The Real Deal New York

Manhattan-style condos come to Fort Greene

October 29, 2007
By Andy Greenberg

Fort Greene, long considered an artists’ community, is about to see a different sort of avant-garde installation.

In the coming months, several towering luxury condominiums will rise in the neighborhood, a set of buildings whose unique contemporary architecture is aimed at a new class of buyers. But the novel structures are also riling locals, who worry that the developments will clash with their neighborhood’s traditional brownstone aesthetic.

Since part of the neighborhood was upzoned in 2004 to allow larger construction, Fort Greene has caught the eye of architects and developers, and its skyline is beginning to show the results.

When completed, developer Clarett Group’s Fort Condominiums at 230 Ashland Place and the Ismael Leyva-designed tower at 85 Flatbush Avenue Extension will both resemble futuristic descendants of Manhattan’s Flatiron building, wedge-shaped monoliths of steel and glass.

Meanwhile, with the help of investors like Magic Johnson, the iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank has been internally remodeled with Brazilian teak floors and oversize windows to cater to an influx of high-income buyers. By 2008, Scarano & Associates architects plans to complete the South Portland Tower, a 190-foot mixed-use complex resembling a giant, silver game of Jenga, the wood-block game of stacked beams.

Architect Leyva sees this crop of luxury condominiums, including his own project, as the vanguard of a new wave of construction that will transform the area, and predicts a “corridor of towers” lining Flatbush Avenue.

“Fort Greene will be revitalized,” he says, “And Brooklyn as a whole will see a new kind of architecture and a new way of life.”

Space-age architecture is just part of a general residential explosion in Fort Greene. Plans for 739 new condo units were submitted to the state Attorney General’s office for approval this year through the third quarter, the most of any other any Brooklyn neighborhood other than Williamsburg, which had 812 units. In the last two quarters, new unit plans for Fort Greene outpaced those for Williamsburg.

Condo plans submitted to the Attorney General’s office include more than 500 total units at the 40-story 306 Gold Street and its sister tower, the 35-story 313 Gold Street. Those projects won’t hit the market until 2008. The towers are being built by developers Ron Herscho and Dean Palin, who are presenting them as located in Downtown Brooklyn.

The new construction won’t be cheap.

The 182 condos in the Williamsburgh Savings Bank at One Hanson Place range in price from around $400,000 to $2 million.

The 30 floors of the Clarett Group’s Fort will offer 108 units hitting the market by early 2007, selling for around $750,000 to $1 million each.

Kathryn Lilly, a broker for Prudential Douglas Elliman and a longtime Fort Greene resident, says the flashy new developments can be explained not only by Fort Greene’s proximity to Lower Manhattan, but also by its unique cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Music School and the Paul Robeson Theater.

“Fort Greene isn’t quite like any other part of New York,” Lilly says. “It’s open to development in a way that many neighborhoods aren’t, because it’s a very creative, diverse, arts-oriented place. Developers can really do modern, contemporary stuff.”

But not every resident of Fort Greene is quite so open to change. Some community groups see the towers as a threat to their neighborhood’s low-lying rowhouse environment and criticize the condominiums’ lack of affordable housing.

The Department of City Planning is considering a rezoning of certain parts of the neighborhood from R6 to R6B, limiting buildings to 50 feet in height everywhere except wide arterial streets like Fulton Street, Myrtle Avenue and Atlantic Avenue. Some locals have also voiced their support for Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to amend the 421a tax abatement program, removing key tax benefits for buildings that don’t meet a certain percentage of affordable housing.

“It’s all luxury housing in these buildings, and taxpayers are paying for it,” says local councilwoman Letitia James, who supports Bloomberg’s reforms. “These developments are going to transform this part of Brooklyn, and it will only benefit the rich. They don’t even attempt to provide for the working class.”

Echoing protests against Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project, Fort Greene Association Chairman Phillip Kellogg worries that new developments may dwarf existing architecture.

“It’s about striking a balance,” he says. “Downtown Brooklyn is a great opportunity for development. But our concern is that the current neighborhood not get overwhelmed, that there aren’t problems of scale.”

Prudential’s Lilly is more concerned that downzoning would stunt the area’s growth and rob residents of property value. She warns that zoning changes, tax abatement, and the normal cycle of growth and slowdown all point to Fort Greene’s expansion cooling in the coming months, with projects in the pipeline likely getting built but fewer new ones planned.

“Growth comes in waves, and I think we’re at the cusp of a period with less development,” she says.

Brown Harris Stevens agent Lee Solomon, also a resident of Fort Greene, is less pessimistic, pointing to long-term growth in demand for apartments as a sign of Fort Greene’s bright real estate future. She says a slew of factors, including interest rates and buyer attitudes, make the neighborhood’s short-term development prospects difficult to predict. “You’d need a magic eight ball to really be sure how these things will affect prices,” Solomon says.

For now, she prefers to focus on the task at hand: filling her neighborhood’s immense new condominiums with residents.

“The jury’s out as to what will happen next,” she says. “But right now in Fort Greene, it’s a great market.”

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