Hail the water taxi:

Oct.October 25, 2007 03:36 PM

The old jingle for Schaefer told beer drinkers they’d be sitting pretty in Schaefer City, but prospective occupants of the luxury condominiums on the site of the former Williamsburg brewery are more interested in riding pretty — right across the water to Wall Street.

Schaefer Landing, a pioneering Brooklyn waterfront development now marketing its second phase, is one of many properties touting Manhattan ferry service along the East, Hudson or Harlem rivers as an appealing transportation alternative.

Many developers, including the trio of companies behind Schaefer Landing, BFC Partners, L & M Equity Participants and Allstate Realty Associates, have quietly cultivated mutually beneficial relationships with the city’s two water taxi firms — NY Waterway and New York Water Taxi — to enhance their river-front projects with dedicated ferry stops.

Some developers pay water taxi operators annual subsidies to guarantee they get docking barges and stops.

Donald Capoccia, who is managing partner of BFC Partners, believes in the future of water transportation. His company struck a five-year deal with New York Water Taxi in 2006, shelling out upwards of six-figures a year as an operating subsidy for the Schaefer site.

Similar deals were struck between New York Water Taxi and the new development One Brooklyn Bridge Park, as well as retail locations in Brooklyn.

Increased access to ferries in New Jersey is also buoying sales at new developments there. Applications are pouring in for 77 Hudson in Jersey City, just blocks away from a ferry stop.

The development subsidies may have boosted the quality of ferry service, which had been plagued by erratic scheduling, vulnerability to bad weather and routes that failed to draw passengers.

NY Waterway ferries commuters across the Hudson, between New Jersey and Manhattan, and its other routes include links to cities along the Metro-North rail line.

New York Water Taxi shuttles commuters to and from Yonkers, South Brooklyn and stops along the East River, and it runs tourist routes like the “Hop on/ Hop off” service and the “Gateway to America” tour around the Statute of Liberty, Ellis Island and other attractions.

A spokesperson for NY Waterway said from June 2006 to June 2007, ridership was up 11 percent. According to Port Authority data supplied by the ferry operators, as of June 2007, NY Waterway’s total average weekday ridership was 18,399, and New York Water Taxi’s average weekday
ridership was 1,409.

Because it no longer ferries passengers from Lower Manhattan to New Jersey (NY Waterway took over that service in October 2006), New York Water Taxi’s overall ridership for the past year is down. A spokesperson for New York Water Taxi noted that ridership on its new routes, especially along the East River, is up almost 90 percent, and its other routes have shown nearly double-digit growth.

The ferry craft used by water taxi operators are slick, comfortable affairs, with glass windows on the deck level and second decks set up like double-decker buses, with open-air seats that allow spectacular views of the city.

Arthur Imperatore launched NY Waterway in January 1987, and William Fox and Douglas Durst’s New York Water Taxi began service in September 2002. Each had growing pains. However, their recent face-lifts, expanded routes and growing appeal among commuters makes developers optimistic about water travel in the New York area.

As head of the Durst Organization, a major player in Manhattan real estate that will control 10 million square feet with the completion of the Bank of America office tower on Bryant Park, Douglas Durst has a foot in both camps: Success with riverfront water taxi stops will increase the appeal of waterfront residential and commercial development.

“The emerging water-borne transportation network will transform New York much the same way the subways did 100 years ago,” said Capoccia.

Capoccia noted that when he first looked at the Schaefer Landing site in Williamsburg, he clocked his walk from the property to the nearest subway station at 10 minutes; realizing he was moving at a healthy pace in pleasant weather, he knew that the average walk time would be longer.

“That’s when I realized we were challenged, transportation-wise,” he said.

Capoccia contacted his friend William Fox at New York Water Taxi and struck a deal last year that led to a marketing campaign for Schaefer Landing and to the introduction of a water taxi stop expressly for the property, Capoccia said

For the moment, Capoccia and Fox’s alliance is succeeding. The second phase of sales at Schaefer Landing has been largely successful, and most of its 350 units, which range from 600 to 1,000 square feet and cost between $390,000 and $1.9 million, are now occupied. That’s creating a population of roughly 1,000 residents, many of whom use the ferry services.

Fox said New York Water Taxi is also receiving subsidies from One Brooklyn Bridge Park, the massive RAL Companies & Affiliates project in Brooklyn Heights, once a Jehovah’s Witnesses building. Some 449 units are being retrofitted, with prices starting at $550,000. Sales started in April, and there’s a waiting list of over 4,000 prospective buyers. In addition, Fox said he struck deals with Fairway Markets in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and the 346,000-square-foot IKEA, also coming to Red Hook.

“The river is this incredible highway that runs through the city,” Fox said, noting that he is negotiating subsidy deals with roughly a dozen other developers. “As the waterfront develops, the only missing element is transportation. We’re providing the infrastructure to make real estate development viable.”

On the other side of the island, Randy Brosseau, K. Hovnanian Homes’ area president for metropolitan New York, said he and his wife have lived on the Hudson River waterfront for the past eight years. Early on, friends who visited them praised the home but criticized the location because it was so difficult to reach.

“Historically, the price differential between Manhattan and New Jersey has existed because of the lack of connectivity to New York City,” said Brosseau. “But now, a lot of people who are seeking value are understanding that they can still be connected to Manhattan, to their place of work, because of the ferries. We absolutely understand the value of building near the ferries.”

Boosting demand in New Jersey

For Brosseau, recent proof is the overwhelming response rate for Hovnanian’s new property, 77 Hudson Street. The property is located one block west of the Hudson River in Jersey City’s Paulus Hook neighborhood, several blocks from the NY Waterway ferry stop. Sales started in July on the 420-home complex, which features floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The development has already attracted some 2,500 applicants, Brosseau said. Each home, he added, costs from $400,000 to $2 million, with square footage ranging from 525 to 2,000.

And Dean Geibel, managing partner of developer Metro Homes, said at least two of his properties will benefit from NY Waterway ferries — Trump Plaza and Gull’s Cove, both nearing completion in Jersey City. “Any time you give people a transportation incentive, it has a huge impact on [the] developers’ decision to build somewhere and customers’ to buy.” He added that because of the increasing costs of energy, more people are choosing mass transit.

“The ferries are a more civilized way of traveling,” said Geibel. “They have a certain panache, and they’re clearly gaining in popularity.”

Commuters weigh the costs

Still, there are cost considerations. Single ferry rides cost $6 to $10, and monthly passes cost over $200, so some commuters are not fully sold on watery transit.

“I love being on the water, it’s in the blood,” said Ben DiMatteo, 28, who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and has used the ferry to get to the law office where he works on Wall Street. “But it doesn’t make any financial sense to have a water-taxi card and a monthly MetroCard.”

DiMatteo added that since he often has obligations after work, he doesn’t always return home the same way, rendering a water-taxi pass an unnecessary luxury.

But the ferries continue to appeal to a specific and growing demographic, including people like Lauren Stone, 25, who was eager to cut down on her commute time. Stone works as a publicist in Manhattan and has been living in Saddle River, N.J. She and her boyfriend recently bought a condo in North Bergen’s Views of Hudson Pointe development, in part because of the ferries. Once she moves into her new digs, she said, her commute will be reduced to 40 minutes from her earlier 90-minute commute.

“I was very aware of the water taxis,” she said. “That was the major reason why I moved to North Bergen. Our development is right near the ferry — the building even has a shuttle bus that takes us there. And let’s face it: Taking the ferry is so much more relaxed and peaceful than taking the bus to the Port Authority.”


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