Artists, small businesses and residents living in three Douglass Street commercial lofts are being forced out of their studios, factories and homes so the buildings can be demolished to make room for the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School.
Although the buildings’ certified occupancy is commercial and it is illegal to live in commercially zoned buildings, that did not deter residents and artists, like John Romano and his partner Karen Zieff, to make their 5,000 square foot loft their home.
Romano has been living on the third floor of 269 Douglass Street, between Third Avenue and Nevins Street, for 15 years. His neighbor in the building next door has been living there for 26 years.
But now, to get ready for the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School’s December 2012 move-in date, an eviction notice was sent to all the tenants. The Department of Buildings has already approved a demolition order to bring down the row of the three grey factories (271-265 Douglass Street). Two new structures will be built to replace the lofts, erected in the early 1900’s, and will be the middle school’s new home.
Each loft housed about 20 residents and a couple of small businesses, like BK NY, a silk screening and tee-shirt manufacturer, Feral Childe, a clothing designer, a stained glass manufacturer, a wood-worker and cabinet maker, a towel and linen supply store and an antique furniture refurbisher. Various artists leased spaces to serve as studios, too. Combined, they employed over 100 people. Some are still in business, but not for long.
“Our first landlord expressed content that we were living here,” Romano, an artist and construction manager said. But, 18 months ago when a developer named Jack Elo bought the building (he also owns the old Daily News garage across Third Avenue, now the ), things changed. Tenants charge the “predatory developer” asked all the renters to sign a five-year lease and give a $6,000 security deposit.
According to Romano, Dana Williams (a photographer whose studio has been in 267 Douglass for 15 years and has been living there for the past five) and the owner of Assaf Antiques’ warehouse (who has been there for 22 years), last December Elo added a clause to the bottom of the lease that read:
“In the case of a demolition order, occupants will be required to vacate the premises in six months.”
Most did not sign it and almost all of the residents were either scared off by the clause or decided to leave and find a more stable space, the tenants said.
In an attempt to coax the renters into signing the alleged 100-page lease, Elo assured them that he had no plans to sell the building.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen to this building for a very, very long time,’ Zieff said, echoing her “sneaky” landlord’s promise. “Then, seven months later he told us we have to leave, or else.”
Elo confirmed over the phone that he made a deal with Daniel Rubenstein to make this soon-to-be empty lot the site of Rubenstein’s charter school. But Elo denies that there are any residents living in the commercial building.
“There are no people living in there. There have never been people living there. It is strictly for commercial use,” Elo said when asked what will happen to the residents, some of whom have been living in the lofts for over twenty years, when the buildings are demolished. When this reporter told him he was inside the Douglass Street lofts and it appeared that the residents have been living there for a long time, Elo responded, “It is a free country and anyone can say anything they want.”
Romano claims that Elo has been doing illegal construction and demolition without permits and asbestos abatement while the residents were still inside the building, without warning or proper safety precautions. According to the Department of Buildings website, there is a partial stop work order on the building, and today two more complaints were filed calling for an inspector, alleging illegal and unsafe excavation and breaching the stop work order.
“Basically, the landlord doesn’t believe in the due process of the Department of Buildings or [Department of] Environmental Protection. He doesn’t believe in following the rules,” Romano said.
In response to Elo’s demands to vacate, Romano says he has filed a lawsuit to fight the eviction notice. He has also filed with the New York City Loft Board to see if their building’s certified occupancy can be converted into a residential zone, like many lofts in Williamsburg. If the Loft Board recognizes the building, it will be protected under the loft laws as a residence- making it harder to evict the remaining tenants.
But Elo is assured that he is doing nothing illegal.
“There is no other view here. Everything we are doing is 100-percent legal,” Elo stated over the phone. “You cannot do any construction or demolition without getting a permit from the Department of Buildings. We are building two charter schools at this site, that’s what we are doing.”
The owner of Assaf Antiques has been refurbishing and selling antiques out of his space for 22 years and is considering moving his business to New Jersey.
“Jack knew he was buying this building to tear it down and build a charter school. He tricked us all. He said, ‘Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen,’” he explained while milling around his warehouse packed with restored tables and antiques. “And all of a sudden we have to get out.”
Dana Matthews invested $30,000 into her 5,000 square foot loft over the past 15 years. She converted her space into a photography studio by hand. She built an office, a dark room, shooting space and living quarters. “We made this neighborhood inhabitable,” Matthews said about Gowanus, while she packed up her belongings in preparation for a permanent move upstate.
“That’s what artists do, they come to a very unfriendly neighborhood and they make it livable. We make it more culturally interesting and viable. Then we all get dumped out,” Matthews said in the dark and humid loft. “This is exactly what happened in SoHo. Unfortunately, this seems to be the trend in New York City.”
Seventy-five people were employed in Matthews' building alone, she said. Now, most of them gone, and the space already looks like a demolition site: walls are torn down, plumbing has been ripped out of the walls and even two urinals lay on the floor.
Matthews did not sign the lease, because she didn’t trust it. Then after a couple of months, Elo told her she had to leave.
“These days, in New York City, artists hardly have any place to go. Most of these tenants sold their businesses, shut down and are leaving the city.”
On top of not wanting to leave their home and place of business, the residents do not see how their lot, in the middle of the industrial section of Gowanus and about 400 feet from the toxic canal, would be a good location for a school.
“I find it odd that Brooklyn Prospect Charter is that desperate for property that they can’t come to an agreement on some place other than a toxic waste zone,” Romano explained. “The area is surrounded by brownfields.”
The Environmental Protection Agency designated the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site in 2010.
But even raw sewage will not make Romano budge. He says he is over 50 years old and does not fear being contaminated. All he wants is to stay put in a neighborhood he feels he pioneered.
“My plan is to stay here forever. We are going to fight and hopefully we can get the community involved. This has been my home for 16 years, the neighborhood is finally turning around and I want to benefit from that,” Romano explained. “Who would not want to fight for a place that looks over a park and is centrally located near downtown Brooklyn?”
Editors Note: For clarity, we would like to explain our use of the word "controversial." The Brooklyn Prospect Charter School itself isn't controversial, but the situation the school has found itself in, in regards to finding a suitable space, is.