Here Comes the Neighborhood: Prospect Heightsby Eric Neutuch
Marc J. Freud, the developer of a luxury loft building on Pacific Street in Prospect Heights, hopes to recast a once gritty corner of the Heights as NoFA: North of Flatbush Avenue.
To B. V. King, a retired daycare worker and a longtime Prospect Heights homeowner, the NoFA branding, for the triangular area bounded by Flatbush, Atlantic, and Carlton Avenues, is a rude imposition. “I doubt that it’s going to catch on,” she says defiantly. And she is probably right. The local brokers have not been hyping “NoFA,” and even the latest newspaper ads for Mr. Freud’s Atlantic Art Building have dropped the NoFA label.
Nonetheless, Mr. Freud’s attempt at NoFA urban cosmetics is a signpost for things that are happening in and around the northern part of the Heights. The empty industrial lots along Dean and Pacific Streets are being rejuvenated by a residential housing boom. There are new middle-income affordable housing and industrial-to-luxury loft conversions, and, at the district’s perimeter, a Target-anchored mall and a 12-story office tower are under construction for the site above the Long Island Railroad Terminal.
“NoFA is about to arrive,” boasts Mr. Freud. But nobody, not even Mr. Freud, thinks that the northern part of the Heights will “happen” Williamsburg-, Fort Greene-, or Park Slope-style; the neighborhood lacks the hip L-trainers, rich African-American cultural history, or stately brownstones to be the next big Brooklyn thing. Furthermore, though the redeveloped district will have the mall access and parking availability of a New Jersey suburb, the Heights hardly stands to become a ’burb.
According to almost everyone’s assessments, the Heights’ industrial north is redeveloping as a mixed-income neighborhood. With about 1,000 new residents expected by mid-2003, the area now has a distinctly post-industrial lease on life.
A Luxury Loft Grows in Brooklyn
Cathy Guerra, a 34-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant and resident of Dean Street, woke up many mornings this past summer to the pounding of jackhammers, as work was being done to convert a gargantuan former Daily News printing plant at 535 Dean to a 137-unit luxury condominium building known as Newswalk. Her daughter puts her hands over her ears when her mom talks about the construction sounds, but Ms. Guerra says, “The trucks were worse,” referring to the early morning rattle of the Daily News pickups that lasted until the plant was decommissioned in 1997.
There will be quiet for Ms. Guerra and her family soon. Newswalk, which is the neighborhood’s largest and, literally, most visible industrial-to-residential conversion—with the hulking building dominating the skyline—will be completed in the early winter. The 88 units, in the first phase of sales and construction, sold out at prices ranging from $315,000 for a 690 square-foot studio to $1.3 million for a 2,500 square-foot penthouse with 2,500 square feet of terrace space. The new elevator tower, which is visible from the street, is clad in rectangles of peach and blue-tinted glass and encased within a ragged concrete shell.
The 1999 zoning change requested by the Newswalk developers set off a conversion spree in the northern part of the Heights. At Sixth Avenue and Pacific, a shuttered Spalding factory reopened in spring as 21 raw space lofts— that dot-com boom badge of honor. Half a block away, at 636 Pacific, Mr. Freud’s development corporation, Troutbrook Properties, is nearing completion on 31 luxury condos in the eight-story Atlantic Art Building, previously a storage warehouse (but not art studios, as the name might imply). At 616 – 630 Dean, work has begun on the conversion of two low-rise industrial buildings to 21 condominiums, and at 750 Pacific, a commercial property is being converted to residential use by the Newswalk developers.
But the redevelopment of the Heights is not limited to luxury housing. Along Underhill Avenue and Bergen and Dean Streets, 27 newly completed three-family townhouses, called the Prospect Heights Homes, are beginning occupancy by middle-income and upper middle-income owners. The homes, built with sponsorship from the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, were sold for between $363,000 and $400,000 to people earning between $65,000 and $100,000 a year. They are red brick with aluminum-sided backs and have some exterior piping and small yards of grass in the front. Each includes an owner-designated 1,800 square-foot two-bedroom unit and two rental units: a studio and a two-bedroom. For the price of a 1,000 square-foot apartment in a Pacific or Dean Street condo building, the Prospect Heights owners will have nearly twice as much space as their luxury loft neighbors plus rental income of over $2,000 per month.
Additionally, 32 affordable housing three-family homes are under construction for lots on Atlantic Avenue, South Portland Avenue, and South Oxford Street. Approximately 3,000 applicants competed in a lottery for the right to purchase the homes at approximately $400,000 each. The red brick with green trim townhouses, which lie on the southern edge of Fort Greene adjoining Prospect Heights, are part of the Atlantic Center development project, which produced the blocks of similar units on nearby Cumberland and South Oxford Streets in the late 1990s.
The Heights is also home to a new homeless shelter at 768 – 772 Pacific between Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues, with another homeless shelter proposed for 603 Dean Street but caught in legal and political wrangling. If this second shelter is opened, the two shelters together will house 100 families and make for an especially mixed-income community. There is much opposition to the shelters from both the Prospect Heights Action Coalition and the neighborhood’s elected officials. Councilman James E. Davis, who brags that he has “everybody— gay, straight, rich, poor, Hasidim, liberal Jews, white, black, housing developments, [and] the Hispanic community— in my neighborhood,” said that the housing shelters would be an unwelcome blight on a community district “overburdened” with social service agencies and that they will “make it more difficult for the neighborhood to grow.” This, of course, may or may not be true.
Moving to Brooklyn
John (who declined to give his last name and age), a creative advertising director who bought a Newswalk loft six months ago after renting in Little Italy, says, “Here there’s more space for the money.” This is a common sentiment among the new condominium buyers. Drawn by the low prices relative to Manhattan and Park Slope, the “proximity” to the Atlantic Avenue transportation hub, the “industrial feel” of the high-ceiling spaces, the “mix of people,” and the “convenience” of the nearby Atlantic Center mall, they include both newcomers from Manhattan and previous Brooklynites. In the Heights’ industrial corridor, they have discovered a cheaper alternative to Park Slope; that is, unlike many cheaper alternatives to Park Slope (e.g., East New York, Brownsville, etc.), it is an acceptable place for young professionals to call home.
The new buyers talk the neighborhood up. Allan Bobadilla, a thirtysomething Spalding building buyer, calls it “funky,” while John says it is “like SoHo in the 1970s.” (Since their property values are at stake, one can understand their over-enthusiasm.) But when pressed, both acknowledged the neighborhood’s eyesores: the railroad cut that runs along Atlantic Avenue, the views of the 25-story Atlantic Terminal public housing project, and the empty storefronts on Flatbush and Vanderbilt Avenues.
Local retail development, aside from the continued mall-ing and chainstore-ification of the Atlantic and Flatbush Avenue intersection, has lagged behind the rapid residential rejuvenation. New retail growth is “a matter of time,” said Mick Pearce, a co-owner of Tavern on Dean, an English-style pub on Dean at Underhill, which opened in September 2000. Mr. Pearce said this in late August, and as quick proof, Soda Bar, an IKEA-styled spot, opened in early September in the center of the Heights. Deborah Whitney, Soda’s manager, said, “Customers are so thankful. They come in and say, ‘Oh my god, there’s nothing else around here.’” Still, this makes for only two light fare choices in the Heights, leaving open much room for growth.
In talking about redevelopment in the Heights’ industrial north, Roslyn B. Huebener of Aguayo & Huebener Realty Group asks rhetorically, in a tone that implies an automatic “yes” response, “Isn’t it wonderful?” “The development is not interrupting housing where it already exists,” she says. “It brings historic neighborhoods together.”
Nobody disputes these things, but less debatable than “wonderful” is that the redevelopment has been “inevitable,” say the Heights’ residents. “This was the last spot between Park Slope and Fort Greene that was not fully developed. It had to happen,” says one owner from Prospect Heights Homes. The empty industrial buildings were too ripe for conversion and too close to gentrified areas to sit idle any longer.
Dennis Drucker, the chairman of the housing and land use committee of Community Board #8, also sees the onset of high-income luxury housing as inevitable. He explains the Board’s support of the zoning change that made Newswalk and the other industrial conversions possible. In his office, which is plastered with liberal political posters including a “I have a right to be LEFT” sign, he says, “The Brooklyn real estate market is madder than anywhere else. For people who have grown up in the neighborhood who are selling, this is great. But for those who are renting, it is very difficult to stay. The neighborhood will continue to lose its industrial base and become whiter and richer. There doesn’t seem to be anything stopping this trend, not the market downturn or 9/11.” As Drucker told the New York Times this past March, “We decided that a live residential building is better than a dead factory.”
The full effect of the redevelopment and population influx on the Heights’ industrial north remains to be seen, yet Jacqueline Spence of Goldwin Real Estate says that it is all “overrated.” Regarding the condominium buyers, she wonders whether they will “run back to Manhattan” once the economy improves. And of the Prospect Heights Homes, she says, “It looks cheap. They call it affordable middle-income housing, but it looks like low-income housing.”
But might not the redevelopment still be wonderful? Affordable housing has been included; a use has been found for a deindustrialized wasteland; and, because the redevelopment has been carried out in a previously non-residential area, there has been little of gentrification’s displacement effect on local renters. As Ms. Spence, who has been in Prospect Heights for nearly 20 years, acknowledges, “There’s a bright future here. The neighborhood has come a long way.”
Eric Neutuch is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.