A New Luxury Development Is Testing Brooklyn’s Brownstone Market


At first, Elizabeth Litt Backer loved living at 56 Leonard Street, the so-called Jenga building in New York’s Tribeca. “The views were spectacular, and the amenities in the building were amazing,” says the freelance consultant.

But as time went on, she and her husband, a trust and estates attorney, found the area lacking. “We couldn’t find any kind of a neighborhood,” she says. “There were no trees. It was a concrete jungle.” And so, during the pandemic, the couple began to look for alternatives. Not, as many wealthy New Yorkers have done, in Westchester or Florida, but in Brooklyn’s Park Slope.

The neighborhood has long been known for its quintessential brownstone Brooklyn streets and excellent schools. “It’s very community-minded, with really down-to-earth people,” Backer says. As an added plus, the couple’s adult children live nearby.

A New Luxury Development Is Testing Brooklyn’s Brownstone Market

With a budget of $4 million to $5.5 million, she and her husband visited One Prospect Park West, an as-yet-uncompleted condo conversion on the corner of Prospect Park West and Grand Army Plaza.

After touring the building, Backer was sold. “We were happy to find a unit on the park with high ceilings and three bedrooms,” she says. “It all came together nicely.”

Backer declines to give the exact purchase price aside from saying it was within her original budget. But the building’s developer, Sugar Hill Capital Partners LLC, says it’s sold 14 of the building’s 63 units, often with a price per square foot that’s at or just above $2,000.

One penthouse, the developer says, is in contract for $6.5 million; an apartment two floors below is in contract for $5.925 million. 

A New Luxury Development Is Testing Brooklyn’s Brownstone Market

Because none of the apartments have closed, it’s impossible to verify the number of apartments that have gone into contract, nor is it possible to verify their final price. But if those numbers do prove to be accurate, the building would represent the very top of the Brooklyn market, where the average price per square foot for a condo in the fourth quarter of 2020 was only $955. And in fact it’s nearly at the top of the Manhattan market, too. In the last quarter of 2020 in Manhattan, the average price per square foot for luxury real estate sales was $2,654, according to Douglas Elliman.

“Over $2,000 a square foot is what they’re doing for really good, high-quality buildings” on the Upper East Side, says broker Donna Olshan, who publishes the Olshan Luxury Market Report

“That’s at levels like 301 East 80th Street, which is really high-quality with up to 13-foot-high ceilings, designed by William Sofield,” she continues. “So if you think Brooklyn is equivalent to that, then I guess [a condo selling for] that price is possible.” 

A Brooklyn Boom

A New Luxury Development Is Testing Brooklyn’s Brownstone Market

The recent boom in Brooklyn luxury sales would suggest that wealthy buyers such as Backer are finding Brooklyn preferable to Manhattan. “Every single person that has purchased so far [already] lives in New York City,” says Ramon Maislen, Sugar Hill Capital Partners’ head of development. This isn’t particularly surprising, as the pandemic has kept foreign buyers out of almost every corner of New York’s real estate; what is notable, however, is that even without foreign money, Brooklyn continues to do well.

In the last quarter of 2020, the average sales price of luxury housing in Brooklyn (comprising the top 10% of sales) was up 5.6% year over year, according to a report by Douglas Elliman, while the median price was up 3.4%, to a little less than $2.4 million. 

And the top of the market is getting higher. In April a $20 million penthouse briefly held the title of the most expensive home sale in Brooklyn. That distinction was wiped away in late December, when a Brooklyn Heights brownstone sold for $25.5 million.

A New Luxury Development Is Testing Brooklyn’s Brownstone Market

Condos across the borough continue to sell, most notably at the Pierhouse at Brooklyn Bridge Park, where two apartments closed in November: one for $6.8 million ($2,131 per square foot), the other for an as-yet-unverified $7.2 million ($2,241 per square foot), according to StreetEasy.

In Park Slope, though, prices for apartments are dramatically less frothy, particularly for condos.

To date, the most expensive condominium in the neighborhood, according to data provided by Olshan, is a roughly 4,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, full-floor apartment in the historic Montauk Club building, which sold for about $4.5 million ($1,125 per square foot) in 2016. In second place is a penthouse at 613 Baltic Street, which sold for $3.85 million in 2018, or about $1,649 per square foot. 

Apartments in One Prospect Park West, in other words, are putting a lot of weight on what was, until now, a relatively thin market.

Inside the Building

A New Luxury Development Is Testing Brooklyn’s Brownstone Market

The building, which is about a century old, was initially the clubhouse for the Knights of Columbus. After the organization sold it in the 1960s, it cycled through owners, serving at one point as a women’s residence run by nuns, at other times as a senior-care facility.

Sugar Hill Capital Partners bought it in 2016 for a recorded price of $84 million, but it wasn’t until 2018 that, with the design company Workstead, the developers began construction to convert the building into apartments. 

A New Luxury Development Is Testing Brooklyn’s Brownstone Market

“The interior was pretty much a total renovation,” says Ryan Mahoney, a principal at Workstead.

His company chose reclaimed hardwood for the apartment floors, installed picture rails and paneled molding on the walls, and did its best to combine the contemporary inclination to congregate in the kitchen with a prewar sense of “discreet rooms that open up to each other,” he says. “A lot of new developments are these vast open spaces, and we were definitely looking to meet in the middle, where there’s an open quality but distinct spaces.”

When the building began its sales in August, New York’s real estate market had just begun to stabilize from its shutdown-related panic.

Maislen says his company briefly considered lowering prices to generate interest in the beginning, but then quickly decided against it. “There was a mild amount of contract activity pre-launch, and that gave us more confidence,” he says. 

Currently the building’s apartments range from $2 million for a roughly 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom, to $7 million for a penthouse that hasn’t yet been put on the market.

Successful Template

A New Luxury Development Is Testing Brooklyn’s Brownstone Market

The building has the potential to become a sales success, Olshan says, because it follows a template that’s already found tremendous success in Manhattan in the form of 15 Central Park West, 220 Central Park South, and others: It has prewar looks but contemporary functionality.

“For the most part, the glass box is over, so in terms of prewar aesthetic with postwar interiors, it can work,” Olshan says.

That’s not great news for One Prospect Park West’s primary competition, an all-glass, Richard Meier-designed 15-story condo completed in 2009, which sits on the other side of Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Heights. Last year 11 apartments came onto the market, according to StreetEasy; two were subsequently removed, three are still for sale,  one sold at a discount, just two sold for the asking price, and the final three are in contract, with their final prices yet to be registered.

Trends, Olshan continues, “come and go, but good classical architecture always holds up.”

Backer certainly thinks so. She and her husband plan to move into their apartment this summer. “We were only in lust with the Jenga building,” she says, “but we’ve decided we’re in love now.”

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