It will look like Battery Park City in a couple of years.”
That’s Helene Luchnick, executive vice president at Prudential Douglas Elliman and the sales director for waterfront condos on Kent Avenue in South Williamsburg and a loft-like building on Berry Street.
That’s meant to be a good thing.
“There will be parks along the water,” Ms. Luchnick said.
Indeed, renderings of what developers have planned for Williamsburg’s first waterfront luxury development, Schaefer Landing, make the slide from scruffy loft-chic to the manicured Tower in the Park aesthetic of Battery Park City seem inevitable. The glossy brochure includes drawings of future residents chatting outside the sleek building, with Manhattan skyscrapers in the background.
There are also headings like “The Good Life,” “Inventive Eateries, Intriguing Shops,” and “Cool Galleries, Hot Clubs.”
The 210-unit luxury condo project will include an esplanade and lush greenery that will take shape in an area that still has the gritty feel of post-industrial abandonment, the Mad Max–like qualities of urban decay. No bother: The coming real-estate boom in Williamsburg will surely wipe all that away.
But what about the cool galleries and the hot clubs? The inventive eateries and the intriguing shops?
“I’ve done a lot of new developments in the East Village, and I had mothers in front of the building saying where are they going to stop at a grocery store? There are no cabs here; there are no flower shops. And I said, ‘First the people will come, and then the shops will come,’” said broker Linda Rubin, Ms. Luchnick’s partner at Prudential Douglas Elliman.
And others, inevitably, will go. Occupancy for Schaefer Landing’s 15- and 25-story towers is slated for December 2005 and September 2006, respectively. The prices for the apartments range from $640,000 to $1.9 million, averaging about $750 to $800 a square foot.
Anxious buyers have snatched their future residences quickly off the spec sheets.
“I’ve always dreamt of having a waterfront property,” said Camille Evans, a design director at a hip-hop clothing company. “I always liked Battery Park when I lived in Manhattan. It feels like cleaner air.”
Three years ago, Ms. Evans—who had previously lived in the East Village and Soho—moved into a new construction for $325,000 at Bedford Avenue and South First Street in Williamsburg. The property value nearly doubled, and Ms. Evans is trading up from her one-bedroom into a 1,175-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of Schaefer Landing’s taller structure, at the cost of $740,000.
“The idea being able to go up on to the 25th floor and look out on views of Manhattan, and read a book in the garden or walk down the esplanade, is really a dream for me,” said Ms. Evans.
Although confident that buying early is a smart investment, she understands that the full realization of the waterfront, as so glowingly depicted in the renderings, will take time.
“I think it will probably takes five years or so to see the change. In small increments, you will see special grocery stores moving and recognizing the needs of the community.”
While the ritzy building—filled with amenities like a fitness center, full-time concierge and library—was certainly attractive to Ms. Evans, the ex-Londoner also loves the artsy environs for their “Carnaby Street vibe.”
“I think Williamsburg is still the early days into development,” said Ms. Evans. “It still maintains a lot of character. Hopefully, it won’t push all the artists out.”
Rampant construction is bringing in a wave of luxury condo buyers, young professionals who have become the present-day pioneers, according to high-end brokers. Many of the affluent transplants resemble the creative-class prototype popularized by economist Richard Florida. Although working in creative fields, they tend to seek more out of life than proximity to contemporary art galleries or dimly lit cafés frequented by shaggy-haired hipsters. They want Fresh Direct produce shoved into a Sub-Zero refrigerator, polished granite countertops, skyline views, jogging along the river and a water taxi to Wall Street.
For a fashionable neighborhood that has been declared officially over more times than one can count, Williamsburg is in the midst of a housing boom. Current constructions aside, the future Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront redevelopment will transform 75 blocks from industrial to residential use.
Last March, the Sunday Times real-estate section heralded a “Williamsburg Reinvented.” A large corresponding map was spattered with orange, red and black dots pinpointing condos for sale, buildings being converted, and residential buildings planned or under construction—over 130 buildings total.
“The thing that has put Williamsburg on the map and made it more desirable to a lot of people is that there is this artistic culture out there,” said Robert Lanham, the author of The Hipster Handbook and founder of the arts and cultural Web site freewilliamsburg.com. “By diluting the culture, by putting up all these cookie-cutter condos and trying to attract upper-income people, then ultimately you are going to kill the desirability of the neighborhood.”
Mr. Lanham moved to Williamsburg in 1996, paying just $900 a month for a two-bedroom apartment near the L train’s Bedford Avenue stop. Because of rising rents, he’s moved a few subway stops down to the more affordable Graham Avenue.
“Now it’s just become a cross of homogenous trust-funders and bridge-and-tunnel people that are coming in for the weekend. I think Williamsburg is in the Fodor’s guide now.”
Anything but Fodor’s! A Lonely Planet guide might be acceptable, if only to increase the chance that a handful of Berlin backpackers show up rather than American rubes. “You see these people that have read in their local paper in Idaho that Williamsburg is hip, and they put on their mesh baseball caps and retro T-shirts and head on out,” continued Mr. Lanham.
Ms. Luchnick also mentioned that Williamsburg could follow the trajectory of Soho or Dumbo, which is a plus for developers. In both areas, artists were eventually pushed out in favor of high-end residential units, and Mr. Lanham has witnessed people “moving to Greenpoint that long for what Williamsburg was like 10 years ago.”
It seems like a natural New York progression, where real-estate values influence the burgeoning neighborhoods, sometimes forcing out the onetime gentrifiers.
“When you hear that over 100 condos [are going] up in about six months, that should be a warning light that the developers aren’t really thinking about maintaining the culture that is out there,” said Mr. Lanham.
Even some condo buyers are concerned about the effect of development on the community.
“My opinions about Williamsburg are pretty mixed. It’s kind of ironic that I actually bought into sort of a yuppie building, since it’s not really the kind of work I do,” said Derek Wang, a 30-year-old art director for independent films.
A Connecticut native, Mr. Wang moved to the city in 1998 and will be relocating soon from midtown to Williamsburg.
After being outbid on a 15-foot-wide Fort Greene townhouse, Mr. Wang signed a contract for a third-floor apartment at 55 Berry. The 35-unit converted manufacturing building at the corner of Berry and North 11th streets sits near Beacon’s Closet and the Brooklyn Brewery, popular local haunts, but unlikely to draw many of their now-rich neighbors. The one-bedroom apartment cost $825,000 and will house both him and his girlfriend.
Mr. Wang was attracted to the high ceilings in the loft-like building, where prices reach almost $1.4 million, and not so much to the nightlife offered by nearby clubs.
Although residents of Schaefer Landing will have a shuttle service during the rush hours taking them to the L, J, M and Z lines, Mr. Wang found that he would have only a few minutes’ commute from the Berry Street condo—at least for now.
Mr. Wang will soon have a chic, modern spread, but he might lose his workshop, which is located along the waterfront in the Bayside Fuel Oil Depot, a site that has already been discussed for future development.
So, not surprisingly, he has some reservations about the changing neighborhood, a position echoed by some current residents.
“I have lived here for 14 years, and I have had a gallery for about 10, so I’ve seen it go through a lot of changes,” said Lisa Schroeder, of the Schroeder Romero gallery on North Third Street, and currently the secretary of the Williamsburg Gallery Association. “The one thing I can say is that the newer people moving into this community do not support the arts. Not at all.”
Ms. Schroeder moved to Williamsburg in 1992 from the Upper West Side and rented a 6,000-square-foot space with some friends for $1,750 a month, constructing a gallery and residential space in the palatial, formerly industrial space.
“This was mainly a manufacturing, working-class neighborhood, and these warehouses sat empty for many years,” said Ms. Schroeder. “And the artists discovered them after Soho had become out of the question.”
While fortunate to have a supportive landlord who has renewed her lease every three years, Ms. Schroeder is aware that many artists and fledgling gallery owners over the past decade haven’t been so lucky. “It’s all over this neighborhood—fighting with landlords and just hideous things.”
She is wary of developers trumping up Williamsburg’s arts scene while advertising million-dollar condos.
“Once a developer gets the tenants in that they want, the arts organizations are kicked out of those spaces and they’re rented to something like Whole Foods,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me that they’re using [galleries] in their brochures.
While Williamsburg residents like Ms. Schroeder are understandably skeptical of brokers coming into town seeking high-priced commissions, at least one broker put her money where her mouth is. Sharon Held of the Corcoran Group recently purchased one of three apartments built on the roof of the Gretsch Building, a 130-unit building that was once a factory for the musical-instrument manufacturer. After that, for many years, it was a commercial space crammed with artists’ lofts—a sort-of giant Art Dorm. Those residents were evicted to make way for the new Gretsch People.
“As a broker, I get to see a lot of spaces all over town. When I went to the area first, I was very excited about what was going on, what Williamsburg was about, and what it was going to be,” said Ms. Held, who has worked with high-profile clients like Mets catcher Mike Piazza and New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson. So she’s no stranger to opulent residential living, and has decided to leave the Upper East Side for Williamsburg.
“I currently live in a prewar building,” said Ms. Held. “This certainly is prewar, but it has been renovated and refurbished for today’s lifestyles.”
Although her main focus is still Manhattan, she has sold one other unit in the Gretsch and recently shown a few other apartments.
“The views were amazing, and the price per square foot was more competitive than you could get on the other side of the river. You’re facing the Manhattan skyline, with the Williamsburg Bridge at your door going one way and the Statue of Liberty at the other.”
And celebrity buyers have also arrived. The rapper Busta Rhymes picked up three units, proving that South Williamsburg has come a long way. However, the increase of celebrity buyers and wealthy professionals doesn’t sit well with the Hasidic community, which has mounted protests decrying the very unaffordable housing right in the middle of their community. Despite these protests, the lavish units went quickly when they were offered at the end of 2003, with prices averaging close to $575 per square foot.
And Ms. Held maintains that developers have been very transparent in the entire process, and the improvement to the neighborhood will be felt for years to come.
“They are actively involved in the community,” she said. “I think there has been and will be a concerted effort to continue and maintain that. I think that at the end of the day, development’s a win-win for everyone.”
In Big Sweep, Investor Buys Versace Mansion for $30 M.
Since it went on the market almost one year ago, the late Gianni Versace’s 64th Street townhouse has been one of the most closely watched properties on the Upper East Side. In October 2004, it was initially listed for $32 million with Deborah Grubman and Carol Cohen of the Corcoran Group.
Last June, The Observer reported that the 12,000-square-foot property had gone to contract for “slightly above the $29.9 million asking price,” and now the deal has finally closed. The five-story mansion was recently purchased by investor Thomas Sandell for $30 million, according to deed-transfer records.
That sale marks a steep price increase over the past decade.
In 1995, Versace purchased the doublewide mansion for $7.5 million and then reportedly dropped another $10 million to transform it into his own lavish palazzo. The renowned designer was murdered two years later outside of his Miami home.
Mr. Sandell didn’t return calls for comment, so it’s not known whether the palatial home was sold for a personal residence or as an investment. Over the past year, Mr. Sandell, a real-estate investor and portfolio manager at Sandell Asset Management, made headlines after purchasing another well-known property: Last November, he signed a contract for billionaire Lily Safra’s full-floor condo at 838 Fifth Avenue for $13.6 million, with the deal closing two months later. In August, the savvy investor put the ninth-floor condo back on the market (“delivered new”) for $19.75 million. He could pocket a quick $6 million in profit if the apartment is sold at the asking price.
The 4,165-square-foot condo includes three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a library with a wood-burning fireplace, and a private entry foyer.
If the interior details aren’t lavish enough, there is also the 822-square-foot terrace providing exceptional Central Park views.
As with the Versace mansion, the luxurious condo is currently listed with Ms. Grubman and Ms. Cohen.