More Housing, Less Work on Fulton Mall

The proposal to build apartments on the Albee Square Mall site in downtown Brooklyn, which came before a city board on Tuesday morning, represents the victory of market realities over urban-planning dreams.

About four years ago, the city’s Economic Development Corporation came forward with a plan that would rezone downtown Brooklyn bigger and better and make it safe for back-office space, like Jersey City, or, for that matter, MetroTech. But, as The Observer wrote a year ago, it’s been hard to convince commercial tenants to go there.

The Albee Square Mall site, off the Fulton Street Mall, was projected to be built into a 1.23- million-square-foot office tower–as high as 60 stories–with 415,000 square feet of retail at its base, according to the final environmental impact statement.

The plans by the mall’s new owners, a consortium that includes MacFarlane Partners, by contrast, call for a slightly larger shopping mall than imagined (about 500,000 square feet) but far less office space (just 125,000 square feet), with the balance made up by apartments. Why does this matter? Well, office space means jobs; residences don’t. The new plan will accommodate about 1,600 permanent office, retail and building-services jobs; the fantasy building imagined in rezoning documents would have held 5,762.

Joe Chan, a former City Hall aide who worked on the rezoning plan and who is now president of the public-private Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, has already told The Real Estate that the 2004 plan is outdated and unrealistic. He called the Albee Square Mall proposal a “home run.”

“It is important not to discount retail jobs,” he told The Real Estate in a telephone interview Tuesday. “You can look across the street from the building that we are in to the Whitman and Ingersoll Houses, both of which have extraordinary high levels of unemployment. Retail provides entry-level jobs, and there is a need for those kinds of jobs.”

He added, “No one is ever going to build a 1.5-million-square-foot, one-acre footprint building on spec.”

Brooklyn activists had another beef with the plan. About 15 members of the group Families United for Racial and Economic Equality were thrown out of this morning’s meeting of the Industrial Development Agency, which approved $3.2 million in tax credits to subsidize the office component of the new building.

The protesters, according to participants and witnesses, said that the new owner would force out the small retailers in the mall, and also questioned whether the 20 percent of apartments that the developer is promising for low-income families are truly affordable to Brooklynites, whose median income is lower than the region’s median income that housing agencies use to calculate rents.

- Matthew Schuerman