The New York Times

Who You Calling Gritty?

July 20, 2012

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HIPNESS is contagious in Brooklyn, where expanding the global brand seems to be a done deal.

On a scorching July afternoon, the frisson of hustle and bustle that delineates the weekday rush hour was in full swing at the intersection of Greenpoint and Manhattan Avenues, the dowdy commercial heart of Greenpoint. Horns blared, and unlike other times of day or night, when the traffic ranges from intermittent to invisible, pedestrians actually did have to look both ways before jaywalking. In this, the genuine Brooklyn, crosswalks are for sissies, classic apartments are walk-ups, loud is the default sound level, and burly men of a certain vintage still wear sleeveless undershirts in public.

Until Greenpoint’s artsy sister neighborhood to the south, Williamsburg, set a brash example by surrendering to glassy condominium and hotel towers and urbane renewal that yanked the cost of shelter in a Manhattan-ish direction, vinyl-sided six-family tenements were the backbone of the housing stock here. And century-old trees shaded the crumbling sidewalks. But lately the biggest shadow being cast in Greenpoint belongs to Williamsburg.

Vinyl siding doesn’t represent Greenpoint’s cachet any longer; virtual doormen, rooftop farms, artisanal gin and brick-faced condominiums do. The virtual gatekeeper is a prime amenity at the sold-out 93-unit Pencil Factory condominium on West Street, where the penthouse sold for just over $1 million, a neighborhood first.

For young men, and for some young women, sculptured hair, baggy shorts and tattoos, not the clingy undershirt, are the new sartorial normal. Tomcats Barbershop, specializing in pompadour, punk and glam-rocker concoctions, and Hair Metal Salon (branching out from none other than Williamsburg) have arrived to coif the wired-in and amped-up young consumers who are the reason the neighborhood expects to build 7,300 new housing units by the end of 2013.

No more bargain $8 haircuts, not even for dogs, though the local canines may have noticed the revamped sidewalks feel a tad smoother beneath their paws: gentrification is smoothing out all those hard edges.

David J. Maundrell III, the president of aptsandlofts.com, the marketing agent for the 149 Huron Street Loft

Condos (where perks include Brazilian teak finishes and a Zen garden), gazed approvingly at 200 Franklin Street, a two-story storefront that camouflages a set-back 12-story apartment tower jutting into the air like a solitary exclamation point. “This is what’s coming to Greenpoint,” he said. “This is the future.”

The fully occupied tower was recently acquired for $12.45 million by a group that includes Miki Naftali, a former owner of the Plaza Hotel.

Mr. Maundrell grew up in Greenpoint in an era “when making it in the world meant moving out to Ridgewood or Long Island” and the East River waterfront was accessible only by sneaking past the gargantuan warehouses on its banks and slipping under a chain-link fence. “Greenpoint’s time has come,” he said. “Industry is gone and it’s not coming back, and the waterfront is wasted as it is.”

The future seems to be invested in repurposing Greenpoint’s 1.2 square miles of grit and quaintness. Especially seductive is its western waterfront, currently occupied by warehouses that block the panoramic Manhattan skyline views but already spoken for by a slew of developers who envision a chain of residential towers fronting a grassy esplanade along the East River.

One of them, Benjamin R. Bernstein of RedSky Capital, even built a pier at the base of the India Street property his firm controls so that the city-sponsored East River Ferry could add Greenpoint to its itinerary: 18 minutes to Manhattan! Further justification for Amanda Burden’s mantra about water’s being the sixth borough of the city.

Besides two luxury waterfront towers currently navigating the city’s approval process, Mr. Bernstein’s Greenpoint portfolio includes 100 apartments and 15 condominium units. On the commercial side, he is installing a Sleepy’s franchise at Manhattan and Meserole because, thinking ahead, he figured, “Hey, when the residential thing blows up, everybody’s going to need mattresses.”

Mr. Bernstein predicts that Greenpoint’s residential waterfront quay will ultimately stretch for approximately 13 blocks: “It’s going to be bigger than Williamsburg, it’s going to dwarf Dumbo, and be twice the size of the Long Island City waterfront, like a massive version of the West Village waterfront. It’s going to be nothing like Hoboken: it’s going to be really cool.”

His clients, he said, are “young families and the ‘digerati.’ We’re going to build in a way that maintains the character of the neighborhood: eclectic, gritty and cutting edge. We’re going to keep things contextual.”

If and when those 20- to 40-story towers sprout, Greenpoint’s population will increase “to the tune of another 10,000 people just along the waterfront,” said Heather Roslund, an architect who heads the Land Use Committee for Community Board 1, which encompasses Greenpoint, where she lives, and Williamsburg, where she works.

“To be honest,” Ms. Roslund said, “the point of the 2005 rezoning was to convert manufacturing land to residential land, and already there are hundreds of little changes throughout the neighborhood: what happened to Williamsburg was like a firework that exploded.

“Greenpoint,” she added, “is still a family-oriented place with a large section of landmarked blocks, so I don’t see it becoming an entirely different place. I don’t see quite the same demand there was with Williamsburg. Even if the waterfront gets entirely built out, it’s going to be 20 years before every stick and brick is in place, but at that point, yes, it will be shocking.”

The biggest chunk of waterfront, 20 acres at the foot of Newtown Creek, is being developed by the Park Tower Group, which in 2005 acquired the development rights to the old Greenpoint Lumber Exchange (lately the setting for the boardwalk scenes in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”). Now called Greenpoint Landing,

the parcel will contain 4.2 million square feet of mixed-use development with approximately 4,000 housing units, 20 percent of them designated as affordable, spread among 10 luxury residential towers designed by Gary Handel, the architect responsible for Trump SoHo.

Alfred Bradshaw, the executive vice president of the Park Tower Group, confirmed last week that Phase One of the project could break ground by next summer, and will include two rental towers of 30 and 40 stories offering a combined total of 900 units.

“The beauty of the whole redevelopment of the waterfront is that it will create a continuous greenbelt, a seamless environment just like on the West Side of Manhattan,” he said.

According to Ward Dennis, a Community Board 1 member who is also a chairman of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, the Brooklyn waterfront was designated as a potential garbage transfer station back in the Giuliani era.

“In the ’70s and ’80s,” Mr. Dennis said, “the vision for the Brooklyn waterfront included power plants, incinerators and garbage dumps. So where we are now, with these towers coming to the horizon or, in Williamsburg’s case, already there, I guess can be seen as an improvement of what might have been. But even with nothing happening on Greenpoint’s waterfront yet, upland development is kicking up, and the sense is that what we’ve seen in Williamsburg is a blueprint for what will continue to happen in Greenpoint.”

While Manhattan Avenue retains its sprinkling of Polish butchers, bakeries, pharmacies and funeral homes, Franklin Street is morphing from a corridor of boarded-up stores into an upscale retail, residential and restaurant row reminiscent of Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg.

“Greenpoint is what Williamsburg was five years ago,” said Erica Dobbs, who nine months ago opened Ana Chronos, a boutique at 135 Franklin Street that sells “artisanal clothing” and “aged couture.”

On the side streets, the renovations in progress are so pervasive that the predominant window treatments on many blocks consist of city-issued building permits.

“Here it is, sandwiched between the two development darlings of the outer boroughs, Long Island City and Williamsburg, and I suppose I’m the perfect case study for imminent gentrification,” said J. P. Horton, 28, an I.T. consultant wearing orange shorts, sandals and a designer T-shirt, as he strolled along Manhattan Avenue with his brindled French bulldog lagging at the end of a leash.

On the advice of friends who live here and like the “slightly chill” ambience, Mr. Horton moved to Greenpoint in February 2011 after five years in Astoria. He found a 1,000-square-foot apartment in a new five-story brick building at Manhattan and Freeman and was able to negotiate the rent: $1,900 the first year, $2,000 this year.

“Next year we’ll probably have to move,” he said. “Rents in the newest buildings are $3,500 for one-bedrooms, and even if the infiltration of cool people with discretionary money to spend isn’t to the point of Williamsburg, you sense it coming. For now, the remnants of the old-time neighborhood are hanging on. You can find the best Polish food in the city right on this street.”

Mr. Horton has an eventual exit strategy: “I’m looking at downtown Minneapolis.”

Greenpoint, a low-rise neighborhood in a high-rise market, is having a moment of on-everyone’s-radar flux. Not for nothing did Lena Dunham, creator of the much blogged-and-blabbed-about HBO series “Girls,” headquarter her slacker/strivers in a tacky but affordable walk-up here, prompting an affirmative shout-out from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose administration has pushed for the area’s redevelopment.

“It’s not a question of if Greenpoint is going to become the next Williamsburg, it’s when,” said Lauren Baggett, 27, who rents a small converted garage on Dupont Street for $1,500 a month with her partner, Megan Paslawski, a graduate student at the City University of New York. “It was a stroke of luck to find the garage, but now it’s for sale, so it’s just a matter of time before our luck runs out and somebody buys it and turns it into condos.”

The patchouli oil of Gen Y gentrification is scenting the air. A two-bedroom three-bath garden duplex on Russell Street recently sold for $772,000. And, yes, on Meserole Avenue, a thoroughfare named for one of Greenpoint’s founding families, Café Grumpy, a Wi-Fi-compliant virtual office for hoards of freelancers, set up shop and started roasting its own beans in a vintage Probat in 2005. Also, a bellwether of the area’s emergent after-hours vigor materialized this month with the grand opening of the Well, a behemoth bar and performance space just south of Greenpoint in East Williamsburg. Its co-owner, Joshua Richholt, who lives in Greenpoint, says it boasts the largest beer garden in New York.

“On weekend nights,” said Randy Taylor, a photographer who moved to Milton Street from Miami in 1999, “the intersection of Franklin and Greenpoint is party central.” He says the upside of Greenpoint’s being livelier is that it is safer. The downside is a demand for Internet connectivity that outweighs the bandwidth supply: “The technology providers have yet to realize that this is a rapid-growth community with a certain amount of wealth.”

For now, the division of the population between longtime Polish and Hispanic residents and a steady influx of defectors from Manhattan and other quadrants of Brooklyn seeking lower rents or a bigger bang for their investment buck has been peaceable — not counting a bit of admonitory yet brand-conscious graffiti scrawled on a West Street warehouse a block from the waterfront, “Give Your Prada To The Poor No Masters.”

At Apteka, a tiny Manhattan Avenue pharmacy that caters to Polish speakers, Josef Konopski was waiting for a prescription. He fled to the United States from Poland in 1983 to escape a Communist regime, and in 1984 he moved to Greenpoint, where he owns a six-family house on Eagle Street, with all but two units occupied by family members. “When I first got here,” Mr. Konopski said, “the rent on a two-bedroom apartment was $100 a month, and now I’m getting $1,500. It is 100 percent better now, the neighborhood: new sidewalks, new street lamps, new shops. The new people don’t bother me. And people still come here from Poland because the neighborhood is safe now.”

The line convened at the meat counter inside Kiszka Meat Market, an old-school purveyor of myriad versions of kielbasa, including a blog-worthy wiejska, contained a multicultural mash-up of sharp-tongued Polish grandmothers in orthopedic shoes (the regulars) and a self-assured contingent of 30-something seekers (newbies) of an enlightened form of hot dog for their Weber grills. Outside, commuters poured up and down the stairs of the dreaded G-train station at Greenpoint Avenue, one of just two underground hubs in this one-line, two-stop neighborhood where access to Manhattan via subway includes a mandatory transfer in Queens.

“It is what it is,” Mr. Maundrell said of the G train. “Most people can handle a two-train commute; a three-train commute, not so much.”

There are those who think, or hope, the sheer minor inconvenience of its transit status might turn out to be the saving grace that spares Greenpoint from a fate worse than gentrification: an overdose of hipsters whose roots in the community are superficial. Greenpoint does not want to be the next Williamsburg.

“Maybe,” Ms. Roslund said wistfully, “having HBO set ‘Girls’ here is a harbinger that Greenpoint isn’t hot, that it’s already over.”

Transmitter Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, opening at the end of the summer, is the first link in a planned waterfront greenbelt that is to extend north to Long Island City and south to Williamsburg.

WHAT IS IT?

An acre and a half of open space at Kent Street and the East River.

WHAT FEATURES DOES IT HAVE?

An esplanade, a pedestrian bridge, a pier and a children’s play area.

HOW MUCH DID IT COST?

$12 million in city, state and federal grants.

HOW DID IT GET THAT NAME?

It is on the former site of a WNYC-radio transmitter.