On The Waterfront A Look at Cobble Hill

Cobble Hill, Brooklyn has undergone a tremendous transformation from its days as a waterfront marketplace. The commercial makeover of Smith Street has transformed the locale into a thoroughfare of popular restaurants and today, it's considered the destination where young professional couples can buy more affordable historic homes and raise their families.

Cobble Hill and the surrounding areas, including Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Red Hook and Park Slope, were one of the six original Dutch villages that make up the borough of Brooklyn, formerly known as South Brooklyn. But Cobble Hill was only given its moniker in the 1970s, when an enterprising real estate agent renamed the area because she wanted a nicer name to entice buyers.

"There's a misconception though; there are no cobblestone streets here," says Francis Morrone, an architectural historian and author of An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn. "The broker looked at an 18th century area map and named the area after a hill - Cobble Hill - the site of the fortification of the Continental Army at the beginning of the Revolutionary War."

According to Morrone, the Cobble Hill area was founded in the 1830s, and is a southern neighbor to Brooklyn's oldest and most distinguished neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights. The two areas are separated only by Atlantic Avenue. "Brooklyn Heights was a little more affluent than Cobble Hill," says Morrone. "Cobble Hill was considered a slight rung down on the social ladder."

In the 1830s and "˜40s, the architectural style of the homes was red brick - simple, charming Greek revival houses - with spectacular iron railings and fences. "One of the first things people will notice is the profusion of magnificent ironwork," says Morrone. In the 1850s, more homes were built, but the architectural style changed from Greek revival to Italian or Renaissance revival. "That's when brownstone was used," says Morrone. "Cobble Hill has a great deal of brownstone and red brick homes."

According to the New York State Landmarks Preservation Foundation, "Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill, was born at 197 Amity Street in 1854. Among the distinguished architects' work, represented here is 296 Clinton Street, the 1843 home of Richard Upjohn, architect of Wall Street's Trinity Church; and the 1852 St. Francis Cabrini Chapel on DeGraw Street by Minard LaFever, architect of Sailors' Snug Harbor. The Home Buildings on Hick Street, Warren Street and Baltic Street, the architecturally distinguished Tower Buildings, and the Workingmen's Cottages on Warren Place were among the first planned low-income housing in the nation when they were built in the late 1870s. At that time, rent for a four room apartment was $1.93 per week."

A Changing Tide

During this period, the area's economy depended on the working waterfront community. However, the waterfront wasn't an appealing residential area. "Cobble Hill was considered affluent, but not until you got a few blocks in from the waterfront," says Morrone. "Nowadays when you hear "˜waterfront community' it sounds swanky, but it wasn't in 19th century New York. Residents wanted to live away from the water; the property values increased going inland. Today, however, we're beginning to get luxurious waterfront development."

The economic stability of the area was shaken when there was a huge decline in Cobble Hill's waterfront business. The 19th century row houses were not torn down at a time when the area was depressed and new development might have a boon to the area. Instead, in the 1960s the New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission was created, and Cobble Hill was listed on the National Register and is now part of New York City's historic district. New York City has over 80 historic districts featuring unique styles of design, exceptional attention to cultural details, and hand-painted or hand-carved architectural embellishments.

According to the LPC, every designated structure, whether it is an individual landmark or a building in a historic district, is protected under the Landmarks Law and subject to the same review procedures. The Landmarks Law was enacted in the mid 1960s to protect the city's architectural, historical and cultural heritage. Any exterior changes - no matter how minor - require the permission of the commission.

"The designation freezes any changes to the neighborhood, but this has proven to be an economic boon," says Morrone. "People want to live in a 19th century neighborhood that's charming and beautiful. They don't want modern or contemporary buildings. Cobble Hill is a 19th century neighborhood and that's its charm."

A New Wave on the Waterfront

In the 1960s, young professional couples realized there were tremendous housing bargains to be found in Cobble Hill, only a few subway stops from Wall Street. "There were beautiful old houses that they bought for a song," says Morrone. "In their early years, they put their sweat into rehabilitating these houses."

In the late 1980s into the early 1990s, those working in Manhattan's Financial District who were either renting or had owned a small city apartment, were discovering that a high-end purchase in Cobble Hill was not that much cheaper than a mid-purchase in Manhattan. As a result, the area's demographics changed and these days, Cobble Hill is considered a family-friendly place to put down roots.

As that's become the case, like most of Brooklyn, Cobble Hill has become more gentrified. Gentrification is a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district's character and culture. "There has been a trend toward buying multi-family houses and turning them back into what they were originally - single or two-family houses," says Christopher Thomas, president of William B. May's Brooklyn office.

According to Melinda Magnett, president of the Corcoran Group in Brooklyn, the average sale prices of Cobble Hill co-ops and condos have risen dramatically over the past two years. "It's starting to level off, but the motivator over the last two years was such low interest rates," says Magnett. "The rental market was less vital because consumers preferred to buy than rent."

According to the Corcoran market reports, in 2001, the average sales price of a cooperative, regardless of size, started at $299,000, rising to $344,000 in 2002 and $432,000 by mid-quarter in 2003. Starting prices for condominiums was $377,000 in 2001, rising to $416,000 in 2002 and $510,000 by mid-year in 2003. An average sales price of a townhouse is $1.5 million.

The average monthly rentals were $2,166 mid-year 2003, down from $2,220 in 2002. Prices range from $1,250 for a studio apartment to $4,500 per month for a three- or more bedroom apartment.

Cobble Hill has also become a hotbed for residential developers who are rehabilitating existing apartment buildings and abandoned waterfront warehouses to create new lofts, apartments and townhouses. One such project is a series of six attached townhouses located at 94-106 Atlantic Avenue between Hicks and Henry

Streets restored and renovated and are now available. Four of the buildings were constructed in the early 1850s and two date from 1876. All of the townhouses originally contained two or three residential units and ground level storefronts. In 2001, the buildings, owned by Long Island College Hospital, were sold to Atlantic Apartments LLC. The townhouses will be converted into 57 luxury rental units. The project is named The Atlantic and co-developers are Simon Development Group and Shore Assets, Inc.

The developers have preserved as much of the historic fabric as possible. The facades are being restored according to photo documentation and painted in the appropriate period color schemes.

The buildings will consist of 17 studios, 31 one-bedroom and nine two-bedroom residences ranging from $2,000 to $5,500 per month. Included are simplexes and duplexes, four two-bedroom penthouse duplexes and outdoor space for 12 apartments.

"A lot of Brooklyn is gentrified now and there's an unprecedented boost in the amount of developers doing projects here because it's considered such a desirable area," says Magnett.

"There was a time when I couldn't drag people across Atlantic Avenue or over to Smith Street," says Thomas. "Now I walk outside my office and coming up from the subway stairs are visitors asking how to get to Smith Street to enjoy the restaurants. That's a serious change. Today, Cobble Hill has become a destination."

Cobble Hill's neighborhood amenities include Cobble Hill Park, known to locals as Verandah Park. Verandah Place, which has been described as "a beautiful one-block street with homes straight out of an English storybook," and Congress Street, which features alluring brownstone homes, borders it.

"The Smith Street renaissance happened because you had a lot of young inventive cooks who wanted to break away from a more traditional setting," says Thomas. "You can afford a new slightly zany restaurant idea if, for example, you're paying $1,500 a month versus $15,000 a month rent. Smith Street had the demographic to provide the customers but they had the low rent base."

A variety of restaurants serving a diversity of cuisines line Smith Street, now considered the hottest strip in Brooklyn. Fa'an serves delicious Pan-Asian fare; Banania Cafe and Bar Tabac are wonderful French dining experiences. There is also the Caribbean Cafe Dore; and a host of other international flavors.

Morrone explains that in the 1960s, a large community of Middle Easterners who lived in Manhattan's World Trade Center were displaced, moved to Brooklyn and settled in an enclave around Atlantic Avenue. Today, there is an array of Middle Eastern stores and restaurants, including Mancora, a Peruvian restaurant; Sur, an Argentinian restaurant; and Tuk Tuk, serving Thai fare.

Although some major retail chains, such as Starbucks and Barnes and Noble have opened here, the area is predominately filled with family-run shops such as Italian meat markets and old time barber shops, mixed with trendier new restaurants.

Today, Brooklyn's Cobble Hill is a family friendly neighborhood with a boost in residential waterfront development and an economic boon on Smith Street. The economic woes of days gone by have been replaced with a vibrant, stable neighborhood economy, and residents who take pride in their community and how far it's come.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer based in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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