Yesterday, the longtime Brooklyn music and art venue Glasslands announced that it would be closing on New Year's Day 2015. Why? Because the marketing conglomerate Vice Media has already started building its huge new office near the property where Glasslands now stands, and will eventually get to Glasslands itself.
Everyone writing about the closure seems to know this, but Vice has kept extremely quiet about its move. Here's a sampling of the coverage from blog posts about the closings of Glasslands, which has been at 289 Kent Avenue on the Williamsburg waterfront since 2006 and has hosted bands like MGMT and TV on the Radio in between acting as a mainstay for all sorts artists.
From Brooklyn Vegan:
We worried about this when we wrote about [Death By Audio] closing, but Glasslands assured us at the time that we had nothing to worry about. Maybe because they knew they were at least going to move? Whether this is a direct result of VICE moving in to the building is still unclear, but it's hard to say it isn't at least related.
Both Glasslands and DBA's fates were called into question over the summer, when it was revealed that Vice Media was looking into moving their offices to South 2nd Street and Kent Ave; though it's unknown whether Vice's impending relocation has impacted these venues, it's clear the landscape has changed.
From Wondering Sound:
There is still speculation that the closing of all these venues has to do with VICE Media's presence in the neighborhood. They currently reside in a 60,000 square building on the corner of South 2nd and Kent, and they also announced in September that they had received $500 million dollars in investment capital. Thus far, no one from VICE or the venues has commented on their possible participation in the closings.
It's believed that Glassland's closing may have something to do with their South 2nd and Kent neighbors, VICE. A source, who has asked to remain anonymous, tells us that the deep-pocketed media company has plans to level the block and build a multi-story office tower, adorned with a big neon sign, beckoning out toward the East River so that it's visible to anyone crossing into Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge. We've reached out to a representative from VICE Media, and are awaiting comment.
Speculation aside: Glasslands, along with a half-dozen other businesses, are closing because of Vice. Vice signed an eight-year lease for 75,000 square feet of space this summer, comprised of two adjacent buildings, and have already begun the process of building out their offices, which they are hoping to move into sometime early next year.
Vice itself has not made a public statement regarding the properties' current tenants, and declined to comment to us when we asked. The owners of Glasslands have similarly declined to talk about why they are leaving beyond their farewell blog post, and did not return requests from us to elaborate. Also keeping quiet are the men behind fellow Brooklyn venue Death By Audio, which is leaving its 49 South 2nd Street location next month after seven years. In an email to Gothamist, they would not clear the air regarding their venue's sudden closure.
But there is at least one person who will talk about Vice's impending move into the Williamsburg block that once held two of Brooklyn's most active indie music venues: The guy who negotiated the deal.
In a September story about Vice's new office in The Commercial Observer, a real estate broker named Drew Conner spoke in great detail about how he orchestrated the terms of Vice's new office space:
Mr. Conner had recently worked with Sol and Leo Markowitz, owners of two connected buildings at 49 South 2nd Street, once the original headquarters for Domino Sugar, and 285 Kent Avenue. The Markowitz brothers initially purchased the buildings, which collectively total 75,000 square feet, 15 years ago as a home for their electronic accessory business CTA Digital.
Mr. Conner believed the space at these addresses was not fulfilling its post-gentrification potential, especially given the scarcity of commercial space available in the area.
The story goes on:
Though the brothers had tenants that embodied the area's creative bent, including popular music venue Death By Audio, Genius Media, Windmill Studios, indieScreen and Brooklyn Bowl, Mr. Conner envisioned the sizable space meeting Vice's specific and difficult-to-achieve needs.
All it would take was the Markowitz brothers agreeing to simultaneously terminate the existing leases, empty the properties and create a full space the right size for Vice.
There—in print!—is confirmation that, yes, Vice is the reason why Death By Audio (and now Glasslands) is being forced to move. Of course, that second paragraph neatly summarizes the tension here: all Conner had to do was get the building's owners to "terminate the existing leases, empty the properties and create a full space the right size for Vice."
That phrasing makes the dirty stuff of making sure businesses leave their longtime spaces seem as simple as washing one's hands, but, obviously, it's much messier than that. Yet, in speaking to us, Conner says that contrary to what was written in the Observer, no leases have been terminated.
"One of the things that came out in that Observer article, and I think this is just some confusion in the way they quoted it, made it seem like the tenants were being evicted," he said. "And that's absolutely not true."
Not in the strict legal sense of eviction, at least. According to Conner, Death By Audio's lease expired, and they were not allowed to renew it. As for Glasslands, Conner says that he believes their lease lasted for at least "a couple [more] years," but he says that "there's been a long-running discussion between Glasslands and the landlord" about the venue's exit. A second, unconnected, source relayed the same information to us regarding the terms of both venues' leases. Both venues are leaving because Vice has signed a lease to take over their properties, but neither will say much more about it.
That's the version of the story as told by the money, Vice included. No current tenants seem willing to speak about what is happening, but we did get a brief characterization of the situation from Brooklyn indie rock lynchpin Ric Leichtung, who ran the venue 285 Kent, which shared a wall with Glasslands before shutting down—to much dismay and eulogization—in January. This is what he had to say via email:
The landlord's been waiting for a pay day like this for years. The landlord's made little headway on bringing the building up to code to host legitimate businesses, opting for these really short term 2 or 3-year commercial leases to illegal loft spaces and quasi-legal establishments like 285 Kent so that the landlord could easily kick them out or wait for their leases to expire and cash in when they found a buyer. Current tenants are still discreet because they're still under that landlord's roof, but really the writing's been on the wall for a while.
Everyone involved here—from the landlords to the tenants to Vice—recognizes why the situation is especially uncomfortable, and that likely explains the general silence. Vice built itself into a billion dollar brand by selling Brooklyn cool, and now its ambitious growth means that small, independent venues that made the borough what it is are being quite literally steamrolled by a company now backed by Rupert Murdoch.
For Vice, this is just the cost of doing business—a few indie rock venues have never stood in anyone's way in New York, and the closings of these specific two have been met with fatalistic resignation. "Bedford Avenue's been gentrifying for more than a decade, and a major corporate buyout like this is as depressing as it is predictable," Leichtung said. "No one should really be surprised here."
Conner, the broker who paired Vice with the landlords of its soon-to-be sprawling new offices, is making amends to himself by rationalizing that Vice is Brooklyn enough to displace fellow borough mainstays without it being too gauche. Here he is talking to the Observer:
"It would be one thing if all of those … traditional Williamsburg tenants were being replaced by JP Morgan's digital media group," Mr. Conner said. "But that wasn't the case. It's Vice."
Of course, the differences between "JP Morgan's digital media group" and Vice are very much in the eye of the beholder.
[image by Jim Cooke]