Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we interview folks involved with Brooklyn real estate, architecture, development and the like. Introducing David Von Spreckelsen, a senior vice president at Toll Brothers.
Brownstoner: What neighborhood do you live in and how did you end up there?
David Von Spreckelsen: I have resided in Brooklyn for nearly all of the 25 years that I have lived in New York City. A few months ago, I moved to Boerum Hill after having lived in DUMBO for the previous 12 years. While we loved DUMBO, my kids wanted a backyard. Very few apartments in DUMBO have outdoor spaces. So I found a space in Boerum Hill that I was able to design and incorporate a nice backyard.
BS: Your background in real estate is pretty extensive. How did you land in real estate, and more specifically Toll Brothers?
DVS: I was working in management consulting after I graduated from business school and I didn’t enjoy it. So I began considering other careers. What I knew I liked was New York City. So I started to think about what I would want to do career-wise that would have a positive impact on the city. I quit the consulting job and enrolled in Hunter College on a full fellowship to get a masters degree in urban planning. While I was there, I worked nearly full-time at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and also had internships with the New York City Planning Commission and NYC DOT. Upon graduation, I went to work for the New York City Economic Development Corporation. While there, I came to realize that my real interest in the city was with the built environment and how it impacts the city’s residents. I also became enamored of the developers with whom I interacted. So I was determined to be a developer, but the year was 1997 and the market was pretty lousy.
It would take jobs in real estate finance for an insurance company and in corporate real estate for a media company before I was able to find work with a small real estate development company. I worked there for four years, gaining great experience and making solid business connections. Although I was very happy there, I wanted to try to do something on a larger scale.
Believe it or not, I landed the position with Toll Brothers through a classified ad in The New York Times. They provided me with a cell phone and a laptop and told me to find properties where the company could build housing in New York City and Long Island. This was in the spring of 2004. I obtained shared office space on Livingston Street and began to look for sites. We are now designing our tenth building in New York City and I have twenty-five people working for me. Our office is at 16 Court Street in Brooklyn Heights.
After the jump, David talks on the strength of the Dumbo market, why it may take 20 years to develop along the Gowanus Canal and what he loves about 1 Main.
BS: What are you currently overseeing in Brooklyn?
DVS: In Brooklyn, we are wrapping up our project in Williamsburg called Northside Piers. It is two 30-story towers with a total of 450 condos. We did this in a partnership with L&M Equities and RD Management. The first tower has been sold out for a year or so now and the second one is 80% sold. We also built 130 affordable rental apartments, retail, a pier and esplanade and it is really a beautiful community on what was once a waste transfer facility.
Our only other current project in Brooklyn is 205 Water Street where we have just commenced sales and have had an overwhelmingly positive response. It is a 65-unit condo building with on-site parking and is the first new-construction project in the DUMBO Historic District. Residents should be able to move in to the building by the summer of 2012 and the project should be fully completed later that year.
BS: The mixed-use development along the Gowanus got a lot of attention during the Superfund designation, especially afterward when the project was scrapped. What do you see in the future for the development of Gowanus? How best to develop sites where there are still pressing environmental concerns?
DVS: I don’t see a whole lot happening in the Gowanus Canal area in terms of residential development for a long time and that’s why we walked away from our sites. While we were fortunate enough to get our blocks rezoned, the City has not moved forward with the area-wide rezoning that had been underway but was stopped due to the Superfund designation. Significantly, the City also stopped the rezoning of the Gowanus Green project (the large affordable housing complex) which had been following right on the heels of the Toll Brothers rezoning. So it is just our former blocks that are zoned for residential development.
Putting aside the lack of residential zoning, the other issue is just the length of time that it takes to do a Superfund cleanup. First a plan has to be adopted and then the money has to be identified to do the cleanup pursuant to the plan. The money is to come from the current and past property owners whose properties contributed to the contamination in the Canal. As you can imagine, these owners will not relish this responsibility and will do everything they can to avoid it. This will result in many years of litigation and delays. My guess, based upon similar Superfund designations, is that it will be twenty years before you see any significant residential development along the Canal. During the interim, I would anticipate temporary uses such as The Yard and other creative things that don’t require a great deal of investment, which investment will not be forthcoming because of all the uncertainty that the Superfund brings.
The best way to develop sites that have pressing environmental concerns is through programs like Brownfields and through private sector redevelopment of sites pursuant to the City’s E designation. As I mentioned in answer to an earlier question, we cleaned up a waste transfer facility in Williamsburg along the river and created a fantastic community there. We did a similar cleanup and development on another site in Williamsburg and one in Long Island City a few years ago and we are doing the same thing in DUMBO right now. All of these were done under the requirements of the City’s E designation that provides the guidelines for residential development on former industrial properties.
BS: Toll Brothers has a strong hold in Dumbo, which was recently ranked among the most expensive neighborhoods in all of NYC. What is it that makes Dumbo so unique in the Brooklyn market?
DVS: DUMBO is unique because of the character of the industrial buildings that comprise most of the neighborhood. It is one of the very few places in Brooklyn where you have loft living like in Soho and Tribeca, which have become some of the most popular residential neighborhoods in Manhattan. So it has a very cool vibe, but it is also right next to one of the most established residential neighborhoods in all of New York City, Brooklyn Heights, where you have a wide variety of services and schools to satisfy everyone. Also, Brooklyn Bridge Park is quickly becoming a major asset to the neighborhood and reason for people to move there. Finally, the small size of the neighborhood makes it inherently exclusive and that exclusivity will always keep the prices high.
BS: Finally your favorites: top BK neighborhood, favorite new BK development, and favorite property/building in the borough.
DVS: I would be hard pressed to say that any Brooklyn neighborhood could rank above Brooklyn Heights when you consider its assets — the housing stock; promenade; views of the harbor, Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan; Cadman Plaza Park; subway options; proximity to Manhattan; schools; and now Brooklyn Bridge Park.
I am certainly biased, but my favorite new development in Brooklyn is 205 Water Street that we are currently developing in DUMBO. Its architectural concrete façade was the perfect choice to establish it as an authentic-looking building in this Historic District. I have to thank my architects for the idea, but also the Landmarks Preservation Commission staff who thought that a brick building (our other potential choice) would look too residential. In the end we were approved by Landmarks with only one public meeting and some of the commissioners raved about the building in such a positive manner that my faith in the public process was renewed after our setback with State and Federal governments in the Gowanus Superfund decision.
There are buildings and properties in the borough that I am very fond of like the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island Boardwalk, and the Parade Grounds, but my favorite would have to be One Main Street (the ClockTower Condominium). It is the building that my wife and I lived in longer than any other in New York City, the one where our eldest daughter spent the first twelve years of her life, and the one where we lived when our twins were born and then resided in for another eight years. It also happens to be an architecturally significant building that serves as a landmark on Brooklyn’s western shore. It is the first thing I look towards when I am driving over the Brooklyn Bridge on my way back to Brooklyn.