Neighborhood Revival: Brooklyn’s Columbia Street on a Comeback
It’s not a shocker that some Brooklyn neighborhoods are outselling their Manhattan counterparts. What’s a bit of a surprise is that the Columbia Street Waterfront District, a quirky 22-block enclave wedged between Red Hook and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, is one of them.
Until recently, Columbia Street was known as a far-flung and largely forgotten strip that fell victim to Robert Moses’s highway expansion project—the BQE—which, when built on a below-ground slice of Hicks Street in 1957, severed the area from the rest of Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, breaking up what was then “South Brooklyn” into distinct neighborhoods.
For Columbia Street, the post-Moses years left the area largely isolated from what had been a much larger immigrant Italian and Hispanic community. Times got especially tough for the waterfront neighborhood in 1975, when an accident on a sewer line forced the city to demolish 33 buildings, causing many more residents and businesses to pack up. In the wake of the disaster, the city designated the Columbia Street District as an area in need of redevelopment.
The first sign of improvement came in 1984, with the opening of Phase I of Columbia Terrace, a 17-building low-rise project on President Street composed of 51 one-, two- and three-bedroom condominium units—all of which sold quickly. The next three phases brought another 129 apartments to President and Carroll Streets. In 1986, the former factory of Louis Comfort Tiffany, situated on a cobblestone street aptly named Tiffany Place, was converted into condos.
The exterior of the converted Tiffany Factory (left). Image by Forgotten NY; The interior of one of the apartments (right)
However, despite the new swath of development, Columbia Street was slower to gentrify than some of its neighbors on the “right side” of the BQE. New residents who did find their way west to Columbia Street frequently complained of rancid smells and unsettling noise associated with the area’s three live chicken processing plants (today, the neighborhood is down to only one), not to mention the startling sight of the occasional runaway bird or bunny. And unlike Brooklyn Heights or Williamsburg, the actual Columbia Street waterfront is blocked from the public by cranes and containers coming off the Red Hook Shipping Terminal.
Throughout the early 2000s, the longtime establishments that catered to the many dockworkers began mixing with new bakeries, restaurants and chic businesses with a decidedly “new Brooklyn” mindset. These included Brooklyn Collective, a membership-based collective of artists, artisans, jewelry makers and fashion designers who have joined forces to make and sell their wares, and Alma, a standout Mexican restaurant that helped to transform Columbia Street into a restaurant row in the manner of nearby Smith Street.
The area arguably “arrived” with the opening in 2012 of James Beard Award winner Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok at 127 Columbia Street. An outpost of his acclaimed Portland-based empire, the no-reservations northern-Thai hotspot routinely sees patrons from near and far line up for long waits.
Columbia Street features a mix of mostly low-rise housing—both new developments and conversions of former factories and industrial buildings. Noteworthy developments include 25 Carroll Street, a former pasta manufacturing facility that was converted into 17 loft condominiums in 2010; Columbia Commons, a mix of 42 market-rate condos and 94 income-restricted rentals; and 49-53 Summit Street, which features nine apartments ranging from 1,300 square feet to more than 2,300 square feet.
Today, the area is home to a diverse mix of dockworkers, young families and artists drawn to the strong community. It also boasts one of the highest percentages of same-sex couples in New York City. According to data from the U.S. Census, same-sex households in the Columbia Street Waterfront District make up 11 percent of households, more than the city’s traditional gay strongholds of Chelsea and the West Village. The area is zoned for P.S. 29, one of Brooklyn’s highest-performing schools.
In addition to the local draws, Columbia Street is a quick car or bus ride to Ikea and Fairway in Red Hook. More neighborhood improvements are coming with work now underway on the first section of the Columbia Waterfront Park, located on Columbia Street between Degraw and Kane Streets, part of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, a 14-mile project to connect Greenpoint to Bay Ridge.
Image by the Banana Baron
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