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Standing outside the squat, three-story Institute of Design and Construction at the corner of Flatbush Avenue Extension and Willoughby Street on Wednesday, the college’s president, Vincent Battista, squints in the midday sun, surveying all that surrounds him and all that he may soon have to leave.

“It’s not just a business — it’s my life,” says Battista, whose father, Vito, a former assemblyman and political gadfly in the 1950s and ’60s, founded the architecture and construction school nearly 60 years ago for servicemen returning from World War II.

While students enroll in the school to learn how to design buildings, the city is busy pushing through a major rezoning plan that will build them out of the neighborhood and may force the school’s closing.

That’s because as part of the immense, Downtown Brooklyn Plan, which proposes soaring office towers, the state would condemn seven acres of private property including 130 residential units and 100 businesses.

“They want to knock down the building and plant grass,” says Battista, who is seething over the plan.

If approved, the Institute of Design and Construction would be among the first to go, demolished to create a better sight-line from Flatbush Avenue to a 1.5-acre park and open space that the city plans to build across the street. The planned Willoughby Square would be modeled after Post Square in Boston, according to city planners.

“Drivers will look in to see the view while crashing into the cars in front of them,” Battista quips.

Once primarily a school for Irish and Italian immigrants and their children, the school, with 250 students, now caters to everybody “from the Hasidim to Rastafaria­ns,” he says.

It’s the small environment that allows Battista to offer one-on-one tutoring to a Seventh Day Adventist student who cannot attend classes on Saturday. And it’s the same smallness that Nigel Phillip, 19, a building management student from East New York who moved here from Trinidad six years ago, says he likes about the school.

Sitting in an empty classroom on a Wednesday afternoon, working on drawings for class later that day, Phillip tells a reporter that the school offers opportunity.

“I hope the school can stay because I want to get my associate’s degree. It’s a great opportunity for people to come and fulfill their dreams,” says Phillip, who wakes up at 4 am every Saturday to trek out to Pennsylvania where he works a weekend construction job.

Battista’s late father, Vito Battista, a political maverick known for his thick Italian accent and outlandish stunts — he once paraded around town on an elephant — purchased the building at 141 Willoughby St. for $300,000 in 1967.

It’s a place for the little people, explains Battista, 58, who now proudly runs the college.

With the building paid off, the nearly $1.5 million in annual rent from upstairs office tenants allows the school to subsidize tuition. Currently at $4,800 per year, Battista says the cost to students would be nearly double without the money generated from the building.

“The building is our endowment,” says Battista, adding that in order to operate in another location the school would need a guarantee of free rent.

Asked how his father would have reacted to the Downtown Plan and imminent eviction of the school, Battista says, “He would be screaming and yelling and sending out press releases every day.”

The younger Battista plans to sue to stop the taking of his property.

• • •

Just down the block, Joy Chatel, who owns a four-story brick building at 227 Duffield St., where she lives, home schools her seven grandchildren and runs a hair salon, says she can’t believe this is happening.

“I have no idea, I can’t even think about that,” Chatel says when asked what she will do if the plan is approved.

The building and business have been in the family since the 1940s. As part of the Downtown Plan the property will become part of a “private street,” according to the Economic Development Corporation’s plans, running alongside the southern edge of Willoughby Square.

Both Willoughby Square and the private street would be run and maintained by either a business improvement district — possibly an extension of the Metrotech BID — or by the property owner who builds near there, said Lee Silberstein, a spokesman for the Downtown Brooklyn Council, the private business advocacy group that helped conceive the Downtown Plan.

The Department of Transportation, said Silberstein, would not have purview over the street.

The Bloomberg administration announced the Downtown Brooklyn Plan last April. The mayor has pledged that the city will fund $100 million in infrastructure improvements and construction over the next 10 years, but the project would still be largely dependent on market conditions and the ability to lure business and developers.

Critics have called the $100 million “chicken feed” and argue that much more money will be needed for traffic mitigation alone.

• • •

Community Board 2 failed last month to make a recommendation on the plan, although a majority of board members voted to bar the taking of private property. Borough President Marty Markowitz has until March 9 to make a recommendation. It then moves on to review by the City Planning Commission and City Council.

Councilman David Yassky says he supports the general concept of the plan, including the up-zoning of the downtown area to allow larger buildings, but is calling for major traffic mitigation including a residential parking permit program for Brooklyn Heights. He is also pushing for a total renovation of Cadman Plaza Park.

Asked how he will vote on the plan and lobby in the City Council, Yassky said this week, “I don’t think it will come as is. I am optimistic that the [Bloomberg] administration will make needed improvemen­ts.”

He added, however, that he had concerns about the condemnations, specifically that the action of condemning property before a specific project has been proposed for a site, creates blight itself.

“My fear is that when you make property subject to condemnation you deter private investment in the property and it deteriorates over time,” said Yassky. “Even if ultimately there is no condemnation you condemn the area to blight.”

And the Brooklyn Heights Association, whose neighborhood abuts the proposed development area, has joined the Municipal Art Society in calling for some 16 structures in the Downtown Plan area to be designated city landmarks to prevent their being demolished.

“Downtown Brooklyn has some very significant buildings,” said BHA executive director Judy Stanton. “A lot of people don’t look up, but when they do, they are amazed.”

The old Abraham & Straus — now Macy’s — department store at 418 Fulton St. and a cast-iron building at 375 Fulton St. are both on the BHA’s list of potential landmarks.

Meanwhile, the business and property owners that would be evicted to make way for Willoughby Square, the first project that would be undertaken by the city if the plan is approved, say they are anything but a blight.

“We do a lot for people here,” says Kenneth Goodman, a co-owner with Chatel of the Hairitorium’s Unique Image salon. The space is also used for African drumming, dance classes and cultural events.

• • •

Lewis Greenstein, who owns a 150-year-old, brown clapboard residential and commercial building at 233 Duffield St., has turned the first floor into a makeshift anti-Downtown Plan headquarters.

After learning about the plan, neighbors formed the Brooklyn Coalition Against Urban Removal and are now also working with a group of tenants in Prospect Heights who are in danger of losing their homes if developer Bruce Ratner is successful in his bid to build a 24-acre residential and commercial complex that would include a basketball arena for his newly purchased New Jersey Nets.

As part of that plan, Ratner is asking the state to condemn approximately 70 buildings in Prospect Heights housing anywhere from 400 to 800 residents and businesses.

The group meets weekly at 233 Duffield St., just a block away from where four landmark homes were moved a decade ago to make way for an office tower at Metrotech.

Those buildings were hoisted up and moved from their 150-year perch on Johnson Street.

While Greenstein now lives in Manhattan, he says he’s at the Duffield Street building almost daily.

A sign for the Scottish Tea Room still hangs outside the building. It was opened in the 1920s by a Scotswoman who read fortunes using tea leaves. Greenstein’s father bought the place in 1953 and turned it into a restaurant that served sandwiches and tea.

While the Scottish Tea Room no longer exists, next door there are still fortunes being told.

Standing outside Jason’s Psychic Tea Room, at 231 Duffield St., Mike Voskovitch offers up tarot card readings to passers-by.

When a reporter sits down across from him in the new-age store, which is also slated for demolition, and asks for his best psychic prediction on the Downtown Plan, Voskovitch pauses for a moment.

“My educated guess is that it’s not gong to happen soon,” he says.

And for the psychic prediction?

“For that I would need their energy on the cards,” says Voskovitch who is offering a group psychic session with city officials working on the plan.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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