Roosevelt Island

Once home to an insane asylum, prisons, and a smallpox hospital, Roosevelt Island was originally called Hog Island and later Welfare Island before being renamed for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1971 (a decision that certainly helped make it seem a more palatable choice to those considering living there!). Only 2 miles long and 800 feet or less wide, this island, lying between Manhattan’s Midtown and Upper East Side and Queens, is owned by the city of New York but now has numerous rental buildings, one coop, and one condo (all landlease buildings, leasing the space from the city on a 99 year lease negotiated in 1969). Accessible via subway (the F line) but more famously by the Roosevelt Island tram, it is simultaneously very close to Manhattan and also a little isolated and remote. As I enjoy exploring a neighborhood by taking an unplanned walk (a dérive), I headed to Roosevelt Island this spring to see what living here might be like.

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The Roosevelt Island Tramway was intended to be a temporary way to entice residents to the neighborhood during its residential development. Opened in 1976, it makes over 100 trips per day, between the hours of 6 AM and 2 AM (every 15 minutes most of the day, but continuously during rush hours). Although not operated by the MTA, it uses the MetroCard and offers free transfers to the MTA system.

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When on the tram, you can’t help to imagine what it would like if the tram were to stop mid-journey (or something worse, thanks to the 2002 Spider Man film!). There has never been a Green Goblin attack, or anything similar, but the tram has been stuck before. The worst instance of this was in 2006 when two trams were stopped midair for seven hours due to an electrical outage. Rescue baskets were sent to the trams, but each could hold only 15 people, so the evacuation of the trams took a very long time. Following an extensive 2010 overhaul, there have been no similar incidents on the trams.

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The large (unphotogenic) construction site just south of the tram is the new Cornell University Tech Campus, due to open in 2017.

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Walking along the river, cherry trees blossom and frame a view west to Sutton Place in midtown Manhattan.

It is impossible to miss the creepy ruins of the old Smallpox Hospital on the way to the Four Freedoms Park on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. Opened in 1854, and closed a century later, the Gothic Revival building fell into disrepair. Now added to the National Register of Historic Places, a stabilization project is underway and it will one day be open to the public (hopefully only in daylight hours).

Opened in 2012, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park celebrates the former president as well as his famous 1941 speech about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Designed by the renowned architect Louis Kahn, it is a beautiful and spare park with spectacular views of Manhattan, including a direct view of the United Nations.

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Heading back north and past the tram station, Roosevelt’s Island Main Street unfolds.

Built in 1798, Blackwell House is the sixth oldest surviving home in New York City.

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1888 Chapel of the Good Shepherd, on the National Register of Historic Places.

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There is a free red bus around the island, and it was easy to return via the F subway, one stop to Lexington and 63rd.

As of the 2010 U.S. Census, Roosevelt Island had a population of 11,661. Roosevelt Island has relatively affordable rents and prices compared to midtown Manhattan, and the buildings are largely full-service buildings with amenities such as swimming pools and gyms. Many apartments feature the kind of spectacular view of Manhattan found in red-hot Long Island City, Queens. I found the small town atmosphere of Roosevelt Island to be very unique. Along Main Street was everything a person would need – an apartment, groceries, a library, public school, and so on. Just a few hundred feet from midtown Manhattan, it felt like being in a small town anywhere in the United States. Less distant in terms of a commute from central Manhattan than many parts of the five boroughs, it still feels a world away – the skyscrapers of Manhattan a bit like a mirage just across the East River.

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Yorkville in the snow: A love letter

When I started this blog almost three years ago, the second post I wrote (after the initial one describing my basic writing concept) was about Yorkville. This sub-neighborhood of the Upper East Side (you could describe it as the upper-upper-east-east side) is undervalued, in my opinion, as it is lovely, quiet, and convenient. The biggest complaint about Yorkville has been the long walk to the Lexington Avenue subway, but with the recent opening of the Q (Second Avenue subway, see my blog post about it here) that criticism is diminishing. In fact, between the opening of the Q and all the fantastic new development apartment buildings coming up in the area (Citizen 360 and The Kent, to name just two I have visited in the past month), I believe the days of Yorkville as a value play may be coming to an ending over the next few years.

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Today it snowed. Schools and many business closed, and I went out in the afternoon for a walk around my beloved Yorkville. It has never looked lovelier!

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The street blocks tend toward older tenement buildings, while the avenue blocks hold the larger apartments, particularly in the area between Third and York.

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The absolute crown jewel of the Yorkville neighborhood is Carl Schurz Park, with two dog runs, a large children’s playground, the East River Promenade, and plenty of meandering paths.

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Gracie Mansion, one of the oldest homes in NYC and the official residence of the mayor, is at East End Avenue and 88th Street, within the park.

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I have often thought that the Henderson Houses, a series of landmarked townhomes opposite Carl Schurz Park, create some of the prettiest blocks in the city.

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There’s something about this Gothic row of homes gazing out to the park that makes them seem like they are an illustration from a fairy tale.

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It’s very quiet in the area of Yorkville near the park. The only other part of Manhattan that feels this peaceful and removed to me is the Beekman area, also along the East River, but in the 50’s.

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On this afternoon, the park (like Central Park a few blocks away) was filled with sledders. Yorkville is a neighborhood filled with, and friendly to, children, and dogs, but also with older people and young singles looking for a rental bargain. I suspect that within a few years, Yorkville will be seen not as a place to search simply for value, but a neighborhood sought after and desired for its own unique characteristics.

The totally real, not imaginary, Second Avenue Subway

For most of the past decade, I lived east of Second Avenue on the Upper East Side, meaning that virtually every day I had to run the gauntlet of construction barricades and debris to get elsewhere in the city. Discussion of creating a second subway line of the Upper East Side to equal the two that run along the Upper West Side had begun shortly after the elevated line had been torn down along Second Avenue in 1919, and any of us who rode the most crowded lines in NYC (the 4-5-6) could see the need. Preliminary work began in 1972, but was suspended due to budgetary constraints until 2007. Ten years later, service began on January 1, 2017, and I couldn’t wait to ride on the first day the Q train ran.

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More than a week prior to the trains running, the neighborhood was invited to visit the 96th Street subway stop to see the station. It was surprisingly thrilling to walk into the new station. All the new stations are expansive, clean, and filled with art. I appreciate the entrances as well.

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A few more photos from the community preview:

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“Excelsior” is the New York State motto, and means “still higher” or “ever upward” (a little ironic as you descend lower into the ground, but I know, it’s about the meaning rather than to be taken literally).

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And of course, the United States motto “E pluribus unum,” meaning “Out of many, one” – fitting for New Yorkers who despite their many differences are united as citizens of the city.

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I love how the tenement buildings on Second Avenue can be glimpsed through the glass entrance when leaving the station.

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On January 1, about 2PM, I entered the station at Lexington and 63rd (but actually on Third and 63rd!) to ride the Q from 63rd to 96th on its first day of operation.

It was actually thrilling to see the train come into the station.

At 63rd Street, the art is by Jean Shin.

Pulling into the 72nd Street Station.

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At 72nd Street, the art is by Vik Muniz.

Pulling into 86th Street.

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At 86th Street, the art is by Chuck Close, using tiled mosaics to create his familiar portraits.

“Our next and last stop – 96th Street.”

The artist represented at 96th Street is Sarah Sze.

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Some of the trains have special decorations:

In the few days since the Second Avenue subway has opened, I have ridden it multiple times, and have been impressed by the convenience and efficiency of the line. I have been telling customers for years that real estate on the Upper East Side east of Third has been a value play and that prices will likely go up with the completion of the subway, and I think that will prove itself true over the next few years. The flip side of this, of course, is that Yorkville may find itself less of a bargain for renters or first time buyers, but this is inevitably the cost of improvements in any neighborhood – they benefit those who bought at lower prices and are ready to sell, but may force some renters out or lead some to be priced out of the area.

In the far distant future, they may extend the line through East Harlem up to 125th Street, and that, along with recently announced redevelopment plans along Second, Lexington, and Madison Avenues in East Harlem, could completely transform that area as well.  New York City is constantly changing, and the successful completion of the Second Avenue subway shows that even developments that seemed like a mirage shimmering in the distance can become real – and, eventually, even routine.

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City Island, the Bronx

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Most of us lucky enough to live in New York City love the aspects of the city that make it unique – the tall buildings, the pace, the endless array of entertainment. However, we may also seek out a chance of pace every now and then, travelling to the Caribbean, the Berkshires, or the New England coast. What I recently discovered is that it is possible to take a mini-vacation to what seems to be a small New England fishing village – but without leaving the five boroughs. As I remarked in my posts about Coney Island and Governors Island you can feel as though you have left the city for the price of a swipe on your Metrocard – and that is true for a trip to City Island in the Bronx.

Driving to City Island is easy, but to get there via public transportation (as I did), take the 6 Pelham Bay subway train to the last stop, Pelham Bay Parkway and catch the Bx29 bus for a quick ride to City Island Avenue.

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Originally settled by the Lenape and later by Europeans in 1654, it was connected to the mainland by ferry until the building of a bridge in 1873. From about 1860 to 1980, City Island was a center for boat building and yachting, and three yacht clubs remain on the island to this day.

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City Island Avenue cuts down the middle of the island, lined with quaint shops, art galleries, and restaurants. At every cross street, you can look in either direction and generally see a block of houses or low-rise apartments leading to the water.

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On the first Friday of every month, there is a free trolley to pick up visitors from the subway stop and take them to City Island Avenue. They give out a discount card valid for that evening, and often shops and galleries will have free treats to hand out along the avenue.

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City Island Avenue is just over a mile long, so an easy and pleasant walk. At the very end, when it dead ends at the water, there are two competing seafood restaurants with ocean views.

 

City Island has a resident population of just over 4000 people, many associated with nearby Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The brilliant neurologist and author Oliver Sacks lived on City Island until his recent death, and some of the film based on his book Awakenings was shot on the island. City Island is a real estate bargain (due in no small part to its remoteness) – houses selling for under $300/sq ft, on average, and a three bedroom house can be rented for about $3000/month.

Alice Payne wrote about the history of City Island in her book Tales of the Clamdiggers. Clamdiggers are people born on City Island (Musselsuckers are those living on the island born elsewhere!). The rest of us are, I suppose, simply visitors, ready to take a break from the everyday and experience one of the most unique corners of the great city of New York.

Governors Island

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I wrote recently about Coney Island, and how easy it is to feel you are taking a mini-break from New York City without leaving the city itself. I recently spent a day on Governors Island, in some ways more disorienting (in a good way!) since you are simultaneously surrounded by nature and yet experiencing spectacular views of lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty.

Governors Island sits a mere 800 yards away from Manhattan and is even closer to Brooklyn (400 yards). Originally reserved for the Governors of the New York Colony during British rule, the American Continental Army used it to their advantage and fired on the British from the island during the Revolutionary War. After American Independence, forts were built on the island for coastal protection, and Castle Williams (which is still standing) was later used to hold Confederate prisoners of war during the Civil War. When material dug out from Manhattan to create the first subway line was used to enlarge Governors Island, it became first an Army base and later one for the Coast Guard. By 1996, however, the Coast Guard had ceased to use the island, and it began to be redeveloped as a public park. Fort Jay and Castle Williams, as well as 22 acres of the island, have been declared a National Monument – the remaining 100 acres belong to the city and are in the middle of a ten year plan to revitalize Governors Island for use by the residents of New York.

Getting to Governors Island is somehow both easy and difficult. The ferry leaves from lower Manhattan (just north of the Staten Island Ferry terminal) on the hour starting at 10 AM, and leaves the island to return to Manhattan on the half hour. The cost is $2 roundtrip, but is free if you are a resident and have an idNYC card (if you are a resident and don’t have one, what are you waiting for? there are so many great discounts and benefits, check out the card here). The actual ferry ride is only seven minutes long, but if you miss one (as I did, slower than expected subway traffic on the 4 getting me there just a few minutes after the 10 AM ferry left) it’s a long wait.

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One entertaining thing to do in the area if you miss a ferry is to watch helicopters take off and land just north of the Battery Maritime Building.

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Once the ferry is ready to load, it only takes a few minutes before you are looking back at the Battery Maritime building as the ferry leaves lower Manhattan.

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Within a few minutes you arrive on Governors Island at Soissons Landing.

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The constant odd juxtaposition of quaint old buildings, green lawn, and spectacular views of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan is disorienting, but in an exciting way.

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One view of Castle Williams.

If you pass the old historic buildings and follow the signs for the newest part of Governors Island Park, The Hills, you can find the longest slide in NYC, three stories tall and 57 feet long. My advice on a sunny day is to be sure you are wearing long pants – that metal slide gets HOT!

The Hills was constructed using so much landfill it would require 1806 subway cars to transport it. Much of it came from the demolition of some buildings and parking lots elsewhere on Governors Island. Some of the actual hills were created using pumice, because any heavier material would push the existing landfill into the harbor.

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A plaque marking the National Park Service site, Castle Williams, with fantastic views of lower Manhattan, which is just a few hundred yards away.

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Wonderful views of the Statue of Liberty can also be seen from the western edge of Governors Island.

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Ferries return on  the half hour, with the last ferry back at 6 during the week and 7 on the weekend.

Returning back to Manhattan, you can feel as though you have taken a trip to another country, one where you gazed at the city as though it was a movie backdrop or a mirage. I highly recommend taking the journey.  I found I appreciate the city so much more when I have seen it through a different angle – even one that technically lies within the city limits.  Governors Island is open daily during the summer season, which lasts roughly the end of May through the end of September. For more information check out their website here.

A visit to Coney Island

 

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It’s summertime, and the livin’ in New York City is . . . hot and muggy. If you can’t make it out of town for a visit to the Hamptons, or the Caribbean, or the south of France, at least for the cost of one swipe of a MetroCard each way you can still get to a beach and not even leave the five boroughs. I think calling Coney Island “the playground of the world” (as the sign near the Wonder Wheel proclaims) is an over-statement, but it can be a fun day trip. I will note that the sea breeze is a real thing on these sticky August days, refreshing you even if all you do is walk along the water as the waves lap your ankles.

Coney Island was in fact once a barrier island, but became attached to the Brooklyn mainland via landfill. The source of the name “Coney” is uncertain – it could be due to a large number of wild rabbits, or coneys, but also could derive from someone’s name. Native Americans called it Narrioch, meaning “always in light” because of the abundant sunshine on the beach. After the Civil War, it became a popular seaside destination, and large piers were built. However, it was with the addition of rides that Coney Island began to take on the familiar persona of an amusement park at the beach. The United States’ first roller coaster, Switchback Gravity Railway (apparently they had yet to figure out how to create memorable names), opened in 1884. While the early 20th Century led to Coney Island’s heyday with the creation of Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland, it also began to develop a reputation as a somewhat seedier place as well – “Sodom by the Sea.” This didn’t keep it from becoming the #1 tourist attraction in the country (in fact, it could have helped), with 100,000 visitors a day, on average (to compare, Disney World’s Magic Kingdom averages about 56,000 a day, the most of any current theme park). Following World War II and some demolition (unsurprisingly, sponsored by Robert Moses) Coney Island began a steady decline that reached a nadir in the 1970s and ’80s. A steady revitalization began in the early years of the 21st Century, and despite serious damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Coney Island is looking better these days than it has in a long time.

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Recently I spent a day at Coney Island, taking the 4 subway from the Upper East Side and transferring to the N at Union Square. It was a solid 90 minute journey, so bring a good book – or a good companion – if you plan to make the trek. Getting out of the Stillwell Avenue subway station, you can’t miss Nathan’s, the home of the famous (or nauseatingly infamous) hot dog eating contests every July 4th. My personal preference is for pizza (you can’t go wrong with either Grimaldi or Totonno) but my friends and family who like hot dogs love Nathan’s (just please don’t try to eat 70 of them in 10 minutes).

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Once you get to the boardwalk, there are many competing places to eat, but I’m personally more interested in the rides on one side of the boardwalk and the Atlantic ocean on the other.

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The Wonder Wheel is my favorite ride, built in 1920. It’s 120 feet tall and many of the cars are not fixed to the rim but swing back and forth as the wheel goes around -it’s thrilling.

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From the top of the Wonder Wheel, I noticed lower Manhattan shimmering off in the distance like a mirage.

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Of course the most famous ride in Coney Island is the Cyclone, a wooden coaster built in 1927 that is both a New York City landmark and on the national Register for Historic Places. I’ve ridden it a few times, and it still delivers plenty of excitement and the very real possibility of whiplash.

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Walking back along the beach rather than the boardwalk, it is fun to walk along the ocean’s edge and feel the cool breeze. The beach can be packed, particularly on summer weekends, but it is kept clean and the sand raked, and there are lifeguards. On the day I was there, lifeguards were keeping people out of the water because both sharks and sting rays had been sighted!

If the idea of a seaside apartment to live in or use over weekends appeals, real estate values are beginning to improve in Coney Island – but still there are many apartments readily available to buy, averaging about $417/sq ft. Neighboring Brighton Beach has been rapidly increasing in value, with apartments there now at $665/sq ft, on average, and it is possible that Coney Island will follow this trend as more money is poured into its revitalization.

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There is much more to do on Coney Island (the NY Aquarium and the minor league baseball team the Brooklyn Cyclones, to name only two), but one of my favorite ways to end a day there is with a drink on the boardwalk. It’s hard to know which is more fun: people-watching on the boardwalk, or gazing past them to watch the ocean as the sun begins to set. A day at the beach combined with a day at the amusement park – and all without leaving New York City.

It’s terrace season!

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Gorgeous view of midtown Manhattan from a private rooftop terrace on the Upper West Side

I have recently been working with several buyers who either require private outdoor space, or have been lucky enough to find it included in an apartment they love for other reasons. Spring and summer are definitely “terrace season,” as outdoor space takes on a special appeal on sunny, warm days. In fact, one buyer I was working with lost out in a bidding war on an apartment with a large terrace directly facing Central Park, after months of little interest while it was listing during the winter. The listing broker even told me that we would have definitely gotten the apartment if we had been bidding the same amount back in the cold and gloomy months of January and February, but in late March/early April, the same apartment had a much broader appeal.

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A peek into a Beekman Place private terrace from a terrace at Southgate

Other buyers of mine, while not looking specifically for an apartment with outdoor space, found one with two large terraces, one with East River views, and fell in love. I have written before about the value of a view of nature from an apartment, as well as the value of a city view, and those intangible emotional benefits are heightened when the view is not contained behind glass, but rather experienced while also taking in the information obtained from other senses. To be on a terrace and seeing the East River, while also feeling a warm breeze, smelling the flowers you have placed in planters, and hearing the sounds of the city, is to be immersed in the experience.

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Ready for an al fresco dining experience in midtown Manhattan

There are multiple types of outdoor space, and some people have strong preferences for one type over the other, while others just want any opportunity to experience the outdoors from within their home. The least versatile is a Juliet balcony – enough to step outside and check the temperature or take in a few deep breaths of the summer air after a storm, but not enough to even place a chair. Larger than that are balconies, commonly boxy squares in postwar apartments, often with enough space for a few chairs and a table. The larger outdoor spaces tend to be true terraces (outdoor space with the building underneath it instead of something jutting from the building) or private gardens. Gardens tend to be most common in townhouses, or in the garden level apartments in converted townhomes or brownstones. Garden level apartments have the disadvantage of not being the sunniest apartments, with some exceptions, but for people who like the idea of children or pets playing in a ground-level garden, they can be highly valued. Large terraces are perhaps the most prized outdoor spaces, and relatively rare. A terrace with an iconic view – of Central Park, of a river, or a spectacular city view – can greatly increase the value of an apartment.

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A look at several of the terraces in the Beekman area with a view of the East River

So how much does outdoor space affect the value of an apartment, if you have one – or how much more do you have to pay to get a place if outdoor space is a priority to you? As with everything else in NYC real estate, it depends upon so many variables – the location, the apartment itself, whether the building is a condo or a coop, walk-up or elevator, etc., etc. However, the value of outdoor space is often about 25-50% of the apartment’s price per square foot – higher if the terrace has a great view or is attached to a spectacular apartment, lower if it is on a lower floor or attached to a small apartment.

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Even on an overcast day, it’s a killer view from this private terrace on Central Park South

The most valuable outdoor space is the very one my buyer lost out on this spring – unobstructed views of Central Park (enough to increase the value of an apartment by 50% even from park-facing windows with no outdoor space) from a large terrace. Is outdoor space worth such an increase in price? As with so many other aspects of NYC real estate, that is up to you – for some, they may feel that they wouldn’t really use outdoor space and don’t want to spend the extra money, while for others, outdoor space is the most important aspect of their home search and they won’t consider a place without it. What I have learned this spring, though, is that timing is extremely important. If I am representing a seller who has an apartment with outdoor space, I would strongly recommend trying to list during the warm weather months if at all possible. Conversely, if looking to purchase an apartment with outdoor space, jumping on something during the winter can lead to a relative bargain compared to getting into a bidding war when the outdoor space is showing at its best. If you are interested in buying a home in NYC with outdoor space, or if you have one to sell, feel free to contact me (with no obligation) at julie.brannan@corcoran.com.