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Boom Borough

As retailers finally catch up to brownstone homesteaders, over there is looking sharp.

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The view on the sixteenth floor of this century-old Brooklyn clock tower is better than even most tourists will ever see -- a CinemaScope tableau of downtown Manhattan's silver spires framed on one side by the proud granite towers of the Brooklyn Bridge and on the other by the humble, ice-blue trusses of the Manhattan Bridge.

But David Walentas, a low-key, silver-haired developer with a vaguely Burt Bacharach countenance, is not appreciating the full-on view at this particular moment. Instead, he's staring directly down at his own cobblestoned principality, DUMBO -- Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. The heart of DUMBO is a cluster of Berenice Abbott-worthy Civil War-era brick warehouses. After twenty years mummy-wrapped with red tape, this industrial anachronism will be converted into a teeming riverside SoHo for the 718 area code. Or at least that's what Walentas is hoping.

"It's amazing," exclaims the usually laconic Walentas. "I've never owned a neighborhood before."

At this particular moment, Walentas, 60, is standing in the top floor of the ClockTower, a former corrugated-paper warehouse (last used as office space for the New York State Department of Labor) that has been reborn as a $30 million complex of 124 condominiums ranging from $200,000 apiece all the way to $4 million for the premier space at the top. Back in the early Koch years, Walentas made an enormous bet, buying an entire package of properties bounded by the BQE, the two bridges, and the river -- ten buildings, 2 million square feet of space -- from Harry Helmsley for $12 million. "Nobody wanted them back then," he says. "They were just industrial buildings you'd rent for a buck a foot."

With plenty of zoning and funding hurdles still to be cleared, and more than a little community opposition facing him, Walentas is nevertheless optimistic that very early in the new century, his $250 million dumbo development might be a reality: The fringy homesteader's outpost could morph, building by building, into a thriving Manhattan expat colony anchored by 1,000 airy rental apartments with some artists' studios kept around for spice. These hip new yuppie perches would look out over a teeming streetscape filled with an unlikely mix of high-end, Spring Street-style boutiques and shops -- a top-tier museum outpost, perhaps, à la the Guggenheim SoHo -- a hotel, movie theaters, and plenty of useful if more middlebrow stores along Crate & Barrel lines. He's also planning an East River marina and a sun-drenched park containing a twenties carousel purchased last year at an auction in Ohio. It's a sweeping plan for a whole new mini-city on the river. Imagine a South Street Seaport built with actual New Yorkers in mind.

"We're going to have real retail -- the Gaps and Tower Records and Barnes & Nobles of the world -- for middle-class Brooklyn residents," Walentas crows. "Brooklyn is about homes -- brownstones and families. But we've got no place to shop. All by itself, Brooklyn is twice as big as Baltimore and Boston put together. And still, we've got nothing."

As any Brooklynite knows, this is all too true. But that same Brooklynite knows that, even without Walentas's help, this is starting to change all over the borough -- and quickly.

After half a century of economic hibernation, so many big commercial projects are going up in Brooklyn, it's as if the borough had come down with a severe case of Phoenix envy overnight. Downtown, Marriott has recently opened the borough's first hotel in 50 years. Within the quiet, haute-Yankee confines of Brooklyn Heights, developer Bruce Ratner -- who helped spur downtown's economic rejuvenation developing the vast MetroTech commercial complex-cum-technical campus -- is overseeing construction of the 200-foot-tall Court Street Complex, a condominium tower containing a twelve-screen cineplex and a Barnes & Noble. But Ratner's hardly stopping there. His development company, Forest City Ratner, is planning to open an even larger sister mall near his Atlantic Center behemoth, the 380,000-square-foot mall with the massive Pathmark grocery store he erected in 1996 on a long-barren patch above the Long Island Rail Road station downtown. With the city, Ratner is also hammering out long-debated plans for a sportsplex-theme park where Steeplechase Park once stood in Coney Island. One attraction would be a state-of-the-art minor-league ballpark, to lure a Mets minor-league affiliate to Brooklyn.


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