He owns a much-loved pizzeria on the edge of Red Hook, but Gino Vitale knows the future is in condos.
When Gino Vitale and his brother-in-law Paul Diagostino bought Union Street’s fabled House of Pizza and Calzone in 2004 —where, some say, the “slice” was invented — they knew they were coming into a neighborhood on the brink of big change. Two years later, Vitale has learned the recipes of a small-town developer in the big city.
Vitale has already built nine condo units on a quiet block not far from the Red Hook shipyard where the people who eat his legendary calzones build their appetites.
In addition, Vitale has plans to put up another 80 apartments in the next year, including a four-story, 24-unit brick condo development on Conover Street between Coffey and Van Dyke streets that offers views of New York Harbor.
Nearby on Coffey Street between Conover and Ferris streets, Vitale is putting up two new $1.2-million brick carriage-house-style office buildings that he will build to look like they could’ve been on the spot 110 years ago if Red Hook had ever been as wealthy as, say, Brooklyn Heights.
“Why shouldn’t it be like that here?” he asked.
The owner of a home in the neighborhood (plus one in Bensonhurst), Vitale does what he can to preserve local tradition, whether it’s his deep-fried calzones or his brick, rather than glass, apartment building facades.
The math shows that Vitale is a small fish in the high tide of Brooklyn development, but in lonely Red Hook, he’s a veritable tuna, the latest in a string of local wheeler-dealers who have an almost messianic belief in the neighborhood.
It must be a shared belief, considering the land rush that Red Hook is witnessing.
With a strong demand for a waning supply of residential lots, prices are at record highs. Brokers say that a square foot of residential space in Red Hook now goes for $600–$700, about $200 more than just two years ago.
A two-family house sold for a record $1.065 million earlier this summer and by now, the neighborhood has gleaned comparisons to the East Village, SoHo and just about every other hip neighborhood ever mentioned on MTV.
Building owners are getting regular visits from developers with deep pockets.
“I told the last guy I would go only for $3.7 million,” said Junior Vargas, the owner of a building on Verona Street.
Vitale sees himself as a different kind of developer — a local, from-the-heart guy. The touchy-feely attitude puts him in a group with another Red Hook developer-of-note, Greg O’Connell, who renovated the old warehouses that now house the Fairway supermarket and artists studios, as well as numerous other properties in the neighborhood.
After decades working there, O’Connell still spends weekday mornings in overalls at his job-sites, or drinking bodega coffee in his pick-up truck along the neighborhood’s main drag, Van Brunt Street.
Vitale can likewise be found on his construction sites or at the House of Pizza and Calzone. The two professional builders share an optimism about the role they play in changing the neighborhood.
“I don’t want to do anything to harm or ruin a gorgeous place,” Vitale said.
Yet there will be at least a little ruin.
Vitale owns a row of small, vacant, federal-style homes on Conover Street, near Dikeman Street, that dates to 1901. He plans to demolish them in favor of three-story “antique-feeling” residences.
Moves like that convince some neighborhood residents that soon their homes will be bulldozed in the name of a retro-chic progress.
The transformation is already palpable on the narrow streets near the water where Vitale’s property is concentrated. One of his larger projects — a squat, 1960s-era building built by trucker Peter Vetri, Sr. — wears the “For Sale” sign of a soon-to-be condo.
Currently housing a methadone clinic, the building — owned by Vetri’s grandson, Steve Maguire — is priced to move at $2.5 million. If all goes as planned, it will be sold and torn down by next year and replaced with a 24-unit development, similar to Vitale’s.
Maguire, like O’Connell, Vitale and others, said he realized that in Red Hook, “now the time is right to do something new there.”
At the Narco Freedom methodone clinic, a mainenance man said it was time to move.
“It’s becoming residential, and you can tell the new people don’t want us here,” he said.
©2006 Community News Group
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