Firms Grow To Brooklyn

Manhattan companies expand as borough booms

Feb.February 01, 2004 11:03 AM

The last five years have transformed Brooklyn, with an entire generation of creative, educated, and middle-class New Yorkers heading across the East River. Home prices have soared, with some Park Slope brownstones tripling in value in the last ten years. After losing the Dodgers half a century ago, the borough may get a new major league sports team in the Nets, and has even more of a spring in its step lately.

Manhattan firms are taking notice. No fewer than three firms – Citi Habitats, Douglas Elliman, and Warburg Realty Partnership – are reportedly opening up offices there soon. That would more than double the number of Manhattan-based firms with significant operations in the borough – William B. May and Corcoran have offices there now. Corcoran plans to open in two more office spaces this year.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s largest firm, Fillmore Real Estate, which has traditionally operated in the outer reaches of the borough, is moving into “Brownstone Brooklyn”, opening an office in Brooklyn Heights this month as well as one in Williamsburg next month. The firm has grown enormously over the last year and a half, from 350 agents to more than 500.

John Reinhardt, president of Fillmore, said he looked forward to competition with the new Manhattan firms, all of which are expected to open in Brooklyn Heights, the borough’s most expensive neighborhood.

“It’s going to be a Brooklyn-Manhattan slugfest,” said Reinhardt, upon learning the details of some of his competitors’ plans. “I love it. This business always stays interesting.”

While the Manhattan companies were mum about their expansion efforts, some of the plans seem pretty far advanced.

Chris Thomas, President of William B. May in Brooklyn, said that Citi Habitats is planning to open an office in Brooklyn Heights, somewhere near Atlantic Avenue.

Douglas Elliman is reportedly opening up an office across the street from Corcoran’s office at 124 Montague Street. Many Brooklyn-based companies, as well as William B. May and Corcoran, have offices on Montague.

Warburg Realty, formerly Ashforth Warburg, is also in negotiations for an office at the intersection of Montague and Hicks Streets, Thomas said.

A Citi Habitats spokesperson declined to comment “at this time,” while a Douglas Elliman spokesperson acknowledged the company probably had intentions to open an office “down the line”, but deferred questions to CEO Dottie Herman, who was on vacation. A spokeswoman for Warburg maintained the company “does not have any plans to enter the Brooklyn market at the present time.” Melinda Magnett, president of the Corcoran Group in Brooklyn, also added that she had heard Citi Habitats and Douglas Elliman were opening offices in Brooklyn.

As prices in the borough continue to rise, the competition for market share will likely be heated. Brokerages in Brooklyn number in the hundreds, most with only a few agents each.. After Fillmore, the biggest firms are Corcoran, which has around 125 agents, and William B. May, which has around 45. Top boutique firms with under 30 agents include Harbor View Realty, Brooklyn Properties, William S. Ross Real Estate and several others. Another Manhattan firm, Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, has an office in Park Slope under the name Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy & Garfield, but has a relatively small presence with only five agents listed on its Web site.

Overall, prices of single-family residences in Brooklyn continue to soar. In 2003, they averaged $1.29 million, a 55 percent increase over the year before, a recent report by Corcoran said. In Brooklyn Heights, a record price was set for townhouses this summer when one was sold for $3.68 million in a deal done by William B. May, said Thomas. More homes in Park Slope are selling for over $2 million recently, according to brokers, while areas adjacent to Park Slope like Windsor Terrace and Prospect Heights are seeing prices climb higher than $1 million.

Gentrification is starting to spread to areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Red Hook and Crown Heights, where properties remain less expensive. Like Manhattan, there is low inventory in brownstone neighborhoods, Magnett said.

With such prices, firms are doing big business in Brooklyn, though, as always, numbers are hard to confirm. Corcoran said it had 900 sales totaling $435 million in 2003. Those numbers were disputed by another firm, which said Corcoran’s total sales were likely around one-third that amount, based on figures listed on Corcoran’s Web site last year. Both William B. May and Fillmore declined to provide sales statistics for 2003.

Whether new Manhattan firms arriving in Brooklyn will be greeted with open arms depends on who you ask. Reinhardt of Fillmore, which was founded in Brooklyn in 1966, said “a lot of the neighborhoods are resentful” of Manhattan companies coming in.

In Brooklyn Heights, Reinhardt said his company started a new office because “people in the streets said they want us there” and because the company already does much business in the area. He said Manhattan companies “often sell Brooklyn as a second choice. We prefer Brooklyn. We were born in Brooklyn, grew up in Brooklyn and are proud to be in Brooklyn.” Compared to Manhattan-based firms, Reinhardt said his company was “perhaps more relaxed and people-centric. It’s a more comfortable, down-to-earth feeling.”

If there is any resentment of Manhattan firms, it appears not to have hindered Corcoran and William B. May’s success in the borough. While William B. May has been present in the borough since 1981, Corcoran is a relatively new arrival.

Corcoran began operating in Brooklyn in 1998, when it merged with Magnett’s company, Brooklyn Landmark Realty. Since then, the company has grown from 50 agents to around 125. Corcoran, which has offices in Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope and Fort Greene, is presently expanding by another 1,500 square feet on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights next to its current office, and plans to relocate its development division to its own separate office sometime this year. Magnett said her company couldn’t have expanded at its current rate without merging with Corcoran. “From a personal point of view, I made such a good decision,” she said. “It couldn’t have grown the way it has grown otherwise.”

Like in Manhattan, some brokers say that Brooklyn is a no-man’s land for mid-sized firms. Thomas of William B. May agrees with the assessment that, “you either have to be big or boutique.” In Brooklyn Heights, William B. May is bigger than other boutique firms but offers “boutique service,” Thomas said.

There are many other notable Brooklyn boutique firms. In Brooklyn Heights, they include Harborview Realty, a 15-person brokerage operated by Harris Dulany and his wife, Barry, who is regarded as a leading broker in the borough. Harris Dulany is a book author and Emmy-Award winning writer and Barry was previously headmaster at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights. In Park Slope, Brooklyn Properties is a well-regarded company with around 24 agents and three offices, including one in Fort Greene, headed by Hal Lehrman. Neither Lehrman or the Dulanys returned calls for this story.

Some other notable firms in “Brownstone Brooklyn” include William S. Ross Real Estate and Marilyn A. Donahue Real Estate, both with one office each in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, Cobble Heights Realty, and Heights Berkeley Realty, Aguayo & Huebener Realty and Warren Lewis Realty in Park Slope.

As far as Brooklyn agents working in Manhattan and vice-versa, Magnett of Corcoran said she has agents “that work as far north as Harlem.” Manhattan brokers also work directly in Brooklyn, she said, but during times when there is a lot of activity, brokers usually decide to refer business to agents in Brooklyn, she said.


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