3B Is Run by a Cooperative of Artists in Their Twenties
By Carl Blumenthal
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN — In 1995, even before the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge was built, Monique Greenwood and Glen Pogue opened Akwaaba Mansion Bed and Breakfast in Bedford-Stuyvesant, signaling the dawn of a new era in Brooklyn’s faded hospitality business.
Today there are five Akwaaba B and B’s in the country. About 100 bed and breakfasts, with an average of three or four rooms, have carved out a niche market among the several thousand hotel rooms now available in the borough.
While the bed and breakfasts are found in historic homes, such as the brownstones of Prospect Park and Victorians in Ditmas Park, the few dozen hotels were largely built during the recent construction boom in up-zoned areas. While the B and B’s appeal to upscale travelers seeking a more personal experience than the run-of-the-mill hotels offer, the inventory of accommodations also includes such low-cost options as living-room couches that are leased out on the Internet.
Last year, due to lobbying by hotels, a state law went into effect banning rentals of less than 30 days in apartment buildings with absentee landlords. Bed and breakfasts with live-in owners are exempt from the law.
So a nondescript walk-up over a deli and fast-food restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn may be the last place tourists would look for the home away from home that B and B’s supposedly represent. Yet, the 3B Bed and Breakfast at 136 Lawrence St., on the corner of Willoughby Street, fits the bill for visitors intent on affordable, friendly accommodations in a central location.
3B, named for the old apartment number but also reflecting the “busy bees” who run the place, is unique in several other ways. Rather than an older individual or couple renting out rooms in their home or freestanding commercial establishment, 3B is owned by a cooperative of seven enterprising people in their 20s, who live on the second floor of the building.
Matthew Keesan, Catherine Lacey, Karen Holmes, Adam Sica, Stephanie Todd, Dave Ferris and Allison Van Hee lease both their own space, since the summer of 2009, and the third floor for the B & B, which opened in the fall of 2010. They are writers, musicians and artists seeking to avoid the rat race by pooling their labor to subsidize their creative lifestyles.
On their well-designed website (www.3bbrooklyn.com), the group says 3B exists on a historic site, but the building lacks architectural detail. Rather, its historical significance is the affordable living space above a commercial space, which was once a commonplace arrangement Downtown.
With four bunk beds at $45 apiece per night, two singles for $120 each and a double for $160 during the height of the season, 3B appeals to fellow cultural workers, young families and first-timers in the big city — especially Europeans, who appreciate simple digs (IKEA-style furnishings, WiFi but no TV), communal bathrooms and close quarters (a total of 950 square feet) as the basis of camaraderie.
Light from Lawrence Street streams through the windows in every room, symbolizing the welcome mat 3B offers its guests. There’s hustle and bustle during the day, the byproduct of a dozen nearby subway lines, and quiet on most nights.
Of course, it helps to have home-cooked, vegetarian breakfasts, with organic produce from Brooklyn Bridge Community Supported Agriculture, and opportunities to mingle with co-op members on social occasions downstairs, such as concerts in their living room.
3B may not be a gold mine, but then the co-op has a different idea of what’s valuable. Matt Keesan, a musician and former EMT who provided much of the capital for the operation, said, “The impulse for the co-op was to have a home in Brooklyn for creative passions to flourish.” Little did the group members know how they would realize their goal. When the third-floor tenant left in 2010 and the building’s owner offered them the space, the co-op considered expanding but decided on the B and B.
According to Karen Holmes, a massage therapist and the interior designer of the bunch, the third floor was “filled to the gills” with junk, which took months to cart away because they sorted through everything for reusable materials. With their own ingenuity and that of friends, this detritus became furniture and even light fixtures. The only contractors they used were an electrician and plumber. Added Matt, “It would have cost 10 times more,” if they hadn’t done most of the renovations themselves.
The work was a dry run for their business model. Holmes noted, “What we had was tons and tons of time to come up with creative solutions.” This sentiment was seconded by Catherine Lacey, one of two writers in the group, who also maintains 3B’s blog: “We didn’t have a lot of experience or money, but lots of curiosity and natural interests to learn and say we built this together.”
Although 3B required a full-time commitment from everyone in the beginning, the seven partners have settled into an average of 10 hours work per week. They already have a positive cash flow and expect to pay off their start-up loan in a year and a half. Any profit goes toward their basic living expenses and re-investment in the business.
As Matt insisted, “Our goal is not to make a lot of money. We want to be sustainable as a business and community, and our guests are part of that. Our pipe dream is to help other people set up [similar collective enterprises].”