When Tucker Reed finally stepped up to the lectern inside the new BAM Fisher Building on a Thursday morning at the end of July, the crowd could barely handle any more news about just how stupendous Downtown Brooklyn was, is and will be.
Karen Brooks Hopkins, entering her fourth decade at BAM, welcomed the crowd into the brightly lit practice space on the third floor of the two-month-old red brick theater, tucked in behind BAM’s original performance hall. This would be the linchpin of the latest, greatest cultural district in the city. Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn borough president and cheerleader-in-chief for 11 years now, warmed up the crowd with his typical act. “Everywhere you look, things are looking up in Downtown Brooklyn,” he barked. This was, is, will be the center of the universe.
Next came State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, whose grandmother grew up on Albany Street in Crown Heights. He had made sure to wear his Brooklyn lapel pin, a gift Mr. Markowitz bestows on everyone he meets. Though he was a Long Island guy, Mr. DiNapoli was an adopted son of this former outer borough, at least for the day, for the good news he was bringing: economic growth in Downtown Brooklyn had outpaced the rest of the city over the past decade, according to a new report prepared by the comptroller’s office. This was, is, will be an economic powerhouse.
On the same streets where Jay-Z had once slung crack (and would soon be headlining the Barclays Center he ostensibly helped build), legitimate businesses had replaced illicit ones, and they were thriving. Thousands of new residents had moved in, filling the striking and unspectacular condo-turned-rental-in-the-downturn towers along Flatbush Avenue. National brands including H&M, Sephora, Target and Shake Shack were replacing the pawn shops and cellphone outlets on the Fulton Mall.
It’s not your bubbe’s Brooklyn anymore. It’s Tucker Reed’s.
Having just turned 32, Mr. Reed has been making a name for himself since the middle of the last decade, when he launched the DUMBO Business Improvement District (BID). The event at BAM was his big coming out. Since January, Mr. Reed has run the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a BID of BIDs, overseeing the MetroTech office park, Fulton Mall and the Court-Livingston-Schermerhorn corridor, an L-shaped spine of older office buildings, mostly filled with government agencies and legal firms. It is the city’s third-largest business district, after Midtown and Lower Manhattan, but it is still trying to define its identity after decades of fitful, relentless redefinition and rebirth.
On this day, Mr. Reed was the man with the plan. After a little over six months on the job, he had developed a strategic framework for Downtown Brooklyn, the first major vision statement since the Bloomberg administration’s rezoning of 22 blocks along Flatbush Avenue in 2004. The partnership, with its $6 million annual budget, was created in part to oversee the development on the horizon
“Just look out this window and you can see the changes to the built environment,” he said, gesturing through the floor-to-ceiling glass. “If the first phase of the partnership was focused on facilitating the execution of public-private projects, the next phase will be on synthesizing these disparate investments into a Downtown Brooklyn mosaic.” (He has a soft spot for management speak.)
Mr. Reed smiled his broad, boyish grin, his handsome blue eyes glinting. He wore a navy suit that barely contained his impressive bulk, still in good shape a decade after his time as a defensive end ended with two torn ACLs. Under this was a white shirt, pink houndstooth tie and a crimson pocket square with blue trim. Put together, dressed to impress.
It is hard to believe that three years earlier, Mr. Reed, with his quick smile and charming character, was instead donning a flak jacket and fatigues every day to go to work. It was not the streets of Brooklyn but Baghdad he was rebuilding as an adviser for the State Department. He had traded in a war zone for lofts and brownstones. Still, the job was basically the same, except for the IEDs.
Tucker Reed grew up in Newtown, Conn., trading on both his physical and mental intelligence. When not practicing his blitz on a tackling dummy, he was practicing for the coming season’s play. Junior year, he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.
Newtown is a town of about 25,000 just outside of Danbury, where Mr. Reed spent most of his time growing up except for regular trips down to Manhattan to catch a Giants game or go to the theater or a museum. It was a journey his 94-year-old grandfather made seven days a week until about six months ago, traveling to the Illustration House, a small Chelsea gallery that he ran for the past four decades with Mr. Reed’s uncle. It was through him, and a Brooklyn-bred grandmother “who never left the city too far behind” that Mr. Reed gained much of his appreciation for New York and for the arts.
“It makes for a richer life a more well-rounded experience,” Mr. Reed said. “I never deluded myself beyond the karaoke floor that I’d have a future in the arts or entertainment, but it certainly informs a bunch of the fun work I get to do now with cultural organizations.”
Mr. Reed was raised by his mother, a fact he credits with stoking his self-reliant spirit. The family lived what he calls a modest, working-class life, which drove Mr. Reed to overachieve in his pursuits but also to want to give back. “You like to think that if you are a good person, and you are trying to do the right thing, that there are people out there to help, and for government to help as well,” he said. “That wasn’t always my experience, so I’d like to think that I have a responsibility to improve people’s lives.”
He decided to attend nearby Wesleyan, which, in addition to all the artsy kids from afar there to start electronica bands and celebrate Zonker Harris Day, attracts a number of locals looking for a good school (which is not to say that Mr. Reed shied away from the more-than-occasional drink, as a former member of the football team, who now works at a financial firm in Downtown Brooklyn, explained).
Mr. Reed not only played football to help pay his way through school but also joined the National Guard. After those two torn ACLs in sophomore year, Mr. Reed was given a medical discharge, a stroke of bad luck that may well have saved his life—Mr. Reed graduated in 2002, which would have almost certainly have put him on the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Still, Mr. Reed found time for his other pursuits, taking a role in the student government and acting in, among other pieces, 7 Minutes in Heaven, the first original piece by his dormmate Lin-Manuel Miranda, who later achieved fame with In the Heights. During the summers, he ran an ice cream shop on an island off the coast of Maine with another college buddy.
After graduating with a bachelors degree in government, Mr. Reed spent a year on the island teaching high school social studies while also making time to travel to India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The following year, Mr. Reed arrived in New York on a Coro public service fellowship, which took him through a number of internships at City Hall and the community lending division at JPMorgan. In 2004, Mr. Reed officially joined the Bloomberg administration in the Department of Small Business Services. He spent a little over a year there integrating two older departments that had now been combined into one while also focusing on expanding and reforming the Workforce1 career centers.
It was Rob Walsh, commissioner of the department, who recommended Mr. Reed to Jed Walentas, the DUMBO scion and up-and-comer in his own right taking over his father’s empire in DUMBO. The Bloomberg administration had become staunch advocates of businesses improvements districts—their number has nearly doubled in the past decade—and Mr. Reed was tapped to launch this latest effort. “He has this rare understanding of both the public and private sector and how to get them to work together,” Commissioner Walsh said.
Mr. Reed used to jog over the Brooklyn Bridge many mornings from his apartment in Carroll Gardens, and he was always struck by how many tourists would walk over from Manhattan and immediately turn back around. “My goal was to put DUMBO on the map,” Mr. Reed said. In the span of two years he had, converting a nonexistent advocacy group into one of the foremost BIDs in town.
He built the first pedestrian plaza in the city, at Pearl Street, opened the archway under the anchorage to the Manhattan Bridge, formerly a DOT storage lot, and launched a program to install free wifi in the neighborhood. He presided over a landmarking of DUMBO that preserved its character, then pivoted to a rezoning that carved out room for new development.
“He just has an instinctual understanding of how urban spaces work,” Mr. Walentas said. Meanwhile, a tech sector blossomed and a residential market boomed into the poshest in the borough.
For all the good Mr. Reed had done in the city in his five years here, he still had a longing for greater fulfilment. “I felt like everything that was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan was really the challenge of my generation, and I wanted to be a part of that in some way,” Mr. Reed said. He found a posting for an adviser to a provincial reconstruction team, a small group of 100 civilian and military experts assigned to Division Headquarters in Baghdad.
Mr. Reed arrived in Iraq in May 2008. After five years of war, the situation on the banks of the Tigris was unspeakably worse than along the East River, yet both had undergone a considerable building boom that now needed managing.
“The mandate was, get as many projects built as possible, and let’s really start to demonstrate that the tide was turning and and conditions were improving,” Mr. Reed said. “But it was like community development gone wild.” He said it was common for a local battalion commander to be out on patrol, run into a sheikh, ask him what they needed, and voila, a school or hospital would materialize out of nowhere—with no one to run or even necessarily fill it. This not only created underutilized resources but a new vulnerable infrastructure that if not defended and put into could use could become a nest for insurgents.
“There was a lot of the best intentions that were meeting just a kind of discoordinated effort, and not through the fault of anyone specifically, but, I think, through the fault of being in a war zone,” Mr. Reed said. It was a year after the military surge, and things had begun to improve, but untold amounts of work remained to be done. Mr. Reed makes mention of 18- to 20-hour workdays.
“He’s kind and generous, but holds people accountable for their actions,” Lou Ann Linehan, a diplomat in the Basra consulate who was Mr. Reed’s superior in Baghdad, said in an email. “He fills up the room with his personality. He does not suffer fools.”
One of his fondest projects—something only a New Yorker could cop to—was helping to rebuild the sanitation network. “You’re working on trying to restore the most basic level of service where you’re training people to follow a set route, come at a dependable time each day to build the trust of the customer so they know if I go and put my garbage out at 5 o’clock it’s going to be picked at 5 o’clock, and that’s the most basic level of service because the place had evolved into complete chaos,” Mr. Reed recalled. “People aren’t really caring about garbage when you’re worrying about if you’re going to get blown up.” Yet that is part of the reason regular trash removal was so important—the ubiquitous piles of garbage were a popular hiding place for IEDs.
This was a matter of personal import, as well, since Mr. Reed was venturing out into these same streets three to four times a week from the relative safety of the Green Zone. In talking about his time in Iraq, Mr. Reed is careful to be matter-of-fact, not wanting to sound boastful or self-important. His posting is something he felt obligated to do, but it was also just another job to do and do right. “There was the physical danger aspect to it, which, when you’re in the situation, you kind of push to the back of your mind, because if you don’t, it will drive you crazy,” Mr. Reed said of the challenges of working in a war zone.
When he got homesick, he would watch Rick Burns’s New York documentary, and it helped inform his view of the city when he returned. “I watched the whole series while I was over there again, there is some quote in there from Fitzgerald talking about how New York burns with all the effervescence of the sun,” he said. “With all that ligh,t how could you not want to be a part of it?”
After only six months, Mr. Reed had been promoted from an adviser to chief of staff, but after seven more, he found himself exhausted. It was time to return home to the bright lights.
The day after his big announcement, a clear, muggy Friday morning, Tucker Reed was giving a tour of his downtown domain, strolling through the leafy confines of the MetroTech Plaza, having just walked over from the noisy scene on the Fulton Mall. The two are closer than even locals realize, and in many ways they remain worlds apart, though upscale developments on both sides—a French bistro recently opened in MetroTech—draw them ever closer. Mr. Reed considers this his top priority.
“For me, one of the big things is the Downtown Brooklyn experience,” he said. “We want to create a destination, with everything so close together, but it can be very confusing since there’s not a grid, there’s no easy path.” Everything from smartphone apps to digital kiosks is in the works.
After returning from Iraq, Mr. Reed spent a few wayward months figuring out exactly what to do with himself. He moved into his girlfriend’s Midtown studio—she had departed their Carroll Gardens apartment when he headed overseas—and mostly spent his time decompressing, visiting with family and friends and traveling around the country. He passed the foreign service exam and considered moving to Washington, but eventually took his old friend Jed Walentas up on an offer to join Two Trees.
He spent two years as a project manager working on everything from the new Mercedes House project on the Far West Side to liaising with City Hall and managing philanthropic efforts on behalf of the Walentases. Much as he enjoyed his work in the private sector, he jumped at the opportunity to take over the partnership when Joe Chan, its founding director, stepped down last fall.
“I had met him during a tour with Jed once, and I remember being impressed, but when he came in for an interview for the job, we knew immediately he was our guy,” Forest City Ratner executive vice president MaryAnne Gilmartin said. “His resume just blew us away.
It was a tumultuous time at the BID, where competing interests among the areas long-time developers often ran up against each other. On top of that, a scathing report from City Comptroller John Liu charged the partnership with mismanagement of funds, spending lavishly on executives while local needs were ignored.
Much as he did in Iraq, Mr. Reed focused on finding common ground among the competing parties, stressing their shared interests: let’s capitalize on the 56,000 college students, more than in Cambridge; better wayfinding, connectivity and open space are key; tech, tech, tech. He made of point of meeting with all 120 partnership members, not just the big shots on the board, though he has also conscripted them into monthly one-on-ones.
If there are any skeptics, they are among the groups that have long been critical of the partnership, most notably Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. Mr. Reed met the group within the first few months of taking over and even agreed to go on a walking tour of the neighborhood, which impressed the member of FUREE. But when he released the strategic plan, they were disappointed. “We worry it’s largely lip service,” Patrick Gomez, a FUREE board member said. “So far these policies have mostly benefited the luxury developers, and the elite business interests that dominate the boards of the Partnership. We look forward to working with the Partnership to promote development that uplifts the long-time residents, local small business owners and workers who have contributed to the area’s success.”
While Mr. Reed is willing to work with local groups, he was clear that it is not his first priority. “We are not a city agency, a housing advocate, a workforce development provider or an enforcement organization,” he responded
Despite such objections, Mr. Reed is upbeat. At the end of the tour, standing in front of Shake Shack—regarded by some as the clearest sign of the changes to Downtown Brooklyn—Mr. Reed surveyed his domain. “Within 10 or 15 blocks, it’s really all here, from Brooklyn Bridge Park to the BAM to the Barclays Center,” Mr. Reed said. “We have to think about how to knit it together. It’s not about going to the office or going to the Fulton Mall anymore. You’re coming here to see a show, to shop, to work, to live. You really don’t have to leave the area—you can do it all.