Downtown’s other main drag

Could this be the new green heart of Downtown?
Hargreaves Associates, a California firm, will design Willoughby Square Park, a new greenspace for the new residential community in Downtown.
Hargreaves Associates

Willoughby Street is going gangbusters.

The stretch of road between Adams Street and Flatbush Avenue Extension has long been relegated to the role of Fulton Mall’s sleepy cousin, but as Downtown braces for 10,000 apartments to be built in the neighborhood in the next few years, businesspeople are busy expanding longtime neighborhood favorites as entrepreneurs set up shop in neighboring businesses, chain restaurants open locations, and area boosters work to build on the success of a popular pedestrian plaza. One realtor representing the new tallest building in Brooklyn, recently completed around the corner, said some of the people behind the ground-level activity are shrewd dudes indeed.

“These are very smart businessmen,” said William Ross, a vice president at Halstead Property who is marketing the new residential tower at 388 Bridge St. half a block from Willoughby. “They couldn’t have picked a better spot.”

It is a prime location, all right, and getting more shade all the time. The 53-story 388 Bridge development dethroned The Brooklyner, across Willoughby and over one block on Lawrence Street, as Brooklyn’s loftiest tower when construction on it wrapped up this spring, and it is soon to be edged out by Avalon Willoughby West, directly across Bridge Street facing Willoughby.

Yet, the street is getting more open space, too. At the Adams Street end, business boosters de-mapped a block of Willoughby in 2006 to create a plaza, which they made permanent in 2011, just in time for the arrival of the high-end fast-food chain Shake Shack, the first Brooklyn location of which opens up onto the space. Not far behind was chain barbecue temple Hill Country Barbecue, which opened last year and occupies two stories of a former city building across the park.

Near the other end of Willoughby, plans are in the works for Willoughby Square, a greensward atop a futuristic, vending-machine-like underground parking garage.

“That’s really going to finish off Willoughby Street,” Ross said.

In addition to big-name enterprises and big-ticket projects, Willoughby Street has its share of mom-and-pop success stories, including two longtime businesses that are in the process of expanding just a few doors down from their original locations. Both are run by brothers — chicken-centric eatery Tio Pio by the Ecuadoran Espinozas, and Giovanni’s Fine Jewelry by the Russian Babayevs.

The Espinoza brothers opened their first South American restaurant in 2003 in a Bridge Street building that was eventually leveled to make way for 388 Bridge They moved around the corner to Willoughby in 2008 and continued dishing out their signature rotisserie chicken, pernil, and cassava. It was important for the family to stay close by, one of the brothers said.

“When you like a neighborhood, you become part of it,” Javier Espinoza said. “I belong here.”

The family runs a second Tio Pio on Court Street, as well as a location on the distant island of Manhattan. This year, the owners branched out into the bagel business with Tio Bagel, a bagel store and salad bar on the corner of Lawrence Street, a block from their first store’s current, relocated incarnation. Espinoza said his sense of what the neighborhood needed, not to mention his experience working in someone else’s bagel shop, led him to venture into the new business.

“You look for what’s missing,” he said. “We wanted to give people what they needed.”

A few doors down from Pio Bagel, George Babayev is preparing to open a wine store next month in the storefront that used to house his family’s jewelry store. His brother Danny still runs Giovanni’s Fine Jewelry, which they named in honor of the Babayevs Italian neighbors in Bensonhurst, and which moved across the street last week. He hopes the wine store, called G&I Wine and Spirits, can cash in on the new apartment buildings that are going up.

“If I can sell one bottle to every floor of these new buildings each day, I’ll be doing alright,” Babayev said.

To cater to the people he expects to move into these luxury buildings, Babayev plans to hold wine tasting and pairing classes. He is also designing the interior with his clientele in mind, installing a chandelier, tiles, and custom cases for the booze. Back when he first started doing business in the neighborhood, such a project would have been unthinkable, he said.

“Ten years ago, this never would have survived,” he said.

The family has adapted before. When rent got to be too high for the jewelry store, they subleased to an eyebrow threading specialist. Sometimes, he said, people ask him why he stays Downtown instead of looking somewhere cheaper.

“I don’t know other neighborhoods. I know Downtown,” Babayev said. “Here at least I have a head start.”

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperl‌man@c‌ngloc‌al.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
WINE OF THE TIMES: George Babayev’s family has run jewelry stores Downtown since the early 1990s. Now they’re turning one into an upscale wine shop.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

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