South Williamsburg, Brooklyn: Where families are out in force

After she was widowed, she moved into the condo for a change of scene and to be close to her Brooklyn grandchildren. “I had enough of the country,” she said.

South Williamsburg, Brooklyn: Where families are out in force

(Living In): NEW YORK — When Nasrin Vossoughian bought a three-bedroom condominium at Schaefer Landing, a residential project built on the site of a former brewery, she knew change was coming to gritty South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But she had no idea how much. That was in the early 2000s, before the rezoned waterfront was lined with gymnastic towers and its most prominent feature, the Domino Sugar Factory, was remade into a 4-million-square-foot multiuse complex that is still under construction.

Vossoughian and her husband were living in upstate Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, at the time, and bought the property as an investment. (She declined to say what they paid, but units were originally priced up to $1.9 million.)

After she was widowed, she moved into the condo for a change of scene and to be close to her Brooklyn grandchildren. “I had enough of the country,” she said.

Sitting on a bench in the new Domino Park, with its sublime views of the Manhattan skyline and tributes to the sugar-refining industry — syrup tanks, gantry cranes — she talked about the pleasure of walking to increasingly profuse neighborhood shops and restaurants, and boarding a ferry just outside her door for the 20-minute trip to Lower Manhattan.

If Vossoughian felt any sense of disconnect in this new environment, she said, it was because of her age: She is now 70. She was contrasting herself not just against the stereotypical skin-ornamented and creatively self-employed Williamsburg hipster, but also against the affluent young families pouring into the neighborhood.

Today you can’t walk far below Grand Street, the generally accepted dividing line between North and South Williamsburg, without spotting a new Montessori school here, a child’s hair salon there. The babies are out in force. If South Williamsburg’s reputation for grimy authenticity had been teetering, it is now under full assault.

“Once the L train decided it wasn’t going to close, it really put Williamsburg back on the map in general for buyers and renters; the South Side has seen a lot of that interest,” said Evan F. Church, a broker in Corcoran’s Williamsburg office. Eyes that looked to the alternative J, M and Z trains, and to ferries to Wall Street, liked what they saw, especially with scaffolding coming down and exposing the shiny faces of new buildings.

“I’m seeing a lot of local residents from different parts of Williamsburg coming in and checking it out,” Church said.

He also pointed out that, compared with the north, residential developments below Grand Street have a greater share of tax abatements extending for longer periods of time — as much as 25 years. “Much of the housing stock there right now has the ability to have really stable common charges and taxes through any kind of challenging market,” he said.

South Williamsburg’s efflorescence is producing predictably mixed reactions. In 1986, Paulien Lethen, a Dutch-born artist, bought an 1860s brick town house at 63 South Third St. for $145,000, against the advice of a building inspector, and opened a gallery called Holland Tunnel in a shed on the vacant lot next door that she partly owned. After making the home habitable, she happily lived there until a 19-story tower butted right up to her rear property line. The garden-killing loss of sunlight would have been bad enough, but the base of the new building was left unfinished where only she and a few neighbors could see it. The crude surface and loose wires made it look like “a shantytown,” she said.

Lethen’s efforts to improve the unsightly wall are the subject of a new short film called “Requiem for Williamsburg: A Story of Hope.” Directed by Dutch filmmaker Yara Hannema, the documentary follows the artist through months of entanglements with the tower owner and ultimately shows her packing her car and moving to the Hudson River city of Newburgh, New York.

In a phone conversation, Lethen, now 76, said she returns to Williamsburg about once a month to tend her garden. But despite the entreaties of developers whom she has found standing in her foyer (“The door was unlocked,” they told her), she has no intention of selling. The house, now worth more than $3.6 million in Zillow’s estimate, will be passed to her two grown sons.


What You’ll Find

Sliced by the Williamsburg Bridge in one direction and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in another, South Williamsburg had plenty of structural drama before it received its recent spate of towers. Older buildings bounce from short, sober brick to Victorian Gothic to cast-iron classicism to the domed limestone hulk of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which has become an event space called Weylin and sits across from the venerable Peter Luger Steak House on Broadway. A 26-story hotel and condo building is planned for the site next door. Nearby, a 23-story office, retail and apartment tower called the Dime is rising behind the soon-to-be-restored 1908 Dime Savings Bank.

The neighborhood is culturally lively, too, with Hasidic Jews filling the blocks approaching Bedford-Stuyvesant to the south, and a Puerto Rican and Dominican population concentrated in the north. The eastern border is widely agreed to be Union Avenue. Everyone mixes in the public green spaces along the river to the west.

“When we built Domino Park, we made an effort, and I think we were incredibly successful, at appealing to a wider cross section of the broader neighborhood,” said Jed Walentas, the chairman of Two Trees Management, which is developing the 11-acre site. “I’m not a huge believer in boundaries of neighborhoods per se, unless they’re things like rivers.”

A 16-story rectangle with a hollow center at 325 Kent Ave. that opened in 2017 is the first completed building in the Domino complex. It has 522 rentals, including 104 affordable units. Up next is the 42-story One South First, an interlocking pair of mixed-use towers that will have 330 rentals, 66 of them affordable, and an outpost of the beloved Bushwick restaurant Roberta’s. Plans for the fortresslike brick refinery building are to insert a glass office building within it.

In January, leasing began for 420 Kent Ave., a new luxury apartment complex on the river developed by former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, with 857 units; available market-rate studios start at $3,040. Twenty percent of the units are deemed affordable and priced from $867 a month for studios to $1,123 a month for two-bedrooms.

As old neighborhood favorites have fallen away (farewell Death by Audio, Moon River Chattel), a new generation has set up shop in South Williamsburg. One member is Jennifer Plotnick, who founded Grand Street Dental in a chic storefront three years ago and now has 7,774 Instagram followers.

“What’s always great about Williamsburg,” she said, is that “it doesn’t matter what time of day it is; people are always around.”

Cédric Cadin, who opened a bistro called La Cafette last year at the corner of Havemeyer and Hope streets, just above Grand, said his choice of neighborhood was motivated by the planned L train closing and the prediction that more people would move closer to the Marcy Avenue station, less than 10 minutes on foot from his restaurant. Cadin relocated from his native France for this venture, and said he is still looking for a permanent place to live in South Williamsburg, but is stymied by the high rents.

“If I compare it to Paris,” he said, “it’s just crazy, crazy, crazy.”

What You’ll Pay

According to data posted on Trulia’s website, the median rental price of apartments in Williamsburg (North, South and East) between May 4 and June 4 was $2,587. The median sale price, as of May 29, was $999,999, a year-over-year increase of 16%.

Although breakdowns were not made for sub-neighborhoods, current listings show that the difference in price between north and south seems to increase as the properties get more expensive.

Of the 33 homes in South Williamsburg on Zillow as of June 17, the lowest price for an apartment with no HDFC income restrictions was $695,000 for a 555-square-foot studio in the Gretsch, a 1916 factory building at 60 Broadway that was converted into condominiums in 2003; it had a monthly homeowner fee of $442 and annual taxes of $3,011. By comparison, the lowest-priced listing among the 49 homes in North Williamsburg was $685,000 for a 509-square-foot studio in a 2009 condominium on North 11th Street, a block from McCarren Park; the monthly homeowner fee was $430 and the most recently reported taxes (in 2017) were $3,403.

Among the South Williamsburg listings, the median asking price was $1.45 million for a two-bedroom duplex condo in a 23-unit building on South Second Street, across from Domino Park; the monthly homeowner fee was $677 and the annual property taxes were $521 (with a 25-year tax abatement that expires in 2036). In North Williamsburg, the median asking price was $1.745 million for a two-bedroom condo with a roof deck at North Seventh and Berry; the homeowner fee was $798 a month and the annual taxes were $725.

The most expensive South Williamsburg property was a $4.68 million, four-bedroom duplex condo loft on Wythe Avenue and South First Street, in a converted 1914 factory building. The monthly homeowner fee was $313 a month and the annual taxes were $11,051. The costliest listing in North Williamsburg was a $5.995 million, fully furnished, two-bedroom condo loft in a converted 1910 factory building on North Third Street near Wythe Avenue; the monthly homeowner fee was $1,791; the annual taxes (with an abatement until 2025) were $233 a year.

The Vibe

Domino Park has the utopian, up-with-people spirit typical of successful green spaces in New York City. On a recent Saturday, a police boat rescued a volleyball that had rolled into the East River, while a crowd of onlookers cheered and took pictures. Those buoyant feelings might quickly dissipate, however, when you find yourself paying $10 for a waffle cone at the ice-cream truck parked a couple of blocks away.

The Schools

Public School 84, on Berry Street between Grand and South First streets, enrolls about 730 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. Among the 2017-18 student body, 64% were Hispanic or Latino, 25% were white, 4% were black or African-American and 3% were Asian. On 2017-18 state tests, 42% met standards in English, versus 42% districtwide; 34% met standards in math, versus 37% districtwide.

“Pride of the Southside,” a 6,000-square-foot mural painted in 2016 on the side of Junior High School 050, depicts the ethnic and industrial development of a neighborhood known by its Latino population as Los Sures. The school, at 183 South Third St., enrolls about 320 students in sixth through eighth grade. On 2017-18 state tests, 35% met standards in English, versus 42% districtwide; 25% met standards in math, versus 39% districtwide.

El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, an alternative public high school at 250 Hooper St. with a focus on political activism, enrolls about 240 students in ninth through 12th grade. Average 2017-18 SAT scores were 383 for math and 398 for reading and writing, versus 534 for both subjects statewide.

The Commute

The elevated train station at Marcy Avenue is served by the J, M and Z trains. The J and M also stop at Hewes Street. Ferries depart about every 20 minutes between 6:57 a.m. and 10:11 p.m. from 440 Kent Ave. The trip to Wall Street Pier 11 takes 23 minutes.

The History

Domino Park is not the only site preserving tokens of South Williamsburg’s vibrant past. In 2016, a Greenwich Village boxing gym called Overthrow took over the Grand Street address of the Trash Bar, a beloved rock ‘n’ roll dive that was priced out of the neighborhood after 11 years. The Trash Bar’s name was also a décor theme, and Overthrow has kept the grungy interior and graffitied exterior more or less intact.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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