By Elisabeth Anderson
Phil Li, an executive from Park Slope, has a longer commute to his current job at a non-profit in DUMBO than to his previous one in midtown Manhattan. And not unlike a mountaineer preparing for a climb, he always checks his gear before beginning the trek.
“Accessibility is an issue and that dovetails with convenience,” explained Li, 50, who is chief operating officer of the Brooklyn Community Foundation. “For restaurants, retail options and the like, my worst nightmare is forgetting something that I need. Running out to grab a birthday card or needing to fill a prescription become major endeavors up the hill into Brooklyn Heights. Depending on what you’re looking for, you can be a 15 minute walk away from a Hallmark store or Duane Reade.”
It isn’t that DUMBO is lacking for retail business. But it’s the oddball mix that has intrigued Li since he moved into his office at 45 Main St., in the heart of DUMBO’s historic district, two years ago. “DUMBO does have an abundance of home furnishing and pet stores,” he said, “but that’s not really so helpful on a daily basis or for the average person who works here.
“From multiple pet supply stores and a veterinarian to a doggie day care center, you know who the ‘kids’ of DUMBO really are,” he continued. 45 Main is a dog-friendly building, and Li often observes pooches riding elevators along with suits. He’d never seen anything like it in his 20 plus years of work in New York. “The first time I saw it, I scratched my head and was wondering what was going on,” Li said.
It’s just one of the head scratch-worthy realities for those who work or live in DUMBO, a neighborhood where a resident can pay upwards of $900 per square foot for the privilege of facing parking nightmares and having no proper supermarket, pharmacy, or school within its borders (DUMBO parents generally send them to school in neighboring Brooklyn Heights).
It isn’t all bad news. Trains are okay – DUMBO is accessible by the F line at York Street and the A/C at High Street. And the area boasts a post office plus two banks, Chase and Sovereign.
DUMBO, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, stretches from Hudson Street to Fulton Street and from Prospect Street to John Street (the East River). The neighborhood is situated between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and includes the area east of the Manhattan Bridge towards Vinegar Hill.
It originated as a transportation and manufacturing hub in the 1600s, and began to decline during the industrial downturn of the 1930s and ‘40s. The private sector started to reinvest in DUMBO when artists moved in during the 1970s and early 1980s. Developers began converting warehouses into residential lofts and commercial spaces, and independent small businesses soon followed.
A critical demographic shift began in the late 1990s, according to Michael Brown, a 29-year-old Brooklyn-based city planner who runs his own agency, MLB Planning. The city, formerly reluctant to rezone the area for condo development, relented. A residential rezoning was enacted in 1998, and 1 Main Street became the first development. Warehouses and lofts got converted in droves, prices went up, and artist residents were squeezed out.
“I don’t know how much more expensive DUMBO can get,” Brown said, citing the ubiquity of condo listings in the $1-2 million range. “I don’t know many artists that can afford those prices.” DUMBO ushered in a young, yuppie crowd. Some are young families, but many have no kids. Brown calls what’s happened in DUMBO “the typical cycle of gentrification.” He thinks the same process is underway in Gowanus, and that Red Hook may be next.
With gentrification in DUMBO has come a huge population surge. According to new census estimates, New Yorkers seem to be favoring neighborhoods that offer French pastry shops, funky clothiers, and waterfront and recreational amenities (Brooklyn Bride Park’s final renovation stage will end this summer) over the basics. DUMBO’s population has more than tripled in the past decade, to more than 3,600 today. “You’ve got to look at market forces,” Brown said. “The reason the demographics have changed is because it’s become a desirable place to be.”
Oh, and there’s one other factor keeping the DUMBO real estate market hot. “The most coveted amenity you get in DUMBO is a great view,” explained Eric Fleming, a vice president at The Corcoran Group who negotiates many sales in the neighborhood. “If a unit has a protected river and city view, you can expect that unit to command a much higher price than a unit without,” he said. Condos in established buildings typically sell for around $800-900 per square foot, and “the trophy units can go for much higher.”
Fleming added that the converted loft layouts of many units are also appealing. “You don’t see as many typical one-bedrooms as you would in Manhattan,” he said. “Proportionally, the units are much larger.”
He also says that prices are stable but “inventory is in extremely short supply.” There are only about 10 or so condominiums to choose from, and “there’s not a lot being constructed in the DUMBO historic district aside from the Two Trees Dock Street project which has been on the table for a few years.” Development is spilling over in adjacent Vinegar Hill, where one new condo just opened and three more are in the works.
Rentals are few and far between. “I’d say the ratio is about two to one condo to rental,” Fleming said. According to city planner Brown, the cost of construction and tight lending environment make it undesirable for builders to develop rental properties.
Amanda Butler, a 32-year-old footwear designer for Cole Haan, has lived in the neighborhood with her husband Darren for five and a half years. They were among the first residents to move into their building, 70 Washington St., where they own a one bedroom condo. “In 13 years of living in several different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, this, more than any other, feels like a true neighborhood,” Butler said. Even though the artists have largely left, she loves the “artsy feel,” enjoying First Thursdays gallery walks and the fall DUMBO Arts Festival.
Still, she conceded, “The lack of a true supermarket is a challenge.” While the two biggest grocery stores in the neighborhood, Peas & Pickles and Foragers generally have what she needs, “that comes at a price.” And when she throws a dinner party, she usually needs to order from FreshDirect or rent a Zipcar to get to Fairway in Red Hook.
City planner Brown said upwardly-mobile DUMBO residents don’t mind sacrificing convenience for cachet. When home is a DUMBO apartment with a panoramic view, they are willing to pick things up in Manhattan on their way home from work, or pay to have groceries and prescriptions delivered.
Butler said she doesn’t mind using a mom and pop drugstore on Jay Street in Brooklyn Heights, which delivers. In fact, she’d rather support them than a chain. Still, she does dream of the day a proper supermarket comes to town, though she’s not sure DUMBO residents would provide the volume to sustain one. “It would be amazing to have a supermarket like Whole Foods or Trader Joes,” she said.
When Ellen Salpeter moved to DUMBO in 1986, you could barely get Chinese takeout, let alone organic produce. Residents like Butler have replaced ones like Salpeter, the 50-year-old director of Heart of Brooklyn, a partnership of cultural institutions including the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Brooklyn Museum. Salpeter, who lived in an unrenovated DUMBO loft from 1986 to 1997, recalls a very different neighborhood. “There were no chocolate shops or dry cleaners,” she said. “You could get rice and beans and the Post.”
Salpeter remembers a neighborhood brimming with artists like herself, and factory workers. In the late 1980s, she said nobody rode the subway after 9 p.m., and car services were afraid to go to DUMBO. There was just one takeout place, a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, that was willing to deliver dinner to her door.
But for her the grit was part of the appeal. “It was great because it was isolated,” Salpeter said. “Very Dickensian feeling to the streets.”
Today those streets are no longer gritty, but the cobblestones are in need of repair. According to Alexandria Sica, the 31-year-old executive director of the DUMBO Improvement District, the city hasn’t kept pace maintaining the streets. Two streets have been restored, and the District is advocating for the $60 million needed to take care of the rest.
Sica’s proud of the work her group is doing to restore the neighborhood’s historic elements, manage community spaces and programming, and encourage digital and creative businesses to set up shop. In five years, she envisions DUMBO as a “bigger and better version of what it is now,” she said. “I actually think we want more people.”
Perhaps she’ll be one of them. Asked whether she lives in the neighborhood, Sica replied “I don’t. But of course I’d like to.”
According to city planner Brown, the increased flow of residents is likely to cause significant changes in the next five years. On the commercial front, he foresees a lot of turnover among older businesses, as landlords squeeze out small firms using shared workspaces in favor of larger, better established companies.
Among residents, Brown thinks they may well drum up demand for a school, and for a supermarket. “People are going to want to stop grabbing a Zipcar everytime they go pick up a gallon of milk,” Brown mused. Of a big market, “I think it’ll take away from the character of the neighborhood. But that won’t stop it.”