Owners seeing green in Fort Greene

Fort Greene, a neighborhood dotted with landmark buildings, the Brooklyn Academy of Music campus, and impressive brownstones and brick townhouses, has seen boom and bust for more than a century, but the latest wave of gentrification appears to have some staying power.

Brooklyn’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood evolution as a destination location for Manhattan refugees has driven real estate prices up and prompted plenty of new development in Fort Greene, where townhouses are selling for about $1 million. Brokers says prices have gone as high as $1.6 million, and believe those closings indicate a solid turnaround for a community where the same buildings sold for as little as $250,000 after the stock market crash of 1987.

“They’re coming here because it’s a proven lifestyle to a lot of people,” said broker Anthony Santangelo, manager of the Fillmore Real Estate office in Fort Greene. “It’s not like they’re coming here just because it’s a good deal.”

Ralph Jawad, 39, whose family has owned a store and other buildings around Fulton Street for three decades, said he has seen the fortunes of the neighborhood rise and fall over the years.

“I’ve watched the neighborhood go and come a couple of times,” he said. “But the last five years, it’s going one way now with real estate prices. Rents just went up to the roof.”

The Jawad family is developing three two-bedroom units in a building on Fulton that may rent for $1,500 to $1,800 a month, though a neighbor’s luxury two-bedroom unit on Lafayette Avenue recently rented for $3,500. Still, Jawad said he is more likely to turn the units into co-ops. Santangelo said a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom co-op in Fort Greene may sell for $500,000 to $600,000.

Jawad’s father, Abdul Jawad, plans to move from Bay Ridge to Fort Greene, his first move in decades.

“The neighborhood is quiet and clean,” said Jerusalem-born Abdul Jawad. “It’s changing a lot. Anybody who has a house is fixing it before it was not like now.”

The history of Fort Greene has been one of contrasts. Once predominantly a community of middle-class African-Americans, it was known as the “Black Belt” from 1880 to 1930, when half the blacks in Brooklyn lived in its northern section. It was the site of two stations on the former Underground Railroad, which helped fugitive slaves reach freedom, often in Canada. Fort Greene Park is reportedly where Richard Wright penned Native Son.

But the neighborhood fell into disrepair in the mid-20th century. Many spectacular townhouses built in the mid-19th century by speculators to attract Manhattan millionaires to the south side of Fort Greene were abandoned, and the park became a haven for drug dealers.

Eva Daniels, founder of Eva M. Daniels Realty, remembers repeated showings of the same houses when she started her real estate career in 1982.

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“When I moved here, it wasn’t the safest neighborhood,” she said. “It was mostly rooming houses and shell buildings.”

Daniels witnessed a sea change in the spring of 1998. She knew the tide had turned when she sold “a beautiful brownstone” on South Portland Street for $555,000.

“I think that happened because things in Manhattan and other parts of downtown Brooklyn were so expensive,” she said. “People said, okay, I’ll look in your area.”

When Daniels first moved into her storefront on Fulton Street in 1986, most of the surrounding block was boarded up and one bar, Frank’s Cocktail Lounge, made up the nightlife in the neighborhood. Now, the community is rife with cafes, bars and ethnic restaurants that draw youthful Manhattanites on weekends. The renaissance invites comparisons to Greenwich Village.

“There was a time when that wasn’t so,” said Daniels. “Now it is so. It’s just unbelievable what’s happened.”

One designer who is intimately familiar with the neighborhood is Ben Bruno, who has worked on the upscale restaurant Gia, as well as a refined brownstone townhouse on South Portland Street, for the past four years.

“Other than Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene is probably the most preserved neighborhood in Brooklyn,” he said.

The allure of Fort Greene is spreading north of the park, despite wariness about proximity to public housing projects. City-guided redevelopment of the Brig, a 104,600-square-foot site containing a naval prison adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, will feature as many as 400 new homes and apartments, some affordable and some selling at market rates, as well as commercial and community space.

West of the park, the new 549-unit co-op development at University Towers comes with parking, a rare find in Fort Greene, an area known for ample public transportation but scant space for private vehicles. A block north, Myrtle Avenue is now a small-scale restaurant row.

Townhouses north of the park, surrounding the landmark Masonic Temple, along with various universities, schools and medical centers, are going for $800,000 and $900,000, Daniels said.

“People were afraid of the other side of the park, because of the projects,” she said. “That’s changed. There are people being displaced out of the projects right now. I feel the projects will become condos some day.”