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Building boom in the Brooklyn Cultural District

Eye On Real Estate: The area is 'a Lincoln Center don't-wannabe,' BAM President Karen Brooks Hopkins says

March 18, 2015 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Welcome to the Brooklyn Cultural District. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, at right, flanks a construction site at 286 Ashland Place. The black building in the center of the photo is the Theatre for a New Audience. The white building, center left, is the Mark Morris Dance Center. Eagle photos by Rob Abruzzese
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Every Day, It’s A Gettin’ Closer, Goin’ Faster Than A Roller Coaster.

Construction is picking up speed at development sites in the Brooklyn Cultural District. This calls to mind a favorite Buddy Holly song. But let us not digress.

A building boom is beginning to gain momentum on barren tracts that were parking lots for a looong time. Three apartment buildings with space for cultural facilities, a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel and a combination health center and office building are underway — or just about to get going — in the Downtown Brooklyn mini-neighborhood anchored by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“We are thrilled that every site has now been named and slated for development, and that so many of the sites have cultural entities in the base of their buildings,” Karen Brooks Hopkins, BAM’s president, said in a recent sit-down.

The district is a work in progress at this point, with its share of minor inconveniences for visitors and residents to navigate.

“Right now, it’s a little complicated because there’s no parking. There’s construction everywhere. But this too shall pass,” she said.

“The other thing is that you can feel the energy now,” she noted.

“Here you have cultural organizations ranging from 200 seats-plus at BRIC [House] to 18,000 at the Barclays Center in about five blocks, sitting on the third largest transportation hub in the city at Atlantic Avenue, and that is an unbelievable asset anywhere in the world. So we’re very excited about the whole mix.”

It has taken long-term effort by government, nonprofits and the private sector to make significant progress in the revitalization of the blocks surrounding BAM.

“The whole thing has been toil for the last 40 years. These were abandoned buildings, empty lots, poorly lit streets,” Hopkins recalled. “This was a very sketchy kind of a place.”

The district’s current name acknowledges the dozens of cultural institutions located in it. The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) at 80 Hanson Place is one of them. Recently constructed BRIC House at 647 Fulton St. is another. The Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, which is at 262 Ashland Place, has been drawing raves from critics since its fall 2013 opening.

When we write about the area — whose boundaries, roughly speaking, are Flatbush Avenue, Fulton and South Oxford Streets and Hanson Place — we also refer to it as the BAM Cultural District, the name by which it was known until recently.

We want to remind readers of the years of work that BAM’s former executive director Harvey Lichtenstein put in as the chairman of the BAM Local Development Corp., which worked with the city to bring the cultural district into being.

“He had a vision and he fought hard for it,” Hopkins said, recalling his role in getting Mark Morris Dance Group and the Theatre for a New Audience situated in the neighborhood, and turning 80 Hanson Place into an arts building. (Mark Morris Dance Center is located at 3 Lafayette Ave.)

As president of BAM — a post from which she is retiring in June — Hopkins has worked to make the cultural district a reality.

She has been active in BAM’s real estate projects, which include the construction of the BAM Fisher Building from the shell of a landmarked former Salvation Army Citadel at 321 Ashland Place. She has helped to encourage developers of cultural district sites to join BAM’s board and served as an advocate with the city on behalf of neighborhood cultural organizations.  

Also, BAM’s chief financial officer, Keith Stubblefield, is involved in the Downtown Brooklyn Arts  Alliance — BAM is a charter member.

There’s been talk over the past couple years about whether the Brooklyn Cultural District is a new Lincoln Center in the making. Hopkins framed the issue in a way that makes sense to us.

“We think that it is completely the antithesis of Lincoln Center in the 21st Century,” Hopkins said. “We’re a Lincoln Center don’t-wannabe.”

She added, “It’s no dis to them. It’s just that we never were trying to be them.”

The famed Manhattan theater complex is a “wonderful institution,” she said, but as is typical of performing arts centers built in the 1950s, 1960s and even 1970s, it is a collection of large buildings with a big plaza.

“The Brooklyn Cultural District, we feel, is much more of a 21st-Century model — small and large, ethnically diverse, visual and performing arts all mushed up together. We feel that it connects in a much more organic way to the energy of the city today.

“And you’ve got old buildings, you’ve got new buildings, you’ve got small buildings, you’ve got large buildings. So it’s a real mix. And we think that really works extremely well. It makes it quite interesting,” she said.

“We believe that diversity is what makes the city great and what will make the district great.”

Also, the district will have a range of interesting architecture, from the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which is an Art Deco landmark, to an apartment tower designed by high-profile Enrique Norten. There are thousands of apartments built or in the pipeline, a significant number of them affordable housing units.  

The new apartment towers in the district will be a boon to BAM, bringing potential subscribers and donors who live just steps away from its theaters.

In addition to the construction of new buildings in the area, the creation of public art is a concern.

“We want the district to be defined by art in every way,” Hopkins said.

BAM, for instance, has created a mural on Lafayette Avenue and installed nifty bike racks designed by Talking Heads founding member David Byrne.

“The goal is to define the district in every artistic iteration that we can conceive of so that it really does stand as a cultural district,” she said.

The other day, Eye on Real Estate went out and checked up on the progress of construction at several of the district’s development sites. Our photographer colleague Rob Abruzzese went with us and took some great pictures.

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