When Harry Rosen opened Junior’s in 1950, the Dodgers still played at Ebbets Field and Brooklyn was in its heyday. The restaurant’s Flatbush Avenue neighbors included the Paramount and Fox theaters, where Brooklynites could hear Duke Ellington or, a few years later, Chuck Berry. Downtown was a real neighborhood, said Joe Chan, executive director of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP), and the recent wave of development—no matter how chaotic in appearance—aims to make it one again.
The intervening decades saw the area along Flatbush decline into automotive uses and an uninviting barrier condition. In 2004, the nonprofit DBP and the commercial and academic stakeholders it represents, along with relevant city agencies, saw the area’s rezoning as a chance to recapture that history with residents, jobs, entertainment, diverse retail, and 24/7 street life. “It should have all the elements of economic sustainability,” said Chan, who spent five years as City Hall’s point person for the rezoning. The plan also incorporated PlaNYC’s principles for greening public space and guiding density toward transit nodes.
Before the bubble burst in 2008, the on-the-ground reality along Flatbush, however, was hyper-development, particularly in the condominium sector, and a jarring degree of gentrification. Major projects include the 42-story Avalon Fort Greene at Myrtle and Flatbush, a rental building by Perkins Eastman Architects now under construction; BFC Partners’ 37-story Toren by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Roger Duffy at the same intersection; Ismael Leyva’s 40-story Gold Street tower, Oro; and 80 DeKalb, a 34-story 80/20 by Costas Kondylis for Forest City Ratner. Downtown residential construction includes some 20 fully funded projects in all.
But sales have lagged behind expectations, and some new construction is now “trending toward rental,” said Chan, “for those that were still in the planning phases before the credit markets really took a turn.” Toren, as of this writing, is 50 percent sold; Oro, 40 percent. Developers who “in the past were negotiating with big boxes,” said councilperson Letitia James, an advocate of affordable housing and local employment, are instead considering day-care centers and schools, perhaps even quartering students from downtown’s seven higher-educational institutions. In fact, last year’s economic reality check may end up steering development patterns away from drastic gentrification and closer to a more inclusive community vision.
The DBP’s Downtown Brooklyn Plan allows FARs of 10 or 12 south of MetroTech (increased from 6) along Flatbush to a jigsaw border including Boerum Place and Adams, Jay, and Smith streets. The ensuing densification counterbalances the 2007 downzoning in the brownstone districts of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. The City Point mixed-use complex would replace Albee Square Mall with residences, retail, offices, and possibly a hotel, although construction is stalled, and reports of a 65-story skyscraper by Atlanta-based architect GreenbergFarrow appear premature. “The only part of City Point that will go forward is the affordable housing at this point,” James reports, “and that’s still in discussion.”
On Duffield Street, all but one of several buildings thought to have served as abolitionist safe houses have fallen under eminent domain. Depending on fundraising, the remaining house at 227 Duffield will become an Underground Railroad museum surrounded by new development, including four hotels ranging from a 130-room V3 boutique to a 320-room Sheraton.
Much of the area’s physical and social healing depends on whether Flatbush continues to resemble a highway or evolves toward a boulevard with development that “knits neighborhoods together,” according to SOM’s Duffy. Flatbush needs to be “less of an edge, more of a permeable condition between pre- existing neighborhoods.”
Noting how vehicles and the “defensive” MetroTech buildings combine to separate Fort Greene from downtown, Duffy looks to design as well as programming for reintegration. Toren, with its dimpled facade of Argentine aluminum panels painted powder-coat silver, stands out from the area’s dominant masonry styles; at ground level, its facade “was meant to foster transparent activity at the street edge,” he said.
Schermerhorn House, designed by Susan Rodriguez and Polshek Partnership for a publicly-owned site near Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, is an intriguing exception to the highrise activity, performing a comparably mediating function on a 12-story structure. With a glass-tower design that Rodriguez describes as having two distinct faces—one reflecting Downtown Brooklyn’s larger scale, and the other stepping down to the brownstones of Boerum Hill—this multipurpose project spearheaded by Common Ground Community and Actors Fund of America includes studio units for special-needs populations like the formerly homeless, artists, and other low-income residents.
Downtown’s near future may look less glittering than developers had hoped, but for some that’s a relief. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re not trying to create a new city,” said James. “What we’re trying to do is improve on that which we have and create opportunities for residents who have lived through the bad times and want to benefit from the good times."