The Real Deal New York

The Edge is smooth

Confluence of interests clears way for Williamsburg’s biggest project

January 02, 2008
By Steve Cutler

Most of the largest-scale developments in New York City, the kind that will change the face of their neighborhoods when they get built, have been hopelessly bogged down by warring interests — from the Hudson Yards in Manhattan to the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn to that massive hole in the ground in the Financial District too painfully embarrassing for its monumental delays to mention by name.

But one project, one of the most ambitious the city has ever seen, is taking shape without a hitch, with barely a grumble coming from the community it will transform.

“It’s not like there was a park there that they wanted to stay a park,” said Jeff Levine, whose Douglaston Development is building by far the largest new development, called the Edge, in the rezoned 175-block area along the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront in Brooklyn.

“It was a garbage-handling facility,” Levine said, which many viewed as hardly the best use of space for one of the fastest-growing residential communities in New York City.

Indeed, a North Williamsburg activist group called Neighbors Against Garbage (NAG) formed in 1994 to prevent the expansion of the two-block-long Nekboh Recycling waste transfer station on the waterfront and went on to campaign to get rid of the waste plant entirely.

Also, added Levine, “nobody was coming in to build new job-creating manufacturing facilities over there.”

Its foundation nearly lain, the first phase of Douglaston’s 7.5-acre mixed-use North Williamsburg development will begin to emerge from the ground before spring, about the time its 575 condominium residences will go on sale pre-construction.

When it is complete, the Edge will contain three residential towers with 1,075 luxury condominium units, over 60,000 square feet of retail space, underground parking for approximately 700 cars and 1.75 acres of open space, including a promenade and a pier with a water taxi landing. The development will also deliver about 300 middle-income rental units on its inland side.

The Edge is the largest project in Brooklyn to date to go for LEED certification.

To keep residents entertained until shops and service fill the currently desolate streets along the North Williamsburg waterfront, the project will offer some 40,000 square feet of amenity space, including an indoor pool with outdoor terrace overlooking Manhattan, two fully-equipped fitness facilities, a yoga studio, a multi-purpose recreation room and a spa with whirlpool, co-ed sauna, Turkish steam bath, heat pit and four treatment rooms.

Other amenities include two theatre-screening rooms, a virtual reality game room with golf simulator, lounge with kitchen and billiards tables, private party room, children’s playroom, onsite hybrid Zipcars and refrigerated storage for FreshDirect deliveries.

Levine said his prospective buyers are from the “echo boom” generation: “Those children of the baby boom now approaching 35 to 40 years of age,” he said. “We believe these are the young people who are choosing Williamsburg not as a second choice to Manhattan because of price, but the entire lifestyle package.”

Levine bought the site, which runs along the waterfront from North 5th Street to North 7th Street, shortly after Sept. 11 from real estate investor Louis Silverman, who pieced together several parcels along the Williamsburg waterfront.

At that point, the whole of the waterfront was zoned for industry. Purchasing the property “as is,” not subject to approvals for residential development, might have seemed a risky move for Douglaston, but it was clear which way the wind was blowing (and the smells wafting).

“The most important thing that motivated me to purchase the property,” said Levine, “is that the administration of the city got it. They understood New York needed housing, both market rate and affordable, to maintain the economic housing base for the economy of New York City.” Just three blocks to the subway and a five-minute ride to Manhattan, Williamsburg was an ideal place for the city to begin.

After closing on the property, Douglaston put a team of attorneys and environmental engineers to work pursuing variances. But as its goals were so closely aligned with other groups proposing changes in the area, both public and private, the process turned into an atypically smooth sail.

The community board submitted a plan to the City Planning Commission that said “they believed the waterfront should be parks — in addition to which they wanted residential use,” Levine said.

At the same time, added Levine, “the city started to carry the flag and pursue rezoning.”

Levine claimed to be in awe of the effort the city made. “[The city] went about the rezoning in a way I’d never seen before,” he said. “They went parcel by parcel, creating a three-dimensional picture of the height and utilization of various properties in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront and upland connecting areas.”

Instead of taking a blanket approach to the rezoning, designating whole swaths residential or commercial, said Levine, “they went block by block identifying where there was an ongoing industrial work base and where there were projects already in development of a mid-rise nature.” A main concern was that some oversized projects seeking approval at the time threatened the fabric of some “quaint” areas of Williamsburg.

Generally speaking, the city zoned the waterfront for high-rise residential and stepped down building heights and densities inland, east of Kent Avenue, to match the existing buildings there. Along the waterfront, it prescribed varying height limits to preserve view corridors and provide an undulating height effect among the waves of high-rises to be built.

Some spots along the waterfront can build up to 15 stories, and others up to 30. Developers in the parcels zoned “R8” for 30-stories can go as high as 40 stories if they take advantage of affordable housing bonuses, including as much as 25 percent low- or middle-income units in their projects. New construction is expected to bring approximately 10,500 new residential units to the area over the next decade.

The city plan also creates 54 acres of parkland, including a 28-acre park with an Olympic-quality aquatic center on the river, plus an esplanade and piers, one with a water taxi landing.

Levine commissioned a longtime friend, architect Stephen Jacobs, to design the sprawling site. Levine and Jacobs had worked together before developing 325 Fifth Avenue, the Gansevoort Hotel and 555 West 23rd Street.

Jacobs collaborated on the project from the outset with his wife, interior designer Andi Pepper. “We worked together from day one,” said Jacobs. “She has as much input into the façade of the building as I have in the fabrics she uses.”

The site, said Jacobs, “was a gritty industrial remnant. New York has got more waterfront than practically any other city except maybe Venice or Amsterdam. Yet the city has been cut off from the water. Water was transportation and industry. When I was a kid growing up in New York in the 1950s, you didn’t know you were in a waterfront city.”

“Returning the waterfront to the people is the most
exciting concept happening in New York now in terms of planning,” added Jacobs.

The goal for the condominium towers was, he said, “to maximize the view potential.” In addition to an unobstructed view of Manhattan, the Edge will border a state park on its northern side.

More than half of the units will have private outdoor space, and three-quarters will have unobstructed views. The apartments, said Jacobs, “have lots of glass, floor-to-ceiling windows, flowing open spaces and balconies with subtly colored glass railings.”

Another design goal, said Jacobs, “was to make the apartment as efficient as possible. You’re trying to keep the gross square footage of the apartment as little as you can.” With prices per square foot soaring, said Jacobs, “We live in the era of the shrinking apartment.”

The 575 studio and one-, two- and three-bedroom units in phase one will be offered in 165 different floor plans. According to Highlyann Krasnow, executive vice president of the Developers Group, which is marketing the Edge, “We’ll have a huge spread on the price points, even within the studios.”

Prices start at about $420,000 for the 490-square-foot studio and range widely, up to $3 million for the 2,275-square-foot penthouse with double-height living room and breathtaking views. Two-bedroom units start at $675,000.

Preparing the foundation for the construction of the Edge has been a spectacular challenge. “We’ve spent five months doing work nobody has seen,” said Levine. “The site on the waterfront and water is ever present below grade, so when we excavated, we had to displace the water while we placed the piles.”

Douglaston had to drive 2,000 piles into rock from 50 to 90 feet below grade, many of them highly technical drilled caissons, using a process that consists of drilling holes and placing reinforcing steel and concrete into the holes while sheeting, shoring and dewatering the earth below grade.

“We also had the technical aspects of having to deal with the MTA’s L train,” Levine said, “which is anywhere from 40 to 60 feet below grade. We drilled into piles of caissons in close proximity to that.”

Phase one of the Edge is expected to be open for occupancy in the summer of 2009 — just in time, Levine speculated, to benefit from some of the repercussions of the credit crunch.

“A number of projects, quite a few in Brooklyn,” he said, “are going to have a great deal of difficulty securing financing for construction in the next year or two — until this liquidity crisis passes.”

“I look forward to delivering this product in a window of uncontested competition,” he added.

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