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Todd Triplett and his two partners, Shaun Jenkins and Philip McKenzie, wanted to create a sort of modern-day Cotton Club right in the middle of downtown Brooklyn. And the three African-American businessmen were so in love with the idea of a do-it-yourself cultural revival, they put themselves in serious debt to make it happen.
Triplett was the idea guy. McKenzie the businessman. And Jenkins brought the charisma. They were three guys in their thirties who found a derelict building on the corner of Ashland Place and Fulton Street, which once housed a liquor store, and saw in it a place where black nightlife could get a local revival. They would lease the building, refurbish it out of their own pockets, and call it Amber Arts and Music Space, a place that would host music acts as well as the installations of local artists. They wanted it to be the kind of place that would bring names like Veto, Sure Fact, Earl Greyhound, and Brandon Hines. John Legend even took a tour of the building as the three began reconstruction after signing a 10-year lease in 2005 with the building's owner, Juan Lopez.
The three men showed Legend where the band-shell stage was going to be, the mezzanine overlooking the stage, and the third-floor art gallery with working fireplaces and a rooftop terrace. They boasted about the state-of-the-art sound system that would record each show. They had already secured more than $1 million in corporate sponsorships, but just putting the building into inhabitable condition had cost the men about $1.2 million, which they had scrounged mostly by taking loans on their houses and bringing in a private investor.
Then, less than a month before the scheduled opening, a letter from the city arrived. Signed by a man named, ironically enough, Jack Hammer, director of Brooklyn planning, the letter informed them that the city was taking the building in an eminent-domain action.
Why? So Brooklyn could turn the building into condos and . . . a cultural center.
Triplett, Jenkins, and McKenzie's dream of a DIY African-American arts center is being bulldozed so the city can build its own vision of a cultural comeback for the neighborhood, which will feature not Brooklyn arts and music, but a Manhattan-based dance troupe.
The eminent-domain action is part of the city's new push to develop the BAM Cultural District. The district was first envisioned in 2000 as a way to bring cultural development to the area around the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but after it languished for several years, the city took the project away from a nonprofit organization and created a new umbrella organization, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, to move things along.
But Triplett and his partners say they had no idea, when they signed their 10-year lease, that the city was eyeing their building for a takeover. Construction halted as it became clear that the building they had spent so much money on would be torn down. The expensive sound system and furniture are collecting dust in storage. All they have to show for the $1.2 million they invested in the building are new exposed steel beams and electrical wires hanging from overhead.
"We were thrown into a tailspin, which will be hard to recover from if someone doesn't help us," Triplett says. The three may be able to recover some relocation costs, but probably nowhere near the money they invested. "We're destitute. This was our way to contribute something positive and urban to this neighborhood," Triplett says.
The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership intends to build a 25- to 30-story condo building with 50 percent affordable housing and a 40,000-square-foot dance studio, which will be used by Danspace Project, which is currently housed at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery.
Calls to the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership were referred to the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The city says it did everything that was legally required to inform the owner, Lopez, about the city's plans. But Triplett and his partners say Lopez and the real-estate agent who showed them the building said nothing about the project. (Lopez didn't return calls from the Voice.) The city itself, they point out, also told them nothing when they applied for and received liquor-license and building permits.
"We just want to know why no one ever came and knocked on our door," Triplett says. In a meeting with city officials, Triplett says they admitted they were aware of construction going on at the building, but claimed that they thought it was demolition work.
At a recent Community Board 2 meeting, Joe Chan, the president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and a former member of the mayor's office, gave a PowerPoint presentation on what the site would look like after a developer is chosen and the construction is completed.
"This area is underserved," he said, while Triplett and his partners looked on with sarcastic smirks. It was hard not to notice that in the city's renderings of the BAM Cultural District, all of the people pictured were white.
Despite their ordeal, Triplett and the others have remained surprisingly positive. They still hold out hope that the new project will take them in as a tenant. But they're also looking for jobs. Asked how he's doing, Triplett responds with a laugh: "I'm still broke."