It’s Black History Month, so we thought it would be fitting to write about the latest news concerning an important home in downtown Brooklyn, owned by abolitionists during the Civil War Era. Although the fate of this home is still unclear, it has survived two very close calls with being torn down.
The property, which is a 4-story building located at 227 Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn, was a vital part of the anti-slavery movement. Number 227 is thought to be a place where Underground Railroad refugees stayed. During the Civil War era, an abolitionist couple named Thomas and Harriet Truesdell owned the house.
In 2004, New York City was about to seize the building through eminent domain as part of Michael Bloomberg’s urban renewal plan for downtown Brooklyn. Joy Chatel (lovingly known as “Mama Joy”), the owner of 227 Duffield Street at the time, as well as her neighbor Lewis Greenstein (owner of the house at 233 Duffield Street, who also made claims of abolitionist activity on that site-he said it was a "feeding station" for escaped slaves, based on stories he heard from past tenants) fought against the taking. Chatel and Greenstein were joined by local advocates, including the current New York State Attorney General (then City councilwoman) Letitia James, as they tried to prove that their houses were an essential part of abolitionist history.
Finally, in 2007, the city spared Mama Joy’s home and renamed it “227 Abolitionist Place.” However, the property was still not landmarked, and was at risk of being redeveloped, like the rest of the neighborhood.
For many years, advocates fought to have 227 Duffield landmarked. Finally, in February of 2021, officials declared the building a landmark, which stopped a planned private apartment conversion project. The effort to secure the landmark designation was hampered partly because there were no historical records officially documenting the house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. However, activists and scholars argued that the series of basement tunnels that connected neighboring houses are evidence that the abolitionist couple used their home to help runaway slaves.
What’s next for the building? It was previously reported that plans had been in the works to create a Black cultural center at the site (now valued at $1.28 million). Shawn Lee, daughter of former owner “Mama Joy” Chatel, was apparently involved with the center's creation, but she hasn’t said a word about the project.
We will keep you posted as to the developments in this story. In the meantime, it looks like this important historical property is safe from eminent domain.
Back in October, we posted about The Intersection of Fast Food and Eminent Domain in Washington, DC and now we’re back to talk about it some more. As a refresh, Dave Thomas Circle is located in our nation’s capital where Florida Avenue, New York Avenue, Eckington Place, O Street, and First Street NE all converge. This specific Wendy’s location isn’t only known for the burgers – it’s known for being a particularly dangerous spot. In fact, the roundabout is ranked among D.C.’s top 10 most hazardous intersections and approximately 80 percent of the crashes there involve sideswipes or rear-end collisions.
Since the mid-1980’s, Wendy’s has been at the intersection of a small parcel of property that borders a major gateway leading downtown. According to District Department of Transportation estimates, an average of 80,000 vehicles pass through daily. According to DDOT, a total of 727 crashes occurred in five intersections in the project area between 2014 and 2018. The number of crashes in the project area increased at an average annual rate of about 12 percent those years, more than twice the citywide average of 5 percent.
This week, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and D.C. transportation officials announced that they used eminent domain to acquire the property. There is a $35 million overhaul plan in the works to change the dangerous traffic intersection and turn it into a public space. The purchase price of the property was announced at $13.1 million.
The Bowser administration plans to remake the intersection to create two-way traffic along First Street and Florida Avenue NE and add protected bike lanes and three public parks. In particular, officials said that they hope the bike lanes will encourage motorists to abide by speed regulations.
Local residents and commuters had mixed feelings about the redevelopment, but the general consensus is that the change is a good thing and very necessary. In a 2019 community survey conducted by a civic association, more than 80 percent of Eckington residents, where the Wendy’s is located, said fixing the intersection was the highest or a high priority for them, second only to preventing and reducing crime in the neighborhood.
This is a good story about how the local community came together to make a big change. It was actually the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the area that adopted a resolution supporting the fixes. The group created a Change.org petition in favor of the plan and obtained nearly 400 signatures. D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who represents the area, contacted Bowser two years ago calling on the city to use eminent domain to fix “a failing intersection” that “has posed a traffic nightmare for residents.”
Construction is expected to begin next year and last 18 months. Bowser has committed $35 million for the project, which should include the land acquisition, design and construction. In the meantime, we’ll grab a drink and burger and wait for more eminent domain news!
When we think of industries that have been hit the hardest during the pandemic, restaurants and the hospitality industry are the first to come to mind. One proposal from Gov. Andrew Cuomo would allow owners of empty hotels and office buildings in Midtown Manhattan to convert their properties into apartments. But will it work?
In his 11th State of the State address, Cuomo said that opportunities for innovation have come out of the COVID-19 outbreak. One area where the Governor said we need to think outside the box is the office space industry, since many office buildings are sitting vacant due to employees working from home. Another area is the hospitality industry, since NYC has essentially closed indoor dining-and there has been a dramatic drop in tourism due to the pandemic.
Housing, however, is always needed. Cuomo stated that “[t]he housing problem in our cities has gotten worse. But the crisis of growing vacancies in our commercial property provides an opportunity. We should convert vacant commercial space to supportive and affordable housing, and we should do it now.”
Cuomo’s proposed legislation would create a five-year period during which owners of office buildings and hotels in Midtown Manhattan could convert them for residential use. Real estate groups like REBNY have supported this proposal, and have commented about the need for reimagining how central business districts will succeed and thrive in the 21st century (i.e., the need to create “walk to work” environments, and an increase in affordable housing).
Recently, the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown closed while other hotels such as the Lucerne became homeless shelters. So, it is no surprise that Vijay Dandapani, president of the Hotel Association of NYC supported Cuomo’s idea. Dandapani said, “The hotel industry is the most stressed industry in the commercial property sector due to the near total evaporation of revenues since March 22. With no prospect of a meaningful revival for another three to four years, the Governor’s proposal that seeks to make it easier for owners and operators of hotels to maximize the value of their severely negatively affected assets will be welcomed by many.”
A spokesperson from Cuomo’s office said that details would be fleshed out in the coming days. Officials said they believe a state law would supersede the city’s zoning laws if there were any conflicts. However, zoning remains a big issue.
State Senate Housing Committee Chairman Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan) also supports the proposal, saying “The governor is smart to focus on the opportunities that may be available to convert commercial and retail space but it’ll take some smart thinking to figure out how to do that effectively,” Kavanagh said.
And in what seems like a unique event where the State and City agree on something, Kavanagh said that the New York City government will have to be a willing partner to make such building conversions work. A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Bill Neidhardt, said of the conversion plan: “We’re reviewing it. We want affordable housing at the center of all rezonings.”
It wouldn’t be a true blog post if there wasn’t at least a bit of conflict to talk about. What will happen with the hotels that have labor contracts with the Hotel Trades Council union? It includes 40,000 union workers employed at 300 hotels. The solution is unclear for now. An arbitrator’s ruling last year ordered 75 hotel owners to pay $500 million in back severance pay and benefits to employees who lost work during the pandemic.
This is one exciting development that we will certainly be posting more about.