On the Water Forefront
Tom Acitelli Nov. 16, 2009, 4:38 p.m.
Dumbo got its name because artists in the ’70s hoped the ridiculous moniker would keep development out. One resident even told The New York Times she resented the first Coke machine to go in the neighborhood.
David Walentas ignored this. He forged, then pacified Dumbo, starting when punk rockers had barely discovered the East Village. His timing and formula were spot on.
Take 55 Washington Street, a commercial anchor for the neighborhood. A 2001 article describes office space there as featuring “carpeting … and electric wiring.” The Real Estate Weekly piece quoted a Newmark broker saying, “Tenants here get the luxury of exceptional space with every modern amenity.” You had to sell Brooklyn back then, baby!
Not 10 years later, and 55 Washington Street mixes tenants ranging from lawyers to postmodern artists. Recent moves by construction contractor Skanska Koch, which is working on the Brooklyn Bridge retrofit, and Spike Lee’s production company, Forty Acres and a Mule, have filled out 55 Washington. Law firm McMahon, Martine & Gallagher also calls 55 Washington home, as does educational software developer Wireless Generation, which, like many tenants in the area, took advantage of the city’s tax incentive REAP (relocation and employment assistance program) for its spot. Down the street, Brooklyn’s priciest apartment listing ever recently debuted. The penthouse, at 1 Main Street, another Walentas property, has an asking price of $25 million.
The prebuilt, loft-style office 55 Washington sits between Water and Front streets, appropriate as it looks out onto a gorgeous waterfront. Or at least now it does. Before its renaissance, dead bodies used to regularly wash up on these shores, and this little stretch of Brooklyn, sequestered by the BQE, consisted mostly of abandoned factories. Somehow, Mr. Walentas saw in it the next Soho.
He and his Two Trees Management eventually bought up 15 buildings in Dumbo, and re-engineered the neighborhood according to a transparent gentrification master plan that involves giving more than 1,000 artists and arts organizations free rent.
He has also won the favor of community groups and the public, which is quite a feat for a real estate developer in this part of town. (At the annual “Arts Under the Bridge” festival in 2006, both sides of the Dumbo-into-Soho debate agitated. A vintage carousel, restored by artist Jane Walentas, the developer’s wife, was on display on Water Street; just down the block, at the loading dock of the Foragers’ Market, a high-end grocer, the “Death of DUMBO” parade was forming. The parade tromped through the Belgian-block-clad streets loudly mourning the death of the neighborhood.)
Mr. Walentas has said repeatedly that part of his marketing philosophy is courting artists, and not just to propel an initial surge in rent, but to sustain the neighborhood. Among the creative tenants at 55 Washington is the handmade craft purveyor etsy.com, which also hosts weekly instructional craft-making parties. Mr. Walentas has said that artists are “like good architecture … they add value to a building.”
The development strategy for 55 Washington is long term. Two Trees plans to keep the building and to leave it commercial, even if there is a push for more residential space when the housing market picks up. “Commercial space helps keep the neighborhood vibrant during the day, and at night,” said Caroline Pardo, director of leasing for Two Trees. The building anchors the neighborhood, and maintaining the diversity there is key.
FIFTY-FIVE WASHINGTON BEGAN life as a corrugated cardboard factory owned by Robert Gair, a Scottish-born immigrant who brought his small shipping empire to the area in the 1880s. The region was then known as Fulton Landing, for the stop on the ferry that ran before the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Gair owned many of the brick-and-steel factory buildings in the area later called “Gairsville,” since each building bore his name. Many, including 55 Washington, still do.
A picture from 1938 shows 55 Washington’s exterior looking almost exactly as it does now, complete with an advertisement adorning its top.
The slow slide away from industrialization left the area with mostly “low-end manufacturing space renting at $1 a square foot,” according to The Times. In the 1980s, over seven years, Mr. Walentas purchased the seven Gair buildings for about $12 million. Two Trees’ says it’s invested more than $100 million in improving buildings in the area in the past 25 years.
New York City neighborhoods are constantly in flux, but Dumbo’s dramatic turnaround was impressive. Despite the worries of the proto-gentrifiers, it still supports many artists and nonprofits. And it’s all relative: The asking rents at 55 Washington Street—$24.50 to $27 a square foot—still look lovely next to comparable space in Manhattan, despite the fact that the neighborhood has come a long way since that first Coke machine. The building’s vacancy is 12 percent.
And its story within the overall Dumbo narrative rolls on. In December 2007, the Landmarks Preservation Commission granted landmark status to the Dumbo Historic District, 91 buildings in the area’s former industrial core. The borough now known for hipsters, bands and trendy young families was, at one time, the fourth largest manufacturing center in the country, and Dumbo was the center of it. The commission said Dumbo “was the home of some of the most important industrial firms in … America, including Arbuckle Brothers (coffee and sugar), J. W. Masury & Son (paint), Robert Gair (paper boxes), E. W. Bliss (machinery), and Brillo (steel wool).”
The designation means a new phase for development in the area, but not necessarily its end. “It’s a good thing because it will help maintain the character of the neighborhood,” Ms. Pardo said of the landmarking, “but obviously it makes it harder to get things done.”
Instead, she thinks that more renovations will happen the way they did at 70 Washington Street, now condominiums, where Two Trees’ left the facade intact and renovated the interior. “We see both sides now, that it’s also a positive thing.” And that probably also encapsulates how the local artists see Two Trees’ move into Dumbo.