By Orlando Lee Rodriguez
Gentrification that has spilled over from industrial East Williamsburg to residential northeast Bushwick is spreading inexorably southward — thanks to a little help from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The MTA’s decision to re-route the M train through the heart of midtown Manhattan in 2010 erased the invisible barrier that Myrtle Avenue — the area hit hardest by arson fires in the late 1970s — posed for years, according to real estate.
And now the well-kept townhomes along Weirfield Street that are typical of this section of Bushwick will lead the gentrification as the young people that populate East Williamsburg and northeast Brooklyn settle down and raise families.
“It’s all based on the transit system,” said Andrew Clemens, director of retail leasing for Massey Knakal, a commercial real estate brokerage firm. “The proximity to Union Square on the L train made Williamsburg attractive. Now proximity to midtown on the M train is driving the south Bushwick market.”
As south Bushwick changes at lightning speed, it is catching up with the rest of the neighborhood, which has seen a transformation in the last five years.
While Community Board 4 drafted a letter in March to local political leaders recommending rezoning to keep affordable housing and prevent Bushwick from going the way of Williamsburg, property trends are outpacing local government action.
Some longtime residents who are homeowners welcome the gentrification. Liz Ponce, 46, has lived on Halsey Street facing Irving Square Park since she was seven, when her parents bought the white-brick building. Now she lives on the third floor with her children, while her mother and sister live on the floors below.
She sees “different ethnic groups coming in” and more restaurants and loft spaces. “I love it. It’s about time,” Ponce said. “It gives the neighborhood life.”
For renters, the upheaval is far less welcome. From January to March of this year, Bushwick rental prices have risen almost 23 percent, or $454 dollars, for a two bedroom, according to internal data from apartment brokerage MNS. Prices are up 17.2 percent compared to the same period in 2012.
“I think sometimes, ‘Where do people go? How can they afford to live here?’” asked Juan Yambo, 46, who works in a barbershop on Suydam Street.
The impact of the M line route change is made evident in ridership figures.
Between 2011 and 2012, the first full calendar year of the change, daily ridership at the Central Avenue train station in south Bushwick jumped 18.7 percent, from 2,903 to 3,445 passengers per day, the largest increase in Brooklyn, according to the MTA.
Riders can now travel from Chelsea to Bushwick in fewer stops on the M than on the L, and workers along Sixth Avenue corridor in Manhattan now only have to take one train to get home.
Those that make their living in the city’s nightlife industry are also jumping on the M.
“I can go straight to SoHo to play now,” said Bushwick resident, Luis Melendez, 39, who spins in city bars and clubs under the name DJ Butta-L. “Before, I had to take mad trains to get there. Now I just got to take one.”
Since the route change in June of 2010, median home prices in Bushwick have more than doubled, from $300,000 in the third quarter of 2010 to $625,000 in the first quarter of 2013, according to MNS.
Multifamily buildings are also trading hands at a rapid rate.
In 2012, Bushwick captured 28 percent of all multifamily building sales in Brooklyn carried out by investment sales firm, Ariel Property Advisors, the highest rate in the borough.
“Investors not only believe in the strength of the rental market, but can see these buildings as lucrative conversion opportunities in the future,” said Jonathan Berman, vice president of Ariel.
It is those future opportunities that have investors and brokers hedging their long-term bets now on south Bushwick. Unlike already gentrified northeast Bushwick, the area south of the M train is zoned for residential development.
In addition, brokers say that south Bushwick still has large tracts of land where developers can come in and build.
“If you have an industrially zoned warehouse, it looks like it could be a nice apartment building, but you can’t actually go in there and do apartments,” said Michael Amirkhanian, director of sales for Massey Knakal. “But south of Myrtle Avenue, there are large footprints.”
One of those south Bushwick sites is the 105,000 s/f former home of Weirfield Coal Company, of which 90,000 s/f is zoned for residential use, with the other 18,000 s/f zoned for a potential hotel or retail development.
Surrounded by tree-lined streets with townhouses, the site is on the market for $8.5 million and is steps from a successful luxury condo project, 515 Irving.
But it’s just these kinds of potential developments that worry the community board and spurred them to write to local political leaders urging zoning changes, said Malcolm Sanborn-Hum, spokesperson for city councilwoman Diana Reyna.
“Their intentions are to preserve the character of the neighborhood,” he said. The rezoning they propose would set height limits on new buildings, limit bars and nightclubs and encourage the creation of affordable housing to avoid the mistakes made in Williamsburg, where rezoning in 2006 led to soaring rents and an exodus of working-class residents.
The community board proposal to rezone Bushwick along the lines of a 2012 rezoning in Bedford-Stuyvesant has yet to be submitted to the City Planning Commission.
But in the view of real estate observers like Armirkhanian, development of the coal company site will be a boon that will lure other buyers to discover the classic architecture of the south Bushwick housing stock.
“Those tree-lined streets are more typical of what you would see in some more brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods,” Armirkhanian said. “They will be very attractive.”
The largest driver of the push southward will be the maturating of young people who work and socialize along the L line. In time, as they get married and settle down, they may make the switch to the M.
“Somebody getting off at Morgan Avenue now, will grow up a little bit and want to have a kid,” said Amirkhanian. “Young professional couples are going to want a house on a nice block and south Bushwick offers that. Those old brewers’ mansions along Bushwick Avenue are beautiful. It’s just a matter of time before people discover them.”
Additional reporting by Matthew Perlman and Nathan Place.