the housing market

Settling, in Downtown Brooklyn

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty

Ten years ago, Gary Nord moved from a walk-up in the West Village to Downtown Brooklyn. “I wanted a washer and dryer. I wanted an elevator. I wanted a garbage disposal. I didn’t want to have to walk five blocks to go to the gym at 5 a.m.,” says Nord, a dentist. “I wanted a self-contained place where we could live and not have to venture out to do a lot of the things we like to do.”

He found it at the Avalon, one of the many high-rise rentals that popped up in the neighborhood in the years following the 2004 rezoning. And he liked it so much that a few years later, he and his partner, a political consultant, were among the first buyers at Brooklyn Point, an Extell tower they had watched rise from their window. “We were like the third people to call,” says Nord after I met him in the building’s ninth-floor lounge. The space has cavernous ceilings, showy light fixtures, and gas-powered fireplaces. He swims morning laps in the saltwater pool before the half-hour commute to his midtown office. On summer evenings, the couple goes to the rooftop for poolside cocktails. As for the neighborhood? Well, why let a thing like that get in the way of a nice life?

Downtown Brooklyn’s rise as a luxury-living destination happened almost despite itself. In the 20 years since its rezoning, 22,000 new apartments have been built with 8,000 more on the way, and each luxury tower seems to function as a self-contained little universe for its contented inhabitants. “It’s a suburban-type lifestyle here,” says one resident. “It’s almost like a little bubble.” Downtown Brooklyn captures a crowd that may not be able to afford a condo at One High Line, but who needs to live in Manhattan when you can get a nicer, brighter space than you would in FiDi or the Lower East Side and be there in ten minutes on the A, C, B, D, F, G, N, Q, R, W, 2, 3, 4 or 5? Want more brownstone in your Brooklyn? It’s just a five-minute walk to Rucola, L’Appartement 4F, and Miss Ada. Cross Flatbush and there’s BAM, Barclays, and Fort Greene Park. Sure, you could rent on the Williamsburg or Greenpoint waterfront and the views are stunning, but it’s a 15-minute schlep to the subway. You’re sacrificing some charm, residents say, but you’re getting everything else.

“Of course, people care about the neighborhoods they live in,” says Ryan Serhant, whose firm handles marketing at Brooklyn Point. “But there will be people who care and people who care slightly less.” At Brooklyn Point, he adds, “You have an amazing view, a 25-year tax abatement, low monthlies, two pools. You’re like, ‘You know what? This is actually okay.’ Everyone has a checklist. And more people chose quality of life inside their apartment than ever before.’” Last year, they did $100 million in sales in the building. (A few blocks away, a penthouse at 11 Hoyt just sold for $5.8 million. Another at Brooklyn Tower is asking $7.8 million.) As for the new residents, it’s “everybody,” Serhant says. “People from Manhattan, people from other parts of Brooklyn, people who had a garden apartment and got tired of it.”

In addition to all the gleaming new skyscrapers, MetroTech Center has been spiffed up and last year saw the debut of the first new office tower in two decades, 1 Willoughby Square, an upscale building whose lobby is filled with towering fiddle-leafs and perfumed by vanilla. Several universities have opened tech campuses nearby, and as far as business districts go these days, it’s unusually lively since government employees came back in person. There’s Gage & Tollner and the Ace Hotel (which bills itself as being in Boerum Hill, though several people I spoke with scoffed at that bit of geographic legerdemain), and everyone speaks reverentially of DeKalb Market and the Trader Joe’s at the City Point mall. But the neighborhood still feels, in the words of one of the few residents who has lived there since the late ’90s, “unformed.” People queue up for social services on Schermerhorn Street a half-block from Chelsea Piers, where memberships run around $300 a month. It’s a maze of construction fences, and the dining scene is dominated by fast-food franchises.

Downtown Brooklyn doesn’t have any one identity, says Johannes Suikkanen, the CEO of Gemic, a strategy and innovation consultancy, who moved the company’s offices to 1 Willoughby Square last October. And that’s actually kind of great. Whereas Williamsburg and Dumbo, with their just-so waterfront parks and thoughtfully curated restaurants and retail, feel lifted straight out of a rendering, Downtown Brooklyn is a hodgepodge: a drab municipal-office vibe and a vibrant retail scene that exists with the shiny new towers. Fulton Street Mall is one of the city’s busiest shopping areas. And while there have been successive attempts to make it wealthier and whiter since the 1960s, it has always been a thriving retail district, says Meredith TenHoor, an architectural and urban historian at Pratt, who co-wrote Street Value, a book about the area. There is still a multilevel Cookie’s, the discount children’s store, on Fulton Street, beauty shops, and street vendors hawking incense, sneakers, and mixtapes. Most buildings’ second and third floors remain vacant; rumor has it that landlords knocked out the staircases to maximize incredibly valuable ground-floor retail. But not everything has survived the transition — the subdivided storefronts of the past have largely been replaced by corporate retailers (Aldo and Banana Republic and Gap outlets). “There was definitely a loss of variety with the loss of multiple little stores that were subletting from one storefront,” TenHoor says. “There was a guy there who made tooth caps. That kind of business used to be much more common.” Still, in some ways, it’s surprising that things haven’t changed more.

“There’s an energy you just don’t feel in a place like Red Hook. It’s New York,” says St. John Frizell, one of the partners at Gage & Tollner, a historic high-end chophouse that was revived under new ownership nearly three years ago. “It was really hard for us to find money to open this place,” he adds. “We talked to a few Brooklyn Heights billionaires who could have easily bankrolled us single-handedly and they were like, ‘How are you going to get people to cross Cadman Plaza?’” But he ultimately made his case. I met Frizell at the Victorian-era building on a recent Friday evening, entering through a front door wedged between the sidewalk sheds of a construction site. Frizell started spending a lot of time in Downtown Brooklyn when his son was going to a school there. “At first, he says, “it just seemed like a place to pass through.” But then he started noticing the mix of architectural styles, the street vendors, and how alive it felt. “I really came to love it here,” he says. “It grows on you.” If the architect who rents the upstairs ever leaves, he adds, “I might just move in myself.”

Settling, in Downtown Brooklyn