High in Brooklyn

Brooklyn skyline with new towers.
Courtesy KPF

For 80 years, buildings in Brooklyn followed a local rule: Rise no taller than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower at 1 Hanson Place.

Then, a 2004 rezoning of downtown Brooklyn allowed for taller construction. In 2009, GKV Architects’ 51-story, 515-foot-tall Brooklyner broke the height barrier, besting the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower by three feet and 14 floors. In 2014, SLCE Architects’ 53-story 388 Bridge Street stole the high crown, rising 75 feet above the Brooklyner to become the borough’s tallest. SLCE’s newest Brooklyn building, the Ava DoBro, tops off at 575 feet to beat its sibling.

The slowly rising bar will be soon be shattered by a spate of tall—possibly supertall—new towers. It is rumored that SHoP will build a 90-story, 1,000-foot-tall residential tower at Fleet Street and Flatbush Avenue. It is confirmed that Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) will unleash a 600-foot-tall, approximately 40-story tower at 420 Albee Square. The 400,000-square-foot building will be the first nonresidential high-rise in downtown Brooklyn.

420 Albee Square, left, by KPF, and SHoP Architects planned 1,000-foot tower, the tallest in Brooklyn.
Courtesy KPF; SHoP Architects
 

The rezoning was supposed to create 4.5 million square feet of Class A office space in downtown Brooklyn. But, last year, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (a local development corporation) reported that only 250,000 square feet of office space has been built.

Elie Gamburg, director at KPF and lead architect on 420 Albee Square, echoed the partnership’s findings, noting that, so far, the rezoning has produced only residential towers.

KPF, he said, capitalized on a “trophy” corner to create “something of great impact, to really accentuate the verticality” of the building. Though the structure will be bound on all sides by other buildings, the prow-like curve of the facade, visible to travellers coming over the Manhattan Bridge and down Flatbush Avenue, will make a “full gesture to mark the project from those vantage points.”

Usually, a tower this size sits on full or half block sites. In Manhattan, this building’s floor plate would be 30,000 to 40,000 square feet, though 420 Albee Square’s floor plate is 16,000 to 18,000 square feet. “We developed a small floor plate with an off-center core to provide a big floor plate feel,” firm principal James von Klemperer explained.

When asked if there was anything particularly Brooklyn about this tower, Gamburg mused on stereotypical Brooklyn design—exposed brick, Edison bulbs, and converted warehouses. He drew a thread between the borough’s penchant for the past, its industrial legacy, and the cultural logic of late capitalism. “[We have] moved from a nostalgic idea to what the model for the city will be in the future. The office building achieves a new warehouse typology as a ‘warehouse for work.’”

Gamburg sees a reciprocal relationship between the building’s success and the success of the street. The frontage on Albee Square (Gold Street), across from the (COOKFOX-designed) retail development City Point, would be a prominent place for the lobby. Yet the lobby is positioned away from Albee Square so it doesn’t kill a vital retail strip.

Though Gamburg predicts that KPF’s tower will be a centerpiece of the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, he concedes, “great skylines are really the contribution of many players. It’s not a load that one building can carry on its own.”

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