By Orlando Lee Rodriguez
From City Limits, Reporting from Citylimits.org
In the summer of 2009, City Limits spent several weeks in the 11237 ZIP code in Bushwick, Brooklyn—the area that contains the geographic center of New York City—to gauge how the neighborhood had changed, for better or worse, during Mayor Bloomberg's first two terms.
This spring a group of students at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism went back to Bushwick for a set of stories you can read here. This article about the role of the transit system in channeling gentrification is one of their reports.
Gentrification that has spilled over from industrial East Williamsburg to residential northeast Bushwick is spreading inexorably southward—thanks to a little help from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The MTA’s decision to reroute the M train through the heart of midtown Manhattan in 2010 erased the invisible barrier that Myrtle Avenue—the area hit hardest by arson fires in the late 1970s—posed for years, real estate experts said .
“It’s all based on the transit system,” said Andrew Clemens, director of retail leasing for Massey Knakal, a real estate brokerage firm. “The proximity to Union Square on the L train made Williamsburg attractive. Now proximity to midtown on the M train is driving the south Bushwick market.”
As south Bushwick changes at lightning speed, it is catching up with the rest of the neighborhood, which has seen a transformation in the last five years. While Community Board 4 drafted a letter in March to local political leaders recommending rezoning to preserve affordable housing and prevent Bushwick from going the way of Williamsburg, property trends are outpacing local government action.
Some longtime residents who are homeowners welcome the gentrification. Liz Ponce, 46, has lived on Halsey Street facing Irving Square Park since she was 7, when her parents bought the white-brick building. Now she lives on the third floor with her children, while her mother and sister live on the floors below.
She sees “different ethnic groups coming in” and more restaurants and loft spaces. “I love it. It’s about time,” Ponce says. “It gives the neighborhood life.”
For renters, the upheaval is far less welcome. From January to March of this year, Bushwick rental prices have risen almost 23 percent, or $454 dollars, for a two-bedroom apartment, according to internal data from property sales brokerage MNS. Prices are up 17.2 percent compared to the same period in 2012.
“I think sometimes, where do people go? How can they afford to live here?” asks Juan Yambo, 46, who works in a barbershop on Suydam Street.
The impact of the M-line route change is made evident in ridership figures. Between 2011 and 2012, the first full calendar year of the change, daily ridership at the Central Avenue train station in south Bushwick jumped 18.7 percent, from 2,903 to 3,445 passengers per day, the largest increase in Brooklyn, according to the MTA.
Riders can now travel from Chelsea to Bushwick in fewer stops on the M than on the L, and workers along Sixth Avenue corridor in Manhattan now only have to take one train to get home.
Those who make their living through the city’s nightlife industry are also jumping on the M.
“I can go straight to SoHo to play now,” says Bushwick resident Luis Melendez, 39, who spins in city bars and clubs under the name DJ Butta-L. “Before I had to take mad trains to get there. Now I just got to take just one.”
Since the route change in June of 2010, median home prices in Bushwick have more than doubled, from $300,000 in the third quarter of 2010 to $625,000 in the first quarter of 2013, according to MNS .
Multifamily buildings are also trading hands at a rapid rate.
In 2012, Bushwick captured 28 percent of all multifamily building sales in Brooklyn by Ariel Property Advisors, the highest rate in the borough, according to the investment sales firm.
“Investors not only believe in the strength of rental market, but can see these buildings as lucrative conversions opportunities in the future,” says Jonathan Berman, vice president of Ariel.
It is those future opportunities that have investors and brokers placing their long-term bets on south Bushwick. Unlike already gentrified northeast Bushwick, which had substantial manufacturing and warehouse space, the area south of the M train is zoned for residential development.
In addition, brokers say that south Bushwick still has large tracts of land where developers can come in and build.
“If you have an industrially zoned warehouse, it looks like it could be a nice apartment building, but you can’t actually go in there and do apartments,” says Michael Amirkhanian, director of sales for Massey Knakal. “But south of Myrtle Avenue there are large footprints.”
One of those south Bushwick sites is the 105,000- square- foot former home of Weirfield Coal Company, of which 90,000 square feet is zoned for residential use, with the other 18,000 square feet zoned for a potential hotel or retail development.
Surrounded by tree-lined streets with townhouses, the site is on the market for $8.5 million and is steps from a successful luxury condo project, 515 Irving.
But it's just these kinds of potential developments that worry the community board and spurred them to write to local political leaders urging zoning changes, says Malcolm Sanborn-Hum, spokesperson for City Councilwoman Diana Reyna.
“Their intentions are to preserve the character of the neighborhood,” he says. The rezoning they propose would set height limits on new buildings, limit bars and nightclubs and encourage the creation of affordable housing to avoid the mistakes made in Williamsburg, where 2006 rezoning led to soaring rents and the expulsion of working-class residents. The community board proposal to rezone Bushwick along the lines of a 2012 rezoning in Bedford-Stuyvesant has yet to be submitted to the City Planning Commission.
But in the view of real-estate observers like Armirkhanian, development of the coal company site will be a boon that will lure other buyers to discover the classical architecture of the south Bushwick housing stock.
“Those tree-lined streets are more typical in what you would see in some more brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods,” Armirkhanian says. “They will be very attractive.”
The largest driver of the push southward will be the maturation of young people who work and socialize along the L line. In time, as they get married and settle down, they may make the switch to the M.
“Somebody getting off at Morgan Avenue now, will grow up a little bit and want to have a kid,” says Amirkhanian. “Young professional couples are going to want a house on a nice block and south Bushwick offers that. Those old brewers mansions along Bushwick Avenue are beautiful. It’s just a matter of time before people discover them.”
Additional reporting by Matthew Perlman and Nathan Place.