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
“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
“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
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
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,”
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
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010