Operation: DUMBO The City's Latest Acronym

Literally a pebble’s throw from Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn’s DUMBO is one of the most exciting and happening growth areas in the city. An acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, it is an area roughly bounded by the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, taking in Empire State Park, a little known, jewel-like pocket park on the banks of the East River connecting Old Fulton Street and the historic Fulton Ferry. Adjacent to the park, DUMBO also includes the Empire Stores–a building which served as civil war era warehouses for armaments. This historic warehouse district is quickly turning into the city’s new hot spot.

DUMBO is a gritty, earthy, off-the grid location defined by narrow cobblestone streets, the giant stones that form the bases of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, and the caverns cast in shadow by its larger-than-life industrial-era warehouses. In one instant, DUMBO is both physically close and spiritually a world away.

Because DUMBO is so relatively under-populated, there’s an eerie sense of discovery while walking, even driving, its streets. Visitors will note that there’s a sound reason why this area has been used repeatedly by the film industry as a backdrop to depict New York City’s more ragged sections.

And after 5 pm, it can be something of a ghost town, which is particularly surprising when you see its proximity to the city’s nexus, literally juxtaposed against Downtown Manhattan, on the opposite bank of the East River. But this sense of abandonment will not persist much longer.

Brimming with Potential

Change, in the planning stages for the better part of a decade, is now well under way. One of the most enthralling things about DUMBO is that there exists the opportunity to take an entire neighborhood and rework it all at once, bringing in a residential population and the gamut of services, restaurants and retail stores, more or less in one fell swoop. In a city so developed and populated, this is a rare, perhaps unique, circumstance.

Historically, the area was a warehouse district owned by the Gair family, one of the nation’s leading manufacturers, and also known for inventing corrugated cardboard. The entire Gear holdings were purchased by the Helmsely Organization and then sold to David Walentas in the late 1970s. The district has evolved very much the way SoHo did in the 1960s and ‘70s, with artists moving into underutilized industrial space and using it as loft-style work areas and sometimes, illegal residential space.

Architecturally, DUMBO has a lot of the character of TriBeCa. The building stock is similar, perhaps slightly larger in scale. It is characterized by the closeness of its buildings to the street and the lack of setbacks. The architecture is from the same period. Like both SoHo and TriBeCa, its buildings are typical of turn-of-the-century manufacturing district warehouses. Because of the proximity of the buildings to the street, there is also a feeling akin to that of the caverns of Manhattan’s financial district.

Because of a longstanding political battle, there was resistance for many years in changing the zoning to permit residential conversion. During that period, Walentas converted one of the manufacturing buildings for office use. At the end of the lease, he received permission to convert the building to residential condominiums.

A Residential Transformation

At One Main Street, this building became known as the Clock Tower. It was a hugely successful conversion featuring large, loft-like spaces with panoramic city views. It boasted premium finishes, and, selling for $100 to $150 per square foot less than their SoHo and TriBeCa conversion counterparts, competed very successfully with similar Manhattan product. The building went through three price increases and sold all 126 units within the year. The lofts realized an average of some $375 per square foot, with tower apartments weighing in at almost $600 per square foot. Today, these apartments are reselling at even higher prices.

Following DUMBO’s successful launch and residential viability, today, there are several buildings being converted to rentals. The area is slated for large scale redevelopment and repositioning. In addition, there are plans for a major urban waterfront park. However, where it goes from here largely depends on whether Walentas’ plans or the Brooklyn Bridge Park Commission’s plans are adopted, or some compromise between the two. Each entity has different ideas for what the area should be.

The coordinates in question are the stretch from the Atlantic Avenue Piers 1-5 (which is just outside DUMBO), going through Fulton Ferry Landing Area (where Bargemusic and the River Café are located), and defining DUMBO’s southern area through Empire State Park and the waterfront architecture.

The current plans both for the Brooklyn Bridge Park Commission and Walentas’ organization call for conversion of the Empire Stores into a combination of retail shops at street level, galleries on the upper floors, and a restaurant. A roof terrace on top of the Empire Stores will overlook the harbor and city. The vision for this stretch of Water Street is to make it DUMBO’s version of Montague Street, a combination of retail attractions and services.

The City has also given DUMBO a Silicon Valley type status, designating it for Internet incubators, dot-coms and other technology-based enterprises. Space exists at buildings such as 70 Washington Street, at prices much lower than in comparable buildings in Manhattan’s Chelsea and Flatiron districts. The Brooklyn Economic Development Council and Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce have been instrumental in bringing these industries to the plate, and City and State incentive programs are in place.

With all this in the works, it’s no doubt DUMBO is one of the most exciting growth areas in the city. For decades, DUMBO was underutilized, but today, despite its name, it is actually proving to be one of New York’s smartest investments.

Mr. Thomas is senior vice president of William B. May, a residential real estate brokerage firm in Manhattan.

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