Four years ago, Ruthann Richert bought a one-story bus garage in East Harlem, on 119th Street between First and Second Avenue.
With property values rising elsewhere in Harlem, the neighborhood — best known as a mecca for Puerto Rican immigrants, and lesser known, perhaps, as the birthplace of the actor Al Pacino — seemed ripe for luxury development. Rather than resist gentrification, longtime residents of the block were pleased when Richert began demolishing Frankie’s Bus Service.
“The garage dumped oil on the street, and there were buses constantly moving in and out,” said the Harlem-based developer, who has renovated a handful of brownstones in northern Manhattan. “It was an eyesore.”
Just before construction began, environmental inspectors noticed oil leaking into the ground. Crews in hazmat gear carted away the contaminated soil, a process that cost Richert thousands of dollars. Last August, sales finally launched at the Sedona, a skinny six-unit building sandwiched between two brick tenements.
The timing was perfect: East River Plaza, a mall with a Target, Costco, and other big box retailers, had recently opened along the neighborhood’s eastern edge. And as foot traffic in the area increased, restaurants, liquor stores, and clothing shops began cropping up along First Avenue. “It’s a secret gem,” said Richert.
Like many new residential properties east of Lexington Avenue, the Sedona complements, rather than overshadows the original character of the neighborhood.
Street-facing units have tasteful Juliette balconies, and the redbrick exterior blends with neighboring buildings. Rather than construct a flashy lobby guarded by a doorman, Richert installed a private elevator accessible by key; smart panels in each unit come equipped with a video system that monitors the sidewalk and elevator. A live-in super provides an additional set of eyes. When construction was finished, longtime residents of the block dropped by to tour model units and wish Richert luck with the project. So far, over 65% of the building has sold.
Stephan Wolman, a recent buyer, moved from Union Square, where he manages an Italian restaurant. Looking to save money, and escape the frenetic pace of life in lower Manhattan, he closed on the Sedona’s duplex penthouse for $495,000 two months ago.
On his way to the 6 train each morning, Wolman marvels at the neighborhood’s greenery: as part of a city program, there are roughly 30 community gardens in East Harlem, some sponsored by corporations like Home Depot and Target. Running trails line the East River, and Thomas Jefferson Park, just east of First Avenue between 111th and 114th Streets, has a baseball field and lawns. “You can hear the birds,” Wolman said.
At the same time, Wolman and other new arrivals can pick up everything they need within steps of the subway station. 116th Street, one of the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfares, has a wine shop, meat market, CVS, and Duane Reade, as well as a handful of immigrant-run businesses.
On a recent afternoon, Latin American pop music blared from an electronics shop between Second and Third Avenue, and street vendors hawked sunglasses, perfume, and car stickers. A crowd of shoppers, many with young children in tow, passed by El Lindo Mexican Bakery, a Mexican travel agency, a taco shop, and a halal chicken purveyor.
As for supermarkets, “you have your typical Manhattan choices,” said David Daniels, a Corcoran broker who handles sales at the Sedona. Bodegas are plentiful, and Fresh Direct delivers. Still, a local community board counted 102 vacant storefronts in the area earlier this year. “There isn’t enough quality retail there,” said Faith Hope Consolo, chair of Prudential Douglas Elliman’s retail division.
Some Sedona residents stash extra groceries and toiletries in basement storage space, one of several amenities offered at the building, including a first-floor fitness center and some outdoor space. From Wolman’s private roof deck, he can see the East River and the Tri-borough Bridge extension leading to Randall’s Island. Directly ahead is a quintessentially New York view of tenement buildings in varying shades of brick.
“My friends were blown away,” he said. But their admiration only went so far. When Wolman suggested they, too, move to the neighborhood, many of his female friends demurred, worried about walking home alone after dark.
Daniels, the Corcoran broker, said that comfort levels vary among prospective buyers. The first to sign a contract at the building was a single woman who had lived for years just down the block. Others are wary of the neighborhood’s reputation, which has yet to catch up with changes taking place.
With its graffiti-covered buildings, storage facilities, and clusters of low-income housing towers, East Harlem may look gritty, and is often compared to the East Village before gentrification took hold. But a drop in crime over the last few decades and new zoning laws, which allow high-rise development north of 99th Street and east of Lexington Avenue, suggest otherwise.
One of the largest rezoning campaigns in the area since the early 1960s, “it encourages ground floor retail, more commercial zoning,” said Asher Alcobi, a broker at Peter Ashe Realty, which has marketed several properties in East Harlem. “There’s a lot of flexibility to give services to people moving in.”
Ten new residential buildings, five of them rentals, have sprouted in the neighborhood in recent years, he said, and national real estate investors, Archstone is planning a new mixed-use complex slated to contain 1.7 million s/f of retail, cultural, and residential space is in the planning stages.
If the project is approved, it’ll occupy a site stretching from 125th to 127th Street, between Second and Third Avenue. “The first phase, with 49 housing units and 5,600 s/f of retail should be complete next summer,” said Consolo, noting that the entire development could be up and running by 2018.
Down the block from the Sedona, Hunter College opened a new facility for its graduate social work program. “Academic institutes give a green light to a neighborhood,” said Daniels, the Corcoran broker. “They’re a great anchor,” drawing the kind of crowd eager to frequent local restaurants and boutiques.
At CL Tower, a new 60-unit rental building on 121st Street and Third Avenue, apartments have been snapped up by Hunter College students, as well as young professionals seeking their first Manhattan apartment, said Alcobi, who handles leasing at the building along with other Peter Ashe brokers.
Studios begin at $1,450 and one-bedrooms at $1,700. A penthouse with a terrace was recently rented for $2,800, Alcobi said. Compared to most new residences in the neighborhood, “West Harlem is a little pricier,” said Richert, the Sedona’s developer.
CL Tower’s developer is in negotiations with a high-end restaurant for one of four retail spaces on the ground floor, said Alcobi. If the deal is inked, the “American-continental” restaurant, which Alcobi can’t yet name, will join the ranks of a handful of new eateries on and around First Avenue’s burgeoning restaurant row, including a Hawaiian restaurant, a Puerto Rican joint, and a French bakery.
When Polash, an Indian restaurant, opened across the street from the new Hunter College facility, Richert, who lives in central Harlem, became a regular customer. “I order takeout,” she said.
An old standby is Patsy’s, a pizzeria that opened 50 years ago. The neighborhood landmark is a remnant of the days when the blocks east of Lexington Avenue were populated with thousands of Italian immigrants, and has recently been discovered by shoppers at East River Plaza. “I love to stop by here after going to Target,” wrote an online reviewer. At another decades-old Italian restaurant in the area, “you can’t get a reservation for months and months,” said Daniels, the Corcoran broker.
It’s not just adventurous foodies that are moving into the neighborhood. After work, at one or two in the morning, Wolman, the penthouse resident at the Sedona, rides the M116 bus up First Avenue with a handful of fellow restaurant workers, including cooks and waiters. Many of them are Latin American immigrants.
“There are a lot of new restaurants, but somehow the nature of the area has been maintained,” said Richert. “It’s New York’s last original neighborhood.”