Forget waterfront high-rises, condos in former factories, and houseboats on the Gowanus Canal — Brooklynites will soon have the chance to live in a loft above Fulton Mall.
The 123-year-old Offerman department store building at 505 Fulton St. is being renovated to house four stories of luxury lofts above a retail complex on the rapidly changing commercial strip. When the landmarked building opens its doors to prospective renters — which is supposed to happen late this year — it will be the first time in decades the shopping haven has housed people (apart from a building at 490 Fulton St. that Long Island University converted to dorms in 2012).
“It’s going to be unlike anything else anywhere,” said developer Jody Laboz, who co-owns the building with his brother Al. “It’s going to be Old World meets New. We’re going to restore all the charm and character and the bones of the building.”
The overhaul of the ornate seven-story structure is part of a project by the Laboz brothers’ United American Land company, which has had a big hand in transforming the commercial strip.
In 2005, Al Laboz, longtime chairman of the Fulton Mall Improvement Association, told this paper he would redevelop the shopping area known as the Main Street of Black America the way he did Soho and Tribeca in Manhattan, converting the old commercial space into chic loft digs with the help of public money. The following year he told the New York Observer that he wanted to “make Fulton Mall into 34th Street” with “a sprinkling” of high-end lingerie and women’s clothing stores on the drag known for its sneaker and cellphone shops but anchored by a Macy’s.
It appears that he is getting his wish. The Offerman complex will include a TJ Maxx discount threads depot and sits next door to the already-opened location of the Swedish clothier H&M in a glass-walled building that the Laboz brothers also own. The surrounding few blocks still contain a smattering of hat and jewelry shops and lunch spots, but are also home to a growing crop of luxury retailers such as a Swarovski jewelry store and an Armani Exchange.
But apartments, which have in large part driven the massive upward development of Downtown since the neighborhood’s 2004 rezoning, will be a new sight on Fulton Mall. Shoppers we spoke to said they saw the latest change coming, but that does not necessarily make it a good thing.
“They have to build places for the young professional,” said Rock Smith, a lifelong Brooklynite browsing the racks at Fulton Mall’s Gap outlet. “It’s all part of gentrification.”
Residents of the 120 luxury lofts will not actually open up their doors onto the shopping haven, but will instead exit onto Duffield Street. As for the apartments themselves, they are going to be a sight to behold, according to Jody Laboz.
“Some of these apartments are going to have 15-foot ceilings,” he said. “There’s also going to be a common roof-deck and a magnificent atrium.”
The Offerman building housed Martin’s Department Store from 1924 to 1979 and was home to a Conway low-cost outfitter ahead of its latest overhaul.
Fulton Mall is the borough’s busiest shopping area with 100,000 people passing through each day, according to the Fulton Mall Improvement Association, but it holds a stigma that dates back to the economic downturn of the 1970s, according to one real estate broker.
“Old-time Brooklyners perceived it as a negative place. You only go there for jury duty or to a medical office,” said Chris Havens, a broker at aptsandlofts.com. “But the people coming in now, they haven’t heard about that.”
Havens is white and that negative perception depends on which old-timers you are talking about, according to documentarian Kelly Anderson. Anderson is a white woman whose movie “My Brooklyn” chronicles the displacement of small businesses Downtown after the 2004 rezoning, making the case that Fulton Mall’s status as a hub for working-class African-American shoppers was brushed aside in the push to build skyward and attract high-end stores.
“That sense of it as a gathering space has definitely been disrupted,” she said.
Smith, a black woman, echoed the sentiment, but said the seismic shifts Downtown have to do more with class than race.
“They want a certain demographic,” she said of developers like the Laboz brothers. “People with money.”
Fulton Mall was made a pedestrian shopping area as part of a 1980s urban renewal project, but in a 2006 interview with this paper, Al Laboz said that some of the upper-floor office space along it has been boarded up since the 1950s or 1960s.