Boom Borough

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.

And the big-chain successes, like Atlantic Center’s bustling Old Navy outlet, are starting to beget more big chains. Home Depot is already a hit, nestled alongside the BQE on the Carroll Gardens-Red Hook border; other national chains such as Costco and Staples are planning new Brooklyn outposts.

But the current Brooklyn building boom is more than just a spasm of predictable mallification; some of the most ambitious plans have a deliciously counterintuitive flavor. Millennium Partners, the development giant responsible for the huge Sony theater complex at Lincoln Square, is about to start construction on the $65 million, 22-screen Brooklyn Commons multiplex – the biggest in New York. It will offer a vast, glass-roofed galleria featuring chain restaurants and stores, right in the middle of the post-industrial wasteland known as Gowanus, named for the canal that effectively cuts off Carroll Gardens from Park Slope.

That other post-industrial wasteland, the long-shuttered Brooklyn Navy Yard, is now being resuscitated in fits and starts as a twenty-first-century industrial park. Two would-be Jack Warners – set designer Cary Dean Hart, 36, and his Internet-whiz cohort, Louis Madigan, 30 – are raising money for a fifteen-acre movie lot competitive with those in Culver City and Burbank.

“It’s going to be an incredible economic catalyst for Brooklyn,” says Hart. “They shot Meet Joe Black in the Park Slope Armory. Over that four or five months, the local hardware store there did a quarter-million dollars of business from that shoot alone.”

What is important about all of these projects is not just that lawyers living on Prospect Park West will no longer need to cross the river to buy their CDs. It’s that suddenly, people are dreaming big in Brooklyn again, for the first time in 50 years. “I think they’re finally getting over the Brooklyn Dodgers syndrome,” laughs Kenneth Jackson, the Columbia history professor who edited The Encyclopedia of New York City. “You know, ‘Everything that was good ended in 1957.’ “

One might call this sudden flurry of ambition the second wave of the Brooklyn Renaissance. The first wave was the brownstone revolution, when upwardly mobile Manhattanites poured over the river and snatched up lovely Victorian townhouses at Filene’s Basement prices. Now, 30 years after that torrent of gentrification began, the rest of the borough is finally growing up around it. Or put it another way: In the first wave, the middle class came back. In the second wave, the capital did.

“The ‘brownstone revolution,’ if you want to call it that, was a process of creating value,” says Jed Marcus, Millennium’s point man at the Brooklyn Commons complex, which also may still include a Chelsea Piers-like indoor sports facility. “People saw these beautiful neighborhoods with great architecture that were well located and said, ‘I’m going to move here, and it’s just going to go up in value.’ By now, though, the value in housing has generally been recognized. But these new commercial projects are now going to create value in these totally untapped retail markets.”

Marcus’s stake in the project goes a bit beyond the professional. Since 1972, he’s lived in a handsome brownstone in Fort Greene. It was a great house in a great neighborhood – a real neighborhood, as anyone with a Brooklyn soul would stress – but in terms of good restaurants and cineplexes, he might as well been living in the wilds of, well, Gowanus.

“Brooklyn is probably the most underserved movie market in the country. It is now seen as a goldmine by people like Sony,” Marcus says. Brooklyn, long the victim of middle-class flight, had been essentially redlined by the huge national chains that took over American retailing in the fifties and sixties. “But now, this is where the grass is greener,” says Marcus.

“The one factor that cannot be overstated is the reduction of crime,” Marcus says. “It stabilizes the economy. People are now willing to make investments in places like Brooklyn, to commit their lives there. Loews can put up a big movie theater, confident that it’s a place people will want to go to. If you tried this even five years ago, you would have been bombarded with questions about gangs and things.”

And so commercial development is now feeding the residential market, which in turn is feeding more commercial development. And it may come as a surprise to some Manhattan snobs, but many are there by choice. “Increasingly, Brooklyn is not an alternative but a preference,” says Melinda Magnett, Barbara Corcoran’s partner in Brooklyn. “Prices all over the borough have gone up, most predominantly in what we call historic ‘brownstone’ Brooklyn, which are the areas closest to the city. The large Pathmark superstore and MetroTech have had a dramatic effect on Fort Greene?Clinton Hill. We’re listing one house in Fort Greene for more than $700,000. Last year, we had the highest-priced sale ever in Cobble Hill, $1.5 million. That was unheard of.”

Values in established colonies of affluence continue to spike. Last year, residential properties in Park Slope rose 15 percent, and three-bedroom apartments, for example, shot up 25 percent. The homesteading continues, spreading into once-dodgy terrain like Boerum Hill.

“It’s just like how, years ago, people wouldn’t go below Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, and then they wouldn’t go below Sixth Avenue,” Magnett says. “In the same way, people wouldn’t cross that Court Street line into Boerum Hill. That’s no longer the case. In 1997, the average single-family in Boerum Hill sold for $249,300. By the end of ‘98, that same house was selling for $369,000. The larger houses are now selling in the sixes and sevens.”

Mary Goodson-Roe, who does voice-overs for television ads, recently moved back to New York with her husband, Bob Roe, a top editor at Sports Illustrated, after years in Los Angeles. One day, weary from looking at overpriced, cramped apartments in Manhattan, she took a break and wandered into ABC Carpet: “A saleswoman there said she had just moved out to Park Slope and she had never been happier. She said, ‘Here’s the name of my Realtor. He’s great.’ I had another appointment uptown, so I got on the subway. The woman sitting next to me had a pad out, and it looked like she was drawing a kitchen. I asked her if she had just moved. The exact same words came out of her mouth: ‘My husband and I just moved out to Park Slope and we’ve never been happier. We’ve got the greatest Realtor and his name is …’ And it was the exact same Realtor. Two strangers within half an hour. It was like The Stepford Wives.

Two days later, the couple had bid on a huge three-bedroom in Prospect Heights, an emergent, tree-lined neighborhood across Prospect Park from Park Slope. She estimates they got twice the apartment for about half the price.

In Williamsburg, it’s the East Village paradigm all over again. Rents for tenement apartments have shot from $600 toward $1,500 in the past five years. It’s no secret who’s bidding them up. “I was at a café on Berry Street a few weekends ago, and it was unreal,” says one writer who lived out the eighties on Avenue B. “At every table, it was the exact same crowd I used to live with ten years ago. It’s like they’ve all been transplanted out to Williamsburg.”

Add these increases in the most “Manhattan” parts of the borough to the impressive gains made by the more “Brooklyn” neighborhoods beyond the Park – Little Odessa in Brighton Beach, the burgeoning Hasidic enclave of Borough Park – and you’ve got a genuine boom.

“Our applications were up 20 percent last year alone,” says Mary Russotti, director of admissions for Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights and a twenty-year Park Slope resident. “There are more Manhattan types in Brooklyn now, more obvious money. Of course, there was always lots of money in Brooklyn Heights. But in Park Slope twenty years ago, very few people sent their children to private school. But I just admitted two new kids from my block alone.”

Gentrification, of course, is never a seamless process, as the recent murder of Kansas-bred Amy Watkins in Prospect Heights may show. Traffic and density concerns are everywhere, nimbyism epidemic. This sudden tsunami of commercialism, moreover, seems obscene to the NPR types who tried to establish their own private Berkeleys in Brooklyn during the Nixon years. Besides, immigrant janitors in Williamsburg could do without the $1,500 rents.

Regardless, Brooklyn’s creeping Manhattanization has its limits. There’s still no Dean & DeLuca in Greenpoint, no Prada boutique alongside the Park Slope Food Co-op on Union Street. Joe Gurrera, for his part, has no plans to bring his bourgy Upper West Side fish market Citarella to the Nova-nibblers waiting patiently across the river. “It’s nice out there,” he says. “But that idea is probably ten years ahead of its time.”

Then again, who needs them? Roam the streets of an emergent neighborhood like Carroll Gardens: The energy is undeniable. It’s out on the burgeoning boutique row of Smith Street in Carroll Gardens where you find the funky bustle that characterized the West Village in the sixties.

“For the first time in 100 years, Brooklyn has become a meeting ground for the exchange of cultural goods,” says Sharon Zukin, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. “Young chefs who don’t have much capital, who maybe can’t dream of opening a restaurant in Manhattan, can still do it in Brooklyn, and they’ve already got the affluent customers there to make it work.”

Bring back Pete Hamill and Spike Lee now, and we just might have a quorum.

Boom Borough