In the beginning, there was The Albee Square Mall. And, Biz Markie songs to the contrary, it was not very good. Dull, downmarket, frankly bummerific in about a dozen different ways, Albee Square was one of those things that most people don’t even bother to miss until it has been plowed under. But while it wasn’t a great place to shop, per se, That Albee Square and the nearby Fulton Street Mall were important to the street life of downtown Brooklyn, and home to numerous locally owned small businesses along the now shutter-intensive blocks around Boro Hall. Back in 2008, the Brooklyn Eagle reported on the demise of those local businesses, which is always a sad story. But back in 2007 and ’08, when the City Point development that would rise from the tacky rubble of the Albee Square Mall was still being heralded as Brooklyn’s answer to the Time Warner Center, it was easy to bury that story.
After all, the economy was so good — although as we now know it wasn’t, really. Predictably, the developers behind City Point — a Traveling Wilburys-grade supergroup of mega-developers comprised of Acadia Realty Trust, MacFarlane Partners, P/A Associates, Washington Square Partners, Rose Associates, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison — were also throwing around huge job-creation numbers. Which were dubious, as usual, but who can ever really disprove that particular bit of hyperbole when it’s still in the being-thrown-around stage? And anyway, the economy was so good, and why doesn’t Brooklyn deserve its own 1.5 million square foot answer to the Time Warner Center? Do you have something against progress? Against Brooklyn? Against Biz Markie? And so on. Those were the days.
And then Lehman Brothers happened and credit for incredibly ambitious re-imaginings of vast swathes of Brooklyn became cruelly hard to come by. And so City Point was subsequently scaled way back — first to a smaller development that would include a LEED Gold-hopeful 17-story office tower, and then to a smaller-still, two-stage LEED Silver-hopeful vertical mall that was funded, in part, by $20 million of stimulus funds. We wrote about the new City Point back in February, and weren’t terribly enthused. “[Project architects] Cook+Fox’s green bona fides are beyond reproach, with the Bank of America Tower being just one example of their work, but it’s as frustrating as it is unsurprising to see the first deliverable facet of this very-2007 development — you remember, the ones that would provide hundreds of jobs and affordable apartments and free ponies for all — turn out to be what appears to be a tasteful neo-classical vertical mall,” I wrote back then. “Whatever its unspecified sustainabilities and bearing in mind that Cook+Fox would never design anything undistinguished enough to fit in with Forest City Ratner’s Brooklyn projects, City Point looks vaguely Ratner-ian in its unimaginative, ham-fisted re-imagining of a neighborhood that was, for all its downmarket dimensions, at least something unique and organic.” For reference, you should know that “Ratner-ian” is a word I would never say in front of a child or my parents. It’s about as nasty a cussword as we have in our arsenal here at gbNYC. So yeah: not the most positive.
But life goes on, and so does the whole reductio-ad-absurdum object lesson in real estate cynicism and overreach that is City Point. The phase of the development that broke ground earlier this week bears little resemblance to the mega-development that was to have provided all that LEED-certified retail space, affordable housing and jobs. Luckily, as the Wall Street Journal’s Craig Karmin writes, the big box retail and uninspiring aesthetics are still in place. “The $20 million bond offering will provide most of the $24 million in financing for the first phase of development, consisting of 50,000 square feet of retail shops to be completed by early 2012. An additional 450,000 square feet of retail, and a million feet of affordable and market-rate housing, are to follow,” Karmin writes. “As with other projects that stalled during the recession, the developers have scaled back their ambitions to get work started. They are ditching plans for 125,000 square feet of office space, and splitting the retail and housing components into two separate towers to cut costs further.”
Given that Cook + Fox has designed some beautiful and peerlessly sustainable buildings, and given that Jonathan Rose is officially filed under the “Gets It” heading here at gbNYC HQ, it would probably be foolish to give up hope on City Point. But what we have, at the moment, is the replacement of small, locally owned businesses with a federally-funded mall anchored by national big box retail establishments TBD; the jobs created, it seems reasonable to assume, will all involve wearing polo shirts with nameplates pinned to them. As we wrote back in February, it’s tough to miss The Albee Square Mall — but circumstances at City Point have conspired to make it all but impossible not to. LEED-certified mall-style retail is clearly hot right now in NYC, but just because that’s true doesn’t mean that we have to applaud it.