Bringing Up Dumbo
The New York Times 5/6/2011
By JAKE MOONEY
The freight train tracks that snake along Jay Street on the Brooklyn waterfront were laid down in 1904, to carry coffee beans and other cargo from docks to warehouses. Freight service shut down in 1959, decades before anyone dreamed of calling the area Dumbo. It was the end of an era in a neighborhood where eras come and go with increasing speed.
Since industry left the waterfront, Dumbo — Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass — has variously been a deserted no-man’s-land, a haven for artists, a hip loft destination and a target of upscale developers.
Now the next chapter is being written. In recent years, debates about the neighborhood’s future have brought about designation of a historic district and a rezoning of the eastern end, designed in part to encourage residential growth. Old commercial buildings continue to be converted, and several major construction projects are in the works, including one in the historic district from the giant builder Toll Brothers. Prices and rents in the neighborhood are among the highest in Brooklyn, and the city as a whole.
Dumbo’s indigenous warehouses have become home to advertising, design and creative companies like the online crafts marketplace Etsy, whose young workers have brought activity to the quiet cobblestone streets in the shadows of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.
And the waterfront has once again become a destination — not just for commerce, but also for recreation, with the expansion of Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Longtime residents have mixed reactions to the changes. “It was cool in the ’80s,” said Doreen Gallo, the executive director of the Dumbo Neighborhood Alliance, a residents’ group. “It was very cool in the ’90s.” Now, she said, “it’s different.”
Many of the artists who lent the neighborhood its character have been forced to move, she said, and historic buildings have been lost. On the other hand, the rezoning, which many preservationists opposed, has delivered residents, businesses and cultural institutions.
The contention of some critics that the 2007 historic district designation would stifle development has not been borne out. In one prime corner of the historic district, Two Trees Development, which was behind Dumbo’s earliest luxury buildings, has converted an office property at 25 Washington Street to 106 rental units. It opened this month.
Three blocks east, at 205 Water Street, Toll Brothers is erecting a 65-unit condo, the first new building in the historic district. Across the street at 192 Water, Hamlin Ventures and Alloy Development are converting an 1887 tea warehouse into nine loft units. And a few yards away, GDC Properties is making a pair of century-old historic buildings into a 200,000-square-foot mixed-use project with a ground-floor restaurant and 146 rental units.
Finally, around the corner at 37 Bridge Street, and still in the historic district, Halstead Property Development Marketing is selling 45 condominium units called Kirkman Lofts. Carved out of a soap factory, the building has steel silos that were incorporated into the design.
These simultaneous projects have created a wide construction zone at Dumbo’s eastern border, Ms. Gallo said. Referring to the Water Street buildings, she added, “It’s very difficult for the community that it’s happening, but at the same time there’s something really great about these projects.”
In each case, she said, the developers were sensitive to historical concerns, and had worked closely with city preservation officials.
A renovated section of Brooklyn Bridge Park between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges is to open this summer, and another new stretch is planned for the foot of Jay Street. Eventually, plans call for the park to link many isolated areas of Brooklyn’s waterfront.
David Von Spreckelsen, the division president of Toll Brothers City Living, said the company was hoping to develop more properties in Dumbo. He predicted that the growth of Brooklyn Bridge Park would be a “huge factor” in improving the quality of life in Dumbo. “The park will really change it,” he said. “When I moved to the neighborhood 12 years ago, people would still come down Main Street and dump garbage and drive off.”
It can seem that everyone who arrived in Dumbo in the postindustrial period has a tale of urban squalor. Aaron Shapiro, the chief executive of Huge, a digital marketing and design agency founded in the neighborhood in 1999, said that in the company’s early years, security guards escorted female employees to the subway at night.
Now, Huge employs 275 people spread across four floors at 45 Main Street, and Mr. Shapiro said the days when its location presented a challenge were a distant memory.
“Back then,” he said, “there was convincing people to come to the neighborhood. Now, there’s no convincing. People want to come here, and it’s tremendously attractive for employees.”
Many of those employees commute, often by bike, from nearby neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Williamsburg, which makes for a vivid and multidirectional rush hour. Others have made Dumbo their home.
“You have this wonderful flow in the morning, where you have the cultural creatives stomping in, and the residents on their way out to their jobs in Manhattan,” said Mitch Baranowski, a founder of BBMG, a branding firm that moved to Dumbo from Union Square about a year ago.
BBMG is one of several companies that set up shop in the neighborhood as it blossomed into one of Brooklyn’s leading office districts. Etsy moved its headquarters and about 50 employees to 55 Washington Street in 2009; since then it has grown to 175 employees. The clothing retailer Brooklyn Industries moved its headquarters to 20 Jay Street last summer. It opened a 2,200-square-foot store on Front Street, the neighborhood’s main retail strip, in March.
The companies join agencies including Carrot Creative, Big Spaceship and Brooklyn Digital Foundry in a loosely organized community of office tenants, many of whom take part in regular workshops and mixers organized by the site Digital Dumbo.
Part of the neighborhood’s allure for companies, Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Baranowski said, lies in amenities like the park, restaurants and bars like Superfine and reBar, and stores like Jacques Torres Chocolates and Almondine bakery.
In turn planners hope that the neighborhood’s growing office and residential core will feed area businesses.
Recent condominium developments like Beacon Tower, a 79-unit building completed in 2006, and the J Condominium, with 267 units, finished the following year, brought an influx of residents. Managing even more growth was one of the Department of City Planning’s goals in rezoning roughly a dozen blocks at the neighborhood’s eastern end for residential development.
“I think that’s the place where there’s potential for new development,” said Mr. Von Spreckelsen of Toll Brothers. “Because if you look at the area between the bridges, most of it is built already and fully occupied.”
Mr. Von Spreckelsen said that units on the Vinegar Hill side of the neighborhood will sell and rent for slightly less than those in the Two Trees buildings at its center. Sale prices, the company has said, will be in the range of $800 per square foot.
At 37 Bridge Street, whose completion is expected at summer’s end, one-bedrooms and studios are on the market for $555,000 and up, and two-bedrooms start at $625,000. The building also includes three- and four-bedroom units with asking prices as high as $1.6 million.
In established Two Trees buildings near the area’s heart, like 1 Main Street and 70 Washington Street, asking prices for one-bedrooms are solidly above $1 million — closer to $2 million at 1 Main, which is nearer to the water, and occasionally below $1 million at 70 Washington. A 2,139-square-foot two-bedroom apartment at 1 Main Street is on the market for $2.2 million, and a two-bedroom, 1,384-square-foot unit at 70 Washington is listed at $1.35 million.
At the J Condominium, 100 Jay Street, which went up just before the rezoning and landmark designation, prices are lower: A two-bedroom unit on a high floor is for sale for $1.149 million, a one-bedroom for $560,000. One-bedroom rentals in the building start at $2,500 a month.
At 25 Washington — known as Gair2, after an early Dumbo landowner — the smallest one-bedroom units, just under 500 square feet, will rent for around $2,400 a month, said Asher Abehsera, the head of sales and rentals at Two Trees. Larger one-bedrooms will start at $2,900, and 900-square-foot two-bedrooms will be $3,950 and up. The building has a 2,500-square-foot roof deck looking out over Brooklyn Bridge Park and the East River, and its most expensive unit, a two-bedroom with a private terrace, has already rented for $4,800 a month, Mr. Abehsera said.
Regardless of location, the neighborhood’s landmark status and its dearth of empty development sites complicate matters for builders. The two most prominent vacant plots are parking lots owned by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Also known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the society is headquartered just outside the neighborhood but has been moving many of its operations upstate in recent years. One of the lots, at 85 Jay Street, was rezoned for a large mixed-use development, but that project never materialized.
The preservation ethos remains strong in the area. A city plan to subsume the shell of a 19th-century tobacco warehouse and another neighboring building into Brooklyn Bridge Park, with the goal of redeveloping them, was derailed when a judge ruled against it in April. Another project that drew vocal opposition, a Two Trees building on Dock Street next to the Brooklyn Bridge, remains unbuilt, though the City Council approved it in 2009.
The struggle leading up to that vote was a bruising one, a fact that Ms. Gallo, of the neighborhood alliance, sees as illustrating the mixed results achieved through preservation efforts. On one hand, she called the landmark designation a “miracle.” On the other, she added, “by the time you become a historic district,” many of the buildings in the district have been demolished or altered.
Still, although the historic designation allows developers to add on to historic buildings like 25 Washington, and to request city permission for even greater changes, including demolition, it also requires them to get approval for construction and design plans.
Thomas Brennan of the Rinaldi Group, the general contractor on the 220 Water Street warehouse conversion project in the historic district, said work there had involved putting in wood-framed windows with real muntins, or separations between panes of glass. That touch, which was required by the historic district, was expensive, he said. But he acknowledged that those same details tended to draw more money from buyers and renters.
At the Toll Brothers site, the architect Navid Maqami, a principal at GreenbergFarrow, said that approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission came relatively quickly — and that historic district requirements, and the industrial surroundings, had served as an inspiration.
“We were interested in that whole unfinished rawness of the neighborhood, and reflecting that,” he said.
The neighborhood, of course, is far less raw than it used to be — and far more finished. The train tracks and Belgian blocks in the streets now have landmark protection, and merchants and residents say the area seems as busy as ever. And even though the shoreline may not be the commercial destination that it once was, Dumbo’s new creative businesses have found it to be a boon in a different, less tangible way.
“Just to be able to get to the water and think, walk and talk,” said Mr. Baranowski of BBMG; “how do you put a value on that?”