop among them. In 2007, Laboz sent eviction notices to all the storefronts along the thriving retail strip (see accompanying story) ordering them to get out to make way for a 30-story mixed-use highrise dubbed Willoughby West. Then, says Fuzailov, “Everything just froze. And a lot of those people that had stores lost it for nothing.”

(Laboz did not return City Limits phone calls by press time.)

Four years later, the stores are gone, but the building remains standing derelict, its storefronts now inhabited by an art installation called “Willoughby Windows”; one pane of glass bears the inscription, in looping script, “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”

New people, new buildings
A block to the east along Willoughby stands what’s become a symbol of the hopes for the new downtown Brooklyn: DeKalb Market, an ad-hoc outdoor shopping market that appeared last summer as a temporary installation on the north end of the former Albee Square Mall site. With the help of outdoor market managers Urban Space a collection of old shipping containers has been repurposed into a sort of industrial-chic version of the Union Square Holiday Market (also an Urban Space project), selling Etsyish crafts and snack foods at Manhattan prices.

Yet the market, with its hand-painted glass bowls and $3.25 chocolate pumpkin cheesecake cupcakes, is a somewhat jarring addition to the neighborhood. The sparse clientele is resolutely white and upmarket, a stark contrast to the shoppers on nearby Fulton Mall a block to the south; there’s little sign that either ever crosses over into the other’s realm.

“There are a lot of people who, when the whole process started, were hopeful of seeing some changes,” says Allison Lirish Dean, an urban planner who worked on a 2005 ethnographic study of the Fulton Mall for the Pratt Center and is now putting the finishing touches on a Kickstarter-funded documentary on the borough’s changing face. “And maybe some of those things people are happy about. But I think overall they have a sense of exclusion.”

In interviews with African-American shoppers from all over Brooklyn for her 2005 study, says Dean, “A lot of people said to me, ‘Coming here is like an antidepressant for me. I see people that I know.’” Unlike other inner cities, she notes, “where the downtowns really died, Fulton Mall was really resilient,” helped along by a surge of immigrants in the 1960s that created an earlier, if unheralded, wave of revitalization.

It was a scene that drew international fame — especially after Biz Markie name-checked Albee Square in a 1988 track — but that might already have been fated to change even without the rezoning. Dean notes that Brooklyn is seeing a dramatic departure of African Americans overall from many of its neighborhoods, many to the South. Still, she sees the redevelopment of downtown as a missed opportunity. “I wish it could have been integrated with what was already successful.”

Uncertain impact
Burke insists that that’s precisely the goal of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, which since the rezoning has largely taken over local development efforts, under the oversight of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. (The partnership has taken over competing business groups as well, Chan completing the absorption of the Metrotech BID earlier this year before his departure.)

“None of us believe you’ll see a time on Fulton Street mall where it’s suddenly turned into Madison Avenue,” says Burke, adding that rents on Fulton Street have “stabilized” in recent years, in part thanks to the economy. “It’s always going to be a combination of the older-style retail, the local retail, and then the regional national chains. They’re all there, and they’re all making money.” And in any case, the architects of downtown Brooklyn’s redevelopment argue, the new arrivals are helping to provide what the rezoning was originally intended to provide: jobs. When the city Economic Development Corporation announced earlier this year that it would be selling off part of the Brooklyn Municipal Building, the hulking granite edifice across from Brooklyn Borough Hall, to be remade into high-end shops — the winning bidder was Laboz — deputy mayor Robert Steel declared that downtown Brooklyn was “one the city’s great success stories,” and that the new stores developed by Laboz would “bring more businesses, visitors and — most importantly — jobs to this vibrant and dynamic economic engine for Brooklyn and the entire City.”

Actual numbers on the economic impact of the redevelopment, though, are hard to come by. While the original rezoning plan promised the creation of 18,500 new office jobs and 8,000 construction jobs, neither the Partnership nor the city can put a firm figure on how many jobs have, in fact materialized as redevelopment has shifted from office buildings to residential towers and new retail. The EDC says it has no figures for how many jobs have been created by the rezoning, and no formula for comparing the projected benefits of office versus residential construction; each project, says EDC spokesperson Jennifer Friedberg, is evaluated on a case-by-case basis before being approved.

In general, most economists consider retail development to be iffier than office buildings in terms of job creation, thanks to the substitution effect on consumer spending: If more Brooklynites shop at H&M, goes the logic, that’s money they’re not spending elsewhere in the city. And residential development has its own limitations. “Other than custodians and doorman positions, you don’t need much staff to run an apartment building,” notes Independent Budget Office deputy director George Sweeting. “Also, housing development often involves redistribution of households from elsewhere in the city, at least in the short term.”

Burke says that the shift from office to housing and retail was inevitable, considering the changes the city has been through since the 2004 rezoning: “It’s like comparing Earth and Mars, it was a completely different economy back then.” Yet the central vision for downtown remains intact, he says. “Our goal from the get-go was always to focus downtown in the direction of a 24/7 community.”

Brad Lander, who before his 2009 election to the City Council was as head of the Pratt Center when it issued a critical report on the aftermath of the rezoning, has no problem with a mix of uses for downtown Brooklyn, but is skeptical of the claims that no one has been harmed by the results.

“Having some additional residential development, preferably at a mix of incomes ... some additional space for office development, and a more vibrant retail presence for all of it, that was the heart of the idea for downtown Brooklyn,” he says. “I think by and large people either actively liked or didn’t object to that mix. It was really all a question of who gets the housing, who will get the jobs, what quality jobs they will be, where do existing businesses on Fulton Mall and back on Schermerhorn and Livingston and Albee Square fit into that? And I feel like it was all done with nearly zero attention to those issues of equity and sharing the benefits of development.”

“A certain amount of residential is not just good, but very good,” agrees Perris, whose board joined with local City Councilwoman Letitia James last year in unsuccessfully petitioning the Department of City Planning last year to revisit the 2004 rezoning to see if follow-up changes were warranted. “But where it’s located needed to be micromanaged.” He cites the Brooklyner as a prominent planning mistake, thanks to its location at one corner of the Metrotech complex, a prime location that otherwise could have been used to attract office tenants. “We lost a site which could have added more jobs in downtown Brooklyn,” says Perris. “When you lose a site like that that really should have been, in my opinion, for a commercial use, it’s gone forever.”

It’s a loss that he blames on bad planning by the city. “It seems that many people in positions of power and authority are content with whatever development we can get,” he says. “If it’s residential and it’s all luxury residences, it’s better than the absence of development that we had before.”

Space wanted
The luxury housing towers may have stopped rising for now, but battles over evictions continue. The latest is at Willoughby Square, a long-planned public park across the street from DeKalb Market that would displace three five-story brick tenements that, organizers for the low-income group Families United for Racial and Economic Equality say, offer the only remaining rent-regulated apartments in the neighborhood. (FUREE is currently fighting the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which took over the property by eminent domain following the rezoning, to secure relocation assistance for the displaced tenants.)

Cut from last year’s city budget, the park is now soliciting donations from local property owners, according to Perris. “They’re still working out a financing mechanism,” says Burke, who adds he expects the existing buildings to be demolished next year, with construction of the park in 2013.

Across Flatbush Avenue, where one-time mayoral hopeful John Catsimatidis stoked protests by tearing down the area’s only supermarket to make way for high-rises (a new Red Apple finally opened earlier this month to replace the old Associated), Perris reports that the incoming condo buyers “are shocked, shocked by the amount of violent street crime and gunplay that occurs near Ingersoll Houses.”

“Essentially what people say is, ‘I spent a lot of money on my real estate, why do I have to suffer these indignities?’” he says. “They don’t seem to understand that none of their purchase price went to the residents of Ingersoll.”

Some former Willoughby businesses, meanwhile, have attempted relocations to Livingston Street, another shopping corridor two block south that has so far evaded major disruption. But that edge of downtown has its own promise on the horizon—or threat, depending on your perspective: The Barclays Center basketball arena, which is set to open next fall, bringing its own wave of new visitors, and new dollar signs in the eyes of local landlords.

Burke insists that it’s possible for all the different visions of downtown Brooklyn to coexist, pointing to Manhattan’s 34th Street as a shopping strip that includes a variety of low- and high-end stores. “The goal here is a downtown for all Brooklynites,” he says. “If you are the traditional Fulton Street Mall shopper from ten years ago, who’s used to buying very affordable discount items, you’ll continue to find that. The new demographic, folks who are buying condos in the area, that are certainly higher-income, they will also have retail shops that they enjoy going to.”

Fazailov, for the most part, agrees, though he puts it somewhat differently. “I don’t see it changing that fast,” he says. “You can’t just throw the poor out.”