Building Stories: The Knickerbocker and Bushwick’s ‘Big Sickness’

knickerbockercondos Building Stories: The Knickerbocker and Bushwicks Big SicknessBushwick, sandwiched between Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant, has long enjoyed the epithet "up-and-coming"-"emerging" even. But is Brooklyn’s new frontier ready for the Knickerbocker?

A third-generation family of grocers had owned the Scaturro Supermarket at 320 Knickerbocker Avenue since the 1970s. Although the residential space above it has been empty for 20 years, the market operated profitably until 2007, when Charles Scaturro heeded the call of rising prices and put it up for sale.

In the heady days of New York real estate, Hudson Companies–with a 26-year history of doing deals in marginal neighborhoods–bought this complex of nine buildings, with their crumbling Italianate arches and keystones.

The developer planned 49 high-end units, 10 of them penthouses with mezzanine fifth-floor balconies. Hudson is even going for LEED certification, something characteristic of tonier locales. The developer secured $18 million in mortgages from Wachovia in late August.

Then came, you know, the economy.

"We’re hoping that a year from now, as we’re looking to sell, the world will look a little different than it does now," said Hudson project manager Alex Hurwitz, angst in his every syllable. They’re planning to keep the project in condos but may have to go rental, like several other projects in the area, if the market stays frozen.

"Well, maybe the longer it takes is something of an advantage," he reasoned.

 

EITHER WAY, A PROJECT this big has an impact. Knickerbocker Avenue is a raucous commercial arterial, stuffed with 99-cent stores, hair salons, cuisine from most every country south of the border. There are several vacant shop fronts within a block of the condo project’s scaffolding, sometimes inhabited by homeless men. Long-time residents and local storeowners mostly see the new development as a sign of hope.

Tony Guosea, who was waiting by his car to see if parking police would ticket it on a holiday, has lived in the area since 1961-through the riots of the ‘70s, the white flight of the ‘80s. He remembers the Scaturro Supermarket affectionately, describing the well-stocked meat section with particular relish. Now, he says, there’s a drug den four blocks down, and Section 8 housing has allowed in all the "riffraff."

"It’s like a Third World country," he says. "Like a big sickness."

Yoon Duk Kim owns a large grocery across the street from the Knickerbocker site. He says he’s "very happy" about high-income people moving in close to him–the way he tells it, at least things can’t get any worse. While stocking milk, he pours out his troubles: too many city officials fining him for violations; too few cops policing neighborhood crime. He can’t make enough money from the rent-stabilized apartments upstairs to pay for wages in the store, he says.

"I don’t know how to survive," he said. "It’s not fair, really. Right now, I don’t feel like doing business in New York."

Charles Scaturro, who retains control over leasing of the Knickerbocker site’s ground-floor retail, isn’t sure what might go in there yet. Mr. Hurwitz said he’d like a nice café, maybe a bank.

Alfred Liarda, for three decades the owner of a gleaming clean pizza place kitty corner from the construction site, said he’d like to see more chain stores, like a Staples.

"The only thing we want is really something different, something that stands out, not another sneaker store," Mr. Hurwitz said.

 

THE FUTURE RESIDENTS OF the Knickerbocker already have a welcoming committee. For the past decade, the neighborhood has seen an influx of younger artist types, drawn by low rents and an unpretentious atmosphere. Many congregate online at the lively and booster-ish http://www.BushwickBK.com.

"I don’t want it ever to turn into Williamsburg," said local developer Jamie Wiseman. "What I think is neat about Bushwick is that it’s not overwhelmed by Wall Street guys and it’s not overwhelmed by hipsters. There’s no such domination here."

Mr. Wiseman is an engineer of the Bushwick immigration. He and a partner, both 33, buy buildings, fix them, and rent them out at $1,500 for a two-bedroom unit. They’re skeptical of the marketability of condos in the area, but their apartments are a hot commodity, running, he says, only a 5 percent vacancy rate.

Shari Linnick, 35, is another Pied Piper, having lived two blocks down from the old Scaturro Supermarket for eight years. Now a financial analyst in New Jersey, she used to own a realty company, renting lofts in the area to artists (including a significant chunk of her own social circle). Ms. Linnick could barely contain her excitement about the new condos going in, speculating that they would sell well even in the current market. As for retail, she had a broad conception of what the neighborhood could use.

"Everything. Everything!" she said. A nice grocery store–she usually shops at the Whole Foods near where she works–and "dozens more bars and restaurants." While a realtor, she sold the building where the upscale Northeast Kingdom later opened; it’s a cozy place on Wyckoff Avenue that many residents cite as a favorite.

"There’s thousands of people here who don’t have amenities geared specifically for them," she said. "But that will come."

Meanwhile, they can always walk to Williamsburg.