By Sarah Trefethen
Nestled between the slow-to-develop former warehouses of the far West Side and the local stops on the C and the 2/3 trains, Chelsea sits just outside the hustle and bustle of Manhattan life.
It’s the kind of neighborhood where people live for decades, and brokers say the recent wave of new development has yet to disrupt the neighborhood feel.
Gil Neary of DG Neary Realty moved to Chelsea 30 years ago.
“I did so because you got more apartment for the money than you would in the West Village,” he said.
But he also found a home among the neighborhood’s low-rise buildings, just a few subway stops from theaters on Broadway.
“It has the kind of things that you really use, like tailors and grocery stores, and the guy in the deli knows you,” Neary said. “It’s an easy neighborhood to live in.”
Other brokers say Neary’s story is far from uncommon.
“There are people who are sort of Chelsea or die,” said Warner Lewis of Halstead Properties. “That is their neighborhood, they are never going to leave and if you even try to show them apartments outside of it they’re not going to have it.”
Recently, the borders of the neighborhood have expanded to the west and north, and new, high-end boutique condos like the Mercantile and Walker Tower are joining the neighborhood’s rows of townhouses, the stately pre-war London Terrace and the housing authority’s Chelsea-Elliot Houses.
The condos in Walker Tower are commanding downtown’s highest asking prices right now, and attracting interest from across the city and around the world.
“People from uptown are coming down and embracing Chelsea, from Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, Central Park West,” said Vickey Barron of Douglas Elliman. “The quality of Walker Tower, for example, introduced them to the neighborhood, and then they walked the area and saw some of the boutiques and galleries and realized how much it has to offer.”
The location is also a draw, she said. “It’s very convenient to get wherever you need to go.ˮ
But not all the buyers are from far afield. Barron, who runs sales in Walker Tower, told of one couple who sold the 19th Street townhouse where they had raised their family and moved into the newly-renovated condo building.
“Their key interest was to stay in Chelsea,” she said.
Meanwhile, their townhouse elicited three asking-price offers from the first three prospective buyers who saw the property.
“It felt like a home,” Barron said. “The person who bought it is doing quite a bit of renovation on it… [but] they wanted the neighborhood, they wanted the block. They liked looking out on the garden.”
High-end buildings aren’t the only new additions to the area. Between Jamestown Properties’ Chelsea Market and the High Line Park, Chelsea is on the map like never before, bringing streams of tourists to the area as well as new attractions for residents.
“When I have foreign buyers who have never seen Chelsea, I take them in [to Chelsea Market] for a bite to eat to get a feel for the neighborhood,” said Lydia Susseck of Corcoran.
The zoning in Chelsea allows new construction but limits the height of the buildings, which may be allowing the neighborhood to strike as close to balance as can be expected in Manhattan’s hyper-demand driven housing market.
“I’m seeing higher price per square foot than I would ever have imagined,” Susseck said.
The hot new private school Avenues is also drawing families to the neighborhood.
Lewis was marketing one high-end penthouse that attracted a stream of prospective buyers from overseas, looking in the neighborhood specifically to be near the school.
“I don’t ever want to say that something is a celebrity draw school, but this is,” he said.
But so far, the brokers say, the neighborhood retains a down-to-earth sensibility you would never find outside similarly pricey buildings to the north.
“There’s an unassuming street-level sort of presence there,” said Neary.
In his mind, the neighborhood appeals to the sort of person who wants a nice home without a flashy exterior. As an example, he cites the 2004 condo conversion of the McBurney YMCA on 23rd street, where the entrance to the multi-million-dollar homes sits off to the side of a street-level health club.
According to Barron, at Walker Tower, the latest wave of residents don’t seem to mind.
“The people that are coming here and buying, they’re saying the quality of the building feels like Park Avenue,” she said. “But they’re saying if it were sitting on Park Avenue it wouldn’t be appealing to them… They like it because it’s sitting in that authentic, organic environment of Chelsea, and the way that you keep it that way is that the people who are buying want to keep it that way. It’s not a Midtown clientele.”