Sunday, December 20, 2015

Brooklyn Garden Apartments

725 Fourth Avenue 

"Serving the neighborhood as a rental community for over 85 years, The Brooklyn Garden Apartments once housed tenants for as little as $35/month. Since then, new ownership has beautifully renovated and refurbished every corner of this stalwart Gens D'Arme to afford today's tenants with generous and comfortable homes at similarly reasonable prices. A place of tranquility awaits you within the bustle of Greenwood Heights. Step inside a beautifully maintained property and into a peaceful courtyard that sounds as if it were a bird sanctuary. The songbirds have found this jewel and now you will have too. "  (Ideal Properties)

Ideal Properties are now marketing rentals for the Brooklyn Garden Apartments at Fourth Avenue (23rd/24th), in that gray geographical area known as Park Slope/South Slope/Greenwood Heights/Sunset Park.  Take your pick.  Wherever it is, the marketing pitch for the apartments is certainly quite er, florid.

The Brooklyn Garden Apartments were built in 1929, their construction a part of of the 20's post-war housing boom.  Between 1920 and 1929 some 420,000 new apartments became available in New York City, and 43,000 old-law tenements were removed from city housing stock.  The very term "tenament," as it describes a newly constructed building, fades out of use in the 1920's; the exclusive use of the word "apartment" from this point on reflects not only an improved model of housing, but also an aspiration on the part of would-be tenants for a more middle class standard of living.  The production of moderate-sized, moderate-to-middle-class apartment buildings in the 1920's was especially high in the outer boroughs, where land values were comparatively low, and most buildings were four to six stories in height, in order for developers to avoid more stringent construction requirements (under six stories, only one or two floors of a building were required to be fireproof).   In the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, the garden apartment model, with an interior courtyard promising improved light and ventilation, also proved to be financially attractive to developers, as lower-density "garden" housing on low-cost land, with simplified construction methods, could actually prove to be more profitable.  The garden portion of the developments varied considerably both in scope and use, and clearly some buildings, like the larger, grander, garden buildings in Jackson Heights. were designed for better-off residents.  The Brooklyn Garden Apartments was not one of these buildings.

The garden apartment development was as important for philanthropy as for the private marketplace. In fact it was innovation in social welfare, in combination with the garden apartment form, which provided the most powerful exemplars of the type. The notion of medium-density living, tempered by a garden, fit well into the well-established reform ideology which saw the reduction of building coverage as an inevitable consequence of innovation.  With the completion of the subway, the older philanthropic companies looked to the advantages of the outer boroughs, just as did the private developers. 
(Richard Plunz - A History of Housing in New York City: Dwelling Tyoe and Social Change in the American Metropolis, Columbia University Press, 1990))

During this time a number of labor and philanthropic organizations developed co-operative housing projects - most common in the Bronx and the Lower East Side.  These offered tenants an economically advantageous combination of stock investment and rental payment, or co-operative ownership, and also promoted community life within buildings, offering libraries, clubs, educational classes and even summer camps.

The Brooklyn Garden Apartments, at Fourth Avenue (1929) and Carlton Avenue, Wallabout (1930), more modest in scale than many other cooperative developments, were a limited-partnership developed by Louis Pink, a prominent advocate of housing for the poor who was instrumental in the formation of the NYCHA.  In 1930 the Brooklyn Eagle ran a full-page feature on the Fourth Avenue apartments: Model Apartments Solve Housing: People Who Have Small Incomes May Now Live in Finest Homes.

The article describes the building's 165 modestly-sized apartments as a vast improvement over the old-law tenament units, with their real kitchens (windowed), front & rear ventilation, community room, club-room, and courtyard garden/playground space. Co-operative owners are in the minority here, with most residents paying rent of around around $11 per room along with a stock investment.

By all accounts the Garden Apartments continued to serve residents with modest incomes throughout the twentieth-century, and in the 50's tenants successfully challenged a landlord's attempt to illegally raise their rents.  At some point the building must have transitioned from a co-operative to a straight rental building. As the decades went by, the neighborhood suffered the effects of crime and drugs, and the building became less safe, and less well cared for. By the turn of the twenty-first century more changes were afoot. With the neighborhood beginning to gentrify, 725 began to attract younger, newer area residents, for whom the rents they agreed to pay - far higher than those of long-time residents -  seemed a comparative bargain.  A Gothamist article from 2014 centers on life in the building from the late 1990's, and the tactics used to remove long-term tenants.  By any means necessary.  It tells a familiar, though darker, story of displacement, common enough in multi-family buildings as area demographics change.  Don't we all know neighbors who've been approached with buy-out offers?

Today, 725 is apparently under new ownership, though the ACRIS records are not that revealing.  A year ago a deed of sale transferred from 725-4th Realty LLC (owners since at least 2001) to 725-4th Realty LLC (no amount recorded).  Addresses suggest owners in Borough Park.  Apparently the small apartments are "beautifully renovated," but no permits have been filed for interior work on apartments since 2014.  In fact there are no permits at all for interior apartment renovation for 725 in the online DOB records, which date back to 1994. There are outstanding violations though, and plenty of complaints.  And the courtyard. Who wouldn't want a to live in a building with a courtyard? - a wonderful amenity for apartment dwellers.  I've peered through the gates at it admiringly countless times - but describing its chain-linked partitioned area as jewel-like is, perhaps, a touch hyperbolic.

The current vacancies for apartments at 725 are listed at prices ranging from $2,150 to $2,950 for two and three-bedroom apartments.  A good deal for young professionals these days, I guess (the times we live in!) but not so much for the kind of tenants Louis Pink envisioned in the 1920's.  They'll have to look farther afield.

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