Bed-Stuy’s Many Neighborhoods

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The Hunterfly Road Houses are the last remaining vestige of Weeksville, one of the largest free black enclaves in America in the years leading up to the Civil War.

 

The city of Brooklyn grew from six smaller towns established by the Dutch and English settlers who were the first Europeans to come into the area. Eventually, those towns, Brooklyn, Bushwick, Flatbush, Flatlands, Gravesend, and New Utrecht, through various reformations and annexations throughout the 1800s, consolidated into what is now the borough of Brooklyn.

As with the borough, many of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods are divided into smaller areas with their own names and histories, none more famously than Bedford-Stuyvesant. As this area’s name implies, this is a neighborhood of neighborhoods. Bedford, dating to 1662, was a village within the township of Brooklyn.

Stuy Hts Image early 1900s

Stuyvesant Heights in the early days of the twentieth century.

Bedford was captured by the British early in the Revolutionary War and held to the end of that conflict. In the 1830s the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad opened, linking Bedford to the Atlantic Avenue ferries to Manhattan. The ease of access to the larger city made the Brooklyn an attractive destination for upper-crust Manhattanites looking to escape the expense, bustle, and noise there. (The wheel of time turns full circle.) These newcomers, not necessarily wanting to mingle with the lower-status “natives,” built their own fancier enclave a bit southeast of Bedford, which they named Stuyvesant Heights. They also built beautiful homes, a few of which still grace this section of Brooklyn, and that’s not counting the many brownstone row houses that line the streets of the entire Bed-Stuy area. The most well-known of the new residents was F.W. Woolworth, a retailer who made a fortune in a business that at one time had stores on virtually every Main Street in America.

Weeksville Map

A map of the Weeksville area, which extends from Bed-Stuy down into what today is Crown Heights.

Also in the 1830s, James Weeks, a free black man, bought a mass of acreage east of Stuyvesant Heights and divided it into plots that he sold to other black families. He named his development Weeksville. In the decade before the Civil War, Weeksville was the second largest community for free blacks in the country. It remained as a separate neighborhood into the 1930s, before being redeveloped virtually out of existence by growth of the entire borough, including the Bed-Stuy neighborhood, which at that time extended well south of Atlantic Avenue. (Most of what was Weeksville lies in what today is the eastern end of Crown Heights.) Four historic cottage buildings of the original area are all that remain, and they have been restored as the Hunterfly Road Houses, on Bergen Street between Buffalo and Rochester Avenues, which you can tour through the Weeksville Heritage Center.

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Ocean Hill was a mostly Italian neighborhood in 1930. This photo show members of the Società Immacolata Concezione di Calitri outside Our Lady of Loreto church.

Around 1890 or so, the Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights neighborhoods became conjoined into Bedford-Stuyvesant. In recent years, the Heights name has been brought back to life with the gentrification of the whole of Bed-Stuy, both via a designation as a historic district and by real estate brokers who want to differentiate these blocks from the better-known and perhaps less attractive Bed-Stuy. Also in 1890, the eastern area of Stuyvesant Heights became its own section, keeping the heights vibe with the name Ocean Hill. Now more closely associated with Brownsville to the east, Ocean Hill remains officially a subsection of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Until the 1960s it was an Italian neighborhood, but in the post-World War II years of suburban sprawl, the neighborhood became a center of Afro-Caribbean culture. Today, the area is experiencing gentrification creep coming from the western sections of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick. And, Ocean Hill has a subsection of its own, Broadway Junction, the area surrounding the IND subway station from which the area takes its moniker.

So, whether you’re dropping the names Stuyvesant Heights, Weeksville, Ocean Hill, Broadway Junction, or Bed-Stuy, you’re talking about Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the most iconic neighborhoods in all of Brooklyn.

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A map of Bedford-Stuyvesant showing the names of the area’s numerous subsections.

 


Plymouth Church, Brooklyn Hts: An Historic Beacon for Civil Rights

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The façade of Plymouth Church on Orange Street, c. 1934.

 

One of the largest and historically most important churches in Brooklyn is almost hidden away on tiny Orange Street in Brooklyn Heights. Plymouth Church, a Congregationalist parish established in 1847, was led for forty years by the orator and fierce abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher, one of the loudest voices and most active people in America’s struggle against slavery in the years before the Civil War. This simple yet beautiful church, which opened in January of 1850, holds upwards of 2,500 people. It was built so large specifically to hold the crowds who came to hear Beecher preach, and from its opening was consistently packed with parishioners and visitors from across Brooklyn and from across the East River who came to hear Beecher’s thoughts not just on slavery, but on life and the human condition.

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The interior of Plymouth Church, with the pipes of the Aeolian-Skinner organ rising high above the chancel.

Putting his words into practice, Beecher used the church as a major stop on the underground railroad, helping to move runaway slaves from the south through the northern states to Canada and freedom. A tunnel under the nave was used to hide slaves during their layover at the church, which became known as “the Grand Central Depot.” The preacher encouraged his flock to join his active efforts to free slaves, and even held “slave auctions” in the church, where parishioners could bid to buy the freedom of slaves. In addition, Beecher brought in many abolitionist guest speakers, such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Charles Sumner, to promote their cause.

In February of 1860, the church invited Abraham Lincoln to speak to the congregation. Lincoln came and attended a service, and the pew where he sat has a small marker noting the seat’s history. (Lincoln’s speech was moved at the last minute to the auditorium at Cooper Union in Manhattan to assure a large crowd.) Another great speaker and civil rights champion, the Reverend Martin Luther King, spoke at the church in February of 1963.

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The shrine to Henry Ward Beecher in the garden of Plymouth Church, with the relief of Lincoln to the left.

Plymouth Church merged with a nearby Congregational parish, the Church of the Pilgrims, in 1934, and the full name of the church now is Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims. The building achieved National Historic Landmark stature in 1961.

One of the church’s main interior physical features is its beautiful organ, an Aeolian-Skinner with what those who know about these things call an “American Classic” sound. Originally installed in 1904, it was refurbished in the 1990s. A well-known exterior feature is the statue of Henry Ward Beecher in the garden area just west of the church proper. Nearby is a relief of Lincoln at the church. Both were sculpted by the same man who created the Mt. Rushmore presidential monument, Gutzon Borglum. Ironically, Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Today, this active church is extending its history in promoting and working for civil rights, with programs against human trafficking called the New Abolitionists, and the Racial Justice Ministry, a program of both action and reflection in the name of ending racism “in ourselves, and our society.

Next time you’re in Brooklyn Heights, whether heading for the promenade or Brooklyn Bridge Park, take a few minutes to walk down Orange Street and have a look at an important piece of American History, Plymouth Church.

 


 

The Myrtle Avenue M Train Viaduct Rebuild is Complete, On Time and On Budget — Amazin’

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The reconstruction of the M Train viaduct east of Myrtle Avenue. It was completed on time and on budget, an almost unheard of circumstance for MTA projects.

 

On time and under budget; a phrase sweeter to any project manager than anything ever written by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or any poet ever. Astonishingly, it applies to the rebuild of the Myrtle Avenue M train viaduct in Bushwick and the Fresh Pond Bridge by the Queens terminus.

Myrtle Ave Viaduct drawing

This drawing shows the viaduct rebuild area and adjacent buildings.

 

For the past ten months or so, M train riders have been taking shuttle buses from the Broadway and Myrtle Avenue stop to the end of the line in Middle Village, Queens. This inconvenience was due to the reconstruction of the viaduct carrying the trains turning between Broadway and Myrtle Avenues just east of the Myrtle Avenue station and the rebuilding of the Fresh Pond bridge in Queens.

MTA Photo 4 Close PRoximity Before and AFter

Note the close proximity of residential buildings in these before and after shots of the reconstruction (facing opposite directions).

Both sections of the railway are over 100 years old, and both had the original track laid. No longer. There’s 600 feet of new track, 700 feet of new third rail, and new signals and electric cables. The project was due to be completed by the end of April, and sure enough, today, April 30th, the line reopened, at a cost within the $163 million budgeted. The MTA has a time-lapse video of the rebuilding on its Web site.

Because of the project’s close proximity to both residential and commercial buildings, people in those buildings had to be relocated during the endeavor. The MTA helped in their relocation and in fact paid the rent due on the apartments and stores while the tenants were out. Now that the project is complete, those tenants will be allowed home again.

That’s the good news. The bad news: At 12:24 p.m., approximately seven hours after it opened, the line suffered a severe service stoppage when a switch blew at the Myrtle Avenue station. Hours later, M train service was completely down from W 4th Street in Manhattan all the way out to Middle Village. Can’t anybody here play this game?

 


 

Flatbush’s “Little” Neighborhood War

Erasmus High Hall

Flatbush and Church Avenues, in the heart of both Little Haiti and Little Caribbean. Which will it be? (Image subject is Erasmus High School, which is not involved in the neighborhood designation dispute.)

 

As in all cities (and boroughs), New York’s immigrants, especially upon first arrival, have tended to congregate in specific neighborhoods, and in time these areas have become identified with the groups that have come together there. Those inside and out of each neighborhood often come to refer to it as Little X, such as Little Italy in Manhattan and Little Odessa here in Brooklyn. For those within the neighborhood, the moniker can be a source of ethnic or expat pride.

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A map from the CaribBEING Web site showing the approved Little Caribbean neighborhood.

For the past six months or so, there has been a bit of a dustup going on in Flatbush, where local groups with the backing of Borough President Eric Adams and the Flatbush Nostrand Junction BID got approval last year to name the area along Flatbush Avenue from Empire Boulevard to Nostrand Avenue, an almost thirty-block stretch, Little Caribbean. Such approvals are given by the city council, and the Little Caribbean designation was apparently greenlighted by councilman Jumaane Williams’ office. That didn’t sit well with assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte, who, in a September 27th letter to Mayor De Blasio, asked to have the official designation put on hold. She is hoping to have a separate designation of a “Little Haiti” within the same area.

Bichotte, the first Haitian-American in the New York State assembly, says there had been conversations about a Little Haiti designation well before any for a Little Caribbean. However, a six-year-old organization called CaribBEING, led by founder Shelley V. Worrell, has been pushing the Little Caribbean agenda for going on three years. Bichotte claims that the Little Haiti name was first proposed a decade ago.

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This map shows the very unofficial boundaries of both Little Caribbean (in blue) and Little Haiti (in gray).

The affair heated up when a local community activist, Ernest Skinner, sent a public response via e-mail to Bichotte and other officials on both sides of the issue asking why there needed to be a Little Haiti separate from Little Caribbean. “When did Haiti stop being part of the Caribbean?” he asked, following that up with some disparaging remarks about the country and its historic place in the world and, more specifically, the West Indies. Bichotte demanded an apology and noted that Skinner’s remarks showed why Haitians often feel excluded from the Caribbean community and want their own separate designation within the Little Caribbean area. [Note: To our knowledge, no one associated with CaribBEING has taken any part in any name-calling.]

Councilman Williams appealed for a “more fruitful dialogue” and hopes to work with all involved to get designations for both Little Haiti and Little Caribbean. Bichotte, in her letter to the mayor, stated she and her Haitian supporters wanted the Little Haiti designation to be approved before that of Little Caribbean. The struggle continues.

“Little” neighborhood designations are all about national and cultural pride. So is the infighting. We’re all for national and cultural pride when it’s conducted in a positive way. Yet, throughout history, how many wars have been fought, how many people have died, over just these?

 


 

When is Too Much Really Too Much?

Downtown Brooklyn by MAx Touey via Curbed NY

Rendering of Downtown Brooklyn from the Barclays Center, 2016.

 

If you rent, and you’re thinking about moving to or elsewhere within Brooklyn, there might be a few reasons to consider renewing your current lease for one or two more years. In fact, there might be 28,000 reasons.

Anyone who has lived in Brooklyn for the past ten years or so has seen massive changes throughout the borough, most notably in the skyline, the rents asked to live anywhere here, and the people who now live here, still an eclectic, diverse group, but with a few more dollars in their pockets than those who came before.

Twenty-Five years ago, as seen from the F train overpass of the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn’s skyline consisted of a small cluster of mid-rise buildings in downtown on the left and the Williamsburg Bank Building on the right. Today, there are dozens of new buildings, many higher than all those older structures, and now and then a half-dozen cranes where more buildings are rising. In the past ten years, +/-27,000 brand new rental units have been developed in the borough. Along with all the new construction, many long-time small-scale landlords, those leasing units in two- to five-family owner-occupied brownstones and sixteen- and twenty-unit apartment blocks, have been making gut-renovation improvements to their stock to compete with the new construction and command the high rents Brooklyn’s popularity now allows them to charge. So, whether you like brand spanking new high rises with a wide-angle view (until it’s blocked by the next building that goes up) or you prefer the smaller scale elegance of a Carroll Gardens brownstone, Brooklyn beckons.

Downtown Brklyn from Sm 9th, Stephan Speranza, NYT Edited Before and After copy

The Brooklyn skyline from above the Gowanus Canal, before the construction boom, including before MetroTech (left), and today (right).

 

But too much can be too much, and unlike in the recent past, when prospective tenants raced to apply for the apartment of their dreams or conducted bidding wars against their competitors for the same space, these days there ae so many apartments available that prospective tenants race from apartment to apartment to apartment, and if one gets rented out from under them, there are plenty more from which to choose. This is especially true for those looking at the thousands of available apartments in the newly constructed high- and mid-rise buildings downtown and spreading outward from there into Fort Greene, Park Slope and, of course, up along the waterfront in Williamsburg and now Greenpoint.

There’s now a glut of apartments, and as a result many leasing agents in the gleaming new buildings are offering huge concessions to new tenants. These enticements include no broker’s fees, a month or two (or three) of free rent, free use of gyms and pools, and anything else they can think of to attract prospective renters. Now, anyone who’s paying attention knows that the rents for these new downtown and waterfront apartments are significantly higher than the rents for those in neighborhood brownstones and apartment blocks, but those concessions for the new apartments provide balance, at least for the first year. After that, the concessions usually disappear.

Williamsburg Bank to DnTn Composite

Left: Downtown Brooklyn in the 1990s, with the Williamsburg Bank Building on the right.    Right: Downtown Brooklyn today and tomorrow, with a rendering of the 73-story black needle of Nine DeKalb Avenue in the right center, almost twice the size of the dwarfed Williamsburg Bank Building in the lower right.

 

Or do they? Until now, they have. But for those who wait a year or so, as we suggested at the start, there could be some concession carryovers. That’s because those 27,000 recently built, hard-to-fill units are nowhere near the end of the boom. There are more to come—many more. Twice as many, in fact. A recent article in the New York Times estimates that in the next ten years, 28,400 more apartments are expected to join those 27,000 built in the past ten, and the Real Deal estimates 16,000 new units coming on the market by the end of next year!! Where are the tenants for all those apartments coming from? Sure, everybody wants to live in Brooklyn, but these apartments aren’t for everybody. They’re for people with money. Rents for two-bedroom apartments are often well over $4,000 per month, and it’s rare to find even a small studio for less than $2,000. And once the concessions expire, there can be additional fees for using the gym and other amenities.

Many of the new buildings got zoning law leniency, permission to build high in exchange for offering a percentage of their apartments at lower-than-market rates, what’s referred to as affordable prices. Affordable is a relative term, though, and what’s considered affordable to developers and the city is often not so affordable to the working stiff. And by the way, just so there’s no confusion as to who’s who in these buildings, those in the affordable section get their own, somewhat less elegant entrance, in at least one case on a different side of the building.

So, who will fill the new buildings still on the drawing board? And what will it take to entice them into these buildings? For you tenants planning a move soon, re-upping at your current apartment for a year or two could get you a much better deal on a new place at the end of that time, when the bigger apartment glut should provide even better deals and perhaps cheaper rents than you’ll find today. For you leasing agents out there already struggling to fill your existing buildings, we suggest Happy Hour at 4:00. Sure, you probably work until 6:00, or even 7:00. Happy Hour at 4:00.

 


 

Greenpoint Makeover: The Church of the Ascension Parish Hall

Greenpoint_ PArish Hall Redo Rendering LEAD via SL DEV

SL Development’s rendering of the new façade of 120 Java Street, the former Parish Hall of the Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint.

 

Churches, for the most part, are sturdily built. Especially in older cities, many church buildings were erected in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when most were built using rough-cut stone or brick for the walls inside and out. Over the past thirty or forty years, societal changes have in many ways altered the way people worship, and the parishes that many of these structures were built to support have shrunk in size, sometimes merging with others and sometimes disestablishing and closing down.

As the numbers of parishioners fall, churches look for ways to keep going, and it’s not uncommon for some to sell off property they own, including parts of the church itself and/or the space above them. Developers rarely demolish a church structure. Besides their stout construction, these properties are often beautiful and richly detailed. Many provide interesting and unusual features that, when incorporated into the newly renovated space, whether that be offices or residences, are attractive to many buyers.

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The old façade of the parish hall. Note that much of the original, including the vertical elements, are being kept and incorporated into the new facing.

One of the latest such projects is in Greenpoint. Almost three years ago, the Church of the Ascension sold its dilapidated parish hall building at 120 Java Street and the air rights of the church proper to SL Development, and that company has now begun its renovation of the old brick building. The new façade makes use of much of the existing face of the hall (where in this case that original could be described as somewhat less than beautiful), giving it a major face lift and adding two floors. When complete, there will be eighteen apartments, each around 1,300 sq. ft. The new front is quite striking, and generally the project is in keeping with the scale and look of the old façade, though updated to a twenty-first century style.

The parish hall was built separate from the church building, which dates to 1866 (the parish was established in 1846), and although the hall has some recent historical significance as a refuge center for people displaced or otherwise affected by Hurricane Sandy, its redevelopment will not be a blow to the neighborhood as can sometimes happen in repurposing existing structures.

This is a project that, all in all, should benefit all parties involved, including homeowners and other residents on and around Java Street.

 


 

Brooklyn’s Very Own Subway Line

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Brooklyn’s G train Crosstown Line station map.

 

It’s the most disparaged subway line in the entire MTA system. “The line to nowhere,” They say. The line is the G train, and They are those who don’t use it. For those who do ride the G, it’s the best train in New York City. The A is known as the 8th Avenue Express and the F is called the 6th Avenue Local. The G is the crosstown line, snaking through Brooklyn from Church Avenue in Kensington north through Greenpoint, with (currently) two stops in Queens and ending at Court Square, without ever going into “The City” on the way. It’s the only non-shuttle subway line that avoids Manhattan.

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Letter tag for the G train.

The G train opened as the GG in 1933 as part of the IND system, using the double-letter code of the day for local trains. It was a simple shuttle between Queens Plaza and Nassau Avenue in Greenpoint, with plans to expand the line further. In 1937 the crosstown line extension to the Culver Line opened, with transfer points to the BMT’s L train at Metropolitan Avenue-Lorimer Street and to the A and C trains at Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street Station. The last stop was Smith-9th Streets in Brooklyn, and simultaneously the line was extended in Queens to 71st Avenue in Forest Hills. In 2009, it was extended to Church Avenue during a rehabilitation of the Smith-9th and Fourth Avenue stations, and upon project completion, an outcry of public opinion convinced transit officials to maintain the Kensington terminus rather than cutting the line back again. In 2010, the Queens end of the line was changed to the Court Square interchange with the E, M, and 7 lines.

During its history, the G train has had shifting terminus points at both ends and its car length juggled as ridership numbers ebbed and flowed along with the changing turn-arounds. The line’s nadir was the stretch of time corresponding with New York City’s financial and social troubles in the mid-to-late 1970s. A general lack of basic maintenance resulted in the line’s stations growing dirty and dingy, and service cuts made for long waits in unpleasant and sometimes unsafe conditions. The G train was given a reputation as a line to avoid.

01 Jul 1937, Page 1 - The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s front page on July 1, 1937, announcing the opening of the G train’s Crosstown Line.

With the explosion in population and popularity of Brooklyn in the past thirty years, there has been an increase in people living, working, creating, and hanging out in the borough, with the crowds and high prices in Manhattan becoming what to avoid. Even though the line’s shady reputation remains intact in the minds of many, the G train now boasts a ridership growth that is out-pacing any other line in the MTA system. Service has increased, stations have been rejuvenated, and, for those heading from South Brooklyn to Williamsburg, Greenpoint, or Bushwick, the line is now one of Brooklyn’s best-kept secrets. All that’s needed now is to increase the train length from its current four cars to six.

That’s coming, and more. Many Brooklynites do work in Manhattan, and with the planned renovation of the L train’s Canarsie Tunnel beginning in April of 2019 to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy, the 225,000 commuters that use that tube every day will have to find an alternate route to work. G train in 7th AveThat means transferring to the G train, northbound to the E, M, and 7 lines to midtown and southbound to Hoyt-Schermerhorn Streets for the A and C lines to the Financial District. To accommodate an anticipated huge increase in ridership, the MTA plans to add four cars to each train and to add trains, especially during rush hours. The secret will definitely be out, though the perceived inconvenience will probably not change the minds of too many of those new riders that the G train sucks. While they’re riding it, it just might.

For now, and then after, the G train is Brooklyn’s very own subway, and while for many it’s the train to nowhere, for us, it’s Brooklyn’s own, and we love it.

Great Brooklyn neighborhoods and attractions on the G line:

Greenpoint (Greenpoint Avenue; Nassau Avenue Stations)
Brooklyn Bazaar
Sunshine Laundromat
Numerous TV/ Independent Film Production Studios
Greek Theatres/Greek Restaurants

Williamsburg (Metropolitan Avenue; Broadway; Flushing Avenue)
Hip Neighborhood
Eclectic Restaurants
Music Hall of Williamsburg
Transfer to the L to Bushwick

Bed-Stuy (Flushing Avenue; Myrtle-Willoughby Avenues; Bedford-Nostrand)
Gorgeous Brownstones
Billy Holiday Theatre
Home Depot

Clinton Hill (Classon Avenue; Clinton-Washington)
Pratt Institute
St. Joseph’s College NY
Beautiful Neighborhood

Ft Greene (Fulton Street)
BAM
Arts Hub/Cultural Center
Barclays Center
Beautiful Neighborhood

Downtown Brooklyn/Boerum Hill (Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts.)
City Point Mall
Fulton Street Pedestrian Mall
Macy’s Brooklyn
Downtown High-Rise Construction
MetroTech

Cobble Hill/Boerum Hill (Bergen Street)
Smith Street Restaurant Row (North end)
Trader Joe’s

Carroll Gardens (Carroll Street; Smith-9th Streets)
Beautiful neighborhood
Smith Street Restaurant Row (South end)

Gowanus (Smith-9th Streets; Fourth Avenue-9th Street)
Art Studios
Gowanus Canal
Lowe’s
Whole Foods

Park Slope (Fourth Avenue-9th Streets; Seventh Avenue; 15th St.-Prospect Park)
Prospect Park
Best neighborhood to live in (Time Out NY, 2012)

Windsor Terrace (15th  St.-Prospect Park;, Ft. Hamilton Parkway)
Prospect Park
Low-scale housing

Kensington (Church Avenue)
Eclectic mix of restaurants and people
Kensington Stables
Green-Wood Cemetery

 


 

Crown Heights Mega Development Could Threaten BBG

Spice Factory Rendering from theQatparkside 600w

The proposed development of the old spice factory at 960 Franklin Avenue could cast a giant shadow over the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

They’e ba-ack.

Another mega-development threatens the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and once again the neighborhood is being awoken to the danger by dedicated community watchdogs.

For the third time since 2014 a large development project has been submitted for consideration to Community Board 9. The latest project, from Continuum Company and funded by Lincoln Equities, is proposed for the current site of the old spice factory at Franklin Avenue and Montgomery Place, a stone’s throw from the BBG and tall enough—at least thirty-two stories, and perhaps as high as forty-two—to cast a seven-acre shadow across the garden, including its greenhouses and the Steinhardt Conservatory building housing three special biospheres in climate-controlled environments, all of which would be greatly impacted by the loss of light even for a few hours a day.

Spice Factory Rendering close up

A closer look. The dark upper sections of the proposed buildings are higher than what current zoning allows.

Several neighborhood groups have mobilized against the project, which is in a specially zoned area that limits construction to seven stories, a restriction that was implemented more than twenty-five years ago specifically to protect the BBG from exactly what’s being planned now. Rezoning will require environmental assessments, public notice and response, and approval from multiple city agencies. While that sounds difficult, it’s not uncommon for such how-did-they-let-that-happen projects to be approved.

Last year, another large-scale project, by Cornell Realty and slated for construction at Crown and Carroll Streets, was put on hold when the community objected to its scale, which mid-process morphed from four seven-story buildings to a 500-unit, 175-foot-tall, two-tower behemoth. On hold doesn’t mean scrapped, and this and several other projects await the approval of just one similar plan to break the ice before refiling.

The spice factory was in operation right up to the sale of the property late in 2017 to Continuum, and neighbors continue to enjoy the mixed fragrances emanating from the now empty building. Built around the turn of the last century, the plant began life as the Consumers Park Brewing Company, one of many breweries that dotted Brooklyn in the late Nineteenth Century and into the mid Twentieth Century. The current building is not part of the new plan, and somewhere there’s a wrecking ball that’s gearing up for action. That in itself is a shame.

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The Tropical Pavilion is one of three controlled-environment areas in the Steinhardt Conservatory that could be affected by the Spice Factory plan.

We’re all for the development of empty or underused space, the repurposing of old warehouses and factory buildings, and the restoration, reconstruction, and/or redevelopment of dilapidated housing stock. But we support maintaining any neighborhood’s character in the process. Crown Heights residents are just getting used to the idea of the development of the Bedford-Union Armory just a few blocks away at Bedford Avenue and Union Street. A mega-project of the size and scope of the Continuum plan will absolutely alter the quality of the neighborhood.

Not of least concern is the potential harm that would be done to the botanic garden. This world-class, world-renowned facility is a gem that all Brooklynites should want protected. Plants need sun. A seven-acre shadow crossing the grounds would wreak havoc on the fragile eco-systems in the conservatory. Currently, the garden is protected by zoning laws. We think it should remain so.

Spice Factory, st vu

The old spice factory on Franklin Avenue, site of the proposed mega development. The botanic garden lies just beyond the trees on the left.

 


 

Where is the Strand?

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An aerial-view rendering of the proposed Strand, to stretch along Cadman Plaza from Borough Hall to the Waterfront and including Trinity and Bridge Parks.

It’s coming up on five years since the DeBlasio administration announced plans to revitalize the downtown area green space between Borough Hall and the Waterfront at Old Fulton Street, a concept labeled the Strand. Yet, to our knowledge, nothing is scheduled for action anytime soon, despite years of talk and actual planning. What’s the holdup?

Image Tower copy

Renderings of the proposed Strand project for Cadman Plaza, Old Fulton Street, and Trinity Park.

Right now, the expanse of green from Columbus Park to the Brooklyn Bridge is underused in the extreme, and Cadman Plaza West is simply a concourse for pedestrians to get from High Street Station to the Waterfront and back. The Strand would transform the area into a destination in its own right, with a massive positive impact on the parkland and the grittier areas around the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage. It would provide additional beautification and modernization to such near-derelict areas as the Korean War Veterans Memorial Plaza; the Brooklyn War Memorial; the maze of roads, underpasses, and knolls around the Brooklyn Bridge exits surrounding Prospect Street and Washington Street between the Brooklyn Bridge and the BQE (a spot with a name that [almost] no one knows, Clumber Corner); the strip along Old Fulton Street to the park entrance; and along York Street by the BQE exit ramp to Old Fulton Street in DUMBO.

The renderings to the right, from the Architectural Firm WXY, show details of the plan. The top picture shows the plaza in front of the Post Office building. The next few show what the area around the war memorial could look like. Then comes the north end of the park between Middagh Street and Red Cross Place, then perhaps near Trinity Park, followed by Prospect Street, Old Fulton Street, and an overpass to a terrace above a new plaza by York Street and the BQE exit ramp around the bridge anchorage.

These renderings were presented to Community Board 2 in 2015. Since then, there’s been quiet. We’re not sure what the delay is. This is basically a high-end renovation project. Unlike the building of the Barclays Center, the land for the Strand is already empty, for the most part, so there’s no displacement or demolition involved; that all took place when the BQE was thrust upon the neighborhood back in the 1960s. In the renderings, there looks to be some roadway and bridge redesign and construction, but nothing too major to our eyes.

Downtown Brooklyn has become a vibrant, active business and residential community over the last twenty-five years, beginning with the opening of the MetroTech office/back office/research complex on Jay Street to the mid-rise and now high-rise housing boom that took off in the aughts and proceeds apace today.

When those first apartment buildings went up, there were many naysayers who wondered why anyone would move to downtown Brooklyn. Of course, there have always been naysayers who wondered why anyone would cross from West to East over or under the East River for anything. Now, everyone wants to live in Brooklyn, and the construction boom is beginning to threaten the character and charm of many outer areas.

The buildup makes sense downtown, but historically, the biggest strike against downtown Brooklyn was that there wasn’t anything to do, either after work or on the weekends, except to get on the train into Manhattan.

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A possible new plaza by York Street on the north side of the Brooklyn Bridge approach.

That, too, has changed, with the blossoming cultural district on the eastern edge, at Flatbush and Lafayette Avenues, and the opening of Brooklyn Bridge Park on the waterfront.

 But, where’s the Strand? This is an area that desperately needs attention. Let’s get it moving.

 

 

 

 


 

Red Hook’s Incredible Hulk: The Erie Grain Terminal

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The Erie Grain Terminal, on Gowanus Bay’s Henry Street Basin.

Despite all the major construction going on in downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and to a lesser extent, pretty much everywhere across the borough, there remain many locations where, at least for now, the past looms large, no more so than on the Red Hook waterfront, where many vestiges of the area’s industrial past remain to intrigue and remind us of bygone eras. One of the larger structures remaining in the Gowanus Bay area is the decaying hulk of the former NYS Grain Terminal, a near-hundred-year-old government project built to boost activity and jobs in New York Harbor at a time when many grain shipping companies were moving to cheaper ports at Philadelphia and Baltimore. Today the decaying structure threatens daily to collapse into the Henry Street Basin over which it precariously hangs.

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A closer look, with outer sections of the structure hanging precariously over the water, their bottom portions rotted away.

 New York State opened the grain terminal in 1922 as an adjunct to the reconstruction and incorporation of the Erie Canal into the New York State Barge Canal System. That project was undertaken to reinvigorate the use of the Erie Canal and the ports of New York Harbor. The grain terminal was an example of way too much too late. There are fifty-four concrete silos, thickly built to withstand any possible grain explosion, with a capacity of two million bushels of grain. Despite the plant’s then-state-of-the-art construction, most of the lost grain movers didn’t come back, and the terminal never reached the level of business and capacity that would make it profitable. Government officials referred to the terminal as the “Magnificent Mistake.”

 The state operated the terminal at a loss until 1944, when it transferred the deed for the property to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which kept it limping along until finally shutting the terminal in 1965. The property was sold to a private owner in 1997. It’s currently closed to all but the intrepid trespassers who occasionally break in to document the plant’s interior before it’s gone.

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It is art, or is it history?

We have no idea what the future holds for the grain terminal, though we feel it’s safe to say it doesn’t include grain. It’s beautifully ugly, a 120-foot high, 430-foot long, mold-covered cement hulk crumbling into the basin, sections with their foundations rotted away drooping precariously over the water below. Our reporter paddled up the Henry Street Basin in a canoe to get the exterior photos included here, risking life and limb to get close-up images of this fantastic piece of Brooklyn history. We like to think the artifacts of the past will remain as symbols of our industrial heritage, a time when things seem to us looking back simpler and more black and white (both ideas mistaken, nostalgic misrepresentational deflections from our too complex present). Reality, and economics, may call for a different outcome.

Interior shows tops of silos

The interior of the terminal showing the tops of the silos as a grid of holes in the floor, and chutes from above that directed grain into them.

For the moment, the terminal stands. If you’d like to check it out in person, take the B61 bus from Smith-9th St. (F/G trains) or the B57 at the Jay Street Station of the A/C/F/R trains, both buses heading toward Red Hook. It’s a short walk from IKEA across the Red Hook Ball Fields to the Henry Street Basin. (Google map it.) You can’t go in, but the waterfront area of Red Hook is active, vibrant and beautiful, and definitely worth the trek.

For a beautiful, moving look into and around the terminal, check out this video from Carlito Brigante.

 

Interior Picture Source: atlasobscura.com