Brooklyn’s 220 Water

An unconventional approach to adaptive reuse.

By Michael Russo, Contributing Editor

Turning 220 Water Street, a 19th Century shoe factory, into a luxury Brooklyn apartment building took several bold strokes of inspiration during seven solid years of development.

Of all the design challenges faced by the developer, the creative use of the building’s open-air courtyard was probably the most critical. In this interior courtyard, surrounded by 40,000 square feet of floor plates, a highly unusual and particularly attractive transformation took place. The textbook solution would have been the creation of a double-loaded corridor. The apartments facing the street could be rented at a premium, while the rest of the 134 units would overlook some sort of garden/patio space.

Instead, the building’s interior courtyard was transformed into a soaring, 30-foot-high, sky-lit lobby that rivals the most luxurious Manhattan hotels. This “Grand Lobby” is a public space with a uniquely inviting atmosphere conducive to socialization and inspiring a sense of community for residents.

“Rather than settling for a potential negative for the interior apartments, we chose an unconventional design that enhanced the entire project,” says Adam Ginsburg, co-chairman of developer GDC Properties LLC, Hawthorne, N.Y.

At the same time, the single-loaded corridor features unusually “deep” apartments—some more than 70 feet long. The depth of these living spaces adds a loft-like character to the units. Home occupancy spaces are mechanically ventilated along the corridors, while the interior rooms are bathed in daylight through 10-foot-high windows along the naturally lighted corridors and lobby.

“I have worked with many developers,” says Manhattan-based interior designer Peggy Leung. “But working with GDC Properties was different. The company wasn’t afraid of doing something unconventional. This was also seen in the variety and size of the rental units. It was a risk of sorts that the developer was willing to take.”

Peggy Leung Design Inc. created 18 unique apartment styles, with a total of 134 available units. Studios range from 633 to 1,065 square feet, while luxurious one-bedroom, one-baths peak at 1,480 square feet. Modern design elements include multiple well-designed closets per unit, full-size washers and dryers, and moveable kitchen islands accented by high-end finishes and appliances.

“GDC is a rare developer that was flexible in allowing its tenants additional square footage wherever it could be found,” says Leung. “And with the competition we faced in the Dumbo area of Brooklyn (see “The Dumbo Demographic”), it was essential that we offered tenants something different.”

What renters get is a unique collection of studio, one and two-bedroom residences, many with home offices and large skylights. All 18 spacious floor plans feature 10-foot windows with custom sun shades, 14-foot ceilings and premium finishes.

“In many apartments, you can barely squeeze a Queen-size bed into the design,” says Leung. “The developer wanted to ensure that every single unit had enough space for renters to enjoy a true ‘master’ bedroom.”

The large number of unit configurations was also dictated, in part, by elements of the original building that the design team simply could not move. The laying out of efficient apartment floor plans while accommodating the existing column grid took great attention to detail. Brickwork and other structural features needed to be worked around for practical purposes and to ensure the landmark designation of the site.

“We’re a company that has always emphasized value in the design of our properties,” says Ginsburg. “For 220 Water, we made some critical design decisions where they matter the most.”

A commitment to quality

The seven-year development time required to bring 220 Water to the market illustrates GDC Properties’ commitment to the project. The building team weathered the 2008 financial crisis and used the services of three architectural firms in the process.

“It occurs to me now that there was a ‘silver lining’ in the long development cycle,” says Ginsburg. “When we experienced unavoidable delays, we didn’t just stop working. We were able to incorporate the best ideas distilled from seven years of focused effort.”

GDC Properties consulted with several architectural firms on the project before developing a close relationship with Perkins Eastman of New York, N.Y. at the end of 2008. Principal Stuart Lachs, AIA, LEED AP, agrees that 220 Water’s long development cycle turned out to be a plus for the building team and future tenants.

“Additional development time gave us a chance to review the design and every material and product going into the building,” says Lachs, who is based in Perkin Eastman’s Stamford, Conn. office. “We were able to find the materials that were most cost effective, while maintaining the high level of quality our client was seeking.”

220 Water was originally constructed as the Hanan & Son shoe factory in two phases; the first phase was finished in 1893 as a heavy timber structure, and the second with reinforced concrete in 1905. “One of the primary reasons why owners lose tenants in the rental market is noise from the neighbors,” Ginsburg says.

That’s why, on the heavy-timber portion of the structure, a costly 12-layer flooring system was used. It incorporates technology developed by recording studios and other industries to deaden unwanted sound intrusion.

A simpler and less expensive solution would have been to hang a ceiling and stuff it with insulation. However, this would have covered up the original tongue-and-groove wood ceilings in that part of the building. “In Dumbo, the rough-hewn look of the area’s manufacturing roots is highly valued,” says Ginsburg. “In some cases, we went to considerable expense to preserve that look, which included the original wood ceilings.”

The concrete portion of the building did not require the acoustical treatments that the wood side did. However, work was required to level out the concrete slabs to ensure a smooth flooring surface and enhance the aesthetics of the exposed concrete ceiling.

Working with the existing structure also led the building team to select custom-sized elevators that could fit within the existing bays, while also meeting the more demanding requirements of new building codes, says Lachs. Even so, the architect was compelled to lower one of the column’s footings when it was found to impede the elevator’s pit.

Making a ‘grand’ statement

A traditional “residence lounge” that includes a TV can be an unwanted source of noise in the lobby area, and Leung was particularly sensitive to this potential problem. “Combining the lounge and lobby together is a cutting-edge concept, but we separated the spaces just enough to downsize the risk of excessive noise. It’s more like a very hip lobby than a residence lounge.”

Other on-site amenities include a manicured roof deck with fireplace; lounge chairs and barbecue grills; pet-spa room; a fitness and yoga facility with natural light adjacent to a children’s playroom; on-site reserved parking; and bicycle and generous private storage facilities.

The historic rehabilitation of 220 Water Street fell under the jurisdiction of three different government agencies. The team at Perkins Eastman consulted with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to gain its approval on the proposed design and any modifications. Approvals from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation were also required. Finally, the National Park Service based in Washington, D.C. was consulted because of the national landmark status of the Dumbo location.

GDC Properties has called New York home since its founding in 1964 by Ginsburg’s father Samuel. It owns and manages a diverse asset portfolio stretching from New Jersey to Florida and as far west as Colorado. Ironically, 200 Water is the firm’s first development in a New York borough but is unlikely to be its last.

The Dumbo Demographic

Dumbo—an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass—is a Brooklyn, New York neighborhood encompassing two sections, one located between Manhattan and the Brooklyn bridges across the East River, and the other continuing east from the Manhattan Bridge to the Vinegar Hill area. GDC Properties’ adaptive reuse project resides approximately four blocks east of the Manhattan Bridge at 220 Water Street.

The acronym Dumbo arose in 1978, when new residents coined it in the belief that such an unattractive name would help deter developers. Near the end of the 20th century, as property became more expensive in Manhattan, Dumbo became increasingly gentrified. On Dec. 18, 2007, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to designate Dumbo as the city’s 90th historic district.

From an architectural perspective, Dumbo is not quite Brooklyn brownstone. With its exposed Belgian block streets anchored by massive bridge structures, Dumbo has a unique character all its own. Old factories like 220 Water have been converted into luxury lofts, and old warehouses into art galleries and theaters.

The young, hip, urban crowd that calls Dumbo home also boasts the highest median income in Brooklyn ($148,611), according to the latest Census reports.

In terms of development, various New York officials and Mayor Bloomberg himself have long challenged the 2010 Census count’s anemic growth figures for the five boroughs, including Brooklyn. However, the statistics for Census Tract 21 tell a different story. The area, including Dumbo, Vinegar Hill and Fulton Ferry, has grown by 218% since 2000.

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