A large brick building sits on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 19th Street in South Slope, Brooklyn. Letters against shaded maroon and gray paint reveal that it was an old furniture outlet; the brick behind the painted letters adds charm and a vintage feel to the corner. A construction supply store sits on the opposite side of the street and scaffolding covers pockets of sidewalk nearby, due to the construction in the works. A new charter school has been built on the other side of the street. It is a street in flux.
The Fifth Avenue landmark, 656 Fifth Avenue, was recently put on the market for $9 million and sold for $8.5 million. If it turns out to be the high-rise that many expect it to be, it will be just another example of the jarring transition that has taken over residential and commercial real estate in the area.
Hector Negron, 68, a resident of South Slope for fifty years, has witnessed the building go from a furniture warehouse to a discount store, and says that now its future is up for grabs. But he predicts that it will be a high-rise apartment building. “They’re going to make it higher,” he insists.
High-rises are a stark shift from the old to the new, and a shift that potentially goes against the spirit, if not the word, of New York City zoning laws. Although the old furniture warehouse is on a commercial avenue, where the zoning is looser, it is also right next to the very row houses that the city is trying to preserve.
The New York City Planning Commission recently enacted measures to preserve the “prevailing row house character” of areas of South Slope, according to zoning documents. Twenty-nine blocks in South Slope were recently rezoned to hinder expansion of existing buildings and maintain their character. Street wall heights are limited to 40 feet and overall building heights are limited to 50 feet in certain zones—demarcations enacted to maintain consistencies in architecture. However, the rezoning plan permits greater flexibility for Fifth Avenue as it is deemed the “primary neighborhood commercial corridor.”
Jeremy Laufer, president of Brooklyn’s community board 7, explains that the zoning was changed to protect the integrity of the side streets. People moving into the high-rises have often been priced out of the affluent Park Slope area, he says.
As real estate in this neighborhood is changing, and growing more expensive, rapidly, people like Negron are now used to the reality of the changing neighborhood. And he is certainly no stranger to the rising rent prices that come with such change.
Negron lives with his ex-wife. He was kicked out of his former building several years ago because his landlord decided to “fix up” the building. But, he suspects that it will not actually be fixed up; rather, he predicts that it will be completely torn down.
Perhaps the buyer of 656 Fifth Avenue has similar plans.
“What made this property so attractive is that it had one of the few footprints over 10,000 square feet in the area, not to mention that it is a corner,” says Matt Dzbanek of CPEX Investment Sales, who represented the 656 Fifth Avenue property in the sale. While he does not know what will be done with the property, he says that it will be commercial property at the ground level and residential—either condominiums or rentals—through the upper levels.
Nearby on the corner of Fourth Avenue and 11th Street, a building is about to be reconstructed as well. On Fourth Avenue and 15th Street, a large residential building will replace a run-down auto site. However, none is quite as charming as the old furniture warehouse.
“My team and I are very active in the area,” Dzbanek states, adding that they recently sold something on 13th street, are marketing something on 21st street, and sold something on 20th street.
When asked what makes the area so attractive, he explains, “You are close to the park while not paying Park Slope prices.”
The changing real estate market caused by an influx of people who would previously gravitate toward Park Slope has pushed people like Negron out of their former homes. As for Negron, it’s not hard to believe that he is less than sanguine with his current accommodations.
“She’s too lazy” he says of his ex-wife, who is probably just as unhappy about the living situation as he is. “She wanna be the boss.” Negron nonchalantly notes that he sleeps in the living room, as he continues the tour of the neighborhood.
“A lot of stores doing good business around here,” he says.
One of the businesses doing well is South, a casual bar and eatery with some outdoor space and board games. Doug Drews, 31, a bartender there, points to the businesses across the street that have not been doing as well. A café across the street went out of business a few weeks ago, a wine shop next to it was rumored to be bought by Fresh Direct, and a small grocer next to it was bought out as well. Meanwhile, a seven-story condo building is popping up nearby, according to Drews.
Plans for the 656 Fifth Avenue building are still not clear, as it has not filed for any permits with the city of New York, according to the city’s Building Information System. But with high-rises comes street-level commercial space. It will definitely be a dual-use building, says Dzbanek, adding that perhaps this purchase could make room for a national retailer.
Despite the changes he sees around him, Drews looks at ease behind the counter, chatting with his patrons. He explains that he loves this bar and South Slope because it’s a real neighborhood where people actually know each other. He smiles as he recounts that when the bar gets packed, it is filled with people who all talk and know each other, taking turns buying rounds for each other.
“It’s weird for everything to be changing at once,” a man sitting at the bar chimes in. “It’s just going to keep happening more and more because that neighborhood is so expensive,” he continued, referring to nearby Park Slope and the fact that real estate dollars previously concentrated there are spilling over to the South Slope, and attracting commercial dollars as well.
“I was hoping it would skip us,” says Drew.