Downtown Brooklyn, Boomtown

Twenty-five thousand new jobs were created in the seven ZIP codes in and around downtown Brooklyn from 1997 through 2007. One of those ZIP codes, 11245, trumped all New York City ZIP codes in the rate of job creation during those 10 years, with a 253 percent increase, according to a report out last week from the Center for an Urban Future.

Still, what of it?

Downtown Brooklyn, for all the commercial growth (more than 2 million square feet of new office and retail space built in the past decade) and new jobs, remains a virtual suburban office park in the middle of America’s fourth-largest city.

“Most people go home after work,” said Yan, a 29-year-old downtown-based contractor at the New York City Fire Department. Joe, a New York City College of Technology employee who has worked in downtown Brooklyn for 12 years, echoed the sentiment.

Indeed, unlike job-growth boomtowns like Columbia University-dominated Morningside Heights in Manhattan and small-town-within-a-big-city Forest Hills in Queens, downtown Brooklyn can be considered still in the nascency of any upward swing toward 24-7 life.

Aside from an Au Bon Pain and a soon-to-open Morton’s Steakhouse, there isn’t much that might appeal to white-collar types for lunch. Back in July 2007, Mayor Bloomberg and his staff were temporarily relocated to offices in downtown Brooklyn, and while the experiment went well, one famished police officer went on record saying, “The only problem we have is there is nowhere to get lunch.”

Much of the job growth in downtown Brooklyn can be attributed to specific developments such as the Atlantic Terminal mall in Park Slope or the downtown Marriott hotel, but at least part of the jobs increase is due to a more fundamental change in the area’s population. Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, says that neighborhoods surrounding downtown are “much more affluent than they were 10 years ago, and as a result there are more retail and service opportunities than there were 10 years ago.”

The MetroTech Center, a collection of office buildings just east of Borough Hall, has been home to several big-name businesses, including JP Morgan Chase and KeySpan; America’s oldest Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario La Prensa, moved 120 employees into One MetroTech Center this March. The mix of Class A facilities, cheap rents, and accessible transportation—virtually all major subway lines travel under downtown Brooklyn—is attractive to cost-conscious bean counters looking to cut down on back-office overhead.

Moving forward, downtown would do well to mimic the success of the Financial District or nearby Dumbo, two neighborhoods that have successfully integrated commercial and residential development in recent years.

Dumbo, which Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President Carl Hum calls a “live, work, play community,” stands in contrast to the more commuter-based environment in downtown Brooklyn. “You don’t see as much back-office space in Dumbo,” Mr. Hum said, “but you do see more post-start-up companies that are legitimate and growing.”

Caroline Pardo, commercial leasing director for developer Two Trees, has spent five years selling Dumbo space. She’s noticed a substantial increase in the name recognition of the neighborhood. Whereas five years ago few people outside the city had ever heard of Dumbo, Ms. Pardo now regularly fields inquiries from international clients, and she has helped over 48 creative companies find space in the area over the past two years, including design firm Tina Manis Associates and Wax Poetics magazine.

Even law firms are getting in on the action. Ms. Pardo recently helped the firms of Wingate, Kearney & Cullen and McMahon, Martine & Gallagher find space in Dumbo. “So many people want to be in the neighborhood now.”

Downtown Brooklyn, Boomtown