Getting the Memo: Office Space Comes to Crown Heights

1000 Dean Street

1000 Dean Street in 2010. The building had almost 30 building code violations from 1981 to 2012. Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Butler.

By Patrick Gillespie

Beat-up brick marked the façade on one side of the building, old dirty windows the other. Papers and furniture sat inside, collecting dust. The exterior had rusty smudges. Until this year, no one had worked at 1000 Dean Street or 899 Bergen Street for more than thirty years. Five hundred people arrived at their new offices in April, and many more are coming to eat there this spring.

1000 Dean Street and 899 Bergen Street — two adjacent properties, built in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1965 — were originally one property, a Studebaker service station. They were renovated over the past two years into office and commercial spaces. Several small businesses moved into 1000 Dean, the office space, last month, and a high-end food market is arriving at 899 Bergen in May.

1000 Dean Street in May 2014. Several small businesses moved there in April.

1000 Dean Street in May 2014. Several small businesses moved there in April.

Between 1981 and 2012, the property was owned by a series of individuals and storage companies that did not take care of the building, property records show.

In 1999, then-owner Leon Heiman was fined $800 for allowing the roof to fall apart, and for having missing bricks at the building’s entrance. In 2010, Heiman’s successor Kevin Gilgan received a $500 fine for broken windows, oil spills and unreadable fuses.

Multiple times the buildings’ owner–whether an individual or storage company–was cited for failure to maintain its exterior. 1000 Dean Street alone has had 29 building code violations since 1981, according to property records.

The area around the building, a few blocks from the infamous race riots of 1991, has seen major residential revitalization in the past decade, but this building marks its first renovated office space, filling a need community leaders say the neighborhood lacked.

“It hadn’t been utilized in years,” said Atim Oton, chair of the economic development committee of Community District 8 in Crown Heights. “It’s helping to rebrand Crown Heights.”

Jonathan Butler, BFC Partners and Goldman Sachs came together to purchase both properties — 150,000 square feet altogether — for $11 million in 2012. Butler is the founder of the popular Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg markets. He gained local fame when he started, a Brooklyn real-estate blog, nearly a decade ago.

“I’ve always loved old buildings, and so the idea of bringing one back to life was interesting both architecturally and from an economic development standpoint,” said Butler. “It struck me as a no-brainer that it would be a good place to locate a kind of commercial-office hub.”

Butler wrote about the building on his blog in 2010, and wondered at the time if anyone was pursuing the property.

“Ah, if we only had the $5 million or so that will be required for a downpayment!” he wrote in 2010.

Two years and no takers later, Butler and his partners bought the old Studebaker service station.

899 Bergen Street

899 Bergen Street in 2010. Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Butler

Unlike the neighborhood’s recent transformation, which Butler credits to local merchants group the Crow Hill Community Association, the property’s rebirth has roots in Manhattan. In addition to the cost of purchasing the property, the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group put $25 million into the renovation. Selldorf Architects, a firm that mostly does Manhattan real estate, jumped on board to redesign the building. Butler lives in Brooklyn, but grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“It was a different kind of project than we typically do, so we were interested in exploring that up-and-coming neighborhood,” said Sara Lopergolo, the Selldorf architect who redesigned the property, about her first impressions of the building. “The repurposing of a building is, to me, very interesting.”

Lopergolo wanted to keep the building’s columns, high ceilings and skylights. But beside those, the entire building was gutted. New elevators, insulation, plumbing, electric systems and windows were installed. Two light wells were carved into the building’s middle so daylight could reach the inside easily.

899 Bergen Street

899 Bergen Street in May 2014. A food market will open up there at the end of the month.

Butler says the building’s cohort of small businesses will spur more economic investment in the neighborhood, citing more than six properties that have started construction projects since he came in.

There are two new apartment buildings as of this year on the same block as 899 Bergen Street. Six blocks from the 899 Bergen, a refurbished subway entrance re-opened in April, and right next to it a nearly finished residential and commercial property. Another new apartment building under construction at 655 Franklin Ave., two blocks away.

Whether Butler’s building sparked these other developments is unclear, but Franklin Avenue has experienced significant streetscape changes in the past few years.

Community leaders hold high hopes for both buildings. They didn’t consider the building “abandoned” before but said that it’s now being put to better use.

“It will help revive that particular location,” said Oton, the community board member.

Oton, 45, said she expects 600 to 1,000 people to visit Berg’n — the food market — daily, on top of the 500 employees who began working next door earlier this month.

Nagi Nahshal, the manager of the Bergen Express Deli, a half-block from the food market, said both buildings are making the area safer. Up until last year, the block was crime-ridden even during daylight hours, he said.

Oton acknowledges that there are some community concerns about the influx of traffic, trash and noise that the building may generate. But the benefits of business development — and potential employment for locals in the neighborhood — outweigh the costs, she said.

“We see the upside,” said Oton. “It’s a win-win for the community.”

1000 Dean Street

The renovation team restored the original Studebaker sign at the top of the building.

Deserted NYC is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Squatting in the City

Housing activist Frank Morales discusses the squatting movement in Tompkins Square Park, April 25, 2014. (Leila Roos)

Housing activist Frank Morales discusses the Lower East Side squatting movement. Tompkins Square Park, April 25, 2014. (Leila Roos)

By Leila Roos

Q&A with Frank Morales

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Housing activist Frank Morales is an advocate of “the direct action approach,” which is “securing a place to live by seizing, renovating and defending it.” Morales, 65, began squatting in the South Bronx during the urban decay of the late ’70s, when hundreds of buildings were left to ruin. He later moved to the Lower East Side, forming a loose community with fellow squatters as they worked to rebuild abandoned properties.

Morales estimates that at the height of the movement, there were 500 people in close to 30 buildings. But decades of all-out war with “the powers that be,” left just 12 squats standing. In 2002, 11 of those squats — known by names like “Umbrella House” and “Serenity” or only the address — were legalized. Although the movement has changed with the times, Morales says squatting in New York City is far from over — it’s the start of a new era.

What did the squats look like when you got started on them?
They were literally vacant — boarded-up, cinder blocked-up, sealed-up.

How were you able to get building access?
It’s not rocket science — you take a bolt cutter and a sledgehammer and just go in.

What was squatting in the Lower East Side like?
We spontaneously occupied vacant buildings, sharing ideas and skills. Soon after, the powers that be caught on to what we were doing, but instead of praising us for saving these buildings, they sent the cops to try and dislodge us.

How did you organize to defend yourselves?
Eviction Watch: We all agreed to come out for each other. It would be 5:30 in the morning, and you’d get the call: “Hey, they’re surrounding 6th Street!” There could be hundreds of riot cops, helicopters, snipers in the windows — it was insane! We’d go and put out whatever counterpressure we could.

What are some misperceptions about squatters that you can clear up?
That we’re druggies, that we jump the line for housing. Public housing has a waiting list in the hundreds of thousands, and it’s been that way for decades. Unlike private- or city-run properties, we can deal with the problem through direct action. We change the locks and say you’re out.

What are the grounds for kicking someone out of a squat?
Drug dealing, violence against your neighbor and stealing from your neighbor are the three evictable offenses. Our main rule is that everyone living and working together defines the rules.

If everyone is expected to help rebuild, how can those without the ability contribute?
Rosemary was 70 years old when she squatted with us. She would cook up soup during the workday and keep us entertained. She was a great chatterer and everyone loved her.

Beyond political or practical motives, why should someone choose to squat?
After a while, it dawns on you: if your roof and food are taken care of, you don’t really need a whole lot of money. It’s like, “Oh wow, I don’t have to pay this rent. I don’t need to do that job anymore. I could actually save the money and take another course, or open up this room as a workspace for my art.”

Some of the Lower East Side squats have been legalized. What happened?
Before leaving office, Giuliani transferred the title of eleven squats to UHAB — the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board — ostensibly to manage us and secure loans, before turning the buildings into low-income co-ops. “Now you own the building, and here’s your bill.” It’s slow-motion gentrification: Folks who had been paying $150 a month now have a mortgage, which could translate to $500, $600, $800 a month.

Can they still be considered squats, then?
They’re no longer squats in the sense that they’re legal now, but they’re still self-managed.

What’s it like to squat here today?
There are three times more vacant spaces in New York City than homeless people. There’s no morally defensible reason for us not to go in. But with less vacant city-owned property, the new venues are smaller, the groups are smaller, and that brings about different approaches.

Who would benefit from squatting?
The needs of the homeless aren’t being met. Students can’t afford a place to live. The so-called working people spend half their income [on rent].

Is it possible for squatters and city officials to work together toward a housing solution?
Without any heat from the street, things are never going to change. So while squatters take pressure off the government to provide housing, they also put pressure on the government to do the right thing.

How did you end up at the forefront of the movement?
I have always been very committed to the idea and politics of squatting, of working collectively and exerting a certain creativity in vacant spaces.

What are your goals for the next generation of squatters?
I do workshops on “the ABCs of squatting,” with the aim of getting people to organize, collectively move into these spaces, renovate and defend them together.

What happens after a building is rebuilt?
Squatting is not about getting into a space and closing the door. It’s the base upon which we can create stable homes, communities and neighborhoods to then collectively organize and meet the bigger challenges.

In addition to his work as a housing activist, Morales is an Episcopal priest and professor at the New School. He lives in a 10th Street squat.



Peter Spagnuolo is a poet who led the mid-1990s legal battle for the 13th Street squats, which underwent a militaristic eviction. Spagnuolo now lives in Brooklyn.

Jerry the Peddler is a gardener who used to peddle comic books. He now sells buttons bearing a political message. Jerry lives in C-Squat.

Nigel Clayton is a DJ renowned for his party apartment, “The Clayton Ranch.” Following a court case with UHAB, Clayton moved out of Serenity, where he had lived for 22 years.

George Marco is an electrician and performance artist who specializes in fire shows: breathing, spinning and eating fire. Marco lives in a squat on 10th street.

Leila Roos is a freelance writer and editor currently studying at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Deserted NYC is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.