Asher Abehsera is not as well known as Jared Kushner, one of his partners in Brooklyn’ s hottest new office complex, Dumbo Heights. But with the Trump son-in-law’s new day job in Washington, Abehsera is about to take on greater prominence as Brooklyn’ s most influential office-space developer. The 33-year-old Abehsera, who started working full-time in real estate right after high school, thinks about offices in terms of environments, not just buildings and parking lots.
With Dumbo Heights, five renovated buildings situated just south of Dumbo, he says, “I was thinking about creating a space for the creative class, and to curate the ecosystem,” he told The Bridge. “There was a vision from day one” to transform the 1.3 million sq. feet into an area that would feature snazzy offices upstairs and uber-cool retail downstairs. Abehsera said he and Kushner wanted to create a place where people can live, work, eat, drink, exercise and live, without wanting to leave. “It’ s really about culture and community,”Abehsera said.
The result: Nearly sold-out office space and a streetscape that includes a Bluestone Coffee Shop, with gold-lacquered designer chairs and soaring ceilings, a taco restaurant featuring raw tuna and salmon creations, a yoga studio with showers, a gluten-free bakery and a beer hall. The retail is futuristic, calm, pretty. And much more of the Abehsera style is on the way. His development firm, LIVWRK, is partners with Kushner and others in scooping up more than $700 million worth of other properties in the neighborhood to expand their campus-like offerings.
The meticulous Abehsera grew up in a much less carefully curated environment, Los Angeles, where his Moroccan-born father built a career in TV-commercial production and the teenage Abehsera worked part-time at a Mobil gas station. After an internship at a real-estate firm put him on the path to development work, he talked his way into a job at Two Trees Management, the firm that turned Dumbo into a design-and-tech hub and one of the city’ s most expensive residential neighborhoods. “I had no interest in him. He walked in cold,” David Walentas, patriarch of the Two Trees family dynasty told The Real Deal. “We hired him to sell condos and he was amazingly successful.”
After taking on a series of bigger responsibilities at Two Trees, including the redevelopment of the Domino Sugar factory site in Williamsburg, Abehsera dreamed of pursuing his own developments. In particular, he’ d gaze up at the printing plants nearby, which were being gradually sold off by the Jehovah’ s Witness organization as it moved its operations upstate. He started to have an idea for a new approach to development, and he had the contacts and ambition to make it work. In early 2013, Abehsera quit Two Trees and launched LIVWRK to focus on “handcrafted” mixed-used development and millennial-pleasing retail environments. One notable early project was Brooklyn’s first Tesla showroom, which projects a luminous glow on a gritty corner in Red Hook.
A Pivotal Phone Call
Literally as he was walking out the door at Two Trees, Abehsera said he picked up the phone to call the Jehovah’s Witnesses to request a meeting about buying the cluster of buildings. In a later call, he mentioned the development idea to Kushner, whose family real-estate firm was looking for the next big opportunities. “Jared said, ‘Wow, that sounds like exactly what I’ d like to be working on,’” Abehsera recalls. The idea was to create a kind of campus for maturing millennials. “We had a vision of creating a place where people could grow into the more grown-up version of themselves,” Abehsera says.
Up to that point, discussions surrounding development of the Jehovah’ s Witnesses buildings focused on turning them into luxury residential spaces, Abehsera said. But Kushner understood the need for designer commercial space, especially in Brooklyn, where residential construction has produced thousands of new apartments but office space is in short supply.
Teaming up with a couple of deep-pocketed investors, RFR Realty and Invesco Realty, the partnership sealed a deal to buy the Watchtower buildings for $375 million, outbidding Two Trees by $50 million. The partners bought the properties “as is,” since they planned to give them a $100 million total makeover.
The Neighborhood Gets a Name: Dumbo Heights
They decided to give the cluster of buildings, centered around Prospect Street between the onramps to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, a name suggesting a new neighborhood unto itself. They arrived at Dumbo Heights, suggesting Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo had given birth to an heir. (With an elevation of about 65 feet above sea level, Dumbo Heights is not a lofty promontory, but it’s got 50 feet on its namesake down the hill.) As the renovations have been completed, Dumbo Heights has been a success right out of the gate. Etsy, the online handmade-goods store that exploded in popularity from its home base in Dumbo, doubled its footprint when it moved into a 200,000-sq.-ft. space in Dumbo Heights, followed across the street by WeWork, the co-working space company, which took over 90,000 sq. ft. Early this year, there was a waiting list for single-desk offices.
Kushner’s future role in Brooklyn development is unclear, since after being named senior advisor to President Trump, he said he would be divesting assets and transferring ownership to other family members.
But the partnership behind Dumbo Heights has plenty more real estate to transform. Last August, they agreed to pay $370 million for the interconnected properties at 25-30-50 and 58 Columbia Heights and 55 Furman St., topped by the Watchtower sign, that had served as the Jehovah Witnesses’ headquarters. In December, the same group closed on a $345 million purchase of 85 Jay St., a large parking lot, zoned for residential development, that’s adjacent to the F train’s York Street stop. The property may need remedial clean-up work because of earlier industrial pollution.
While plans for those spaces are still evolving, given the success of Dumbo Heights, the office-building party is only getting started. And since LIVWRK is headquartered there, Abehsera has plenty of opportunity to admire his handiwork. “We couldn’t be happier,” Abehsera said. “It’s been a treat to see desolate factories transformed into a thriving work environment. Seeing people enjoying it is great.”