Downtown plan gets green light

The Brooklyn Paper
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A major rezoning plan that city and borough officials hope will turn Downtown Brooklyn into a booming metropolis of skyscrapers and corporate back-office space was approved this week in a nearly unanimous vote in the City Council.

“This plan will help us keep jobs,” said Councilman David Yassky at Monday’s vote. “It’s good for New York City and it’s good for Brooklyn.”

The plan passed by a vote of 47-0, with one abstention.

On Thursday, the man whose signature the rezoning and urban renewal initiative awaits, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hailed the Downtown Brooklyn Plan as a “key part of [his administra­tion’s] strategy to preserve and grow jobs.” Bloomberg made the comments at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Bank of New York’s new office space at Atlantic Terminal.

The office tower at Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, which is part of a shopping mall and transportation hub built by developer Bruce Ratner and the MTA, will house 1,400 Bank of New York employees.

“If you want to have jobs you have to make the city more livable and more economically diverse,” said Bloomberg.

Having Bank of New York, whose Lower Manhattan offices suffered heavy damage on 9-11, as an anchor tenant allowed Ratner to apply for and receive Liberty Bonds to finance half of the construction cost of Atlantic Terminal.

The Downtown Brooklyn Plan would allow for the construction of 4.5 million square feet of office space, 1 million square feet of retail, 1,000 units of housing and 2,500 parking spaces.

As part of that plan, the city hopes to attract corporate interest in building three new office towers with as much as 3 million square feet of space abutting a planned 1.5-acre park on Willoughby Street just west of Flatbush Avenue Extension.

Also planned is another office tower, at Boerum Place; the construction of new office and residential space on the eastern side of Flatbush Avenue Extension, between Tillary and Willoughby streets, and along the south side of Myrtle Avenue, east of Flatbush Avenue Extension; and about 2,000 parking spots.

As part of the plan the city intends to condemn seven acres of private property, including 130 residential units and 100 businesses in the downtown area.

But Andrew Alper, president of the city Economic Development Corporation, co-sponsor of the plan with the Department of City Planning, said this week that no condemnation or construction would begin until the city identified developers and tenants for the sites.

“What we want to do is make sure we have tenants first, so we will be out talking to businesses around the country and around the world and make sure we have something to build before we start taking land and doing other actions like that,” Alper said at Thursday’s Atlantic Terminal press conference.

The initial phase of the $100 million plan will include revamping Flatbush Avenue into a “gateway” to Brooklyn, said City Planning Director Amanda Burden. If all goes well, she said, the reconstruction of Flatbush Avenue Extension could begin in a year.

“It will have a center median with trees on both sides — it will be a connector and not a divider — and give a signal that Downtown Brooklyn is really reborn,” Burden said Thursday.

Before the plan goes forward, the council’s landmarks subcommittee has agreed to hold a special public hearing on the potential connection between homes along Duffield Street — one of the primary development sites in the plan — to the Underground Railroad.

When residents along that street first suggested their properties might have once been used to house fugitive slaves, the city commissioned a study to determine the historical significance of the properties, but claimed to have found no such evidence.

That research was partly based on consultations with more than a dozen agencies including the highly respected Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

But when Christopher Moore, exhibitions research coordinator for the Schomburg Center, testified last month that nobody from the city had ever contacted his organization regarding Duffield Street, council members decided to schedule the additional hearing.

Contacted by The Brooklyn Papers two weeks ago, representatives of the Weeksville Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving remains of the free African-American community, and Bridge Street AME Church, the first black congregation in Brooklyn — and a known stop on the Underground Railroad — said that despite being named in the study nobody had actually contacted them.

East New York Councilman Charles Barron, who accused the Bloomberg administration of “blatantly lying” about the Duffield Street research, abstained from this week’s vote.

Asked by The Papers why he did not cast a vote against the plan, Barron said, “The only reason I abstained is because they are compromising and will have the hearing.”

Ever since the city first announced the rezoning earlier this year, residents have been working to ensure their neighborhoods will be protected and not overrun with traffic.

Residents and business owners packed the four public hearings on the plan. The Institute of Design and Construction, a 67-year-old architectural school at the corner of Flatbush Avenue Extension and Willoughby Street that was to be razed to make for better sight-lines from Flatbush Avenue to the planned Willoughby Square, was spared after much wrangling.

Fort Greene and Prospect Heights Councilwoman Letitia James, who initially opposed the plan, voted for it on Monday, citing the mayor’s commitment to affordable housing, traffic mitigation and “the recognition of historical resource and the commitment to some additional historic resources.”

Yassky agreed to support the plan after negotiating with the mayor to fund a study of residential permit parking in the area and to cut back on the number of parking spaces reserved for official government use.

Yassky, Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall held a photo opportunity at the corner of Smith and State streets Thursday morning to announce that more than 110 spaces allocated for city agency vehicles would be eliminated in Downtown Brooklyn by the fall.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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