The Real Deal New York

With 100s of projects, Scarano remakes B’klyn

By Alison Gregor | May 01, 2005 11:32AM

The interior of Scarano & Associates Architects’ office in Dumbo buzzes with activity and it’s not just because the D train is crossing the Manhattan Bridge. As one of New York’s busiest firms, Scarano is now involved in about 300 projects across the five boroughs, running the gamut from single-family homes to 650-unit complexes, the vast majority of which are in Brooklyn.

In fact, some might characterize architect Robert M. Scarano as single-handedly remaking Brooklyn from the ground up.

He’s low-key for a type A personality, but that would be missing the point.

“I run my office on the order of Philip Johnson, where it’s this chameleon approach,” said Scarano, a slouching figure clad in worn brown leather who munches a banana throughout his lunchtime interviews which take place in an office with a wall covered in photos of his various jobs.

“The jobs are very different depending on the personalities of the individuals working on them. I give them the freedom and opportunities to express themselves.”

Scarano, with no hint of irony, likens his management style to the U.S. government.

“When young architects come here after they’ve graduated, they really don’t have the experience. How we give them the experience is like the government does,” he said. “We put them right into the seat of the F-14, and we send them up and see how many planes they can shoot down.”

That has led to the creation of a multicultural firm of more than 60 capable architects with a youthful bent a wheel flying a plethora of foreign flags sits near the office’s reception desk.

One of these young architects, Dedy Blaustein, designed the current office of Scarano & Associates Architects, an industrial- looking building of metal elbows and jagged joints, often doused in psychedelic lights, that has caused an uproar among some New Yorkers.

Scarano has framed a conference agenda scribbled with the framework for the office, which hangs on the second floor of the office.

“The proverbial napkin design,” joked Scarano, who got his start in the business
with architects Costas Kondylis and Philip Birnbaum.

While Scarano Architects’ latest exterior may be daunting, its interiors are so voluminous and resplendent with natural light that Scarano has lured a close friend and partner who runs the Strategic Development & Construction Group into the office building.

“They’re innovative, and he’s what I like to call a developer’s architect,” said Strategic principal John Frezza. “They know how to maximize the utilization of space.”

Scarano founded the firm in Staten Island in 1985, but chose to rebuild his office in Dumbo after the firm’s second home, a converted carriage house in Fort Greene, burnt to the ground several years ago.

“We just keep getting bigger,” Scarano said. “I never would have thought we would have been this size. I imagined a boutique office of 15 people.”

That willingness to expand has helped Scarano set records. At Bedford Avenue and North 7th Street in Williamsburg, a building designed by the firm set the bar for the highest price ever paid for a Brooklyn walk-up at $900 a square foot, he said.

“For Brooklyn, that’s like an absurd number,” Scarano said. “But it wasn’t absurd, because the people that bought in there felt that what they were getting for their money was warranted.”

A unifying aspect among Scarano’s Brooklyn designs is capacious interior spaces, which the firm evolved in its effort to circumvent development regulations in the borough. The ordinances sought to shrink floor area in a development inversely to the size of the development footprint.

Scarano found his way around those regulations by working with fewer floors. The tall and broad buildings, with much higher ceilings than are typical in Brooklyn, have yielded more upscale spaces and higher rents.

Scarano grins slyly when he alludes to the fact that measuring apartments by their volume, or in cubic feet, is not only the wave of the future, but not necessarily the brainchild of The Sunshine Group, as was recently reported in The New York Times.

“That’s not her idea,” Scarano said of Louise Sunshine, principal of The Sunshine Group. “She borrowed it from somebody.”

Scarano said he was designing lofty apartments in Brooklyn well before other developers in the borough picked up on the loft trend.

“We knew long ago that volume is what people buy,” Scarano said. “I could show you the nicest 575-square-foot one-bedroom with a 200-foot loft for which you would happily pay $775 a square foot.”

That penchant for the massive, or at least the prominent, has ignited controversy in some neighborhoods, such as the East Village, where a Scarano-designed 16-story tower at 4 East 3rd Street has drawn plenty of critical attention. Another 22-story tower at 144 North 8th Street in Brooklyn is upsetting residents.

“We’re embroiled in a lot of controversy right now because we’re pushing the envelope,” Scarano said.

Scarano exteriors explore the modern and contemporary vernacular, but the company does handle projects involving adaptive reuse as well. The Arches at Cobble Hill entailed converting a Catholic church in a way that accommodated its vaulted ceilings, columns and crown moldings. It sold for about $600 a square foot.

The firm also did the Toy Factory Lofts in Fort Greene-Downtown Brooklyn, which averaged $575 a square foot, according to Elan Padeh, head of The Developers Group, which consulted on the conversion.

“Scarano’s designs have really set a new trend in Brooklyn,” Padeh said. “They’re really taking Brooklyn to where it should be — [a borough with] very unique architecture.”

Besides luxury projects, Scarano Architects has designed its share of affordable housing, such as a mid-rise building at 229 Parkville Avenue where the façde blends into the Midwood neighborhood.

“Not everybody can buy a $900,000 apartment,” Scarano said. “Maybe people would like to buy a $300,000 apartment, and if you subsidize it the right way, in certain locations, it can be done.”

Frezza, who develops a lot of affordable housing, said he’s not surprised Scarano & Associates are taking by storm a borough that began recovering only about a decade ago from the 1957 departure of the Dodgers. “Bob’s a very savvy guy and very good at what he does, and he passes that along to his staff,” Frezza said.

Success may have its price critics say Scarano’s once unique approach is now enough of a Brooklyn hallmark as to render it somewhat commonplace.

“Probably we were one of the first in this area of Brooklyn to have him as our architect,” said Abe Rubin, principal at Conselyea Properties, which developed The Casa, a 24-unit project in Williamsburg.

“So on the one hand, it was a pleasure bringing him into this area. But on the other hand, now everybody’s using him because he did such a good job.”

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