Proposed rezoning for 29-story towers near Broadway Junction inches forward

broadway junction
A proposal for a large-scale rezoning near Broadway Junction is inching forward.
Photo by Susan de Vries

Broadway Junction’s transformation to a commercial and residential hub is a step closer, with developer Totem Group filing plans to rezone a nearby triangle in Ocean Hill bordered by Van Sinderen, East New York, and Atlantic avenues and Fulton Street to pave the way for four towers ranging from 21 to 29 stories.

The transformation will be a stark one: The largest building proposed, which will front East New York Avenue and Fulton Street, could be taller than Downtown Brooklyn’s 1 MetroTech Center – measuring 445 feet tall, according to the filings. The other three towers are proposed at between 330 and 400 feet.

However, Totem principal Tucker Reed said the application is a starting point for the project, and there will be plenty of opportunity for the community to shape the development, including right-sizing it. Locals expressed cautious optimism that the project has the potential to benefit existing residents by bringing jobs and services to the area while not causing displacement. The Broadway Junction subway station is in Ocean Hill close to the borders of Bushwick, Brownsville, Crown Heights, and East New York.

“What’s unique about what we’re trying to do is that we’re coming early and yes, you have to put a proposal on the table to start a conversation because otherwise you’re just talking about clouds in the sky,” Reed said.

The rezoning application for the development, dubbed Herkimer-Williams, was filed November 17. Some of Totem’s requests to the City Planning Commission include changing the zoning of the development site, allowing for increased floor area ratio, issuing a Large-Scale General Development special permit, and eliminating Herkimer Street between Williams Place and Fulton Street to create one large site.

Together, the changes would facilitate the development of 596 new residential units, office, retail, light industrial, and community facility spaces in the area currently dominated by parking and storage facilities, the application says. Totem owns or controls through agreements with the owners all of the properties to be redeveloped as part of the rezoning.

map of rezoning
The developers are seeking to build four new towers in Ocean Hill. Map courtesy of Totem

The site bordered by Van Sinderen Avenue, Herkimer Street, Williams Place, and Fulton Street, which is bisected by elevated tracks, is planned to be open space, linking to the newly-renovated Callahan-Kelly Playground located under and around the Broadway Junction station. Reed said a small kiosk-like building could be built on the site, where “a local entrepreneur could set up shop” or there could be a rotation of small local businesses.

On the site to its south, bordered by Van Sinderen Avenue, Herkimer Street, Williams Place, and Atlantic Avenue — and also bisected by elevated subway lines — a 29-story, 384-unit residential building is proposed, according to the application. The building could include retail space, a dedicated area for Calvary Free Will Baptist Church (if it is demolished for the project), and underground parking.

The church will make the call whether to stay or go, according to Totem. The rezoning application shows the house of worship will be razed for one of the towers, although the developer in its community presentations has been showing another scenario that would retain the existing church building and build the tower next door. The developer clarified via a spokesperson that the rezoning application shows only the potential “maximum impact.”

Reed said the Totem-owned 1890s building on the corner of Atlantic and Van Sinderen avenues, which was formerly a hotel and now houses Noble Signs, will be preserved as part of the project, as will the hotel next door, which is not owned by the developer.

building near broadway junction rezoning
The Noble signs building, which was constructed in the 1890s, will be preserved. Photo by Susan De Vries

The final site, bordered by Williams Place, East New York Avenue, and Fulton Street, is planned to have three buildings: one 24-story, 212-unit building, and two commercial buildings – one 21 stories and one 24 stories. It will also have public and private green space, the documents say.

To make the site a contiguous lot, the developer is asking City Planning to eliminate Herkimer Street between Williams Place and East New York Avenue. If approved, the three buildings will all sit on a three-story podium dedicated to retail. The tallest of the four proposed towers would be the 24-story, 455-feet-high commercial building fronting the corner of Fulton Street and East New York Avenue, according to the application.

Reed told said that nearby Broadway Junction, with its multiple public transport connections, provides a great opportunity for transit-oriented development, and said locals had long been asking for jobs and housing in the area. “So we should try to provide as much of it here as possible.”

He added there is a lot of time to adjust the size of the buildings based on community feedback. In previous community meetings, Reed said, some people expressed height isn’t much of an issue provided the buildings maximize services, while others “naturally have an aversion to height.”

“They want to understand the urban planning rationale for how you arrived there, and maybe some things need to be rightsized a bit so we’ll go through that process and we’ll figure it out.”

He added, however, cutting stories would result in cutting desired uses that had been voiced by the neighborhood, such as housing and space for job creation. “It’s a conversation and the tradeoff between density and height versus desired uses.”

If the special permit is approved, the development team will be locked into the uses that it specifies, meaning it can’t suddenly pivot to a 100 percent residential project. If the team wants to make major changes, it would have to come back to the community through the land use review process, Reed said.

He said altogether the area is a big jigsaw puzzle of transformation, with the city recently announcing a $500 million investment to upgrade the Broadway Junction area and the transformation of 2440 Fulton Street.

Abraham Leser’s Leser Group purchased the large site on the corner of Fulton and Herkimer streets in 2015 for $33 million, according to city records. In 2020, the developer filed for a demolition permit for the existing single-story building and a new-building permit for a six-story commercial building to take its place.

In 2022, Mayor Eric Adams announced the city would lease more than 200,000 square feet in the Marvel Architects-designed development to house more than 1,100 employees from DSS’ Human Resources Administration. The remaining 80,000 square feet will have private commercial space and retail tenants.

“It’s great to see so much time and attention and resources now being devoted and we’re a piece of it,” Reed said of the transformation. “I think it’s a little pioneering on our part to be the first private sector, you know, property owner to step forward, but it’s part of a much larger exciting plan for Broadway Junction and we’re just excited to be a part of it.”

A big part of the Herkimer-Williams development is its two mixed residential and retail buildings, which Reed said would be 100 percent affordable with 596 units provided Totem can tap into government funding. The team has had multiple conversations with city agencies, and though Reed said he couldn’t put words in their mouths’ there seems to be a recognition for the opportunity for transit-oriented development in the area.

If the city funding doesn’t come together, Totem will still be required to provide 149 to 179 income-restricted, rent-stabilized units through the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program.

After housing, he said the balance of the development is “essentially open space retail and space for commercial uses” that includes light manufacturing and maker uses. A big priority he has heard from the community, he said, is space for job creation. A hospital, university, or vocational training spaces could all be in the cards.

The majority of the development’s square footage is dedicated to commercial real estate, which has taken a huge hit since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Council Member Sandy Nurse, who has held meetings on the proposed development and the investment going into the surrounding area, said she has concerns about the amount of high-rise commercial office space, given “it’s hard to imagine people coming back to the office in droves anytime in the near future.”

renderings of broadway junction rezoning
The developers said they are willing to adjust the size of the buildings based on community feedback. Image courtesy of Totem

She said there are also other elements of the proposal that raise questions, but said the filing is “a starting point for ongoing discussions.”

“Since before coming into office, I have been proactively engaging with Totem and the local community about the Herkimer-Williams project through town halls, extensive outreach, and conversations with labor,” Nurse told Brownstoner.

“Now that the project has reached this milestone, we are able to get more specific about our wishes, concerns, and timelines, particularly how they would intersect with the many public dollars coming to Broadway Junction for long overdue infrastructure and streetscape improvements. I look forward to these productive conversations.”

A spokesperson from the Office of Borough President Reynoso said his office will continue to work with Nurse and the community “to ensure that the project delivers essential community benefits.”

Tucker for his part isn’t too concerned about filling the office space, saying it is a “long term transformative project” and the market will look different five to 10 years down the line. He added there is a chicken and egg situation with commercial real estate in the area, saying there is no demonstration of a marketplace nearby for businesses to move to.

He said while it is far too early to start leasing conversations, “we already have a running list of folks that we’ve talked to who are local entrepreneurs who’ve come to us and said if you built this I would love space for my small business…I would consider moving my company here.”

Totem principal Vivian Liao said a core principle of the company is to work closely with the communities they are building in. “We also really pride ourselves on working with community based organizations and really ensuring that the folks who are on the ground, who know their communities best, are the ones that are helping us shape the project.”

With that, she said, a number of previous studies done by community organizations, researchers, and local politicians have been distilled into this proposal and Totem has already met with dozens of stakeholders such as local residents, businesses, and nonprofits. She said there would be plenty more opportunity for community involvement on what the development would be moving forward.

“It’s really around taking advantage and leveraging the transit hub that exists there and making the connections and the pedestrian environment and the infrastructure around the area better, which we’re starting to see.”

Broadway Junction has faced years of underinvestment, although the area within the rezoning proposal feels well kept and productive, unlike some areas under Broadway dotted with empty lots that appear derelict. Broadway Junction falls just outside of the area included in the 2016 East New York rezoning. East New York Local Development Corporation executive director Bill Wilkins, who has worked for the LDC for more than 22 years and lives in East New York, said many local residents agree something needs to be done in the area, it is just down to hammering out exactly what that looks like.

“Getting on and off at Broadway Junction for years, I would say this is a hot mess, it is a blighted situation, and it would really bring an individual’s spirit down, like ‘I am in a distressed area,’ you don’t feel optimistic coming from Broadway Junction, you feel like you’ve made a wrong turn,” Wilkins said.

However, he said, many people in the community are rightfully suspicious of developers and new development.

“I would say there is a disdain or mistrust that is pervasive in anything that has to do with government because of 30 years of neglect of resources, so already there’s like ‘OK what’s really at play here.'”

The other factor is what Wilkins called “the Manhattan-ization of Brooklyn.” He said the changing landscape of the borough, and the changes that has brought to communities, “has permeated a distrust of development, that it is not really for those who are indigenous to those communities.”

He said because of that, the community has to be involved in every step of the development process, adding Totem is upholding that “with conviction and sincerity” and starting to garner more local support.

broadway junction
Wilkins said he is working to build trust with the community. Photo by Susan De Vries

“I really supported their approach because it’s a bottom up methodology instead of a top down, bottom up being like, ‘OK, what does this community want? What can we collectively achieve in cooperation?”

He agreed height will likely be an issue in public planning meetings, as it has already been, and said it will be up to the community and development team to find a balance between density and height and supporting social needs and initiatives. “There is a degree of wiggle room where we can come up with something on building size and scale where the deal pencils out and the community is also comfortable,” Wilkins said.

“I look at Broadway Junction as a legacy project and I think all of those that are involved by definition of being legacy, we want generations to come, our children and our children’s children, to be proud of the decisions that we make today,” he said. “Instead of feeling despondent and despair, getting off at Broadway Junction I want the community to feel proud.”

City Planning Commission and the development team will hold a scoping meeting for the draft environmental impact statement for the project on Zoom on December 19 at 2 p.m. where the public can voice their questions and feedback. Written comments will be accepted through December 29.

The actual ULURP certification that will kick off the formal public review of the rezoning proposal isn’t expected until 2025, according to the application. If the rezoning is approved, the plan is to stage the project in four parts with completion slated for 2036.

A version of this story first appeared on Brooklyn Paper’s sister site Brownstoner