The Center for Fiction is moving to the Brooklyn Cultural District

Eye On Real Estate: Its new home base will be 280 Ashland Place, Jonathan Rose Cos.' development

June 24, 2015 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Here's a rendering of Brooklyn Cultural District development 280 Ashland Place (c.) — where the Center for Fiction will be moving. Rendering by Dattner Architects and Bernheimer Architecture
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Book lovers rejoice! The Center for Fiction is moving its headquarters to the Brooklyn Cultural District.

Brooklyn is the literary capital of the world; that’s what former Borough President Marty Markowitz often said. This came to mind when we found out the Center for Fiction — which has been headquartered in Manhattan since its founding as the Mercantile Library in 1820 — is heading our way.

The Center for Fiction — which has a circulating collection of more than 100,000 fiction titles — is building its home base in a mixed-use development Jonathan Rose Cos. is just starting to construct at 280 Ashland Place.

“They were looking for a new home and had the financial resources to work on a new project,” Jonathan Rose Cos. President Jonathan Rose told Eye on Real Estate in a recent interview.

The Center for Fiction’s got money from the $18 million sale of its historic eight-story, white-marble building at 17 E. 47th St. last year plus funds generated by its popular programs.

It hosts lectures and panels with big-name authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Cunningham, writing workshops taught by award-winning authors including Ann Packer and reading groups. It rents work spaces to writers and charges membership fees for the use of that vast lending library. Also, it has a terrific bookshop.

It’s “the only nonprofit literary organization in the U.S. solely dedicated to celebrating fiction,” its website notes.

So how did Rose find this fine cultural partner for his development project?

Brooklyn Academy of Music President Karen Brooks Hopkins, who’s retiring this month, got the ball rolling by introducing him to the Center for Fiction’s executive director, Noreen Tomassi.

The developer will do the core-and-shell construction of the Center for Fiction’s 17,696-square-foot space at cost, then sell it as a commercial condominium to the center, Rose said. The center will do its  own interior buildout, he added.


‘We will be at the heart of a great cultural district’

The center will pay $5.5 million for the space, Noreen Tomassi, its executive director, told us via email.

Tomassi said the organization has extended its stay in its current East 47th Street home and hopes to make “a seamless move” to Ashland Place.

The nonprofit’s board of directors chose Brooklyn as the Center for Fiction’s new home because “the superb location across from BAM, one of the world’s great cultural institutions, was just too good to pass up,” Tomassi said.

“We will be at the heart of a great cultural district,” she said, noting that the site’s neighbors are Mark Morris Dance Center and the Shakespeare-centric Theatre for a New Audience and that BRIC and UrbanGlass are nearby.

“It’s important to us that the literary arts be featured very prominently in that mix,” she added.

Another reason for the board’s decision to bring the center to B’KLYN is that “Brooklyn is home to so many great writers — both well-known and emerging — and so many of our audience members already are Brooklyn residents,” Tomassi said.

“The borough may have more readers per square inch than anywhere in the country. Look at all the bookstores that thrive in Brooklyn!”

Also, many of the schools involved in the center’s Books for NYC Schools/Kids Read program are located in the borough; having a location that’s closer to them will be helpful.

Finally, she said, “we think old ideas about Brooklyn as an ‘outer borough’ no longer exist. It’s an intellectual and cultural hub in a great city!”

The center expects to lose some members because of its relocation — “we hope not many,” Tomassi said — and gain new members.

She called the reaction to the planned move by the center’s audiences and Brooklyn’s literary community “very, very positive” and said, “We expect to thrive there.”

After the move, the center will continue to have a presence in Manhattan, with programs for members there including reading groups, evening events and workshops, she noted.   


‘Deep roots in the area’

The 11-story building where the Center for Fiction is moving will also have expansion space for Mark Morris Dance Center — see related story. And it will house the first Brooklyn location for celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s gourmet sandwich shop, ‘wichcraft, and 123 rental apartments.

Rose told us he expects construction will be completed in summer 2017 on his development, whose new name is Brooklyn Cultural District: Apartments (BCD:A).

It had been called EyeBAM — a reference to Eyebeam Art + Technology Center, which was one of the two cultural institutions that originally planned to move to the building.   

Science Gallery International was the second cultural institution that was originally going take space there but also decided not to do so.

Rose’s company bought the development site from the city for $1 in exchange for making 40 percent of the project’s apartments affordable without city subsidies, he said. The purchase closed in May, he added.

Twenty percent of the units will be for low-income residents earning 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), and 20 percent will be for middle-income tenants earning 130% of AMI. Sixty percent will be market-rate units.

A construction fence was recently erected at 280 Ashland Place and a bulldozer has begun tearing up the tarmac on the former parking lot.

Rose said it feels wonderful to start construction.

“I’m pleased to contribute a small piece of the whole larger redevelopment,” he said.

His $51.1 million project is part of the revitalization of the Downtown Brooklyn mini-neighborhood known until recently as the BAM Cultural District, which has dozens of arts institutions large and small and a significant amount of affordable housing under construction.

Rose worked on a massive project in this part of Brooklyn in the 1980s when he was with his family’s firm, Rose Associates.

“I feel like I have deep roots in the area,” he said.

He got the development rights for 26 acres in the Atlantic Yards area — including the site where he is now building 280 Ashland Place — and did a master plan.

But Rose Associates eventually decided to sell the Atlantic Yards project to Forest City Ratner.

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