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Vacant, looking blighted, Remsen 2-story may flourish

Brooklyn Heights' 153 Remsen St. has seen better days. Photo by Lore Croghan

Ugly Duckling in Busy Pond Has Air Rights, New Owners

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The sorry state of 153 Remsen St. makes us sigh – but the property was sold in February to a development firm that's getting busy in Brooklyn, and big changes could be in store for the little building.

An LLC formed by Upper West Side-based Quinlan Development Group paid $2.79 million for the two-story stone-faced Brooklyn commercial building, city records indicate. It has a row of smashed-up window panes upstairs and a graffiti-covered security gate downstairs – not something we'd expect to see on a bustling street just half a block from Brooklyn Borough Hall.

In what seems like a long time ago, the year 2000, the restaurant on the ground floor, Saigon Garden, got a shout-out from the Village Voice for serving the “Best Vietnamese Vittles in Downtown Brooklyn.” But the restaurant closed, leaving behind a torn awning that hangs limp in the stifling summer heat and industrial-sized cans of brown gravy stacked behind the broken storefront window.

The upstairs tenant was the Brooklyn Central YMCA, which kept an office from which it ran satellite programs in schools and churches, YMCA of Greater New York spokeswoman Anne Bergquist said. The Y moved out of the building in 2003.

“Our recollection is that the realty company …. committed to removing the Y awning,” she said.

Nope. The awning is still up on the second floor, fading a paler shade of pink by the day.

A nostalgia-inducing Brooklyn Historical Society photo from what seems like a really long time ago – 1958 – shows the building in immaculate shape. That's just a memory now.

The previous owner, the late Fred Musser, let the building get seedy while he planned a major makeover for it. He paid $3.25 million for the building in 2006, city records indicate – then filed a plan with the Buildings Department in 2008 to add four floors to the property and convert it to a hotel.

The city agency disapproved his proposal, which entailed the addition of 6,372 square feet to the existing 3,421-square-foot building.

“Fred overpaid for the property based on a dream of building a hotel,” a neighborhood real estate executive told Eye on Real Estate. “He had dreams of doing something so extreme to the building that keeping it in good shape was not a priority.

“Then he died, and his family had a big estate-tax bill. His heirs were under a lot of pressure not to spend money,” said the source, who argued that Musser and his family should “get a pass” and not be faulted for allowing 153 Remsen to become shabby-looking.

The engineer who drew up the hotel plan remembered Musser fondly and defended the hotel idea as workable.

“He was a very substantial fellow with great energy and great vision; he was larger than life,” Andrew Levenbaum said. “He unfortunately passed away before he got to realize his dreams.

“If he had lived, he would have built a beautiful building.”

In 2009, Corcoran brokers put 153 Remsen on the sale market at an asking price of $3.75 million, and re-listed the building in 2010, according to website StreetEasy. A Corcoran spokesman declined to make the brokers available to speak.

We weren't able to reach the Musser family. We tried to find them through Bayside, Queens, lawyer John DePaola, who repped them in past property transactions. He wasn't in. 

The Remsen Street building has 24,000 square feet of unused air rights, according to website PropertyShark, and residential development is as of right. It is situated in a narrow swath of the neighborhood that is not landmarked – it falls between the boundaries of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District and the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District.

Last winter's purchase by Quinlan Development Group “could be a home run” if the firm buys a neighboring building to create a double-wide site for an apartment building, our real estate source said.

“It won't be an eyesore much longer,” he predicted of 153 Remsen.

The landlord of next-door 151 Remsen St. told us he hasn't heard from any Quinlan reps.

“I'm not interested in selling,” Domenick Sblendorio said.

But if they do reach out to him, “I would listen,” said Sblendorio, who lamented the neglected condition of 153 Remsen.

“You have a building being vacant – nobody's happy with that,” he said. “It brings rodents.”

The engineer who worked for Musser agreed it would be a good idea to buy an adjacent property to make a bigger footprint for constructing a residential building – but if the new owner solely uses 153 Remsen as a development site, a small building could be constructed with one apartment per floor with the elevator opening directly into each unit.

Shoppers and diners on Remsen Street are eager for the new owners to spiff up the building.

“It's an eyesore,” Remsen regular Gayle DeWees said when we stopped her on the sweltering street. “I hope they do something restaurant-y.”

She misses long-gone Saigon Garden – especially during a heat wave.

“It was a fabulous restaurant,” she said. “The staff was always courteous. And they kept the air-conditioning really cold.”

In its present condition, the grim building is a blemish on a block that includes a pizzeria with free wi-fi, popular health-food store Perelandra and a tidy bank branch. On the opposite side of the street, St. Francis College shares the block with another long-vacant building, Romanesque Revival 186 Remsen St., which is part of the new Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District.  

Timothy Quinlan, to whom our questions about 153 Remsen were directed, was out of the office and unable to respond to our message that was forwarded to him.

His firm already owns former Musser property. It is constructing a $28.2 million, seven-story rental apartment and retail project at 267 Pacific St. in Boerum Hill – on a site purchased in 2011 by Demetrios Yatrakis' Lonicera Partners, which used a “gap mortgage” supplied by Quinlan Development to make the buy before reselling the property to Quinlan.

Yatrakis is the son of big Brooklyn real estate investor Peter Yatrakis of Granite International Management.

The younger Yatrakis' firm is partnering with Quinlan on the Pacific Street residential and retail development. There was no word whether Demetrios Yatrakis and Lonicera might get involved in 153 Remsen. When we reached out to him, he sent word that he was away this week and unavailable to deal with work-related matters. 

Musser's hotel dreams weren't confined to 153 Remsen. The Pacific Street property was part of a development site he assembled whose main address was 262 Atlantic Ave.

His plan, submitted in 2003 to the Buildings Department, was to build a seven-story, 46-unit extended-stay hotel there. Musser, who over the years owned homes in Gerritsen Beach and Staten Island, had a family-run parking lot on the site.

A two-story shopping center is being built on the Atlantic Avenue portion of the site – and his hotel dreams are but a memory.

Broken windows are a surprising sight on a prime Brooklyn Heights block. Photo by Lore Croghan

Long-vacant 153 Remsen St. blights the block. Photo by Lore Croghan

It's a straight shot to Brooklyn Borough Hall from 153 Remsen St. Photo by Lore Croghan

The new owners of 153 Remsen St. are constructing an apartment and retail building at nearby 267 Pacific St. in Boerum Hill. Photo by Lore Croghan

153 Remsen, courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society.

July 17, 2013 - 9:00am


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