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The following year, newly elected mayor Michael Bloomberg and his economic-development sidekick, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, arrived in City Hall and began working to make the Group of 35 vision a reality. The booming economy of the '90s that had sparked the Schumer report may have already become a distant memory, but Doctoroff, for one, was undaunted, saying: "We can't predict the futurewhen the economy's going to rebound. But we know that in the last boom, this city did not have the space for companies who wanted to stay here or relocate here."
The city ultimately approved a massive rezoning of an irregularly shaped stretch of downtown covering 22 blocks from Tillary Street south to Schermerhorn Street. Within that zone, the allowable height of buildings was effectively doubled. "If our views are obscured," said Downtown Brooklyn Partnership president Joe Chan last year from his MetroTech office, "we'll know we've done a good job."
At least at first, though, what Chan will see out his windows will not be Doctoroff's beloved office towers. The Brooklyn commercial market has stubbornly refused to rebound; MetroTech itself saw both JP Morgan Chase and Empire Blue Cross move out last year, leaving some 350,000 square feet of vacant floor space. Chan, looking on the bright side, told the Real Deal recently that this presented "a real opportunity to draw in new industries." Chan tells the Voice that the "renaissance" of the surrounding neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, and Fort Greene presents special possibilities, creating "a residential base that translates well to the employee base" of "creatively driven industries" like graphic design and architecture.
From underground railroad to underground parking: 227 Duffield Street
photo: Filip Kwiatkowski
Turning Brooklyn's low-rise downtown into high-priced towers wasn't the original idea. "There was no constituency that had a vision of downtown Brooklyn as a high-rise bedroom community," notes Robert Perris, the district manager of Brooklyn's Community Board 2, which covers Brooklyn Heights, downtown, and Fort Greene. "Even people that were proeconomic development are disappointed that what we've gotten instead are 40-story residential buildings."
Even more disappointed, needless to say, are those who'd staked their futures on being a part of a newly energized downtown, only to find themselves staring down the barrel of a new Chelsea.
"We moved to this neighborhood when there were crack vials on the floor," Aviva Jakubowitz of Track Data Corporation testified last Tuesday at a city hearing on the fate of the block that contains her company's offices, as well as the Duffield Street Underground Railroad houses. "Now, finally, the neighborhood has changed, and the city wants to take our property by eminent domain."
Also galling is the incestuous nature of the planning process, which has from the start been guided by people with one foot in the development community and the other in City Hall. The Downtown Brooklyn Council, the advocacy group of major area institutions that helped spearhead the rezoning push, was launched in 2000 with James Whelan as its director. Whelan left in 2003 and is now Doctoroff's senior economic-development advisor; his replacement, Michael Burke, was formerly chief of staff for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.
Last year, the DBC was folded into a new organization, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. Its first president was Chan, Whelan's predecessor as Doctoroff's development aide. Formed from the merger of the DBC, the MetroTech Business Improvement District, the Fulton Mall Improvement Association (whose co-chairs are Al Laboz and Joe Sitt, and whose treasurer is Michael Burke), and the BAM Local Development Corporation, the Partnership has been described as a "BID on steroids": Technically a private nonprofit, it has worked so closely with the city Economic Development Corporation on rezoning that several press accounts have mistakenly called it a city agency.
All this has left some small-business owners who are members of the BID wondering whether anyone is left to look out for their interests. "The MetroTech BID, we didn't hear from them," says bagel guy Gargiulo. "I was even up at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce talking with Mr. Burke, and I had asked him, 'Did Mr. Laboz tell you anything about our building?' This was maybe six months ago. And he hadn't heard anything."
The question of whom a redeveloped downtown will serve is touchy, with all involved doing a careful dance to avoid the worrisome topic of who will be pushed out when the New Brooklyn arrives. Chan stresses the new retail space set to be built, which, he hopes, will provide enough excess supply to keep storefront rents low. (Retail rents in the Fulton Mall are already among the highest in Brooklyn.)
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