Office building for telephone workers
Condo tower for Brooklyn residents
Art Deco elegance
Art Deco elegance meets contemporary style
200% increase in value since condo sales began in 2006 in value since condo sales began in 2006
THE 27-story New York Telephone Building has been an icon in Downtown Brooklyn since 1930, with the elegant Art Deco structure housing staff and equipment that provided phone service to the area for decades. New York City even declared the building a historic landmark in 2004. However, the same year, the building’s owner, Verizon Communications, moved its employees to other locations and decided to sell the structure. The timing couldn’t have been better for New York City-based development company Clipper Equity, which was in the market for a condo conversion project in Brooklyn. The NY Telephone Building immediately caught their eye. “It was a unique opportunity to be able to work with a landmarked building in the Art Deco style,” says Clipper Equity’s executive vice president J.J. Bistricer. “It’s a very special building.”
It seems Brooklyn residents agree. Today, the rechristened BellTel Lofts is a thriving residential community, one that combines modern style with Art Deco grace. With 250 one-, two-, and three-bedroom units ranging from 600 square feet to 2,700 square feet, the BellTel Lofts provides a case study in conversion that retains historic details while adding contemporary comforts. Pricing starts at $540,000 and ranges up to just over $3 million. Booming in Brooklyn
The building had more to offer than just great architectural details. BellTel Lofts is located in Brooklyn’s downtown, the site of major revitalization efforts including $9 billion in private investment and $300 million in public improvements. The site of the BellTel building is adjacent to the MetroTech Center, a business and educational complex that houses the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, corporate offices, and MetroTech Commons, a 3.5-acre private park that is home to concerts, fairs, and public art exhibits.
Bistricer was particularly interested in the area because it is still emerging as a residential hub. “We try to develop in areas that are emerging because we feel that you get a better value,” he says. Bistricer says he’s confident that downtown Brooklyn will “eventually be on par with Manhattan in terms of restaurants, office spaces, amenities, and recreation. It’s a really happening place.”
Since the exterior of the structure had been declared a landmark, Clipper Equity and its architecture firm, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners, needed approval from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to make renovations. The process went smoothly, in part because the team planned very few changes and in part, according to Bistricer, because Beyer Blinder Belle has great experience working with the Landmarks Commission. In the end, the project received unanimous approval.
Historic portions of the interior were carefully restored. In the lobby, for example, the terrazzo tile floor and marble walls were returned to their original splendor. Project architect Steven Lovci insisted, however, that all new construction be unmistakably modern. “Rather than say, ‘What would they have done in 1929?’ we took elements of the existing building and made something new,” Lovci says. For example, the original floor tile pattern is reflected in wood on the new lobby wall in a contemporary interpretation of a historic detail.
For the individual units, Lovci had to work with spaces much deeper than typical condo units and so faced a challenge of having interior spaces at a long distance from the exterior wall and windows. His solution was to use the space farthest from the windows to meet a particularly modern need: home offices. Many units include study or office space close to the front door, with the main living space farther in by the windows.
Fixtures and finishes reflect a contemporary aesthetic with stone countertops, glass mosaic kitchen backsplashes, bamboo floors, and stainless steel appliances. In addition, because the building begins stair-stepping back starting at the 10th floor, many units on the upper stories include their own terraces.
A Tough Market BellTel Lofts offers numerous amenities, including a business center, media room, yoga and fitness studio, rooftop terrace, and kid’s playroom. The first floor is intended for retail.
Sales have been brisk since Phase I, consisting of the first nine floors, which opened in the summer of 2007, with 90 percent of units sold so far. (Phase II, floors 10 through 27, began sales in fall 2008.) However, the tough real estate market has been a challenge for BellTel Lofts as it has for everyone, and Clipper Equity is exploring new options to reach brokers and buyers. In a recent promotion, the company invited 80 of the city’s most successful brokers to tour the building and receive a new iPod; included on the iPod was a video showcasing the Lofts. “It’s creating a wonderful buzz,” Bistricer says.
However, one of the strongest draws for the building is the community already taking shape at the BellTel Lofts, Bistricer says. “I was there recently for an open house, and a kid’s birthday party was going on in the playroom. It’s great to see that—it gives such a great vibe to the building,” he says.
Elizabeth Lunday is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.
Improving on the Past
Keep these three points in mind when working on a historic project.
1. Give people what they want. Successful projects meet a need, says Clipper Equity’s executive vice president J.J. Bistricer. “You’ve got to listen to your market and find out if people want what you’re selling,” he says.
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Restoring and renovating historic landmarks doesn’t have to be difficult, says project architect Steven Lovci. Keep the lines of communication open between the developer, the architect, the community, and historic preservation boards.
3. Don’t “Disney-fy” historic spaces. Resist the urge to create new pseudo-historic features for your historic building—such as Disney’s Main Street, USA. “It’s dishonest to the history of the building,” Lovci says.