Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we talk with folks who work in Brooklyn real estate, development, architecture, and the like. Introducing Donald Brennan, the founder of Brennan Real Estate. Brennan RE is a residential real estate company focused on rehabbing, maintaining and investing in multifamily properties in and around historic neighborhoods in the borough.
Brownstoner: What neighborhood do you live in, and how’d you end up there?
Donald Brennan: I live in Brooklyn Heights. I moved there in 1994 right after I completed my graduate degree in architecture. I initially started looking for a place to rent in the West Village but at the time even the most modest studio/loft style apartment was beyond my budget. Going a little further back in time, my journey to Brooklyn began in 1988 when I used to visit my sister at her apartment. She lived at the corner of Henry Street and First Place in Carroll Gardens; it was after a few visits to her apartment that I became intrigued with the idea of living in Brooklyn.
My first home was a studio sublet. I lived on the floor below a lunatic that chose to continue to rent as opposed to buy when the property was converted to a cooperative. His day started at 3:00PM and really got going once the bars closed. At around the 4:00AM he and his posse would tumble into the apartment and proceed to watch TV, blast music on the radio and scream at each other until the sun came up. This constant noise making was coupled with an all-day and all-night barking dog that lived in the townhouse just outside my window. Needless to say, this was a real test of my will to live in an urban environment, but I got over it. Due to this experience I am aware of the value of good sound attenuation between units, something I incorporate in my multifamily rehab projects.
BS: You’ve been involved in many aspects of the business, from architecture to development to rehabbing. What’s your favorite role in the process of real estate development?
DB: I really enjoy problem solving. When I was practicing architecture I was working with couples in building and renovating their homes, and because of the spatial vision I possess, I could understand how to reconfigure an outdated space into something that would both add value to the property, and meet their needs. I no longer offer architecture services, but I still really enjoy working with firms I hire to solve the design aspects of projects that I am working on. I typically choose firms with like-minded principals and those that have been successful in working with entities such as the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
With the recent addition of our own brokerage firm, Brennan Realty Services, we are now able to better serve the needs of our development clients by helping them sell properties they currently own and/or providing them with support in choosing the right project or home for them, if what we are currently working on is not the right fit. Through our brokerage we will be able to better position our own projects and protect the quality and care we put into our work. As opposed to some other independent firms we co-broke all of our listings, including our own development projects.
After the jump, Donald divulges some details on a new development planned for the vacant lot at Strong Place and Kane Street, talks Brooklyn as a NYC destination, and gives his opinions on the most exciting stuff happening right now in Brooklyn real estate…
BS: What rehab project is your firm currently working on?
DB: The project we are currently focused on is the creation of new housing on a vacant lot at the corner of Strong Place and Kane Street, the last best development site in Cobble Hill. While it is slightly premature to discuss what we will build there I will say that we are currently exploring the demand for 1- or 2-family custom townhomes. We are really excited about this development and look forward to delivering a high quality product that will meet the needs of the market place and be a welcome addition to one of the best residential blocks in Brooklyn.
BS: Working in landmarked districts, you have to strike a careful balance between development and preservation. How do you go about this? What has it been like working with landmarks and the community?
DB: As a developer of either new or rehabilitated space in dense urban landmarked neighborhoods like those in brownstone Brooklyn problem solving becomes even more complex. The theoretical formula includes more than just the needs of a single client but those of the community as well. As an involved member of the community I understand and appreciate the needs of all stakeholders. Balancing the needs of all the parties that are invested in real estate development is currently the ultimate challenge for me. It is my philosophy that what is right for the community is most likely right for the market.
In my experience the LPC and community agendas aren’t always aligned, which makes the design/aesthetic solution difficult to resolve sometimes. As developers we always strive to deliver the most appropriate and historically sensitive finished product. Therefore, we welcome the input of all entities and stakeholders involved with the landmark permit process.
BS: In your opinion, what’s the most exciting thing happening in Brooklyn real estate/development right now? What’s something you think can be improved?
DB: The expansion – I love how Brooklyn has returned to being a destination. While the arena project has its naysayers I think the prudent and controlled development of a city’s core is essential to the longevity of its individual communities and should be of a high enough density to provide a significant cultural gravitational pull.
The real estate culture of Brooklyn is all over the map, which is a good thing. That said, it still boggles my mind why some of the smaller independent brokers don’t co-broke their listings. Aren’t their clients aware that the pool of potential buyers is significantly diminished when other brokers aren’t able to bring their buyer clients to see the property. In this situation the listing broker may be putting their interests (an undivided commission) above the seller’s interests (maximum price).
BS: Finally, your favorites — favorite neighborhood, favorite new development, and favorite property— not listed by your firm — on the market?
DB: My neighborhood is my favorite – the birth place of the local resistance to the senseless destruction of the historic in order to make way for the new. Even though Brooklyn Heights is inundated with tourists, office workers and the headquarters of a worldwide self-reliant religious sect it still holds itself together as a neighborhood. The strong manmade boundaries of the Promenade, Cadman Plaza and to some extent Atlantic Avenue help maintain its boundaries geographically and the neighborhood association contributes significantly to the better than average quality of life as devoted residents deal with a wide range of issues – from planting flowers on the Promenade to making sure graffiti is removed as soon as it appears.
My favorite new development is Atlantic Terrace. It is a great model for delivering affordable and market rate housing in one building where there is no physical separation of owners. I have been in the property and from a visual inspection the quality looked very good, better than a lot of other market rate developments I have been in recently.
My favorite property – that’s a tough one. I don’t have a particular favorite. I like the rowhouse as a property type. For the most part they are very efficient use of land and are inherently “green” due to their limited exterior wall exposure. Rowhouses that are in need of rehabilitation are my favorites.