Artists in residence: Concern in Crown Heights over bid to make factory a live-work space

A bid by a group of artists to live and work in a dilapidated Crown Heights factory is causing a rift in the community between creatives who want to lay their heads where they stretch their canvases, and civic leaders who fear the paint-splattered set will set off a chain-reaction of industrial spaces being converted into high-end housing.

A group of artists lead by Nicola Lopez purchased a former confectionery at 964 Dean St. after it fell into foreclosure, securing the deed in late 2011 and using the building as a workspace.

But their plan to legally convert the building, which is in the Crown Heights industrial zone between Grand and Franklin avenues, into 13 apartments hit some skids when they sought support for a zoning variance at a Community Board 8 committee.

Critics of the plan fear that years of hard work by neighborhood activists and city officials to turn the area into a zone for industry will be wasted if the powerful-but-obscure Board of Standards rules in favor of the artists — quashing the community’s ability to create new jobs or incentivize developers to build below-market-rate housing.

“This does neither of those things,” said Danae Oratowski, a member of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council. “It is going to set a precedent for the Board of Standards and Appeals to continue to grant variances for residential [uses.]”

The group of six buyers stressed their deep roots in the neighborhood and artistic cred in their pitch to the community.

“I’ve had my studio literally across the street from the building for 13 years, and this is kind of an effort to really put down viable long-term roots in an area that I already feel very invested in,” said Lopez, a member of the faculty at Bard College, whose work often addresses urban decay, industry, and development. “Most of the spaces are really designed as live work because that’s what we already do in the neighborhood.”

The artists won a small victory on Thursday night, when the committee voted 10–2 to approve the plan — but only on the condition that the group review the possibility of charging below-market-rate rents for one or two of the units.

But even after the vote, the committee was roiled in intense discussion about what it means to give away much-coveted industrial buildings that could potentially create jobs – or remain as bargaining chips for affordable housing.

“If we don’t do something, we’re going to have more meetings where people are going to come in and pick off all of the nicest buildings in the [manufacturing] zone that can be converted to residential,” said Gib Veconi, another member of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and the other ‘no’ vote in addition to Oratowski. “They’re not going to have an affordable component and they’re not going to have any manufacturing jobs.”

Crown Heights is undergoing a major real-estate boom.

Just a few doors down from the artists’ property, the proprietors of the Brooklyn Flea and the arts group Third Ward will join forces to open a food court and culinary incubator in a former Studebaker service station with $25-million in help from Goldman Sachs in the next year.

The artists’ project next faces the full-board of Community Board 8.

Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2531. And follow him at twitter.com/emrosenberg.