Downtown Brooklyn: A Neighborhood ‘in the Middle of Everything’
For years, St. John Frizell would take his son to school in Downtown Brooklyn and feel “confused” by the neighborhood’s lack of sit-down restaurants.
“You just had to look up to know what was happening,” said Mr. Frizell, the restaurateur who owns Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn. “There’s cranes everywhere, and these huge towers going up. It’s turning into a very dense, sort of a 24-hour-a-day neighborhood instead of the old 9-to-5 neighborhood that we used to be familiar with.”
That 9-to-5 reputation was thanks to Downtown Brooklyn’s position as the borough’s civic center: It is home to Borough Hall, the Brooklyn Municipal Building and several courthouses, along with buildings housing workers from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the city’s Department of Education and other services.
But in recent years, things have shifted: Thanks to a 2004 rezoning to allow more residential construction, gleaming high-rise towers have sprung up like mushrooms. According to a 2019 survey by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a nonprofit development corporation, more than 14,000 residential units have been added to the neighborhood since 2014, and residents are seeking out more retail and restaurant options, along with schools and family-friendly activities.
Circa Brewing Co., on Lawrence Street, is one of several new restaurants that have opened on or near Fulton Mall in recent years. Credit…Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times
Now the neighborhood is “much more mixed-use,” said Regina Myer, the president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. The offices are still there, but so are retail destinations like City Point, home to an Alamo Drafthouse movie theater, as well as a Target, Trader Joe’s and an outpost of the McNally Jackson bookstore chain. DeKalb Market Hall, a food court with more than 40 vendors, including New York institutions like Katz’s Delicatessen and Arepa Lady, opened in City Point’s basement in 2017.
And in August, a new Ace Hotel opened on Schermerhorn Street, which — thanks to its chic lobby, neo-Brutalist facade (like other Ace properties, it was designed by Roman and Williams) and buzzy ground-floor restaurant — has given the area the official imprimatur of cool.
Even Mr. Frizell is part of that transition to a 24-hour destination: Along with his partners, Sohui Kim and Ben Schneider, he revived the restaurant Gage & Tollner, a Fulton Street institution for decades. Mr. Frizell and his partners were planning to open the restaurant in March 2020; the pandemic put those plans on hold, but it finally opened in April and has since become a fixture for area residents.
“We’ve developed a group of regulars,” Mr. Frizell said. “They’re the people that live in the towers nearby, which is really nice. We always thought that that was crucial to the success of the business, too. It can’t just be a special-occasion place; it has to be a place where people can come a few times a month.”
What You’ll Find
The boundaries of Downtown Brooklyn are a perpetual subject of debate. Known as the Special Downtown Brooklyn District, the neighborhood sits between Tillary Street to the north, Atlantic Avenue to the south, Clinton Street to the west and Ashland Place to the east. That roughly correlates with the boundaries set by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s three business improvement districts, with the exception of Atlantic Avenue.
Part of the neighborhood’s appeal is that it lies “at the nexus of more idyllic Brooklyn neighborhoods,” said Cornelia H. Van Amburg, a real estate agent with Compass who represents a 59-unit condominium on Schermerhorn Street called the Symon. Residents are within walking distance of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill to the west, and Fort Greene and Prospect Heights to the east.
“It’s really like being in the middle of everything,” said Ryan Serhant, the real estate broker whose agency, Serhant, is handling sales for Brooklyn Point, a luxury condo tower on Willoughby Street that was developed by Extell, known for its high-end Manhattan properties.
Transit access is also a huge draw: Depending on where you are in the neighborhood, it’s a one- or two-stop subway ride to Lower Manhattan. Other transportation options, from buses to Citi Bikes, are abundant.
The housing stock is largely made up of rentals, thanks to the proliferation of the towers built after the 2004 rezoning, many of which include affordable housing — among them, Hub, a 50-story building on Schermerhorn Street with about 600 apartments, and Ava DoBro on Willoughby Street, with more than 800 apartments.
But there are options for buyers, as well. BellTel Lofts was one of the neighborhood’s first condo developments when it opened in 2008, Ms. Myer said. Its loft-like apartments are in the former New York Telephone Company headquarters on Bridge Street, a landmark Art Deco building. Smaller boutique properties, like the one Ms. Van Amburg represents, can also be found throughout the neighborhood.
Newer for-sale options include 11 Hoyt, designed by Studio Gang, and Extell’s Brooklyn Point, which Mr. Serhant said has drawn Manhattan buyers, thanks to its prices (including a 25-year tax abatement) and its 40,000 square feet of amenities, including private dining and a rooftop pool 700 feet above the City Point development.
And more new development is on the horizon: JDS Development Group is building the borough’s first super tall tower at 9 DeKalb Avenue, with condominiums and rental apartments, and farther south, Alloy Development is working on a multibuilding, mixed-use project at 80 Flatbush Avenue, which will have hundreds of apartments and two schools.
What You’ll Pay
As of mid-December, there were 131 properties in Downtown Brooklyn listed for sale on StreetEasy, from a $315,000 co-op studio to a three-story, nine-bedroom townhouse for $4.8 million. The vast majority were condos and co-ops, with just a handful of townhouses for sale, including a turn-of-the-century four-bedroom property on Concord Street, listed for $2.4 million.
The pandemic has affected the number of homes sold in the neighborhood, but not the prices: According to data provided by the real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller, 538 properties sold in 2021, for a median price of $997,885. That’s a nearly 10 percent increase over the 2020 median sale price of $910,000, from just 247 properties.
Rental prices are rising, as well. According to data from Zumper, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the area was $3,744 a month in December — a nearly 27 percent increase from the beginning of the year, when the pandemic was still affecting rents.
As of mid-December, there were 158 apartments in Downtown Brooklyn listed for rent on StreetEasy, from a $2,400 studio apartment in an elevator building to a four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom duplex with a wraparound terrace for $25,000 a month.
The vibe in Downtown Brooklyn depends on which of its “little pockets” you’re in, Ms. Van Amburg said. On the western side of the neighborhood, near the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, it can feel more residential. Two anchors of this area are Cadman Plaza Park and Columbus Park, where the popular Brooklyn Borough Hall Greenmarket is held on Saturday mornings. Families regularly line up to visit the New York Transit Museum, which reopened in October after closing for more than a year because of the pandemic.
The eastern side, where Flatbush Avenue and Fulton Street converge, is more densely populated, both with residents and with shoppers on Fulton Mall, a commercial thoroughfare with small businesses and national chains (including a Macy’s flagship).
The pandemic briefly affected those businesses, and some closed altogether, but overall, “Downtown Brooklyn fared pretty well,” Ms. Myer said. According to a recent pedestrian count conducted by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, foot traffic is now about 60 to 70 percent of what it was before the pandemic. “I think that’s due to how many people live in Downtown Brooklyn, or want to come and shop in Downtown Brooklyn,” she said.
The neighborhood is also part of what the Ms. Myer’s organization calls the Brooklyn Cultural District, which includes draws like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Mark Morris Dance Center and ISSUE Project Room.
Neighborhood schools include P.S. K369 Coy L. Cox, at 383 State Street, with 527 students from kindergarten through high school. P.S. 287 Bailey K. Ashford, at 50 Navy Street, has 119 students from kindergarten through fifth grade.
Several charter schools have recently opened in the area. Brooklyn Prospect, at 80 Willoughby Street, had 416 students during its 2020-2021 academic year, serving kindergarten through fifth grade. During the 2018-2019 school year, 94 percent of parents who were surveyed said they were satisfied with their children’s education.
New York University has been expanding its presence in the area, with its Tandon School of Engineering spread across several buildings. The midcentury office building at 370 Jay Street, once the headquarters of what would become the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, will soon become a hub for science and technology for the university’s students.
Downtown Brooklyn sits at the convergence of nearly every subway line in the city: The Jay Street-MetroTech station offers the A, C, F and R lines; DeKalb Avenue offers the B, D, Q and R lines; the Borough Hall and Nevins Street stations have the 2, 3, 4 and 5 lines; and at Hoyt-Schermerhorn, the G and C lines are available.
Bus lines include the B25, B26, B38, B52, B57, B41, B45, B54, B61, B65, B69 and B103. Citi Bike is a major presence in the neighborhood, with plenty of bike-sharing racks on main thoroughfares and side streets.
The Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges connect Manhattan to the neighborhood via Adams Street and Flatbush Avenue. Downtown Brooklyn can also be reached by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which links the area with Bay Ridge and Staten Island to the south, and Williamsburg, Queens and the Bronx to the north.
Downtown Brooklyn has been the civic heart of the borough since before it was a borough: In 1835, a tract of land near the waterfront in the newly formed city of Brooklyn was set aside for a municipal building. The Greek Revival building at 209 Joralemon Street that became Brooklyn Borough Hall opened in 1848, and was designated a New York City landmark in 1966.
Recent efforts to preserve neighborhood sites that played a role in the 19th-century abolitionist movement have been successful: In early 2021, a small house at 227 Duffield Street, believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, was named a city landmark.
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