Friday, November 30, 2007


Brooklyn, NY 11/29/07 — In settlement of a lawsuit filed by Joy Chatel and Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) the City has pledged that it will not use eminent domain to condemn 227 Duffield. The property has been the subject of controversy since 2004 when the City announced that it intended to take the property by eminent domain as part of their Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan. The Downtown Brooklyn Plan is a massive redevelopment plan based on a rezoning of the area in 2004. The plan calls for over 4 million square feet of new retail, commercial and luxury housing in the middle of a historically low-income community.

On January 7, 2004, Joy Chatel, an owner of 227 Duffield Street was given a notice informing her that her home would be taken by eminent domain and demolished to make way for a new parking lot. Many believe that her home was a station on the Underground Railroad and a vital cultural treasure that should be preserved. The Underground Railroad was the network of people and places in which fugitive slaves sought refuge when escaping from the plantation system in the South.

The home, built in 1848, was owned by Thomas and Harriet Lee-Truesdell, prominent abolitionists of that era. Their role in the abolitionist movement, coupled with their relationships with other active abolitionists in Downtown Brooklyn, led the City’s own researchers to conclude that the property was “quite possibly” linked to the Underground Railroad and the majority of historians commissioned by the City to review its research advocated for the home’s preservation. Despite this historical documentation and the presence of several unexplainable architectural abnormalities in the sub-basements from 227-235 Duffield St, the City of New York initially concluded that the home’s historic significance did not warrant its preservation. In response to litigation and years of advocacy on the part of those who support preserving the property, the City has agreed to re-draw its plans for Downtown Brooklyn so that the condemnation of 227 Duffield will not be necessary.

“I want to thank the Mayor for listening to our plea,” Joy Chatel, an owner of 227 Duffield Street said, “My vision is to continue the Cultural Center and Museum my daughter and I started years ago; so all people home and abroad can benefit from the rich history downtown Brooklyn has to offer. I am also thankful to the many people who have gone to great lengths to make sure that this vision comes to fruition.”

“So many of us in the community did not want to see the Underground Railroad become an underground parking lot,” said Randy Leigh, area resident and FUREE board member. “Too much of our history has already been lost, and we know the City did the right thing by listening to the community and protecting our history. “

The suit was brought by Jennifer Levy of South Brooklyn Legal Services who says: “I commend the City for their flexibility. They have shown that it is possible to do development thoughtfully, in a manner that is responsive to community concerns, and with an eye to preserving our history.”

Tours of the home will be given on request.

* * * *

More information will be available at the press conference on Monday, December 3, 2007, 12 PM.

Where: 227 Duffield Street (between Fulton & Willoughby Streets in Brooklyn)

Invited Speakers: Councilmembers Charles Barron, Letitia James, Tony Avella, John Liu; Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, US Congressional Representative Yvette Clarke, Assembly Representative Joseph Lentol; Rev. Clinton Miller, Rev. Dyson, Joy Chatel, Families United For Racial and Economic Equality, Jennifer Levy Esq., Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance, Lewis Greenstein, Raul Rothblatt, Christabel Gough, Jim Driscoll, Richard Hourahan, and others.

Friday, November 16, 2007

NY Sun: Concerns Rise Over Brooklyn Boom

The NY Sun writes critically about the massive residential building boom in Downtown Brooklyn. This is not an article about the Abolitionist homes, but about the shaky financial situation of this real estate bubble. The article, Concerns Rise Over Brooklyn Boom, has this to say about the recent revisions to the 421-a laws:

A former City Council member and a partner at the law firm WolfBlock, Kenneth Fisher, said recent revisions to the 421-a program could be devastating to downtown Brooklyn's residential market.

"Given the credit crisis and problems on Wall Street, they picked exactly the wrong moment to choke the golden goose," Mr. Fisher said. "Even the biggest developers are worried that there is simply not enough subsidy to meet the need. The 421-a requirement for affordable housing is already skewing the market. Projects are being accelerated to meet the deadline, creating a glut just as the demand might soften."

"Home ownership is at risk as developers switch to rentals because there are no meaningful subsidy programs for condos," he said. "The biggest losers will be the smaller projects, which can't possibly qualify or navigate the subsidy program."

Several other news sources have mentioned that there are three (3) hotels being built on Abolitionist Place (Duffield Street between Fulton & Willoughby), but the Sun mentions this additional project that has not gotten much press:

United American Land is planning to build a $208 million development a block from Fulton Street Mall and MetroTech. The development site occupies approximately half a square block along Willoughby Street, between Bridge and Duffield streets. The 594,000-square-foot development would include retail stores on the base with housing on top.
In any other neighborhood, a $208 million development would be big news. But in Downtown Brooklyn, it's just part of the wash.

It would be nice to think that someone in the New York government was minding the store, making sure none of these many $200+ million project don't fall through given the current market.

The NYC Economic Development Corporation is demanding a high standard of proof of Underground Railroad activity at 227 Duffield. Given the shakiness in real estate, maybe the agency should also demand a high standard of proof of solid financial planning before letting all these skyscrapers rise.

City: Save history on Duffield by paving over Duffield homes

The Brooklyn Paper is not very impressed with the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC) new RFP that might allow for the preservation of the Duffield Abolitionist homes. "City: Save history on Duffield by paving over Duffield homes" reports:
The city’s memorial to Brooklyn’s Underground Railroad history will sit atop an underground parking lot that will be built where some of the very Abolitionist history being commemorated is said to have actually happened.
The article continues:
City officials have denied that the Duffield houses were directly linked to the Underground Railroad, and the RFP continues that position: “A number of homes and churches in Downtown Brooklyn and the surrounding area have connections with the Underground Railroad [including] Plymouth Church (now Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims) in Brooklyn Heights; Bridge Street A.W.M.E. Church (now Polytechnic University student center in MetroTech); Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene; and the Siloam Presbyterian Church, and Concord Baptist Church.”

The winning bidder must not only design a great monument, but also “provide an interactive, public gathering venue where individuals and groups of all ages can learn about the Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad in Brooklyn.”

In addition, the “Abolitionism Commemoration” must include “an ongoing program or series of activities” and “demonstrate program sustainability using allocated funds for at least the next three fiscal years and … with other sources of funding beyond [that].”
Part of the irony is that there already are ongoing programs and activities at 227 and 233 Duffield Street. Lewis Greenstein, owner of 233 Duffield, opens his home every Sunday afternoon for tours of the evidence of Underground Railroad activity in his basement.

The Brooklyn Paper also points out the double standards of the EDC. The agency denies that there is sufficient proof of escaped slaves in the basements of Duffield Street to save them, yet they mention Plymouth Church. While Plymouth Church is a famous Abolitionist church, there is no more physical evidence of escaped slaves hiding there than at Duffield Street.

City Wants "Brooklyn Abolitionism Commemoration" Proposals

Gowanus Lounge covers the NYC Economic Development Corporation's RFP that might allow the Duffield Abolitionist homes to stand, even as they build Willoughby Square. They posted this map at City Wants "Brooklyn Abolitionism Commemoration" Proposals, and summarized the new announcement this way:
The Underground Railroad Houses on Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn may eventually fall to bulldozers, but it's looking more and more likely that the city is putting up some sort of museum or other commemoration at the site or in another location.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Victory (????): RFP for Abolitionist commemoration

The NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC) released an RFP called Brooklyn Abolitionism Commemoration.

It's unclear what all this means so soon after the RFP was released. On the one hand it's a great victory that the EDC will allow for a museum on the site of their planned parking lot that until this week would have destroyed the Duffield Abolitionist homes. On the other hand, the RFP does not appear to require a museum, so 227 Duffield is not yet safe.

Until we can fully digest the document, here are some excerpts, staring with the Overview:
New York City Economic Development Corporation (“NYCEDC”) will issue a Request for Proposal (“RFP”) to select an existing cultural organization to develop and manage a commemoration site and ongoing program dedicated to the ‘historical friendships’ created during the 19th century Abolitionist Movement among people of different backgrounds, with particular attention paid to the Underground Railroad and its ties to the Borough of Brooklyn.

A project may be proposed for any area of Brooklyn, but it is expected that the most competitive proposals will provide for a central location for orientation connected to a network of related sites.
About Willoughby Square, the 1.25 acre park which the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership has called "critical" to job growth:
The Plaza is a critical aspect of the Downtown Brooklyn Development Plan, which recognizes the need for green space in the core of Downtown Brooklyn and aims to revitalize and enhance the district. Willoughby Square was initially designed as a way to attract residents, visitors and tenants to the new office, hotel, retail and residential space around this new public space just south of MetroTech. Currently, roughly two thousand housing units, five hundred hotel rooms and thousands of square feet of new retail and office development are in the development process in the immediate vicinity. Beneath the Plaza will be a 700-car public parking garage for use by visitors and employees. This new Plaza will be programmed for daily and seasonal use much like Manhattan’s Bryant Park and will serve multiple purposes for those living, working, studying and visiting the district.

So the EDC still considers their little parking lot and park to be critical to economic development, but this RFP is still a tremendous victory for those of us who believe that promoting Abolitionist history is the best way to promote Brooklyn. It shouldn't be hard to adjust the City's plan for a small park to prevent the destruction of these historic homes... shouldn't be, but we're working with the Bloomberg's EDC here.

Navy Yard gets historic

Brooklyn Paper writes about the city's plan to commemorate- and destroy- historic buildings near the booming Downtown Brooklyn. They report in "Navy Yard gets historic":

Mayor Bloomberg (and his would-be successor, Speaker Christine Quinn) journeyed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Wednesday to unveil a $15-million historical center that will celebrate the Navy Yard’s illustrious role as a ship-building Mecca during World War II, when it employed 70,000 people.

The project will add a new gallery and office space to the Commandant’s Residence, an 1857 building that is part of the decaying Admiral’s Row.

The rest of that line of 19th-century structures — the best looking ones at the entire Navy Yard — will be torn down to make room for a supermarket.

“[It] is essential that we remember [the Navy Yard’s] rich and historic past,” said Bloomberg. The mayor’s appeal to history at the Navy Yard is similar to his approach on nearby Duffield Street Downtown, where the administration has condemned historic houses to make room for a parking garage.

Admiral's Row currently is a set of glorious, decaying structures that have intrigued New Yorkers. But we haven't been allowed to visit them as they sit and rot under the City's guardianship. The rendering released by the City doesn't give much hope that the unique characteristics of these historic mansions will be used to bring the neighborhood forward.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Respec from the NY Times

The New York Times shows us some love. They give a link to us in "What Would the Tramalfadorians Do?."

The Borough of Churches Ain’t

Downtown Brooklyn, especially the Fulton Mall, have been packed with bustling shops for year. Immigrant and African-American entrepreneurs have thrived, though the visionaries behind the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning would like to replace those businesses with new ones... with different demographics. Who Walk In Brooklyn posts strong commentary about this in "The Borough of Churches Ain’t":
If John Strausbaugh’s recent comments about the process of “benign ethnic cleansing” in Manhattan are true, what will folks say about the new new Downtown when it’s cleared of all but civil servants & students in the daytime, the wealthy at night? That their prayers were answered? No public figure would put it that way but note the huge gulf in coverage between the plight of the homes on Duffield Street– whose potential date with the wrecking ball we’ve long decried, including in the pages of New York Calling– and what all this portends for non-institutional culture downtown. (Hello BAM imperialists.) The closure last year of Beat Street Records on Fulton got very little attention compared to the fate of other, far less heterogeneous public spaces. Ya’ll will look long & hard for this information on the internet but talk to people– not real estate shills– about what downtown was like before Metrotech. Is it possible what was “blighted” then is about as “blighted” as the private property threatened by eminent domain today? Next, look to some favorite Brooklyn blog and see how much they talk about, say, Nigerian & Guyanese shopkeepers downtown, & what are those other dudes with ghetto stores– Syrian? Siberian? Silesian?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Why hasn’t Marty Markowitz Stepped Up to Help Joy Chatel?

Queen of the Click raises a question that somehow the NY Times hasn't gotten around to asking in "Why hasn’t Marty Markowitz Stepped Up to Help Joy Chatel?":

Joy Chatel owns 227 Duffield Street. Chatel, a widowed grandmother has researched the history of the home since 2004. Abolitionists were found to be the original owners. Even the discovery done by the city shows that there is historical significance to the home. The city had plans to destroy the building and make way for an underground parking lot for the two hotels across the street drom Chatel’s building. So why haven’t the plans been changed yet?

Brooklyn is the largest of the five boroughs with about 2.5 million residents. Marty Markowitz is the Brooklyn Borough President. Why hasn’t he offered Chatel help? How come he hasn’t made a plan for the Brooklyn Underground Railroad? Markowitz spent $475,000 on a trolley to go around to cultural sites in Brooklyn. This is a cultural site and Markowitz should be making plans for their to be a smaller underground parking lot, a park and the Brooklyn Underground Railroad Museum. Where is Marty?

Downtown Brooklyn Finally Arrives

The NY Sun writes breathlessly about the stunning array of new developments in Downtown Brooklyn, from high-rise luxury apartments, to high-rise office towers, to a flood of new hotels. Here is a taste of "Downtown Brooklyn Finally Arrives":
"Brooklyn has morphed into a 24/7 community. The area is teeming with activity — artsy and cool Generation Xers and Yers, families with strollers, Manhattan exiles, office workers, and out-of-town visitors are coming to take advantage of the new venues that big-bucks bohemia has to offer," the president of Troutbrook Companies, Marc Freud, said. "Redevelopments, new developments, and the continuity of change dot the skyline. The vaunted destination known for haute cuisine and eclectic art galleries, shopping, and culture has created an urban modernity that when you leave has you yearning for more."
The article gives a good sense of how the neighborhood is becoming stiff competition to Midtown and Downtown Manhattan. The spectacular growth shows no end of slowing down, despite problems elsewhere in the real estate and other markets. With such tremendous optimism, you have to question this statement by Joe Chan of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership:
Willoughby Square has always been the centerpiece of the plan, and is an important incentive to attract private investment....

Acquisition of property is critical and necessary for Willoughby Square to move forward — and without Willoughby Square, much of this new investment, and therefore businesses, jobs and housing, will not happen.
Huh? Read the New York Sun- do they make it seem like Willoughby Square (recently dubbed the "Bonsai Bryant Park" by blogger Norman Oder) is the linchpin of of all economic growth? None of these jobs will happen without this small grassy knoll? And a 1.25 acre park is a more unique cultural attraction to Downtown Brooklyn than a museum at the home of prominent Abolitionists?

Businesses have to be flexible in their plans if they want to stay in business. The NYC Economic Development Corporation and their buddies at the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership seem to have no incentive to be flexible in their plans. We can have spectacular economic growth in Brooklyn, and preserving the Duffield Abolitionist homes will help, not hurt, that economic development.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Your E-mail Can Save History

Queen of the Click put up a nice and brief summary of our current call to action in "Your E-mail Can Save History":
I’m sure you are all aware of the eminent domain proceedings happening in New York. Eminent domain is a loophole that allows the government to force you to give up your home/property. Originally it was needed for governments to build highways or public places. Yet here in NYC, the government gives the property to private developers for below cost.

I’m from Brooklyn and there are many of us who are concerned about Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn. There are several houses which have been found to be connected to the Underground Railroad. The city wants to take these homes, crush them and build a parking lot for two new hotels. Yet, the city has decided to take public opinion until Monday, November 5th! Full story here:

So how can you help?

Please e-mail Jack Hammer at:

Dear Jack Hammer,

I do not believe that the Duffield Abolitionist homes should be destroyed. Further research is needed to discover the historical significance of these homes as they may have had a role in the Underground Railroad slave safehouse movement.

Thank you!

It is a stroke of rhetorical genius to sign an letter to Jack Hammer with "Hugs."

AYR: The bonsai Bryant Park and other fudges from the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership's video

Actor Ian McKellen narrates a promotional video for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, and the Atlantic Yards Report has this to say:
We can figure out why the video doesn't mention that the planned Willoughby Square park (right) is the site of an eminent domain fight, but the claim that it would be "a beautiful public space similar to midtown's Bryant Park" begs for some fact-checking. Bryant Park is eight acres. Willoughby Square would be 1.25 acres. More precisely, it would be a bonsai Bryant Park.
It continues:
The video does a bang-up job of avoiding the news that the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, intended to spur office construction, didn't quite work as expected. Instead, with the assistance of 421-a tax breaks subsidizing luxury construction, it will make some residential developers a nice return and bring some wealthier people downtown.

The city once expected 4.6 million square feet of office space by 2013, even though the rezoning would have allowed an additional 2 million more square feet. Now the prediction is 1.5 million square feet by 2012, though the DBP fudges it by combining office and retail space--which are very different--and calling it 3 million square feet.
For more, click here.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Plan Promotes Alternative, Affordable Office Space in Vibrant Downtown District

Here's something from "Bloomberg Administration Unveils Development Plan for Downtown Brooklyn," an NYC Department of City Planning Press release:
The sweeping proposal calls for the City to increase zoning allowances, assist in the assembly of key commercial and residential sites and undertake a series of infrastructure improvements to help facilitate the creation of as much as 5.4 million square feet of new commercial space and about 1,000 units of housing.
That's what they said in 2003. Here's what NY1 reported in "Downtown Brooklyn Set To Get A New Look" (November 2007):
New renderings were released today as part of the so-called "Plan for Downtown Brooklyn." The video proposal, narrated by stage and screen star Ian McKellen, calls for a new hotel, retail and office space, and more than 14,000 new housing units.

The year-old Downtown Brooklyn Partnership hopes to use the animated renderings to help attract corporate tenants, retailers, and investors to the more than 50 projects planned or already in the works at a cost of $9 billion in private money and $300 million in public investment.

Currently, a new hotel, a park with a 700-car underground garage, and a new office building are planned to be completed at the former Albee Square Mall by 2012.
The first think you might notice is that the number of housing units has gone up. Way up, from 1,000 to 14,000.

The next think you might notice is that among the massive, massive developments, a little 700-car garage and 1.15 acre grassy knoll gets high billing. The Downtown Brooklyn plan has already brought the destruction of hundreds of parking spaces- what's so important about this parking lot?

Well, for some reason the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership has decided to make a big splash during the extremely brief period of public commentary regarding this parking lot. It may be a coincidence, but the public has until Monday 11/5 at 5pm to submit their ideas about the planned destruction of the Duffield Street homes in order to build said parking lot.

Please submit your comments to Jack Hammer at Let him know whether you think the City should destroy the Duffield Abolitionist homes immediately, or whether they should be researched further to find if they had a role in the Underground Railroad slave safehouse movement. Given the massive buildings that continue to grow in the area, do you think eminent domain is critical to future development?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Duffield a no-brainer

There's something about Duffield Street. Even Charles Barron and Bill DeBlasio can agree on it. The two City Council Representatives come from two very different districts in Brooklyn— one African-American, the other predominantly white Park Slope— but they are crawling over each other to show that they are the true supporters of the Duffield Street Abolitionist homes. At least, that's the implication of the Brooklyn Paper. "Cash-rich DeBlasio seeks Beep post" writes about the two candidates for Brooklyn Borough President and reports:

Barron certainly focused on Atlantic Yards as a way of attacking DeBlasio’s “inconsistent” support of progressive values.

“He supported Ratner! He supported gutting Downtown Brooklyn [a reference to the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, a 2004 upzoning], yet now says he wants to save the Duffield Street houses, which were part of the Underground Railroad,” Barron said.

No elected official has come out in favor of the destruction of the Duffield Street homes.

Daily News: A push to save historic safe houses

Albor Ruiz of the NY Daily News does a good job in summing up the recent Duffield developments and the arguments against the use of eminent domain in Downtown Brooklyn. The article is called "A push to save historic safe houses" in the online edition and "Nabe preservers draw the line at Duffield Street":

The city's decision to withdraw its initial eminent domain application "was an acknowledgment that it had no basis in the record for its use of eminent domain," FUREE said in a written statement. "This abuse of the powers of eminent domain would have proceeded if the city hadn't been sued."

Community activists believe the rezoning of downtown Brooklyn has not fulfilled its promise of bringing economic growth to the neighborhood.

"Given the failure of the rezoning to achieve the stated goals," Rothblatt said, "it is time to take a fresh look at how to promote the area for the good of everyone, not only the friends of politicians."

Public comment on the use of eminent domain will continue through Monday.

Click here to read the full article.

The Daily News offers a lot of ammunition to those who want to submit public comments. It's not hard to do— just shoot an email to Jack Hammer at the HPD at