“Myrtle Avenue was very bad,” says Thomas Schutte, who has served as president of Pratt Institute since 1993. “In fact, I was told personally by security guards and the then director of security to stay off of Myrtle Avenue. And if you had to go to Myrtle Avenue, make sure that it was in the middle of the day.” The avenue lies at the northern side of the campus, a block from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE).
Riddled by crime, litter, and graffiti, the avenue was often nicknamed “Murder Avenue,” with storefront vacancy rates in 1995 at 26 percent, according to a Pratt Center study that year. “I thought that it was sad that a Pratt student didn’t have a place to go,” says Schutte. While planning how to make Pratt a residential college, rather than just a commuter school, Schutte realized how important it would be to have a street contiguous to the campus where students could shop and socialize.
In this web exclusive video, “Treasures of New York” takes a look at the Pratt Design Incubator, launched in 2002 to help designers turn their ideas into businesses. Seventy percent of the designers working at the incubator are Pratt alumni. Video courtesy of “Treasures of New York.”
Rather than heeding suggestions to move the campus entirely out of the city, Schutte teamed up with other businesses in the community to form the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP) in 1999, which successfully rehabilitated Myrtle Avenue and encouraged local businesses to move back to the area, lowering the storefront vacancy rate to five percent as of June 2012. More and more Pratt alumni are opening up restaurants, galleries and boutiques in the now trendy commercial area.
“Pratt Institute provided the neighborhood of Clinton Hill with an economic lifeline during some very difficult years in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s,” says Michael Blaise Backer, executive director of MARP. “It has continued to serve as a vital anchor institution for Myrtle Avenue during its revitalization, bringing thousands of students and employees to patronize our local businesses, and partnering with MARP to provide student design and urban planning talent. President Schutte has provided both MARP and Pratt with tremendous leadership, and has helped to bring some of Pratt’s newly constructed facilities to Myrtle Avenue to further spur the commercial corridor’s economic development.”
The institute itself has expanded on Myrtle Avenue. In January 2011, a new six-story, 120,000-square-foot green academic and administrative facility named Myrtle Hall opened at 536 Myrtle Avenue, between Grand Avenue and Steuben Street. It houses the college’s Department of Digital Arts, a cutting-edge design and research space with animation labs, a recording studio and more.
Perhaps part of Pratt’s successful impact on its surrounding community can be attributed to the investment it makes in its students. While a recent report by the Center for an Urban Future indicates that design schools, while in high demand, are not doing enough to prepare their students for the job market, Pratt Institute has created a program to cultivate students’ entrepreneurial goals.
The Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation was launched in 2002 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to help launch and grow social and environmental enterprise. Since its inception, the incubator has supported the launch of 23 companies and consulted for 15 organizations. In 2010 the incubator generated more than $4.2 million in revenue and created nearly 50 jobs. Fashion, furniture and product designers are among the entrepreneurs, as well as clean tech energy companies like Pratt’s Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology (SMIT) group, responsible for creating Solar Ivy, a solar panel cleverly designed to resemble ivy vines.
The Pratt Design Incubator also worked in collaboration with MARP to design street furniture for Myrtle Avenue. The first tree guard (with a bench configuration) was installed in 2010.
“Treasures of New York: Pratt Institute” celebrates 125 years of Pratt Institute and delves into the vibrant history of the school and its founder, Charles Pratt. The episode premieres Wednesday, June 13 at 7 p.m. on WLIW21 and Thursday, June 14 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.