The sun had not quite broken over the rowhouses and warehouses of Greenpoint Monday morning when The Observer arrived at the new concrete pier jutting out into the East River at India Street. The dock seemed barely finished, its concrete planks not entirely even, the sides of the structure lined with chain-link fencing. Whole sections were torn up and surrounded with orange construction netting.
When the ferry pulled up, ghost decals clinging to the foredeck, the passengers filed on, handing over their $4 tickets, joining the nearly 3,000 New Yorkers who have ridden the ferry each weekday since its launch in mid-June, according to the city—more than double the number officials had expected.
After ordering our locally brewed fair-trade coffee and a pain au chocolat, we turned to see a gay couple smiling across a starboard table, sharing a quiche, a floating picnic. On the port side was a pretty biracial pair staring out the window at Long Island City, its gleaming towers pulling into view. The woman held a breastfeeding baby on her lap.
The subway this was not.
But neither was it entirely new. The Bloomberg administration—and to a lesser degree its predecessors and the civic groups that surrounded them—has been dreaming about transforming the East River into the city’s new axis. It took nearly a decade of experimentation and failure, but the river is about to be flooded with people. The ferries (after two tries finally a success) are only the first sign.
Just two years ago the master plans, brand new parks, renderings and rezonings that made this stretch a seething hot bed of development and gentrification were declared dead, another casualty of an overheated real estate market that had thrust the nation into recession. But something unusual happened. Even as the unemployment rate rose, so too did the rents throughout western Brooklyn. Instead of shuttering, an almost endless stream of precious boîtes and boutiques opened on the vinyl-siding-lined streets. What the bourgeois soothsayers at New York magazine dubbed “The Billyburg Bust,” complete with operatic comparisons to Miami, never materialized. Not a few bankers and movie stars—Ed Westwick among them—moved in. So what if the critics are right, and there is a little too much South Florida glass for all the soot still in the air? This is Brooklyn circa 2012.
Packed ferries, along with subways, bike lanes and flea markets, are but only the latest sign that the Brooklyn waterfront has prospered, rather than withered during the downturn.
Developers are hard at work on nearly a dozen megaprojects, many of them all but forgotten about in the past three years. A number of firms expect to break ground sometime in 2012, as they told The Observer, and while such ambitions remain lofty, given the near impossibility to raise construction financing at this time, the strength of Brooklyn real estate market has developers scrambling to get on the waterfront.
“The ferry is really the litmus test,” Jed Walentas, the second-generation Dumbo developer, said. “If you have just one good thing on the water, a ferry makes absolutely no sense. There’s nowhere to go. But when you get enough things happening in different parts of the city on the water, all of a sudden, ferries make a ton of sense.”
None of these undertakings are as ambitious as Park Tower Group’s redevelopment of the Greenpoint Lumber Exchange. Park Tower put stock in the area long before many of its competitors, taking a stake in the defunct lumber yard in the northern-most reaches of Brooklyn, where Newtown Creek empties its Superfunded waters into the East River. With 4,000 units planned, in some 10 towers along 20 waterfront acres, Park Tower’s project is larger even than the controversial Atlantic Yards project. Despite its size, a good many community members welcome the development.
“Until stuff gets built in Greenpoint, we don’t get any waterfront access,” said Ward Dennis, co-chair of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth. “I guess some people would gladly trade that for a less crowded neighborhood, but the thing is, the rezoning is done, the land is going sit largely fallow and underused, or overused and productive, with at least some benefits to the community at large.”
Park Tower earned much of its good will by helping to shape the rezoning that made over Williamsburg and Greenpoint during the past decade. Dreamed up in 2003, a year after Park Tower took its stake in the borough (previously, it had developed and later sold off marquee office towers in midtown), the rezoning passed in 2005. Due to the expense of building on the waterfront, even during the boom, only four towers got off the ground, two by McMansion builders Toll Brothers at Northside Piers, two by Douglaston Development at the neighboring Edge.
Both projects foundered, coming online after Lehman collapsed, despite being in the beating heart of Brooklyn gentrification, North Sixth Street. (Ever been to the Thai restaurant Sea on a Friday night?) Even facing its challenges, the Edge became the best-selling building in the city this past year, moving 260 units. Douglaston has since taken over phase three of Northside Piers and is planning to build the first 40-story tower of the rezoning (at least a dozen are possible), which will house 500 luxury rentals.
“I’ve always been a big believer in Williamsburg because Williamsburg created itself,” Douglaston chairman Jeff Levine said. “Unlike some of the other areas that were built up through subsidies or rezonings first, Williamsburg was somewhere that built itself up, and then the city came in later and improved it.”
Park Tower, which has been quietly preparing its project while the gold rush was on, is making the same calculation. “The project has been there a long time, but now the market is finally there for us,” a person involved with the project told The Observer. “The only difference is we’re not looking at condos anymore.” If last decade’s boom was defined by the condo taking hold in New York, this decade, at least in the outer boroughs, will be defined by a rental resurgence. The banks are mostly to thank for this trend. The condos that remain are hard to purchase due to a lack of mortgage financing, which means greater risk, which means lenders are less likely to give money to condo projects. Meanwhile, vacancy rates hover around 1 percent across the city, even lower in the coves of Brooklyn’s gold coast.
Not all projects have faired quite so well, however. Besides Park Tower’s Greenpoint colossus, the biggest development in the works on the waterfront, and the most contentious by far, is the conversion of the Domino Sugar refinery.
Its developer, CPC Resources, is said to be in financial trouble, according to a number of sources, and some of the city’s top developers have looked at the site beside the Williamsburg Bridge. So far none of those deals have worked out, but project manager Susan Pollock said the developer is about to reach a deal with a partner to revive the project. “It was always our understanding we would bring someone in with the experience to build tall towers,” she said. Rose Plaza, located on the south side of the bridge, is similarly on hold, as are a handful of developments in southern Greenpoint.
What unifies many of the projects making less progress are those that were not part of the city’s rezoning or that have tried to go above and beyond it, incurring extra costs and commitments—like Domino, like Rose Plaza. The India Street pier is part of one such project, a development proposed by Jonathan Bernstein that is trying to turn the surrounding streets into parkland, adding a public amenity but also many thousands of square feet to the project, as well as adding a recreational pier on Java Street that would further bulk up his project. Many in the community are against the streets-into-parks plan and even object to the second pier—while it improves waterfront access, it also gives Mr. Bernstein more air rights. “It’s the same thing we’re seeing down at Occupy Wall Street,” local City Councilman Steve Levin said. “Is this a public benefit, or it a private benefit?”
Yet it is the piers and the parks that have also paved the way for these projects. “Once the infrastructure is in, the sky’s the limit,” said Andrew Genn, senior vice president for maritime at the city’s Economic Development Corporation. Toll and Dougalston and neighboring rental 184 Kent have all finished their waterfront esplanades, which connect to East River State Park, creating a reasonable riverside park, a hint of the 14-mile emerald necklace that could someday stretch from the tip of Greenpoint all the way to the Verrazano in Sunset Park. Meanwhile, at the asphalt lot that someday will be the Edge’s 40-story tower, Brownstoner’s Jonathan Butler has set up a branch of Brooklyn Flea and the Smorgasburg, which draw some 15,000 BroBos to the waterfront every weekend in the summer.
And it is not all housing and hip hangouts, either. Mr. Genn argues that the working waterfront is more vibrant than it has been in decades. The Navy Yard is near capacity and Carnegie Mellon has proposed building its branch of the vaunted new tech campus there. New cargo operations have taken hold in Red Hook, not to mention big box stores and ocean liners—Port Authority executive director Chris Ward said it should all be redeveloped as housing someday, but then only to facilitate a stronger connection to Governors Island. The city has signed half-a-dozen new leases and partnerships at Sunset Park in the past year and also launched a sustainability plan for the massive industrial hub. “Brooklyn had been written off as a place to do maritime commerce, and now it’s back,” Mr. Genn said.
Much of this development has been during the downturn, with developers chastened and the city looking to expand its economy beyond Wall Street. If developers are already venturing in again, in a shaky economy, when things are back in full swing, the waves could kick back up.
And there are those developments causing waves already. Last week, the city received bids for the first development site at Brooklyn Bridge Park. “There is very little right about this because it takes away from the parkland,” Councilman Levin said. But the park needs the funds from a new apartment building and hotel to finance its maintenance, and even enliven the open space, its planners argue.
To make the project as palatable as possible, the city has encouraged a level of design rarely seen—or required—in Brooklyn. Among the firms submitting bids are many of the waterfront’s best builders: Mr. Walentas’s Two Trees, Toll Brothers, Dermot, Extell and Hamlin, all of which have hired some of the city’s top architects.
“We put forth a really strong statement on quality design,” Brooklyn Bridge Park president Regina Myer said during a tour of Pier 1 and the adjacent site last week. “We have put so much into the park, we do not want anything that detracts from it. This is the gateway to Brooklyn, a panorama seen all over the world. Whatever we build here has to be special.”