Clinton Hill: All the Requisites, Plus Great Bones

The New York TimesJuly 02, 2013
Steve Mona and Elaine Page liked their rental loft in Dumbo just fine, but they wanted to live in a place that felt more like a neighborhood. Mr. Mona, a garrulous Brooklyn-born retired police lieutenant, wanted a stoop where he could chat up passers-by. Ms. Page, an English human-resources executive, wanted a “high street,” the very British term for a town’s main street, where you can get everything you need in a single stroll.

The pedestrian-friendly Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill, sandwiched between Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant, satisfied them both. Last month the couple, who will be married in September, moved into a brownstone duplex on Clinton Avenue, for which they pay $5,100 a month. Mr. Mona and his goldendoodle, Bisquit, like the deep front yard, while Ms. Page has found her high street just up the block on Myrtle Avenue.

Not so long ago, the notion of Myrtle as an attraction would have seemed preposterous. In the 1980s the street was nicknamed Murder Avenue, and as late as the mid-1990s one in four storefronts were shuttered. Now crime is much reduced and the section of Myrtle from Flatbush to Classon Avenue, which includes a stretch in Fort Greene, has a retail vacancy rate of only 5 percent, said Michael Blaise Backer, the executive director of the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership. Three quarters of the 160 businesses are owned by women or minorities, Mr. Backer said. Ninety-five percent are locally owned, and the strip has a social, mom-and-pop vibe.

“There’s a dry-cleaners right there, tons of takeout places and restaurants, and a few small groceries,” Mr. Mona said. “Elaine found a yoga studio and a nail salon, and she comes home every evening with her arms full of bags and a smile on her face.”

Myrtle owes much of its resurgence to Pratt Institute, whose campus occupies 25 acres in Clinton Hill, mainly south of Willoughby Avenue. In 2011, Pratt opened a $54 million academic and administrative building on Myrtle and Grand Avenues. The ground floor is occupied by Utrecht Art Supplies and Khim’s Millennium Market, whose arrival helped address a shortage of fresh food. Far from presenting a fortress wall to Myrtle, the red masonry facade has a three-story window through which student art can be seen.

“We wanted the building to be invitational to the neighborhood,” said Dr. Thomas F. Schutte, Pratt’s president, who is also the chairman of the nonprofit Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project. “And it was received with great pleasure that we called the building Myrtle Hall, because it showed we embraced the neighborhood.”

Further transformation is imminent. Just west of Myrtle Hall, demolition has begun on a two-block strip of buildings that housed a post office, a supermarket and shops. The Silverstone Property Group plans two buildings, seven and eight stories tall, with 240 rentals, 20 percent of them below market rate. The development will include retail space, occupied in part by an expanded supermarket.

Ground is also to be broken by next year on a $6 million public plaza on a strip of Myrtle from Hall Street to Emerson Place, with 25,000 added feet for people and performances.

What You’ll Find
Clinton Hill — 350 acres bounded by Flushing Avenue on the north and Atlantic on the south, between Vanderbilt and Classon Avenues — is known for ethnic and architectural diversity. A 2007-2011 census survey of that area plus a few adjoining blocks estimated that 26,969 people resided there. Thirty-nine percent were black, 36 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.

“It’s kind of a gentle mix of people,” said Doug Bowen, an executive vice president of CORE real estate, and a resident since 1999. “And there’s a lot of pride in the residents, both homeownership pride and neighborhood pride. Even renters show up to the neighborhood association meetings.”

Much of the area south of Willoughby lies within a historic district. In the 1870s, some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest citizens began building mansions on Washington and Clinton Avenues. The latter is flanked by such monumental structures as the Italianate villa of Charles Pratt, a partner of John D. Rockefeller, and the mansions of three of his sons. Two of these houses are occupied by St. Joseph’s College; a third is home to Dr. Schutte of Pratt. Another structure, a red-brick and limestone castle at No. 278, is listed by the Corcoran Group at $5.85 million. Described in a city landmarks report as “surely the most eccentric house in the historic district,” it has been subdivided into six units. Elsewhere in Clinton Hill are small frame houses, apartment buildings, shiny condos, and chocolaty rows of period brownstones, some well maintained, others weary and neglected. On Washington, just north of Underwood Park, the stately red-brick 1851 Brooklyn Society for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females is a condo conversion.

Although few indigent females or males, however respectable, can afford Clinton Hill these days, the neighborhood is still within reach of some buyers priced out of areas like Cobble Hill and Fort Greene. Among these newcomers are Tim Dockery, a lawyer, and his mother, Meliora, a semiretired corporate trainer, who bought town houses on opposite sides of Classon Avenue last year. Mr. Dockery’s girlfriend, Sabiola Turner, was expecting the couple’s second child, and Ms. Dockery wanted to be nearby to help out.

“There are so many different kinds of bars and restaurants,” said Ms. Dockery, who paid $1.8 million for her house. “The area is just exploding with life.”

What You’ll Pay

Tight inventory is elevating prices. Town house sales have ranged from $900,000 to $3 million in the last year, said Mr. Bowen of CORE, with “the large majority” from $1.9 million to $2.5 million. New condos or conversions like 91 Grand are selling for $725 to $750 a square foot, he added.
Brownstone condo conversions are common, with two-bedroom floor-through units selling for $750,000 to $800,000 and duplexes with outdoor space costing $1.2 million, said Pamela R. Young, a senior associate at Corcoran.

Prices for renovated one-bedrooms in the Clinton Hill Co-ops, 12 mostly high-rise buildings dating to the 1940s, have reached $420,000 or thereabouts, said Roberta Axelrod, the director of co-op sales for Time Equities.

A search on found 62 residential properties for sale and 114 for rent; most two-bedroom rentals ranged from $1,595 to $3,500 a month.

What to Do

The Free Marketplace, featuring local artisan goods, live music, and family activities, will hold events on July 28 on Waverly and Fulton, and on Aug. 11 at Putnam Triangle, a public plaza. Also at Putnam Triangle, instructors from Mark Morris Dance Center and Cumbe teach free dance classes at 6:30 p.m., Wednesdays in July.

Come September, busy working people will be able to pick up specialty prepared foods at Peck’s, a new shop on Myrtle run by their neighbor Theo Peck, whose family co-owned the legendary Lower East Side restaurant Ratner’s.

The Schools

Options include Public School 56, on Gates Avenue, which teaches through fifth grade and got a B in student performance in a recent city progress report. Middle School 113, on Adelphi Street in neighboring Fort Greene, earned a C.

SAT averages last year at the Benjamin Banneker Academy, a high school on Clinton Avenue, were 471 in reading, 472 in math and 448 in writing, versus 434, 461 and 430 citywide.

The Commute

The G train runs along Lafayette Avenue. The A and C stop at the Washington-Clinton station. Buses include the B38, along DeKalb, and the B54 along Myrtle.

The History

In his 1944 book “The City of Brooklyn 1861-1898: A Political History,” Harold Coffin Syrett noted that the area’s “position was not unlike that of the Heights; but its elegant residences were fewer in number and their owners slightly further removed from the traditions of genteel respectability.”