Drama Over Historic Buildings Takes Center Stage In Crown Heights: Developers take steps to create more upscale housing

Once again, Crown Heights is at the center of a gentrification struggle.

By Jeff Vasishta October 21, 2016
Photo courtesy of Dapper Lou

[otw_shortcode_dropcap label=”L” font=”Bowlby One SC” color_class=”otw-black-text” background_color_class=”otw-no-background” size=”large” border_color_class=”otw-no-border-color”][/otw_shortcode_dropcap]ike hurtling back in like time to an era of “conscious” hip-hop, hooped earrings and flat-top fades, Crown Heights’ Black Lady Theater, chose to open its doors for the first time 20 years last weekend. The impromptu Afrocentric art show couldn’t have been more in contrast with the price wars and gentrification swirling on the streets outside the 750 Nostrand Avenue storefront building.

Related: Gamechanger Alert: A Single Family Townhouse In Crown Heights Just Sold For Over $2 million

But in fact, that may have something do to with why it re-opened. The building’s former owner was the late John Phillips, a Brooklyn judge who died in 2008. He also owned the Slave Theater on Fulton St, which appears to have been wrestled away from family members and former business partners by new developers in a contentious legal battle. The same fate looked likely to befall the Black Lady (the Theater part of the name has been dropped). Phillips’ previous partner Clarence Hardy received a work permit from the D.O.B. in September and construction is underway. However, in a tale that appears to be lifted from a bad movie script, John Phillips is listed as the owner on a deed filed three years after his death by Frank Racano, an attorney hired by a nephew of Phillips to execute his estate. Racano was indicted in May for stealing half a million dollars from the late judge.

Photo courtesy of Airbnb
Photo courtesy of Airbnb

Questions remain. Why were both Phillips’ properties closed for two decades? Were taxes paid for all the time the properties were shuttered?

“We are, and have been, the rightful owners of the property,” the younger Hardy told DNA Info. “We’re continuing on with our mission … putting the theater right back in the community as Judge Phillips instructed.”

Meanwhile, another historic Crown Heights building is in the midst of a gentrification war. The redevelopment of the city-owned Bedford-Union Armory has been talked about for at least a decade. Now it appears things are moving along state and city officials have been petitioning the New York City economic development corporation (EDC) asking that “the community’s voice is both heard and acted upon”.

The developer, BFC Partners, selected by EDC plans to redevelop the site with a 13 story building containing 300 apartments, 164 of which will be sold at market rent. Petitioners want more—100 percent affordable housing with 80 percent going to local residents.

“At a time when gentrification threatens many longtime residents with displacement, we need a comprehensive approach that significantly and substantially addresses all of the community’s needs,” they said in a statement.

We’ve seen how this usually plays out. Protests and disputes ensue but the inevitable forward churning of gentrification, fueled by city’s thirst for developers’ dollars prevails. Displacement is an inevitable byproduct and although schools, amenities and buildings improve, part of the city’s soul is lost. Why do we believe Crown Heights will be any different?

Crown Height’s is one of the most discussed gentrifying New York neighborhoods but much of it will never become a glassy skyscraper mecca because of the number of brownstones and landmarked blocks. However, there is still a lot of activity afoot, particularly in former lots where garages and non-landmarked row houses stood. One of the most prominent blocks is Pacific Street, closer to Prospects Heights. 953 Pacific Street is the latest to file for permits. The four-story building will have just three units and 3,984 square feet of residential space. The project will be condos. The first two units will be full-floor, topped by a penthouse duplex. Flushing-based Suresh Manchanda of L&C Associates is listed as the architect on the permits, according to New York Yimby.

Also in the area is a five-story, 16-unit development at 701 Prospect Place. Two retail spaces would occupy the ground floor, followed by three to five units apiece on each of the upper floors. There would also be an eight-car garage in the cellar, which is included to satisfy zoning requirements. Joseph Segreti of Column A Realty is the developer, and Great Neck-based Arnold Montag of AM/PM Design is the architect.

YIMBY also recently revealed a building planned a block away at 786 Park Place, Alex Barrett is developing a small condo project across the street at 762 Park Place.

For those wondering where all this is heading, to paraphrase Carol Carpenter, it’s only just begun.


Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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