Going Fourth: Brooklyn’s boulevard seems ready for retail

Going Fourth: Brooklyn’s boulevard seems ready for retail
The Brooklyn Paper / Noelle D’Arrigo

Retail finally looks ready to take off on Fourth Avenue, a run-down thoroughfare that has seen scores of new residential units in the past few years, but has been slow to cast off its identity as a commercial desert between Park Slope and Cobble Hill.

Neighbors hankering for more shopping options on what planners have billed as the future “Brooklyn Boulevard” can thank the avenue’s oft-derided 12-story towers for the good news. These buildings may offend the eye, rising like so many yellow teeth in a gingivitis-ridden mouth, but the flood of new residents has finally created consumer demand.

“Retail follows population changes,” said Roslyn Huebener, of Aguayo and Huebener Realty.

Indeed, for every new building coming up with zero space for ground-floor retail, another is rising with space set aside for boutiques and gyms and restaurants.

The Argyle, a 12-story, 59-unit tower to be completed by this end of this year, between Sixth and Seventh streets, may have no ground-floor retail.

But developer Domenick Tonacchio’s planned 10-story, 49-unit building at the corner of Warren Street — now four stories of steel girders — will have ground-floor retail and a gym in the basement.

There’s no retail at Henry Radusky’s nine story, eight-unit going up at Carroll Street. But Shloimy Reichman’s 12-story building planned for the big, empty lot between Butler and Douglass streets will have 100 feet of retail frontage.

“We feel that commercial space is important, it keeps the streetscape the way it should be,” said Reichman. “It makes more sense from the financial perspective. Fourth Avenue does have a commercial need.” (See map, below.)

And Streetsblog, a neighborhood Web site that has railed against the dearth of retail options outside the universe of flat fixes and gas stations, has reported that the Robert Scarano–designed 12-story building between 12th and 13th streets will also have ground-floor retail.

“You can see someone building a building now and putting a bank on the ground-floor, which three years ago was unthinkable,” said Ken Freeman, a senior director of sales at the Massey Knakal real-estate giant, and perhaps more importantly, president of the Park Slope Civic Council.

In 2003, the city upzoned Fourth Avenue so that new development would rise there, rather than on low-rise side streets. The plan was intended to permit “increased opportunities for residential and commercial development.”

The residential market responded accordingly. But the commercial market? Not so much.

From the perspective of some residents, the result has been big, ugly buildings, with few cherries for the surrounding community.

“The developers were idiots not to put retail on the ground floor,” wrote one commenter on Streetsblog.

That said, there isn’t much to entice a shopper right now.

Passing by Baltic Street, a would-be customer would find a 10-story, red brick box of a building, completed just a couple of months ago, boasting one- and two- bedroom apartments with rents reaching $3,800 a month — but no ground-floor retail.

At Fifth Street, the pedestrian would find Boymelgreen’s Novo, whose ground-floor retail space will house ambulances from New York Methodist Hospital.

Craig Hammerman, the district manager of Community Board 6, pointed to the intersection of Fourth Avenue with Second Street, where on one side pedestrians have developer Shaya Boymelgreen’s Crest, a condo building that greets the public with dust-caked metal vents, and on the other side, Con Ed’s two-block long, blue glass hulk.

“Both are blank walls,” said Hammerman. “There’s no punctuation there that invites a pedestrian friendly experience.”

Freeman said that the lack of ground-floor retail may be easy to moan about, but it’s also pretty easy to explain.

“The thing is, when some of these buildings were designed and planned, which could be three years ago, it was less clear that ground-floor was feasible,” said Freeman.

“Now we can point to the condo sales on Fourth Avenue and say the avenue is here to stay. But at the time, it wasn’t so clear people would buy condos on Fourth Avenue. It was something of a risky bet. So commercial retail was even more of a risky bet.”

Consider, said Freeman, if a developer had built a high-class building, but the only tenant it could find for the ground floor was “Vinny’s Pizzeria.” That would depress condo sales, not help them.

Now, however, the forecast for Fourth Avenue is not all retail gloom.

The two-block stretch of Avenue between St. Marks Place and Bergen Street offers a tantalizing hint of what could be.

On the ground floors of these rowhouses, retail is flourishing, with the bars and restaurants like 4th Avenue Pub, Cherry Tree, Canteen, Pacific Standard and the Mule drawing substantial business.

On a recent Tuesday evening, three friends gathered for drinks at the 4th Avenue Pub. The bar was relatively busy, with the standard watering hole fare — a couple breaking up in the corner, lubricated conversation around the bar.

Nearby, at Pacific Standard, author Colson Whitehead gave a reading.

All of the activity pointed to one thing: local demand for convenient shopping and dining.

“We’re pretty solid on the bar front,” said John Rauschenberg, co-owner of the seven-month-old Pacific Standard, who said that business has become “very good” and definitely profitable. “Bars tend to be the trailblazers in places like Fourth Avenue. I think restaurants are the second wave, and shops the third.

“People would like more shopping opportunities,” he said.