When AJ Pires and Rachel Johnston traded classic brownstone Brooklyn for a waterfront property in Dumbo in 2016, they weren’t just after a view of the city, proximity to Brooklyn Bridge Park, or easier access to transportation. It was the slow, cinematic flow of water that ultimately convinced them to take up residence right next to the East River.
Pires and Johnston, who met in architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania, took less-traditional paths in the field, with Johnston pursuing landscape architecture and Pires obtaining additional training in real estate development. The couple moved to New York after graduate school in 2006 and settled in the borough’s leafy Fort Greene neighborhood, where they lived for almost 10 years. During that time, Pires co-founded Alloy Development, a real estate development company with properties in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where he leads acquisition, design, and construction.
In 2013, Alloy acquired a site at One John Street, located entirely within Brooklyn Bridge Park and adjacent to the river. Pires and Johnston had the chance, after two different apartments—one rented, one owned—in Fort Greene, to move into the building themselves. The couple considered what a move to a new neighborhood might look like as their children, Jack and Isla, grew older and the family’s routines changed.
Pires was inspired by Dumbo’s industrial beauty and its proximity to the waterfront park, as well as its unique constraints: its infrastructure and geography, highways and bridges, and the edge of the water. “The river offered a sense of serenity that you don’t get in a lot of places where there’s chaos otherwise surrounding you,” Johnston says. Plus, when you’re in architecture school, Pires adds, there’s a dream of getting the chance to design your own home. They decided it was the right move.
“We knew about the opportunity to take a unit three years before we did so,” he recalls. “There was a huge runway to getting our heads into the space and thinking about how we would occupy it.”
Construction began in 2014 and was completed in 2016. The apartments in One John Street aren’t custom homes—the units are finished, kitchens and bathrooms already devised—but since Pires was one of the designers, Johnston says, she felt like the place still had a bit of his stamp. “It never felt like it wasn’t ours in some way,” she adds. Exposed columns run through the edges of the apartments, and streamlined cabinetry from RiFra keeps clutter to a minimum.
Pires and Johnston gave their convertible four-bedroom apartment an even more personal feel with interventions like custom backsplash tile by Forrest Lesch-Middelton for the kitchen, or the psychedelic Flavorpaper wallpaper in one of the bathrooms, which was chosen to disrupt the quieter aspects of the space. The bathroom also provides a home for a series of bird sculptures from Johnston’s grandmother, which are are camouflaged against the floral cacophony of the walls. They added custom shelving, made by Mark Jupiter, in the master bedroom to maximize storage.
The new apartment was more than twice the size of their previous one in Fort Greene, so even with the pieces they kept—like their artwork, or a green desk chair they picked up in grad school—there was a significant amount of space to fill. That meant buying more, and larger, furniture to fill things out. Once sales on the units had begun, the couple had the opportunity to poke around model apartments to see how they were furnished. “We had this unusual ability to see different styles and attempts at using the space before we moved in,” Pires says, noting that they chose a sofa in the same style as one from a staged apartment in the building. “We [didn’t] need to reinvent the wheel to get the perfect couch for the space.”
The couple also inherited close to 200 plants, mostly succulents and cactuses, from Johnston’s late father around the time that they moved into the apartment. Pires notes that while they weren’t planning on the green additions, they’ve been a welcome presence, and even helped direct the color story of the interiors.
“When we started inheriting the plants and realized we were going to have a ton of green in the apartment, a lot of the other color ideas sort of faded away,” Johnston says, noting that the collection has thrived with the floor-to-ceiling windows. “We wanted to keep the palette more neutral so the plants could provide the color.” The commitment to a restrained color range can be seen in the couple’s bed linens and light fixtures, as well as touches like their daughter’s bed frame, their dining chairs, and the wall colors.
The relaxed interiors also invite the river to take on a central role in the family’s daily lives, something they feel grateful for in the hubbub of their new neighborhood. Their spot on the third floor, Johnston explains, isn’t a detriment, as it has broader windows than the floors above it: The lower floor allows their view of the water to take up two-thirds or three-quarters of the master bedroom window, a calming force in the mornings. Pires echoes that sentiment.
“The connection to the park and the river is really serene, it slows you down,” he says. “It’s such a privilege to be living by the water.”