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.

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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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Walking in NYC, Paris, and London

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Recently I was fortunate enough to spend a few days each in Paris and London before returning to my beloved New York City (see above, the magnificent Manhattan grid, personified here on majestic Park Avenue). I was able to take several dérives (unplanned walks in an urban environment) as well as talk with New Yorkers currently living in each city. This experience led me to think about the similarities and differences of each of these great cities, and how living in each is unique. In addition, because I am a real estate agent in New York City, I will share what I learned from meeting with colleagues in the other two cities and compare all three markets.

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My first stop was Paris. It’s hard to find someone not charmed by this extremely elegant city. Oscar Wilde once quipped, “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” Thomas Jefferson, after his years as Ambassador to France, noted that “a walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and the point of Life.” I don’t know if I would agree to that extent (perhaps I missed my lesson on the point of life?) but I do agree with the filmmaker Wes Anderson, who said “Paris is a place where, for me, just walking down a street that I’ve never been down before is like going to a movie or something. Just wandering the city is entertainment.” I noted in a previous blog post about Dumbo in Brooklyn that I felt you couldn’t take a bad photo in Paris (and felt the same about Dumbo), because every new vista seemed to provide a perfectly framed gorgeous scene.

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Central Paris looks the way it does mainly due to the vast restructuring under the time of President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of the more famous Napoléon, and the urban planner Georges Eugène Haussmann. Medieval Paris through the nineteenth century was filthy and unsanitary, with reeking sewers (Victor Hugo described it well in Les Misérables) and gorgeous buildings like the Louvre hidden behind crumbling tenements. Haussmann appropriated land and destroyed what he needed to in order to create a gigantic cross through the heart of the city made up from east to west along the Rue de Rivoli and Rue Saint-Antoine, and north-south along two new Boulevards, Strasbourg and Sébastopol. In later renovations, more boulevards were created, generally on the diagonal rather than a grid.

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The unusual aspect of all of this is that so much work was done within a relatively short period of time in the mid-nineteenth century. This is the more significant factor to the consistency of the look of Paris compared to most other cities.

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I asked a native New Yorker who now lives in Paris about how the layout of the two cities affects living there. She pointed out that, with most of Manhattan a grid, people refer to an address as an intersection of an Avenue and a Street. For example, if you were meeting someone at Carl Schurz Park in Yorkville you might agree to meet on the corner of East End Avenue and 84th Street. In Paris,  a meeting place is more likely to be described as what arrondissement it is in, what metro stop it is near, and then the actual address.

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The experience of walking in Paris is very different on the wide boulevards versus the much narrower streets. In addition, the boulevards keep cutting through on the diagonal, creating triangles. New York City has Broadway running on a huge diagonal along the entire length of Manhattan from northwest to southeast, creating such iconic “squares” as Times Square and Herald Square. However, most of Manhattan above 14th Street unfolds as a predictable series of streets intersecting at right angles with avenues.

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After a very enjoyable and easy trip on the Eurostar train, my next stop was London.

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When looking up quotes to enliven this blog post, I was surprised to find so few really positive quotes about London compared to Paris. For instance, William Butler Yeats commented, “This melancholy London – I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually. One feels them passing like a whiff of air.” Hmmm. Worse, from G.K. Chesterton: “London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.” And confusingly, from author Peter Shaffer: “If London is a watercolor, New York is an oil painting.” While I enjoy Paris and of course find it to be beautiful, I love London – second in my heart only to New York City. If only I could write a pithy quotable quote to express this feeling!

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Walking across the Millennium Bridge, itself completed and opened in June 2000, you get part of why I love London – the juxtaposition of new and old, with St. Paul’s (completed in 1711) framed by this very modern structure.

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Another example of this is seen here, near Borough Market, with the hyper-modern Shard building visible above these tiny quaint buildings.

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And speaking of Borough Market, it’s one of my favorite places in London. The Southwark neighborhood surrounding it is a delightful jumble of streets.

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London is not consistent in architectural style as Paris is – not only are neighborhoods (like the newly fashionable East End, depicted in a mural above) different, even within a neighborhood you can find a variety of styles and eras represented. This is in part due to the Great Fire of 1666, meaning that very little of medieval London still exists (the Tower being a notable exception), and in part due to the bombings during World War II and the rebuilding since then.

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Some neighborhoods, like Chelsea (above) and Mayfair (below) do keep more of a consistent architectural style, however.

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Walking in London can be confusing, since it is even less of a grid than Paris and certainly much less so than Manhattan above 14th Street. However, this labyrinth of twisting streets and sudden alleyways is what makes taking an unplanned walk (with few time constraints) so rewarding. James Geary, the American journalist, remarked, “London always reminds me of a brain. It is similarly convoluted and circuitous. A lot of cities, especially American ones like New York and Chicago, are laid out in straight lines. Like the circuits on computer chips, there are a lot of right angles in cities like this. But London is a glorious mess. It evolved from a score or so of distinct villages, that merged and meshed as their boundaries enlarged. As a result, London is a labyrinth, full of turnings and twistings just like a brain.” I don’t know that the brain analogy would have ever come to me (and I have a degree in neuroscience!) but I would agree that the twistings and turnings do make it a “glorious mess.” A native New Yorker now living in London pointed out how much larger in area central London is compared to Manhattan, while central Paris is much more compact. Of course the population of London was 8.539 million in 2014, while New York City (all five boroughs) was an equivalent 8.406 million at roughly the same time (Manhattan only 1.626 million, however). Paris, on the other hand, has a population of 2.244 million, a significantly smaller number.

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One last comparison between New York City and London. One of my favorite quotes about NYC is from O. Henry, who said (quite a long time ago, I will add), “It’ll be a great place if they ever finish it.” The constant construction and cranes seen in London (above) remind me very much of New York. I love how NYC is constantly changing, and while obviously historic preservation is important, the tearing down and building up of our city is part of what gives it the feeling of always being new, in the process of reinventing itself.

A significant similarity between Paris and London is that they each have rivers running through the heart of the city, with part of the joy of walking there involving crossing bridges to get from one side to the other. In Manhattan, you are surrounded by water, and there are enjoyable strolls both on the East River and the Hudson. You can also walk over the Brooklyn Bridge (see my photo tour of doing that here), highly recommended. However, I would say that the most similar feeling to crossing a bridge in Paris or London is to cross Central Park, not as long as a river but as significant for the large section of Manhattan it divides. The difference in feeling (and strong loyalty it inspires) among east siders and west siders is similar to the change between the north and south bank areas of the Thames, or Rive Gauche versus Rive Droit.

As far as real estate values in these three cities, despite all the recent concern over whether London’s housing prices could continue their meteoric rise despite new concerns over a possible Brexit and the additional tax on luxury properties, London housing prices increased 13.5% in the past year, compared to New York City’s 12% (still a large increase!). There is some indication, however, that the foreign investor is starting to see London as a less advantageous place to buy, since prime real estate in London at the highest price points declined 0.8% in the first three months of 2016. Meanwhile, in Paris, even before the November 2015 terrorist attacks, home values were down 2.8% and projected to fall another 3% in 2015. At this point in 2016, homes in Paris are down 9% from values in 2011.

Most people, of course, live in a particular city because their work brings them there, they have family there, or some other practical reason. Those who can afford to own places in more than one city may choose to do so in part for financial reasons, but often also because the city is an appealing place to visit. New York, London, and Paris all offer so much and uniquely so – although I would argue that they are equally suited for an individual like myself who loves to walk.

“The greatest city in the world” – a real estate perspective

Bust of Alexander Hamilton, flanked by portraits of Aaron and Theodosia Burr, in the New York Historical Society
Bust of Alexander Hamilton, flanked by portraits of Aaron and Theodosia Burr, in the New York Historical Society

In the incomparable new American musical, Hamilton, currently the hottest ticket on Broadway in New York City at the Richard Rodgers theatre, the Schuyler sisters are introduced to the audience as they sing joyfully about living in the “greatest city in the world.” This is my own bias as well, and I do consider myself to be “so lucky to be alive right now” and living in NYC. However, as a real estate agent, I know that being able to live in the city is often a struggle – quite often financially in terms of being able to afford living here, and even for those with the means, difficult in terms of limited inventory. Because of my love for the city, and my day-to-day immersion in the city’s residential real estate market, I have found myself thinking about the different neighborhoods mentioned in Hamilton in terms of real estate availability and value. I have already blogged about many of these areas in terms of taking a dérive, or an unplanned walk in an urban environment (see my initial explanation about this idea here), and I will link to those posts when possible.

Before getting into the fun stuff, a few technical notes about price per square foot measures mentioned below: All stats on sales price per square foot are from the Real Estate Board of New York’s third quarter 2015 report here. Condos and coops are listed separately, as the comparative ease of buying a condo versus a coop is reflected in generally higher prices for condos (20-25% more per square foot). Also, higher prices for condos often reflect differences in types of housing – newer developments tend to be condos. For reference, I will also mention current average listing prices found on streeteasy.com for the different neighborhoods, but keep in mind that listing price averages are always higher than closed sales averages, since half or more of all listings end up selling for less than asking price. Also, I am focusing on sales, although I may mention rentals in each neighborhood as well.

Financial District

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When the Schuyler sisters sing about living in “Manhattan,” the area we now know as the Financial District (see my previous blog post here) was almost entirely the area considered to be the city at that time. This is quite fitting, since the Financial District as a business center and home to Wall Street owes a great deal to Alexander Hamilton, who as first Secretary of the Treasury provided much of the foundation for NYC as the financial powerhouse it is today. However, over time, the fashionable residential areas spread north, and this area as a residential neighborhood has only returned in force over the past 10-12 years. Walking these streets is an exciting mix between reminders of our colonial and revolutionary past, and the very new and modern development that is occurring now and transforming the neighborhood.

When Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette, and Mulligan sing “The Story of Tonight” while drinking in a pub, it might well have been the Fraunces Tavern, since the Sons of Liberty (of which Hercules Mulligan was a member) met there and it was a popular pub at the time. George Washington gave his farewell address to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in 1783. From there, you are a short walk to New York Harbor where Hamilton stole the British cannons at the Battery (as described in “Right Hand Man”), or Trinity Church, where Alexander and Eliza Hamilton are buried near Eliza’s sister Angelica.

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How affordable is the Financial District (F.D.)? All city prices would seem unbelievable to those living here at the time of the American Revolution, but for downtown Manhattan, it is relatively affordable. The most recent REBNY numbers showed condos in the F.D. averaging $1207 per square foot (compared to $1593 overall for all of Manhattan, and nearby areas Soho at $2021 and the West Village at $2323 much higher per square foot). Coops average $906 per square foot in the F.D. (compared to $1218 for all of Manhattan, $1509 for Soho, and $1629 for the West Village). I recently did a rental search for a friend wanting to move from Tribeca, and showed her that she could either save about a third in rent if she kept the same size and quality of apartment, or get another bedroom for about the same price or even a little less.

Hell’s Kitchen

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Yes, you can call it Clinton if you like, but I think the name “Hell’s Kitchen” is one of the coolest in all of New York City and when I move there I will state the name proudly. No, this area is not mentioned in the musical Hamilton and in fact would not have been populated much at all at the time, but it is very near the Richard Rodgers theatre, currently the home to the musical. The proximity to the theatre district keeps prices down a bit, but would be a plus to me (see my previous blog post about Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen here). There are blocks in Hell’s Kitchen that look just like quiet leafy Chelsea blocks – but at a fraction of the cost – as well as new condo high rises with every amenity and the prices to match.

The REBNY report is for Midtown West, which encompasses a bit more than just Hell’s Kitchen, but lists the average price per square foot at $1734 for condos and $1230 for coops.

Stage door at the Richard Rodgers
Stage door at the Richard Rodgers

The Upper East Side

Statue of Alexander Hamilton in Central Park
Statue of Alexander Hamilton in Central Park

Again, not mentioned in Hamilton (although a family with the wealth and connections of the Schuylers would have certainly moved to Fifth Avenue along with the robber barons in the early 20th century), but mentioned because of the statue of Alexander Hamilton standing proudly among the trees behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in our beloved Central Park (not created until long after Revolutionary times).

The Upper East Side has long been a bastion of wealth, and areas to the west of Lexington Avenue still command a premium due to proximity to Central Park (see one of my many blog posts about the park here, and another about the value of a park view here). However, the far east side (east of Second Avenue, particularly the area called Yorkville, see my post here) still has value, in part because of its perceived remoteness and the construction mess due to the building of the Second Avenue Subway. While overall the Upper East Side averages $1764 per square foot for condos and $1234 for coops, Streeteasy listings show the difference in listing prices for Yorkville ($1693 per square foot, all types) versus Lenox Hill near the park ($2667 per square foot, all types). Rentals in Yorkville are particularly well priced compared to other areas of Manhattan, except for areas of upper Manhattan that will be discussed next.

Harlem and Upper Manhattan

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There are plenty of references to Harlem in Hamilton, from Washington’s “run to Harlem quick” in “Right Hand Man, ” Hamilton’s wooing of Eliza with a plan to “get a little place in Harlem and we’ll figure it out” in “Helpless,” and “the Hamiltons move uptown” in “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Moving to Harlem in those days before motorized vehicles and the subway was the equivalent to moving to the remote countryside, and even King’s College (later renamed Columbia, sorry again, King George) was at that time in lower Manhattan, not in its current spot in Morningside Heights (see a previous blog post here). Hamilton Heights, an area of Harlem I wrote about in this blog post, is named for the location of Hamilton Grange, and the Hamilton home can still be seen there (although not in the exact location, still within the farmland owned by the Hamiltons). Even farther north than Harlem is Washington Heights (see previous blog post here), home of the Morris-Jumel mansion – once Washington’s headquarters (and then the British government’s), later the home of Aaron Burr, and most recently the site used by Lin-Manuel Miranda to work on composing Hamilton. This historic home hosted many other notable figures who also live on in the musical by reference or as characters – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and yes, Alexander Hamilton.

Harlem and much of upper Manhattan is rapidly appreciating in value, but still represents a relative bargain in Manhattan. The REBNY numbers separate Harlem only by East ($748 per square foot for condos, no figures for coops) and West ($713 for condos, $996 for coops), not a very practical demarcation. Streeteasy listings show average prices as $829 per square foot for trendy Central Harlem (all types), $667 for East Harlem, $661 for Hamilton Heights, $721 for Morningside Heights (the Columbia effect), and $638 for Washington Heights.

There are other areas in NYC mentioned in Hamilton, some vague (“British take Brooklyn” in “Right Hand Man” – likely Brooklyn Heights) and others specific (“abandoning Kips’ Bay,” also in “Right Hand Man”) and those will be future places for my dérives and the subsequent blog posts.

At a recent social event, a friend and I were talking about getting together more often, and I said, “Well, you know how to find me.” Her husband responded, “Yes, at the Hamilton lottery!” (clearly he is following my Facebook posts) and my friend asked what the show was about. After explaining that it is a hip-hop musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, and she replied, “You know, that sounds like the craziest thing I have ever heard!” Well, crazy good . . . Yes, finding a place to live in New York City is frustrating, you will always end up spending more than you hoped (even those with more financial resources but especially those with fewer), and it will likely take longer than you want and you will end up compromising, but how lucky we are to be alive right now, in a city filled with creativity and the arts – truly, the greatest city in the world.