The story of Dumbo’s transformation from overlooked artist mecca to swanky loft-filled neighborhood is a familiar one, even in spite of crafty attempts years ago to slow down the tide of development. In the 1970s, artists moved into an industrial neighborhood near the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge and called it Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) in hopes of throwing developers off the scent. Walk around Dumbo a few decades later and it is clear that the self-branding exercise did not go as planned. Like Tribeca across the river, Dumbo has morphed into a remarkably desirable area. The opening of Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2010 only increased its appeal.
Michael Van Valkenburgh’s celebrated waterfront park fueled Dumbo development in two main ways. One, it provided 85-acres of new open space. Two, the park is directly impacting Dumbo because its self-sustaining funding model is based on leasing off adjacent development sites, two of which are in the neighborhood, and then absorbing revenue from whatever gets built.
Courtesy S9 Architecture
Now, with more than 50 percent of the park completed, the development plan is in full swing and will deliver new retail, offices, restaurants, and apartments to Dumbo over the next two years. During the same time, Brooklyn Bridge Park will be reaching further into the neighborhood.
The most architecturally significant piece of the park-led development plan in Dumbo is the Empire Stores—a 19th century coffee warehouse that is being transformed into a 500,000-square-foot, mixed-use office space by the hand of STUDIO V. The firm has cut an open-air courtyard through the complex’s old schist walls, carved out space for trendy offices, and added a rooftop park. At ground level, just feet from the river, restaurants open out of the building’s original arched masonry doors. The project will be leasable this fall and open to the public about a year after that.
Adjacent to the Empire Stores is the shell of a 19th Century tobacco warehouse that Marvel Architects is currently turning into the new home of St. Ann’s Warehouse, a theater company based in the neighborhood. For the new space, Marvel is fitting a glass, steel, and brick structure within and about one story above the warehouse’s brick walls. Next to the new addition, within the building’s original footprint, Michael Van Valkenburgh is planting an open-air courtyard called the Triangle Garden.
Just steps from these two projects, right at the water’s edge, is 1 John Street, another Brooklyn Bridge development site that is being filled in with a luxury condominium building. The boxy, 12-story structure, designed and developed by Alloy Development and Monadnock Development, is clad in grey brick and has rows of punched windowpanes that decrease in size as they rise up the tower. By the time this building is completed in 2016 it will be connected to Brooklyn Bridge Park’s main lawn through John Street Park and Main Street Park, both Michael Van Valkenburgh–designed spaces slated to open this summer.
As foundation work continues at 1 John Street, Alloy is wrapping up construction on five striking, modern townhouses only a few blocks away. That project is unattached to Brooklyn Bridge Park’s General Project Plan as is ODA’s warehouse-to-condo conversion at 51 Jay Street and Leeser Architecture and Ismael Leyva’s arrestingly glassy rental building at 60 Water Street.
On the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, within Brooklyn Bridge Park itself, is the Pierhouse, a Marvel-designed condo and hotel complex, that will be another revenue generator for the park. The project was expected to reach no more than 100 feet, but recently topped out at 130 feet. This has angered local residents who have had some of their bridge views blocked. A petition called “Save the View Now” has been launched to stop construction and remove the additional height.
Facing growing criticism, in late January, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation asked the Department of Buildings to confirm that the Pierhouse complies with the Brooklyn Heights Scenic View District. A partial stop work order was subsequently issued at the site. A park official told the website New York YIMBY that “the alteration of bulkheads or parapets are among the type of alterations that may be necessary to bring the structure into full compliance.”
As Dumbo, like so many parts of Brooklyn, continues to absorb new development, some older neighborhood standbys are being pushed out. At the end of last year, as construction hummed along in the neighborhood, Galapagos Art Space, a quirky performance venue that had been operating in the borough for nearly 20 years, seven in Dumbo, announced it was closing. The rent was too high, said the owners.
But Galapagos will not be disappearing entirely. It is leaving Dumbo and moving to Detroit, where it will renovate a vacant high school in a deserted part of town.