Subject: Are PH'ers "Yuppies on the edge"?
February 27, 2005
HABITATS | BROOKLYN
Battling a Developer's Mammoth Plans
By PENELOPE GREEN
AN GOLDSTEIN loves his new home, a 1,280-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath, roughly finished condominium in a former warehouse building on Pacific Street near downtown Brooklyn. Which is why he does not want to leave, even though he is being pressed to do so.
The approach to the building is not the grandest. Across the street are the dormant subway cars of the Atlantic Avenue rail yards, loosely corralled by a chain-link fence. Beyond the yards lie the dubious aesthetic pleasures of the Atlantic Mall.
But the former warehouse - the Allied Storage Building, designed by the architect George S. Kingsley and built in 1926 - with its blue and white ceramic medallions and florid stone rosettes, presents a noble face (and a singular one) that harks back to a time when even a building made for storage hoped to be beautiful. Besides, Mr. Goldstein's apartment, on the seventh floor, faces Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue, and its views of Brooklyn are glorious.
Mr. Goldstein is the only resident of the condo, now called the Atlantic Art Building, who has not sold his or her apartment to Bruce C. Ratner and his Forest City Ratner company in the last year to make way for a development that is to include a new home for Mr. Ratner's New Jersey Nets.
Atlantic Art was the name given to the 31-unit building by its developer, Marc Freud, who briefly tried to brand its neighborhood NoFA, for, north of Flatbush Avenue, when he converted the building in 2002. It now sits in the middle of a development planned by Mr. Ratner, Forest City Ratner's president. In addition to the new home for his basketball team, Mr. Ratner hopes to put up office and apartment towers designed by Frank Gehry. Company officials say they are poised to sign a memo of understanding with the city in a few weeks.
The 21-acre footprint for the controversial plan, which the company estimates would raze about 140 apartments, stretches from Atlantic Avenue to Dean Street and from Flatbush to Vanderbilt Avenues. It would erase the area's most recent incarnation as a yuppies-on-the-edge outpost of Prospect Heights
, one organized by developers like Shaya Boymelgreen, whose conversion of the former Daily News printing plant at 700 Pacific Street into condominiums spurred hasty copycat conversions of other industrial buildings, including Allied Storage.
(That incarnation, of course, rests on the shoulders of more grass-roots conversions made by artist pioneers, who colonized the largely industrial area 15 or so years ago.)
Mr. Goldstein, 35, is a Web designer with a new career - local activist - a switch mostly driven, he said, by the threat to his new community. The fact that he has lived for only a year and a half in a condo building that, according to its president, Matt Klein, has been plagued with construction problems (poorly insulated pipes cracked during the cold snap last month, as did the boiler, leaving the building without heat or water for a week and a half) lends a piquant air to his solo stance.
"I'm a person living in the home I love," he said, "and I intend to stay in it. I haven't had any construction problems. Anyway, I may be the only one in my building opposed to the Ratner plan, but there are thousands living within and without the footprint who are against it."
Indeed, as members of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, Mr. Goldstein and others have collected 12,000 signatures opposing the project. The group, which has the support of many community leaders, offers as an alternative a more organic, home-grown development, the Unity Plan, that calls for keeping, not razing, the existing buildings, and for new construction on the rail yards.
The week before last, Mr. Goldstein's front door was decorated with a red and white poster with the slash-in-a-circle graphic surrounding the words "Eminent Domain Abuse"; a sisal Peter Max "Love" doormat sat below. An old desk topped with a hamper and some glass vases sat outside a neighbor's door, the discards from the neighbor's exodus.
Inside, Mr. Goldstein's apartment was both folksy and industrial, with smoke-colored walls and wood and resin furniture made by his friend Sebastian Hamilton. Jane Jacobs's manifesto on new urbanism, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," lay on a coffee table.
Mr. Goldstein had been renting in Park Slope when he began looking for a place to buy. A regular at open houses, with more than one accepted offer, he looked for four years before he found this apartment. The generous spaces and prewar provenance of the building appealed to him. He saw a sound investment in an area on the upswing. "I was looking for a place that I could live in a long time," he said, "one that the hypothetical kids could be in for a while."
Mr. Goldstein moved here with his fiancÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©e in May 2003. He declined to say what he paid for the apartment, but according to Hal Lehrman, a principal broker with Brooklyn Properties, which sold 70 percent of the units, a similar unit cost just under $600,000. (Prices for the building, he said, ranged from $305,000 for a one-bedroom to $975,000 for a three-bedroom penthouse.)
With new woodworking skills learned at the Crafts Students League in Manhattan, Mr. Goldstein built cupboards and shelves in all the closets, a professional-looking stainless steel shower door and a glass brick and rosewood-veneered bookshelf and planter that fits nicely in a living room window. "I was impressed with myself that I could do these things," he said wryly. His fiancÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©e, a painter, chose the smoky colors throughout.
"It was definitely a place we made together," Mr. Goldstein said. They have since broken up. Her office space is now empty, save for boxes of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn T-shirts, in red, black and pink. A "No Eminent Domain Abuse" banner is jury-rigged to the windows outside, a bit tattered from the wind.
When he read about Mr. Ratner's plan to move the Nets near the mall on Atlantic Avenue, Mr. Goldstein said, he thought, "Well, that's nice, I like sports."
"I didn't think an arena would be built on top of a residential neighborhood," he added.
By December 2003, it was clear that was exactly the Ratner plan, and residents in the Atlantic Arts Building began organizing. Mr. Goldstein had been laid off from a Web job and found himself increasingly involved in the opposition. By last January, he said, it had become a full-time job. (He's not starving, he said, "because I worked for AOL during the go-go 90's.") When his neighbors began negotiating with the company, Mr. Goldstein demurred.
Tenants signed a nondisclosure agreement for the sale of their apartments, which included a provision that they speak favorably about the deal. Mr. Klein, 34, the condo board president, who is a director of a nonprofit foundation, said in a conference call organized by a spokesman for Forest City Ratner that residents were extremely happy with their deals. Sale prices were not disclosed, but the word on the street is that owners got about double what they paid.
"Most of us were first-time homeowners," Mr. Klein said. "We bought into a complete lemon, but it was the best investment we could have made, given what happened."
Despite Mr. Goldstein's rebuff, James P. Stuckey, an executive vice president at Forest City Ratner, said the company's plans for the building are unchanged. "It's now up to Dan," he said. "We would like to come to some sort of understanding, but in any deal you need two people to sit at the table."
Mr. Stuckey said his company's plan included 4,500 units of residential housing. "What I believe is that the public sector will take over," he said, "and then use as one of its tools eminent domain," forcing him out.
Mr. Goldstein, who majored in peace studies and English at Colgate University, said that "the hammer of eminent domain" has dismantled for him the notion that Forest City Ratner is tendering a good-faith offer. He described himself as a political junkie who never imagined engaging in politics at a local level. "Now I think it's the only place where what you do can have an effect," he said.
"I know that I'm doing the right thing," he said. "I never said, 'Should I do this?' If I can't oppose something that threatens my home, my neighbors and my neighborhood, then what am I ever going to fight for?"