By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The crowds came to Fulton Mall last Wednesday to celebrate the arrival of one of the world's biggest fashion chains, but the festivities were about something even bigger – the revitalization of a historic shopping street that was once America's fourth largest shopping center.
The unveiling of the glam glass box at 497-501 Fulton St., built by developer Albert Laboz, was the latest milestone in a campaign by landlords and merchants to upgrade the image of Downtown Brooklyn's 17-block retail corridor from its gritty, gaudy iteration of recent years.
“It's a huge step in the transformation of Fulton Mall and Downtown Brooklyn,” Laboz told The Brooklyn Daily Eagle as more than 350 shoppers waited outside the new two-floor, 30,000-square foot H&M for the powerhouse Swedish clothing retailer's noon opening.
The veteran developer, who chairs the Fulton Mall Improvement Association, seemed impressed by the turnout.
“It's crazy,” he said as eager customers poured in and hundreds more lined up outside, waiting until there was room for them to enter.
Many of the customers who flocked to H&M for a chance to win $300 gift cards and snap up slinky $19.95 skirts and $14.95 dresses singing superstar Beyonce helped design were too young to remember. But their mamas and grannies could tell them – Fulton Street was the place for upscale shopping and dining in bygone decades.
Big department stores reigned, like Abraham & Straus, Mays and Martin's. The swells dined at genteel, gas-lighted Gage & Tollner – which was done in when Fulton Street was made into a pedestrian mall as an urban redevelopment project and they could no longer drive up to the landmarked restaurant's front door in style.
“Mays and A& S were my favorites,” said Delores Smith-Johnson, 58, a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident and lifelong Fulton Street shopper who gave Laboz's latest addition to the retail corridor her complete approval.
“I love it I love it I love it,” she said.
For a while “it was rough” on Fulton, she said – but things are starting to look up.
“It's coming alive again,” she said.
Gage & Tollner's building, 372 Fulton St., later housed an Arby's and is currently occupied by an accessories shop that sells $2.99 jewelry and $9.99 handbags.
Elegant A&S – where folks came from all over Brooklyn to shop for Sunday-best dresses – became Macy's in the 1990s. Mays, at the corner of Fulton and Bond Street, was shut down in 198 8 and now houses a city Department of Small Businesses Workforce 1 Center.
Martin's, which catered to the affluent, was located from 1924 to 1979 in the Offerman Building at 505 Fulton St. It did more bridal business than any other store in the United States, the New York Times reported in 1968.
The now-landmarked Offerman Building, which later housed a Conway discount store, is part of the development where the H&M opened. Laboz's United American Land (UAL) tore down what had been a modern-day addition to Martin's to make room for the H&M.
UAL is at work renovating the Offerman Building, which will house a TJ Maxx discount designer store and have luxury rental apartments on its upper floors.
“We missed A&S after it was gone,” said Marie Pierre, 67, of East Flatbush, as she stood in a long line at H&M to buy a dress and two blouses. “We missed Mays. For a while, it wasn't so great here on Fulton Street.
“But it's really changed. Now it's nice, like Manhattan.”
When hard times fell in the 1970s, merchants banded together and created the Fulton Mall Improvement Association to battle high store vacancies and street crime. The street made a comeback as a big moneymaker in the 1990s, full of gaudy, high-volume electronics and jewelry shops.
Lou Carbonetti, who became the Fulton Mall BID's executive director in 1997, told landlords their building facades were “disgusting” and they needed to find tonier tenants, the New York Times reported in a May 20, 1998 story about eight people being shot at the Mall.
More recently, a surge of new leasing and construction has brought big-name, credit-worthy tenants such as Starbucks and Shake Shack.
Armani Exchange has opened in an early phase of the massive City Point mixed-use development. Upscale bling king Swarovski is going into a renovated building with Long Island University dorms upstairs. Asking rents have soared to the high $200s per square foot.
The massive turnout for the opening of the new H&M – which is the international retailer's second Brooklyn location – “just goes to show how much pent-up demand there is on the Mall for additional shopping options,” said Tucker Reed, the president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership.
“Brooklynites are hungry for opportunities to shop at stores that are hip and cool and they find attractive.
“What's happening now is a fulfillment of the vision the street has always had – this is the new iteration,” he said. “Go back to the 1840s; Fulton Street has always been the essential shopping street for all of Brooklyn.”
High-powered H&M, which also has a shop in Kings Plaza Mall, goes for prime sites with high pedestrian traffic – like the spot it chose for its U.S. debut on Fifth Avenue across from St. Patrick's Cathedral.
“We have a Triple-A credit rating,” said spokeswoman Nicole Christie, who attended the store opening. “We spent a lot of time looking for this location. This is a prime spot.”
H&M, which has more than 2,900 stores worldwide, signed on for the Fulton Street location in 2008 – a bit before the surge of leasing by big-name tenants began. Construction was delayed because of work on connecting the Jay Street-Borough Hall and MetroTech-Lawrence Street subway stations.
Christie, 37, who grew up in Flatbush and frequently shopped on Fulton Street in her youth, said the Fulton Mall H&M has plus-size clothing and sportswear to make it a “full-concept store” and “one-stop shop” for Brooklynites.
“We have an international retailer becoming part of the mix with the mom-and-pops. We want to co-exist with the small businesses that are here,” she said.
“We want to be part of the transformation of Fulton Street.”