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05.07.2009
Second Life
Locals look to nab foreclosed condos for affordable housing
A local community group is trying to transform 23 Caton Place, a half-built property in foreclosure in Kensington, Brooklyn, into affordable housing.
Matt Chaban

Twenty-three Caton Place is like countless other developments that have sprung up across the five boroughs toward the end of the recent real-estate boom. A mix of middlebrow architecture and high-end finishes built in Kensington, Brooklyn, the 107-unit complex was overleveraged and ill-timed. It now languishes half-built and in foreclosure, its developer in bankruptcy and some 140,000 square feet of concrete left looming over the neighborhood.

But there is something special about 23 Caton that sets it apart from many of its sullen siblings, something that might also one day bind them all together: a neighborhood community group that had long opposed the project is trying, with the help of local politicians and former Pratt Center director Brad Lander, to buy the property and transform it into affordable housing, arguably the first such effort of its kind in the city.

The plan is still in its earliest phases—the first stakeholders meeting was held Tuesday—and could take years to resolve, but its backers are already hopeful that their efforts might serve as a blueprint for the plague of similarly stalled developments sprinkled throughout the city.


The development is adjacent to the Kensington stables, the last horse stables serving prospect park.
 
Matt Chaban
 
 

“Essentially, we are hoping to make lemonade out of lemons,” Mandy Harris, founder of the neighborhood group, Stable Brooklyn, wrote in an email. “The building is in serious financial trouble and it is a blight on the neighborhood. People in the neighborhood are generally pretty progressive-thinking, so we started daring to imagine what could be done with it that would actually benefit the community in the long term.”

Having worked with Lander on a rezoning plan for the neighborhood in response to 23 Caton and two other major luxury developments that cropped up in the low-scale neighborhood, Harris and her group turned to him for advice. The idea is to find a sympathetic developer who will buy the property from its lender, Corus Bank, and redevelop it.

Megan Miller, another member of Stable Brooklyn and a practicing architect, said that Corus has already suggested that it would sell if a reasonable offer was made, and that roughly 100 different parties have expressed interest to the bank. (Bank officials did not return calls seeking comment.) The problem is the bankruptcy filing, which began in Connecticut in August of last year. Numerous liens have been placed on the property as a result, and untangling them could take years, greatly slowing the process.

“I’m afraid five years from now, it could still be as is,” Miller said. Lander joked that “this is no Chrysler,” referring to the speedy bankruptcy being engineered for the auto manufacturer by the Obama administration. For its part, Community Board 7 has proposed turning the site into a school, because, as district manager Jeremy Laufer put it, "We don't want to see a dormant, half-built building there forever. It's dangerous, an eyesore, and damaging to property valuies."

Another challenge, albeit an intriguing one, is presented in the architecture. Despite frequent criticisms that the flood of luxury developments that have hit the city are anything but, there is still a certain formula that pervades, which often calls for balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows, and other architectural amenities that can be difficult to reverse in a building as far along as 23 Caton, which was designed by Karl Fischer Architect.


A rendering of the original building, designed by Karl Fischer Architect.
Courtesy Karl Fischer Architect

"It's not a clean box," Miller said. "It has all these geometries, so it's a bit pre-determined as to what you would end up with." Given that any affordable housing proposal would require these built-in "luxury" features to be "dumbed down," as Miller put it, that could actually increase the cost of the project and make it difficult to create affordable units.

Miller was also concerned about the structural stability of the building, though the Department of Buildings recently inspected the site and determined it sound. Given the current economic doldrums, Miller admitted that in the end, many architects might leap at the chance to work on the project.

Still, the group is moving ahead with its plans in the event a developer expresses interest. Should that happen, it appears they will be stepping into a favorable political climate.

In her State of the City address, Council Speaker Christine Quinn outlined plans similar to those Stable Brooklyn has proposed. A council spokesperson said details are still being worked out, and are largely contingent on the city’s cash-strapped budget, but the idea is to leverage city financing to lower rents in completed buildings that currently lie vacant, as well as to entice builders to finish half-built projects.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development said the department is considering similar measures, though they are less determined at this point, and lean more toward occupying existing buildings, as that is seen as a more cost-effective approach.

Even if comprehensive plans are developed to reclaim these myriad sites—such as tax breaks, special financing, and other incentives—there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, Lander said. He said that because each development has its own set of constraints, its own set of creditors, and its own set of legal proceedings, each would have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, a process that could take decades.

“It makes an awful lot of sense,” Lander said. “A lot people are talking about this. The problem is, how do you do it?”

Matt Chaban