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Watching Condos Rise as Williamsburg's Desertification Ends

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger returns to a changing Williamsburg.


[The stalled construction sites of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, are slowly being built over, as a new surge in construction continues the neighborhood's transformation. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

As the saga of New York City's development boom, bust, and recovery enters its final stages, the physical remnants of the 2008 economic collapse are slowly being cleared from the urban landscape. Nowhere is that process more evident than in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which in 2009 was "ground zero in the growing scourge of stalled construction," as the Post put it, with the highest concentration of stalled developments. By 2010, the neighborhood's streets were scattered with half-built structures and empty lots, as documented by this photographer in a photo essay titled "The Desertification of Williamsburg." Today, nearly all of these spaces are under construction or are home to newly opened buildings, and Williamsburg is once again being transformed.

But as this period of desertification ends, some local residents are feeling nostalgia for the temporary expanses that were in their backyards. "I am a bit sentimental about it," said Erin Carroll, who lived in an apartment on South 5th that looked out over an huge empty lot. "It wasn't beautiful, it wasn't a field or an ocean, but it was open space." Over the years, several of these abandoned lots were adopted by the neighborhood and used as impromptu parks, community gardens, dog runs, and art installations. "We used to take chairs, a six pack, some guitars, and hang out there," said Terence Murren, whose building on Dunham Place once faced a block-long empty grassland. "It was like our park." Murren's building had a panoramic view across this open space, out to the East River and down to the Manhattan Bridge, and his neighbors walked their dog there daily, until it became overgrown each season with thick vegetation. "It was nice to have an empty lot," said Murren, but "everybody knew it would become a giant condo."

Today, Murren's apartment faces a 14-story luxury rental tower and a new upscale grocery store that opened in December 2013, while Carroll's empty lot has been replaced by The Garnett, a 12-story luxury residential building that opened in January. Since 2010, the number of stalled projects in Brooklyn's Community Board No. 1, which represents Williamsburg and Greenpoint, has fallen almost 50 percent, from 92 projects on December 26, 2010 to just 47 projects as of March 2, 2014, according to data from the Department of Buildings. On a cold weekend day, a parade of visitors troops from one new rental building to the next, attending open houses and inquiring about vacancies, lured in by amenities like free lattes, spacious gyms, postmodern lounges, and private gardens. One luxury tower even includes a rooftop putting green, a remarkable change from the empty meadow that once occupied its footprint, overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. "The identity of this neighborhood is slowly disappearing," said Carroll. "These sites that were abandoned—I'd kind of forgotten about them already."

The empty lot on Dunham Place, as seen in 2010. "Maybe in 2005 or 2006, they closed the lot, and were prepping it to sell," said neighbor Terence Murren. "People on the block would sneak in through the end of the fence."

After sitting dormant until 2011, the lot is now home to Urban Market, an upscale Key Foods grocery store that opened in December 2013, and which offers shoppers 17 types of organic and cage free eggs.

Towering above the market is 15 Dunham Place, a luxury rental building that includes a private garden terrace. "It makes it feel like Battery Park City. Nice, but cold and impersonal," said Murren.

Where the tower now stands, graffiti artists once had free reign, as seen in this 2010 photo. "It was a quiet street, and now it's honking cabs," said Murren. "Capitalism marches on."

Nearby, at the corner of Wythe and Broadway, this large overgrown pit sat empty for several years.

It has since been replaced by a seven story rental building, which opened one year ago, according to a doorman. The building looms over its next door neighbors, Diner and Marlow & Sons.  

The stalled construction site behind Erin Carroll's former building, as seen in 2010. A local artist built a temporary shack in the lot in 2011, using discarded materials. "I think it stayed up for a few weeks," said Carroll.

The lot now houses The Garnett, a 12-story tower with amenities that include a parking lot, a gym, and a "post modern rustic lounge" with a pool table and free lattes. "The design of it isn't very aesthetically pleasing," said Carroll. "It's kinda this cheesy luxury look."

On Kent Avenue and South 8th, the foundations of this building project sat empty for years. "It was definitely going to be something, then it wasn't," said a neighbor living in a building across the street. "They just abandoned it."

The old foundations were recently ripped out of the ground, to make way for a six story tower that is expected to be completed by December 2015. "Heavy construction started in November," said the neighbor. "Whatever was there was torn down."

On the north side of the neighborhood, at North 7th near Roebling, this overgrown lot contained a collection of boulders, and sat fallow for years.   

Recently cleared, it is now under construction. A seven story glass box is expected to be completed here in October 2014.

Near the intersection of Union and North 10th, almost an entire city block had been turned into a grassland in 2010.  Abandoned cars and hills of debris were stored behind metal fences.

Half of the lot was recently built over by 250N10, yet another six story "luxury rental tower." The building is not complete, according to a doorman, and the leasing office only opened in late February. The other half of the block will become a separate tower.

At the nearby corner of Frost and Union, an overgrown field of weeds hid the remains of a stalled construction project in 2010.

The intersection is now almost unrecognizable, with walls of glass blocking out any view of the neighborhood. "It has the personality of some commuter suburb in New Jersey," said Terence Murren.

Few low-rise structures remain in this increasingly gentrified area. "I always had this feeling that, of course, they were going to build this up," said Murren, but "it's gone way past what you could have foreseen."
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