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The Tilt Toward Queens
By MICHELLE HIGGINS
Published: November 1, 2013 82 Comments
Queens, the city’s most sprawling borough, has long been a landing pad for new arrivals and those looking for a cheaper alternative toManhattan. Over the decades, newcomers from practically every corner of the world have moved in, making it the most diverse borough in New York City.
With rents and real estate prices on the rise in Manhattan and Brooklyn, young professionals and families in particular have gradually been following the subway lines east of Manhattan and beyond Long Island City to Astoria, Jackson Heights and other traditionally working-class enclaves in northwest Queens. Close on their heels, developers have been scouting out sites to build housing.
“Brooklyn evolved from being a cheaper alternative to Manhattan and has become a focus of new development and a destination,” said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “As the search for affordability expands and as the economy and the housing market improves, you’re seeing Queens is sort of next in line.”
In Queens in the third quarter, the median sales price of $372,000 was almost even with last year’s third-quarter figure, according to a report compiled by Mr. Miller for Douglas Elliman Real Estate. Meanwhile, the median sales price in Brooklyn hit a 10-year high, rising to $564,720 in the third quarter. The price discrepancy was greater in the luxury category, where the third-quarter median was $1.7 million in Brooklyn and $889,000 in Queens.
Renters, too, have found relief in Queens. The average monthly rent there rose 5.2 percent, to $1,574, in the 12 months ending in June, according to the latest numbers available from the real estate research firm Reis Inc. But over that same period, Queens rents were still cheaper than those in Brooklyn ($1,692) and Manhattan ($3,814).
Nudged by rising land prices and a diminishing number of sites zoned for large-scale development in Manhattan and Brooklyn, major developers have been venturing into Queens.
Over the next three years, more than 8,000 apartments are planned for Long Island City and parts of Astoria, according to estimates from Aptsandlofts.com, a New York brokerage that specializes in the marketing of developments.
Earlier this year, New Jersey-based Treetop Development acquired Saxon Hall, a 417-unit doorman building in the heart of Rego Park, for $85.25 million. It has plans to upgrade the mechanical systems, add a gym and a roof deck, and modernize the lobby and any vacant units.
In June, Vornado Realty Trust received approval from the Department of Buildings for a 314-unit luxury apartment tower above its Rego Park shopping mall. And this fall, the Rockefeller Group and TDC Development and Construction are to start on an $850 million mixed-use project on five acres in downtown Flushing, with more than 600 apartments, a Y.M.C.A., stores and open space.
The catalyst for the growing interest, brokers and developers say, is the success of Long Island City, just across the East River from Manhattan, where some condos have been selling for more than $1,000 a square foot.
“Many developers we’re working with started out in Long Island City and are now moving to other areas of Queens,” said Eric Benaim, the chief executive of the Modern Spaces brokerage, which has offices in Long Island City and Astoria. “They were able to see the potential with Long Island City and are now open to doing projects in other areas.” Industry executives like to draw comparisons between the quickening pace of development in Queens and the rapid transformation of Brooklyn over the last few years. With prices skyrocketing in prime parts of Brooklyn like Cobble Hill and Williamsburg, said Michael Tortorici, a founder of Ariel Property Advisors, “now you have other areas that used to be considered second- or third-tier, like Crown Heights and Bushwick, catching up very quickly.”
In Queens, he continued, “I think you can see the market following the same pattern,” with momentum from Long Island City and Astoria carrying into Elmhurst, Flushing and beyond.
But that is where the comparisons end. Queens may be on the rise, but it lacks the buzz that has turned Brooklyn into a global brand. Still, Queens fans say that is precisely why they like it. “Queens is Queens,” said Rich Buceta, the president of SingleCut Beersmiths, a new brewery in Astoria. “It basically doesn’t have to live up to any sort of hype or image like, say, Manhattan or Brooklyn. Queens is much more low-key. It’s much more unassuming. We’re not trendy. We’re not trying to appeal to the latest fad.”
Long known as a Greek immigrant neighborhood, but home to many other ethnicities, Astoria has been rapidly gaining popularity with young professionals first lured across the river by Long Island City, its trendier and pricier next-door neighbor. In Long Island City, the average rent in a luxury building is $3,650 a month, while in Astoria it is $2,520, according to Modern Spaces brokerage, which opened an Astoria office last year to capture some of that business.
Development is on the way along Astoria’s waterfront. Last month, Lincoln Equities Group was given the go-ahead to build Hallets Point, a $1 billion project to include 1,921 market-rate and 483 below-market-rate apartments on seven and a half acres on a promontory that juts out into Hell Gate, at the convergence of the East and Harlem Rivers. The project, which will be near the Astoria Houses, a public development, will have Manhattan views, a supermarket, retail space and a waterfront esplanade designed by James Corner Field Operations, which worked on the High Line.
And 2030 Astoria Developers, headed by John Mavroudis of the Queens group Alma Realty, is eyeing a nearby site for a large residential development.
Astoria, which borders Long Island City at 36th Avenue and stretches from the East River to 49th Street, limits large-scale development in some of its better-established residential areas. But transformation has arrived in the shape of trendy restaurants and shops and low-rise apartment buildings.
Just last month, Douglas Elliman began leasing apartments in an eight-story 192-unit building at 12-15 Broadway near Socrates Sculpture Park and a taxicab graveyard. The marketing of the building, called Astoria Archaeology, celebrates the grittier aspects of the neighborhood (witness the cab graveyard) as well as Manhattan skyline views, a roof deck, a yoga studio, a fitness center and on-site parking. Monthly rents begin at $1,980 for studios, $2,320 for one-bedrooms and $3,325 for two-bedrooms. In addition, an incentive of two months’ free rent is being offered this month.
“Developers are beginning to realize the infrastructure is there, the proximity to the subways is there,” said Hal G. Rosenbluth, the president of Kaufman Astoria Studios, the film production center where the Marx Brothers shot “Animal Crackers” in 1930, and where “Sesame Street” is produced.
All but abandoned in the late 1970s, the complex today has grown, helping to reinvigorate the neighborhood. It encompasses the recently renovated Museum of the Moving Image, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, the Queens Council on the Arts, and retail and restaurant outposts like Starbucks coffee, a United Artists movie theater and the Astor Room, a dinner and brunch spot that was once the studio commissary.
In the last year, several bars, restaurants and boutiques have opened or expanded to larger spaces on surrounding blocks, including Mar’s, a restaurant where bartenders, dressed in their bow-tied speakeasy best, serve up $12 cocktails; and Lockwood, a boutique selling colorful furniture, clothing and gifts where
“I ♥Astoria” sweatshirts are a best seller.
In Astoria’s Ditmars neighborhood, recent openings include Buffalo Exchange, the consignment-shop chain with older outposts in Cobble Hill, Williamsburg and the East Village, and SingleCut Beersmiths, which arrived in December. But the neighborhood retains some of its Greek flavor. One example, at the corner of Ditmars Boulevard and 33rd Street, is MP Taverna, which bills itself as “a modern interpretation of a traditional Greek tavern.” It has opened across the street from the venerable Thessaloniki Jewelry, which has signs in both English and Greek.
South of Astoria and six stops on the No. 7 train from Grand Central Terminal, Sunnyside is attracting similar interest from Brooklyn transplants in search of cheaper rents. Much of the housing in the neighborhood is six-story apartment buildings dating to the 1920s and ’30s. Sunnyside Gardens, about 16 blocks of mainly two-and three-story 1920s rowhouses constructed around central courtyards, was designated a historic district by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2007.
Over the busy summer rental season, said Marco Maisto, a real estate agent at Citi Habitats who lives in Sunnyside, there was an uptick in interest in the neighborhood from “hipsters” under 40. “Almost all had Brooklyn on their mind,” he said, “but found the prewar apartments out here bigger and by far more affordable.”
After a year of paying $900 a month for a tiny room in a three-bedroom walk-up with two roommates in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, Natalie Minott was ready for a change. Ms. Minott, who is pursuing a master’s degree in interior design at Pratt Institute, rented a one-bedroom in Sunnyside for $1,200 a month. That’s roughly $700 less, she said, than the “tiny” studios she toured in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Though her commute to class in Brooklyn varies between 30 and 45 minutes with a train transfer, she appreciates being able to zip into Manhattan on the 7 train in 15 minutes. And she likes Sunnyside’s under-the-radar quality. “It’s not overly priced as of yet,” she said, “and it doesn’t feel the need to be the most progressive, trendy neighborhood. It’s definitely a hidden gem.”
At least nine businesses have opened in Sunnyside in the past year to cater to new residents, including Venturo Osteria and Wine Bar, a seasonal Italian farm-to-table restaurant; a children’s ballet studio; and a boutique selling items for pets, according toSunnyside Shines Business Improvement District.
Another neighborhood that has become a destination popular with couples and families in search of space and affordability is Jackson Heights. Though it lacks the fashion-forward restaurants, bars and boutiques popping up in other parts of northwest Queens, it offers easy access to Manhattan on the E, F, R, G and 7 trains, and hundreds of ethnic restaurants representing its diverse population.
Airy prewar co-ops abound in the Jackson Heights Historic District, which runs roughly from 76th to 88th Street, between Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard. Here, a one-bedroom in need of renovation can be had for about $150,000; a three-bedroom in pristine condition for $700,000, according to Rhoda Dunn, an agent with Corcoran. Buildings like the Towers and the Chateau, with formal living and dining rooms and fireplaces, and large layouts that make the most of light and breezes, tend to command the highest prices.
Investor activity in Jackson Heights has picked up in recent months. In July, for example,Benedict Realty Group, which specializes in the middle-income market, announced the purchase of 561 units across a 19-building portfolio in Jackson Heights and its Queens neighbors Elmhurst and Corona for about $68 million. Eight of the buildings were in Jackson Heights.
Citi Habitats is handling rentals in a failed condominium at 40-07 73rd Street that looks out on the raised subway tracks at Roosevelt Avenue and Broadway, where many train lines converge. The 31-unit building’s one-, two- and three-bedrooms have floor-to-ceiling windows — some of which face the subway — as well as two full baths and private outdoor space. Leasing began Oct. 19; prices start at $2,400 a month.
Last year Linda Pitmon and Steve Wynn, both musicians, left their Upper West Side rental and bought a two-bedroom with inlaid oak floors and a working fireplace on the top floor of Laburnum Court, a prewar co-op, for about $430,000. Part of the draw was the space their money could buy. “I’m amazed that places out in Queens are so affordable,” Mr. Wynn said, “especially when people are tripping over themselves to outbid each other for places in Brooklyn and Manhattan.”
They were also taken by the neighborhood’s diversity. “When I moved to New York, my desire was not to go live among people just like me,” said Ms. Pitmon, quickly adding, “not that there is anything wrong with people like me.” But the Upper West Side is no longer the picture of diversity it was when she arrived nearly 20 years ago, she said. “I wanted that being-in-the-melting-pot feel.”
In Jackson Heights, that feeling is definitely there, she said, rattling off a partial list of ingredients — “from Nepalese and Himalayan, Indian and Pakistani, all the Pacific islands, Korea, Thailand. There’s a whole Eastern European population. It’s incredible.”
The couple are so excited about their new neighborhood they have been recruiting friends and have abbreviated Jackson Heights to “the Jax.” “T-shirts will be coming soon,” Ms. Pitmon joked.