Down on Duffield

Down on Duffield
Karl Fischer Architects

One resident hopes to save home

All she wants is a meeting with Mr. Mayor.

Homeowner Joy Chatel believes that she could, if given the chance, convince Mayor Bloomberg to abandon a longstanding plan to raze her Duffield Street home — a wood-frame structure that many historians believe was a stop on the Underground Railroad — to make way for a new park and an underground garage.

“If I met with him, we could come to some terms. I know I should have a chance to try,” said the activist, whose house once belonged to abolitionist Harriet Truesdale.

Chatel did meet the mayor in his first term — before the city hatched the multi-billion-dollar plan to replace her modest home with a plaza for office workers and hotel guests in a newly revived Downtown Brooklyn. The pair talked about improving Brooklyn’s schools, she said.

“[Bloomberg] was so easygoing and open to listening. That’s why I voted for him and why I want to meet with him,” she said.

“The house,” she added, “has warrior spirit that you just can’t tear it down. I don’t think that he understands that yet.”

Chatel’s three-year-old battle against the city’s plan came to a head last month when the Department of Housing Preservation and Development issued the legal determination that sets into motion New York’s lengthy eminent domain procedure.

The letter came after a city-funded consultant report claimed there was no Underground Railroad activity at Chatel’s house — a report that was trashed by eight of its 12 peer-reviewers.

Then, last month, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he would recognize the abolitionist work that happened on Duffield Street with a $2-million commemoration nearby — but not spare Chatel’s house from the wrecking ball.

Chatel’s property is one of more than a dozen named in the HPD determination, which must be challenged within 30 days. Chatel said she will fight the Bloomberg Administration determination — even as she’s trying to meet with Hizzoner.

Then again, he added, “We are talking about someone’s home.”

A city spokeswoman could not comment on the mayor’s meeting schedule, but said eminent domain “would be used only as a last resort” on Duffield Street.

…while another is ready to cash out

Buy me out fair and square and I’ll go, Duffield Street building owner Lewis Greenstein said this week.

“It’s not about money in my pocket,” the landlord and amateur historian told The Brooklyn Paper. “It’s about economics. I know that eventually the city is going to steal [the building] from me. I want a fair price in the open market.”

The offer to leave comes after years of not-over-my-dead-body proclamations from Greenstein, who has been fighting to save his 233 Duffield St. building — which may have been a way station on the fabled Underground Railroad — from the city’s plan to raze it and six other houses to make way for a Bryant Park-like office and park development.

Greenstein’s change of heart came on the heels of the condemnation of property belonging to his neighbor and ally Joy Chatel. Expecting a similar fate for his own three-story home, he said this week that he would be willing to sell it to the city on the condition that a tunnel in the basement that could’ve been an escape route for former slaves is moved to a museum. He said he would donate proceeds from the sale of his building to commemoration project honoring Downtown Brooklyn abolitionists.

“I worked for the city for 30 years and I just want to see the right thing happen,” said the retired Greenstein, who, ironically, worked for the city’s real-estate department.

Greenstein bought the Duffield Street building in the late 1990s. In the decade since, the value of the land has shot up tremendously, thanks to the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, which rezoned the area for high-rise towers and set in motion the process that will soon lead to Greenstein’s condemnation.

Greenstein declined to put a number on his sell-out price, but a similar site nearby had an asking price of $17.5 million in 2005. The site never sold, though, and is now on the same condemnation list as Chatel’s home.

A spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development said that if the city did decide to acquire Greenstein’s property, it would negotiate a price before condemning the land.

Lewis Greenstein, who owns 233 Duffield St., remains convinced that his building, and others like it, were once part of the Underground Railroad.
The Brooklyn Paper / Tom Callan