Brooklyn school to Pfizer: What happened to promised community education center?

Has the company forgotten its Brooklyn roots?

May 15, 2023 Mary Frost
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WILLIAMSBURG — A high school, community center, affordable housing — these are some of the resources that residents say could be built on a fenced-off vacant lot in Williamsburg’s Broadway Triangle neighborhood. 

But only if Pfizer, one of the world’s richest corporations, keeps its promise to build the Charles Pfizer Community Education Center on the site. 

That promise was made 19 years ago, but now residents fear that the international pharmaceutical giant, once synonymous with Brooklyn, has forgotten its roots. 

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Students rallied outside a fenced-in vacant lot in Williamsburg which was promised to the Beginning with Children Foundation by the Pfizer Corporation. The corporation never delivered the site, which was to be used for a community education center and affordable housing. Photo courtesy of Andres David Lopez

Pfizer promised a museum, community space, ed center

The empty lot at 11 Bartlett St. is adjacent to the Beginning with Children Charter School 2, a middle school.

Pfizer agreed to lease 11 Bartlett St. to the Beginning with Children Foundation for practically nothing back in 1991 at the urging of foundation co-founders Joseph and Carroll Reich, wealthy philanthropists who helped kick off the charter school movement. Beginning with Children charter schools serve economically disadvantaged children. 

In 2004, Pfizer and the foundation collaborated to develop the Charles Pfizer Community Education Center on the vacant lot next door. According to Pfizer’s then-CEO Henry A. McKinnell Jr., it was “an opportunity for Pfizer to have lasting, meaningful impact on a community that it has called home since 1949.” The plans were updated in 2008 to include a Pfizer Museum, community partnerships, community open space and the Beginning with Children Foundation Service Academy for adult and teacher education.

The neighborhood has been waiting for the center ever since. The foundation says that the corporation is no longer returning its emails.

It’s not that Pfizer is short of cash. According to CNBC, Pfizer racked up $37.8 billion worth of COVID vaccine sales in 2022, and $18.9 billion in sales of the antiviral Paxlovid. 

Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso on May 5 urged Pfizer to do the right thing and keep its promise to the Williamsburg community where Pfizer got its start. He is surrounded by Beginning with Children charter school students and supporters. Photo courtesy of Andres David Lopez

Kids rally to shine the spotlight on Pfizer

On May 5, the school’s students held a rally to put pressure on Pfizer to keep its promise. They marched around the vacant lot, gave speeches, put on a drumming show and a student orchestral performance.

“We could build a community center where the older students could volunteer after school. Maybe a gymnasium with a basketball court where the hoops don’t break as often as the temporary ones in our yard. Or an auditorium, small business, affordable housing—there are so many ways that this space could benefit the community,” said eighth-grader Leaendra Cleto.

Local officials U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, Councilmember Lincoln Restler, Assemblymember Maritza Davila and state Sen. Julia Salazar all urged the giant corporation to do the right thing. 

“Despite promising to release this land from ownership so it can be developed to benefit the community, Pfizer has yet to deliver,” Velazquez said. “Developing this land isn’t just about fulfilling a promise, it’s about investing in the future of our children and our community.”

“This is the last piece of land in Williamsburg that can be used for affordable housing, which is especially pertinent with the housing crisis we see in North Brooklyn and across the city,” Davila said.

Members of RiseBoro Community Partnership hold signs reminding Pfizer to “give back to the community that gave to you.” RiseBoro collaborates with organizations and investors to create and manage affordable housing and supportive services. Photo courtesy of Andres David Lopez

Pfizer’s gift to the school: Rocks

Pfizer promised several times to meet with elected and foundation officials, but has failed to do so, said Beginning with Children Foundation CEO Nancy Lewson Kurz.

In its most recent communication, Pfizer told the foundation that it plans to build a temporary rock garden on the vacant lot, in honor of the 175th anniversary of Pfizer.

“This is the kicker. They proposed to leave the vacant lot fenced off, and pile rocks on top of the rubble. We call it Caged Park. We’re not even allowed to access it,” Lewson Kurz told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Lewson Kurz said the foundation and Pfizer started out as partners back in the ‘90s, and the foundation was grateful for that. “They donated the land to us, and we put up the money to renovate it into a school along with the Board of Education [the former name of the city’s Department of Education]. Pfizer’s former CEO was our partner. We have letters from him saying the land was going to be dedicated to us.” 

When Pfizer decided to pull out of Brooklyn, “they promised that their other properties would be developed into things the community needed, such as affordable housing, jobs and to support small businesses. Then the financial crisis of 2008 came along, and they threw out their promises. They sold all their properties to whoever would buy them,” Lewson Kurz said.

The property sales included the former Pfizer chemical plant across the street at 630 Flushing Ave., which was bought in 2011 for $26 million by Acumen Capital Partners, according to The Real Deal. Acumen converted the building into a light manufacturing and nonprofit hub, with tenants ranging from food startups to a United States Postal Service facility.

The vacant land promised to the Beginning with Children Foundation was once the site of a five-story 1849 red-brick Pfizer pharmaceutical office and laboratory, built in what was at that time the town of Williamsburgh, now spelled Williamsburg. The building has been demolished. Drawing courtesy of the Center for Brooklyn History at Brooklyn Public Library

An offer, then nothing

In 2016 Pfizer made the Beginning with Children Foundation an offer: they could buy their piece of 11 Bartlett St. for $10 instead of leasing it from Pfizer. But in doing so, Beginning with Children would have to agree to give up development rights on their section. 

Under the terms of the deal, Pfizer would split the vacant lot off into a separate tax lot (“Lot 2”) and the foundation would be required to give up any right to it. They would also be required to transfer the development rights of their own lot (“Lot 1”) to Lot 2.

However, Pfizer told the foundation that if they found a developer which would indemnify the corporation, they would sell Lot 2 to them as well.

“That’s what we did,” Lewson Kurz said. The foundation bought their lot in December 2017 for $10.

“We issued an RFP [Request for Proposals], found a developer who was going to build lots of units of affordable housing and a high school, and provide community services like a recreation center and a theater. But at the last minute, Pfizer changed its mind and cut off the conversation. We tried to get back to the table, but they never answered our emails.” Pfizer termed the refusal a “business decision,” she added. That was in 2019. 

Pfizer, elected officials and the foundation held a Zoom meeting in February, and Pfizer said they would get back in one week with a timeline of their plans, Lewson Kurz said. “They never did. Every time I email, I don’t even get an email back. That’s why we held the rally.”

In response to a query by the Eagle, Pfizer sent a statement that did not shed light on its long-term plans for the property.

The vacant lot at 11 Bartlett St. was promised to the Beginning with Children Charter School 2 by Pfizer, but never delivered. This photo was taken by the Beginning with Children Foundation in fall of 2022. Photo: BWCF

“Pfizer’s history in New York City began in 1849 in Brooklyn, and we are proud to have contributed to the redevelopment of the Williamsburg neighborhood over the last decade. We are especially proud to have been a major benefactor to the Beginning with Children Charter School, providing them with their current building and the property from its inception at the site,” the company said in a statement.

The company added, “Pfizer is currently constructing a landscape improvement project on the property to improve its aesthetics while the company continues to explore future options for the vacant property. We look forward to sharing our future plans for the site with elected officials and the community of Brooklyn once finalized.”

Beginning with Children 2 student Leaendra said she knows she won’t still be attending the middle school by the time anything is done. 

“But my little sister Rosalie will be a sixth grader next year and I hope that she will be here to see the development of this space,” she said.

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