By Jared Chausow
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At the end of April, the shopkeepers and residents of a block-long trio of three- and four-story buildings on downtown Brooklyn's Willoughby Street got a jolt from landlord Albert Laboz. Without warning, eviction notices arrived en masse in mailboxes, giving tenants between 30 and 120 days to clear out or face court proceedings.
The merchants on the otherwise unremarkable block, between Bridge and Duffield streets, were stunned. "Out in 30 days is almost an impossible task for me," says Jeff Gargiulo, who opened his Bagel Guys store in 1997. "I have ovens and walk-in boxes and showcases and refrigeration units. It's going to take me 30 days just to disassemble it. And then to move it and store it, it could be up to $30,000 to do all that stuff."
The reason for the sudden evictions, Laboz's tenants soon found out, lay buried in a chart compiled by a public-private group known as the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. Among the dozens of projects listed as pending for Brooklyn's downtown was one called "Willoughby West," a "mixed-use" building on the site of their stores. The only details given were its cost ($208 million) and size (594,000 square feet)enough on that site to rise 30 stories or more.
While Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards megaproject and the insta-towers popping up across Williamsburg have gotten more attention, an equally big land rush is stalking downtown Brooklyn in the wake of a rezoning approved by the city in 2004. Around the corner from Laboz's planned Willoughby West, the city is planning to raze a half-block of buildings to make way for a public plaza and underground parking garage for a Sheraton hotel already under construction across the street.
Among the doomed buildings are two 19th-century row houses that, local lore has it, were part of the Underground Railroad. "I was very disappointed that they would even think of taking these houses," says Joy Chatel, owner of 227 Duffield Street, where abolitionists Harriett and Thomas Truesdell lived and where the remnants of old tunnels are still visible in the basement. "They're going to level my house and then apply for a 'freedom trail' to take people past empty lots."
Another block east, Albee Square Mall merchants wait anxiously for word of their fate after its owner (and would-be Coney Island condo builder) Joe Sitt of Thor Equities sold the property to a consortium with rumored plans for a 60-story tower of condos, offices, and shops.
"The neighborhood is changing for the worse, not the best," says Yaakov "Jack" Fuzailov, who runs a basement barbershop adjoining the Lawrence Street subway entrance in one of the buildings that Laboz and his brothers want to raze. "They're taking the poor out, and they're not even putting in the middle classit's the rich."
Fuzailov, who had just entered the last year of a five-year lease when his eviction notice arrived, says that whenever he asked his landlord about the pending neighborhood redevelopment, he was told, " 'Jack, don't worry; it'll be 20 more years. I'm not even thinking about selling.' It was nothing but a lie."
Other tenants of the Laboz buildingswhich include a sushi joint, a check-cashing store, a tiny deli, and what must be the city's only remaining pizzeria serving $1.25 slicestell similar stories. "[Laboz] said, 'Don't worry, if I wanted you out, I would have had you out alreadyyou got plenty of time,' " says Gargiulo, who, like many others in the building, has been without a lease since 2004coincidentally or not, the same time as the city rezoning went through. (Albert Laboz and his brothers Jody and Jason, who collectively own United American Land LLC, did not answer repeated e-mail and phone inquiries for this story.)
The occupants of the Willoughby West site are now organizing with the help of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), a low-income-families group that moved into offices on Willoughby in late 2004 and promptly found itself in the middle of what it sees as a turf war over whom the neighborhood will serve. "Nothing is priced affordably for the people who live here," says FUREE board member Scherrille Murray. "This is not organic change. This is planned changebut planned for other people."
The roots of the battle go back at least to the 1980s. The city cleared out row houses and warehouses along Myrtle Avenue west of Flatbush, evicting about 250 residents and 750 workers, to make way for MetroTech, a planned hub to draw corporate back-office workers to Brooklyn. The city helped out not just by using its powers of eminent domain, but with about $300 million in subsidies to lure anchor tenants Chase Manhattan and Bear Stearns across the East River.
While MetroTech's corporate campus was a controversial addition to the skyline, it only whetted the appetite of Brooklyn business leaders and city planners to turn the area into a competitor with Jersey City for office tenants seeking relief from Manhattan rents.
The long-awaited catalyst finally came in January 2000, at a time when the Silicon Alley boom had soaked up every last scrap of available office space. Senator Chuck Schumer convened a working group of corporate execs, city officials, labor leaders, and more corporate execs18 of the 35 represented either large corporations or the real estate industryto examine future city development. A year and a half later, the "Group of 35" report was issued, calling for 60 million square feet of new commercial space by 2020equal to 15 World Trade Center towersto deal with what it perceived as an office-space crisis. "Without taking action to create more space," the report concluded, "New York City will miss out on hundreds of thousands of new jobs and increased economic activity in the next 20 years."