At Junior’s Site, Bidders See Brooklyn, Too, as a City of Spires

If the right firm buys up the land and air rights for the entire triangular block around Junior’s Restaurant in Brooklyn, shown, it would be quite possible to build to heights of 1,000 feet or more.

“The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!” he marveled in his poem “Mannahatta.”

There was a time when some Brooklynites could look down on their neighbors on the far shore (and many still do in their minds). But two years before Whitman’s death in 1892, the New York World Building opened, the tip of its flagstaff soaring some 349 feet over Park Row. The first building to overtake Trinity Church in height, it helped kick off the city skyscraper race. Manhattan has hardly looked back since.

But as in all things these days, it will soon be hard for Manhattan to ignore Brooklyn. The county of Kings has seen a skyscraper boom over the past decade, but hardly one to rival that across the river. Now, Brooklyn partisans may soon extol heights rare even in Manhattan, in the form of a 1,000-foot tower. The new edifice would replace one as synonymous with Brooklyn as Whitman himself: Junior’s Restaurant, the two-story neon-lit establishment where until now the only things towering were the slices of cheesecake and the Reuben sandwiches.


Bidding on the Junior’s property kicks off this week and should conclude by month’s end. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
The plans remain tentative. Bidding on the Junior’s property kicks off this week and should conclude by month’s end, but a number of prominent developers are already salivating over the possibilities. If the right firm can buy up the land and air rights for the entire triangular block, it would be quite possible to reach a height as yet unheard-of in Brooklyn.

Flatbush Avenue Extension, where Junior’s sits, is hardly Brooklyn’s most glamorous address, though the same could have been said about Bedford or Atlantic Avenues not that long ago. Even in the past decade, a 1,000-foot skyscraper would have been as unthinkable as a Michelin three-star restaurant or an Emmy-winning TV show calling Brooklyn home.

Things are still scruffy across DeKalb Avenue from Junior’s, with grimy walls and torn awnings framing D&F Jewelry Pawn, the Ace bodega, a Duane Reade, an Ashley Furniture and a psychic. No Shake Shack on this block.
It seems like only a matter of time before these are gone. Past the grand old Dime Savings Bank, now a Chase branch (with ample air rights up for grabs), the sleek new City Point project, with an Armani Exchange and a Century 21, is underway, with hundreds of high-end apartments to rise in the second phase.

Throughout Downtown Brooklyn, auto body and pawn shops have given way to new condo and rental towers, thanks to the first large-scale rezoning of the Bloomberg era, enacted 10 years ago this month. Some 33 new apartment buildings have risen downtown, with 5,351 apartments, according to the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. Another 11 are under construction and 16 are in development, with an expected 12,500 units, each more luxurious than the last. The rezoning has also brought Brooklyn its tallest buildings. The 515-foot Brooklyner, a 414-unit tower that opened in 2010, stands three feet taller than the Williamsburg Savings Bank Building, and 388 Bridge Street, completed this year with 378 apartments, is 590-feet tall.

Like a crowded Jay Z show at the Barclays Center, the more cramped things get, the better it is to be taller. “In New York, even the air is finite,” said Carol Willis, the director of the Skyscraper Museum, which currently has an exhibit that explores the super-tall, slender apartment buildings that seem to be this boom’s signature. “If you look at what’s happening in Midtown, you have to go higher and higher for the really spectacular views.”

The technology to reach these heights has existed for decades; the Empire State Building itself is more than 70 years old. Making elevation pay off is another story, which is why many of the earlier developments downtown did not go as high as they could have. Bruce Ratner proposed a 1,000-foot tower in 2007, and City Point was originally going to rise 65 stories, but both were ahead of their time. No longer.

“It depends on a lot of factors, but I definitely think you could see a project like that pencil out,” said Roger Fortune, vice president of the Stahl Organization, which developed 388 Bridge Street. “Things are changing every day down here.”

The team most likely to lead this charge — Michael Stern and Joseph Chetrit — knows a thing or two about tall towers. Mr. Stern, a 35-year-old developer, has already made his name with plans to turn the Steinway Hall site on West 57th Street in Manhattan into 1,350-foot tower. Mr. Chetrit, most famous around these parts for residential conversions of the Chelsea Hotel and the Sony Building, owns what is now America’s second tallest building, the Willis Tower in Chicago.

In December, they went to contract on 340 Flatbush Avenue Extension, a squat six-story office building next door to Junior’s. If they can win the bidding for Junior’s, and get Chase to sell them the air rights it owns above the Dime Savings, a landmark, there would be at least half a million square feet at their disposal, enough to carve a knife blade of a tower onto the skyline. Mr. Stern declined to comment and Mr. Chetrit did not respond to a request for an interview.

Others bidding on the Junior’s site could always try to buy out the pair, seeking the same end. Dozens from around the city and the globe have inquired about the property, according to the broker, Robert Knakal of Massey Knakal.

In February, Alan Rosen, the third-generation owner of Junior’s, said any deal would have to grant the restaurant a space inside the new building, but on Monday he said that he would consider moving if the price was sweet enough.

His family had already received several offers that surpassed the historic Brooklyn high of $350 a square foot for commercial space, Mr. Rosen said, but none were high enough for him to sign a deal.

“I’m not a real estate speculator, but big things are happening here,” he said. “Whether we’re a part of it remains to be seen.”

The borough president, Eric L. Adams, said that with Brooklyn’s newfound international stature, a thousand-foot tower (of which there are now only six citywide) is inevitable. “We’re not anybody’s little brother anymore,” Mr. Adams said. “Don’t mess with the new address: Brooklyn.”

His constituents are less eager, however. “They’re trying to make Brooklyn the new Manhattan, and we don’t need two,” said Stacey Steele, who had just finished an after-work meal with two friends at Junior’s on Friday afternoon (she had ordered the strawberry cheesecake).

Whether they like it or not, Ms. Steele and the rest of Brooklyn may well find a thousand-foot tower in their future. “Oh sure, they fit everything in New York City,” said Miss Kitty, a psychic who has watched over the Junior’s crowds for seven years from her storefront across the street. “It’ll take three years.”

By Matt A.V. Chaban, The New York Times

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