Manhattan Valley

455 CPW

Recently I was looking for a townhouse for a customer, and came across one on Manhattan Avenue and 105th Street. While I suppose I would have thought of this address as being either “Upper-Upper West Side” or “Lower Morningside Heights” before spending some time there, I have since learned that the area bounded by 110th Street and 96th Street to the north and south, and Central Park West and Broadway to the east and west is actually called Manhattan Valley. This part of town was known as the Bloomindale District in the past, for a Bloomingdale Street previously in the area (long since gone). There is a natural valley here, caused by what was once the path of a small stream leading from the Harlem Meer to the Hudson River. Between the price for the townhouse I was viewing in the area, and the price of a 2 bedroom co-op recently listed by a colleague on West 100th just off Central Park West, I quickly realized that this area, while very close to the Upper West Side in both location and atmosphere, offers opportunities for excellent value in real estate.

As I have written before, I find that the best way to get the feeling of what it would be like to live in an area is to take a dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban setting). For this one, I started at Broadway and 96th Street. 96th Street, like 86th on the east side, is a busy major two-way thoroughfare, often packed with cars on their way to the Henry Hudson and on to the George Washington Bridge. I walked east to Columbus, and headed north. The Columbus Square mega-residential development between Columbus and Amsterdam and between 97th and 100th Streets, has brought in a series of high-end shopping destinations along this stretch of Columbus. In addition to the Whole Foods, Sephora, Petco, and Starbucks already there, Crumbs cupcakes will be reopening here within a month.

Turning east on 100th, I walked to the beginning of Manhattan Avenue. The topography of the island of Manhattan is not a perfect rectangle, although we have imposed a grid of streets on most of it. This disparity occasionally leads to extra streets in some areas, and Manhattan Avenue appears between Central Park West and Columbus beginning at W. 100th Street, and continuing well into Harlem. The super block developments created by Park West Village and the Frederick Douglass Houses prevent cars from using this area as a way to cut crosstown, making it noticeably quiet. The blocks between 104th and 106th are simply gorgeous rows of townhouses, reminding me strongly of the beautiful peaceful townhouse blocks near Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Turning east again on 106th, I walked to Central Park West, appreciating the view of 455 Central Park West. Formerly the New York Cancer Hospital, this property has quite an interesting history. This was the first cancer treatment facility in the country, created with money raised by John Jacob Astor and others after former president Ulysses S. Grant discovered he had throat cancer. They built a beautiful chateau, which looked more like a museum of art than a hospital (the rounded towers were created as a state-of-the-art medical feature to prevent germs building up in sharp corners), and it continued on this site until the mid-20th Century. The developers of this property restored the chateau into condominium apartments, and added a modern tower behind it with unimpeded Central Park views. Walking north on Central Park West to 110th, and turning west, I was now on Cathedral Parkway and had to finish this derive with a nod to our spectacular Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which I will discuss in more depth in a future derive in Morningside Heights.

I loved spending time in this neighborhood. For someone looking for a home with the feel of the Upper West Side or near New York’s jewel, Central Park, this area offers significant value.

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Some perspective on New York City’s evolving skyline

432 Park

It seemed that 432 Park Avenue would keep going up forever – whenever we would become accustomed to the height of this impossible-to-miss new addition to the New York City skyline, it would add another few floors. However, it has finally topped off; it is the tallest residential building in the Western hemisphere, taller even than the Empire State Building.  432 Park, although officially not as tall as One World Trade because of the height added by its spire, will actually have occupied floors higher than One World Trade. Amazingly it will not hold the title of tallest for long, as even taller buildings are already in the works. All this new development is controversial – as a general rule, change is often difficult, and when the degree of emotional attachment to something is higher, so is the potential reaction.  There is no question that Manhattan’s skyline is being changed. However, it’s important to keep in mind that New York City historically has continued in a state of transition rather than a steady state, and this has contributed significantly to its very nature as a city.

Many gorgeous old buildings were demolished in New York before the passing of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (an early site preserved was that of Carnegie Hall in 1967, thank goodness). For example, the Hippodrome was a theater with a seating capacity of 5200 on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th, its history only marked today by the name of the enormous parking garage on the same site. The original Metropolitan Opera House and the original Madison Square Garden were lovely buildings, long since destroyed. The Vanderbilt Residence at 57th and Fifth, the largest private residence ever built in Manhattan, was once where Bergdorf Goodman now sits. A particularly egregious example is the original Penn station, which was graceful and airy. Outrage over its demolition in 1962 to make room for a larger (completely soulless) station and the current Madison Square Garden led to the founding of the New York Landmark Preservation Commission. The Commission’s first hearing was about the fate of the Astor Library – which was preserved and now beautifully houses the Public Theater. The 11 commission members include at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, one real estate agent and one resident of each of the five boroughs, who discuss possible landmarks brought up by the Commissioner, and hold public hearings on Tuesday mornings. This process is not infallible, of course – owners who learn that their building might be considered for historic preservation sometimes destroy either the building or its significant architectural details. It’s also easy to understand the point of view of the owners who might fear that the future value of their property could be affected.

I had an interesting conversation about this issue recently with a friend who is who is getting his Master’s degree in Historic Preservation at Columbia. In an early class, the students were assigned a building to assess and make a presentation in class regarding whether it should be preserved. He was the only one in class to argue that the building he had been assigned could be demolished, that within the area there were better examples of this style of architecture with stronger esthetic and cultural value. His professor told the entire class that this was the point of the exercise – that the goal of historic preservation is not to save everything, but to balance the need of the city for growth with its desire to preserve the best examples of its past. New York City is and should remain a place where a variety of housing can be found; from old brownstones to postwar white brick buildings, from prewar coops to new developments.

Yes, it can be hard to adapt to a new skyline. The Eiffel Tower in Paris was almost universally hated by the French when first erected. Our own original World Trade Center, which radically changed our skyline in the 1970’s, was initially criticized, then accepted, and finally missed. The first Waldorf Astoria hotel was a spectacular building, the largest hotel of its time, and where the inquiry on the sinking of the Titanic was held. It was demolished in 1929, however, to make way for an icon of the NYC skyline that is universally beloved – the Empire State Building. This city has always changed and must continue to do so to retain its fundamental character, like the English language which in its constant borrowing and creating of new words has led to a strong and evocative language. With proper controls in place to ensure that the best examples of our past architecture remain, New York City can continue to evolve and embrace the future, while respecting its past.

Central Park North

Harlem Meer

I have written previously about the value of a view of nature – how our animal selves need to connect to plants or animals even within New York City’s urban jungle. While not NYC’s largest park (that would be Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx), Central Park is an amazingly large green space within the relatively small island of Manhattan. The increase in value a view of Central Park, or even proximity to it without a view, delivers to an apartment in New York City is well established. Most tourists only see, or even think about, the south end of the park, closest to Midtown, However, the northern third of the park is equally beautiful, and the price of an apartment on Central Park North (110th Street) is a fraction of that on Central Park South (59th Street). I enjoy taking unplanned walks around the city (dérives) and decided to walk along the edge of Central Park, starting on Central Park West and 86th Street, crossing the top of the park at Central Park North, and then heading south along Fifth Avenue, stopping at 86th Street.

At the corner of Central Park West and 86th Street, you stand flanked by Central Park to the east, facing a row of Central Park West’s grand prewar apartment buildings to the west. Many of the east-facing apartments in these buildings in the upper 80’s/low 90’s have wonderful views of the Jacqueline Onassis reservoir (living on Fifth Avenue, she was well known for using the jogging path around the reservoir). Continuing north, large outcroppings of ice age Manhattan schist can be seen, forming a natural cliff at the edge of the park. I was struck along this section by the Eldorado, the most northern of the several “twin towered” buildings along CPW (the San Remo, the Majestic, and the Century being farther south).

When you walk to the Northwest corner of CPW and 110th Street (which is called Central Park North for obvious reasons between Central Park West and Fifth Avenue), a statue of Frederick Douglass can be seen, gazing up the Avenue bearing his name. His is a fairly new statue, only being revealed in 2010. Turning east on Central Park North, it is clear that this section of park-facing apartments is a mixture of older tenement-styled buildings, and a few spectacular new development properties. It seem that this is only the beginning of the development of this stretch of real estate, with the potential for views south encompassing the entire length of Central Park as well as the Manhattan skyline. I have seen the spectacular view that apartments facing north on Central Park South have, but so far can only imagine how amazing those same views are from the north with the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and new icons like One57 and 432 Park rising up behind the park.

Within the north section of Central Park, beautiful and serene Harlem Meer (“meer” is simply a “lake” in Dutch, New York City’s first language) anchors the recreational possibilities for this area. Catch-and-release fishing are available (yes, people can actually fish in Central Park), and Lasker Rink provides ice skating in the winter but is transformed into a swimming pool in the summer. There is a Harlem Meer performance festival every summer, well worth visiting regardless of where you live in the city.

At the Northeast corner of Central Park North and Fifth Avenue, a statue of Duke Ellington (complete with piano) honors his importance in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s. A committee led by cabaret singer Bobby Short raised the money for this statue in the 1980’s. Turning onto Fifth and heading south,  One Museum Mile, a new residential development designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects signals the change to what some call “Upper Carnegie Hill.” Passing the lush and elegant Conservancy Gardens, the Carnegie Mansion (home to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum), and the Guggenheim, Fifth Avenue slowly evolves into the street we imagine, stately apartment buildings side-by-side facing the park.

What I have learned from exploring Central Park and the streets facing it is that the Park is truly a kind of miracle – such an oasis of multi-layered nature surrounded by our great city. Living in close proximity to the park is a gift, and one with a price. However, the price is lessened on the north section of the park, and offers great value for those looking to live near this green jewel within the island of Manhattan.

New development at Hudson Yards

8 High Line

Hudson Yards, a real estate term not on anyone’s radar just a short time ago, has been everywhere in the news recently – New York’s first Neiman Marcus store is planned for the area, the third and final section of the High Line Park has opened there, there are even plans for a residential tower higher than the Empire State Building. One of the largest real estate developments in history, and the biggest project in NYC since the Grand Central Terminal, the redevelopment of railyards on the far west side is a collaboration between MTA and NYC Department of City Planning. Technically the area spans 30th to 34th Streets, Tenth Avenue to Hudson River. However, a large area of the far west side was rezoned to allow growth for business, roughly all the way up to 42nd street and west over to Penn station and the new Moynihan station (the old Post Office). Because of the need to build over the rail yards, the entire new development is basically being built as a platform on stilts. There is already ferry service to New Jersey and Yankee Stadium from the area, and a helipad in Hudson River Park, but with the extension of the 7 subway line to 11th Avenue and 34th Street by 2015, the area will soon not seem so isolated from the rest of Manhattan. Eventually, Hudson Yards will encompass 500 residences (the first two towers will be 75 and 90 stories), over 100 shops, 6 acres of open space, 4 office towers, and New York’s highest open air observatory.

With all the recent press, I decided to walk around the neighborhood to get a feel for this rapidly-transforming area. Emerging from the subway at Herald Square, I walked past Macy’s and headed west on 34th Street. As anyone familiar with the area now knows, in its present state there’s not much of a neighborhood vibe. As soon as I walked past Eighth Avenue, however, large-scale construction began to dominate the scene. Walking south on Ninth, while not yet part of the official Hudson Yards site, a large construction project marks the new Manhattan West development, which is being built over a platform constructed over the rail yards. Turning west on 30th Street, it is eventually possible to take the stairs up to the High Line Park, just at the intersection of Phase 2 and the newly opened Phase 3. This final stage allows a person to walk from the Meatpacking District to 34th Street without ever crossing a city street, immersed in the city while simultaneously somehow apart from it – literally “above” it. There is one spur of the final phase that will run through Tenth Avenue and directly through Hudson Yards. The current path now open takes you west to the Hudson River before you disembark at 34th Street.

One of the reasons for walking around a neighborhood rather than simply researching it on paper is that there is an intangible aspect to any area that cannot be experienced unless you are standing there. For the rapidly expanding Hudson Yards region, it’s impossible to convey the extent of the construction or the enormity of this change in this area unless you are surrounded by it. To walk in Hudson Yards is to be present at the birth of a new neighborhood, one that seems limitless in terms of how it will change the landscape of New York City