Toll trolls for NYC developments

Toll Brothers, one of the best-known names in suburban living, is expanding its urban presence here, with six large projects in the pipeline around town: Northside Piers and North8 in Williamsburg; 5th Street Lofts in Long Island City; One Ten Third near Union Square; 303 East 33rd Street in Murray Hill; and an ambitious Gowanus Canal project that awaits rezoning. David Von Spreckelsen, Toll Brothers City Living’s senior vice president and a Dumbo resident, spoke to The Real Deal about how he picks sites and why he think Gowanus is a “home run” and Downtown Brooklyn isn’t. While other developers might be slowed by the credit crunch, he says the publicly-traded Toll Brothers’ ability to self-finance has allowed it to keep building during the slump.

How do you pick sites?
It has to be some place where I would like to live, and close to good public transportation, close to decent amenities, shopping and whatnot, restaurants and bars. And other than that, the only other real restriction is that we’re a luxury homebuilder. We have a reputation for being at the high end of the markets we’re in outside of New York City, so I wouldn’t go to someplace that was really on the fringe, like Bushwick.   

When you first chose the site for the Williamsburg project, Northside Piers, and Gowanus, weren’t they fringe areas?
These neighborhoods are not as established as something like Brooklyn Heights or something like Murray Hill per se, but they certainly have all the elements. They’re in close proximity to Manhattan, they have subway access and they’ve got the bistros and boutiques and things that give people a strong sense that these are going to be great neighborhoods at some point … Of all the properties that we’re involved in right now, when I take bankers and developers, senior Toll people around the sites, when they get to Gowanus they just love it because of Carroll Gardens and because it’s so unique being on a canal, which is not something you really have elsewhere in New York City.  

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You’re not deterred by the contamination? 
I’ve been down to the canal many, many times. I’ve been on it canoeing with my kids and I’ve not once smelled anything coming from the canal. Now, I haven’t been there after a big rain, but I’ve been there in the hottest, most humid days of August and there’s no stench at all.   

Is there going to be too much competition around there?
I think that I’m not looking for additional sites real hard right now in a place like Williamsburg, where you’ve really got so much product that’s going to take awhile [to absorb] … I think that Downtown Brooklyn will be a challenge for a lot of people with these towers that they’re building. I think that Gowanus will be a home run because if you look at Carroll Gardens, there is really nothing else available there for new construction or nothing sizable.  

What about Downtown Brooklyn’s proximity to Manhattan and transportation? 
Downtown Brooklyn to me is very, very commercial. There are places where buildings are being built that are actually quite a walk from the subways, a walk that’s really not going to be a pleasant one at night when the offices towers are empty. I see that kind of the way I see Lower Manhattan … I wouldn’t want to live there and I sort of see Downtown Brooklyn as sort of being the same way. It makes a lot of sense to do rental there in Downtown Brooklyn … it has a lot less of a residential feel that I think is important for people.

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