Can Downtown replace DUMBO as a tech town?

Can Downtown replace DUMBO as a tech town?
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

Everyone in the tech industry wants to be in DUMBO, but there’s an elephant in the room — the neighborhood is full, and the nearby alternative just isn’t as cool.

Brooklyn’s own Silicon Valley has become so hot that there’s now only a 2 percent vacancy rate for office space in the neighborhood, leaving city planners scrambling to make Downtown more appealing to the borough’s burgeoning creative set.

“This is the tightest it’s been in commercial DUMBO since the 1950s,” said real estate broker and expert Chris Havens. “Where else can these creative tenants go?”

Borough boosters say Downtown should become the next digital boom town, but techies say the nabe just doesn’t have the same vibe as DUMBO — which is so synonymous with the web that it became the first neighborhood in the city to offer community-wide free Wi-Fi last year.

And it’s not just easy internet access that’s the problem.

“Downtown is sort of lacking in culture, and that’s a big part of modern day tech companies,” said Andrew Zolty, creative director at the DUMBO digital firm Breakfast. “It goes well beyond the companies themselves. Are there the right bars and restaurants? I don’t know if I could picture of us there.”

The DUMBO Improvement District, Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Downtown Brooklyn Partnership have joined forces to launch a task force seeking ways to nurture the borough’s tech sector, both inside DUMBO and beyond. That includes making Downtown more palatable for startups by improving streetscapes, creating a shuttle-bus system between the startup neighborhoods, and providing attractive commercial space.

No matter the number of MacBook-toting students heading to class in Metrotech, Downtown is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to tech — but that doesn’t mean the neighborhood can’t become an internet hub in its own right, according to Downtown Brooklyn Partnership president Tucker Reed.

“You can’t complete with the cobbled streets and views of the river,” said Reed. “But the trickle up the hill is bound to happen.”

Some web world experts, including CEO of the travel media company Off Track Planet and founder of the DUMBO Startup Lab Freddie Pikovsky, say Downtown could thrive as a satellite incubator while firms wait for space to free up in DUMBO’s old factories.

That’s the pattern followed by tech darling Etsy, which launched on Gold Street in Downtown and moved to DUMBO after establishing itself as an Ebay for twee people.

“We’re in a place that’s conducive to being creative and producing innovative stuff,” said Pikovsky, who launched his shared workspace on Jay Street in DUMBO last year and is moving into a bigger space to accommodate a waiting list of artists and innovators. “Instead of turning people away, we had to find a way to get more space.”

DUMBO might have more appeal, but Downtown does have one thing that all companies want: cheaper rent.

“If we can take advantage of any untapped real estate reserves, there’s more of a chance of that happening in Downtown Brooklyn than any other neighborhood in New York,” said Small Planet CEO Gavin Fraser. “But it will definitely be a challenge.”

Reach Kate Briquelet at [email protected] or by calling her at (718) 260-2511.