The Real Deal New York

Inside the open houses of Washington Heights

Upper Manhattan neighborhood getting raves on Broadway draws buyers

March 31, 2008
By Abby Luby

The neighborhood of Washington Heights is currently a star of the Broadway show “In the Heights,” where a bodega owner sings and dances against the dramatic backdrop of the George Washington Bridge.

While that may be a romanticized depiction of the area, the largely Dominican and Latino neighborhood is increasingly becoming a destination for those getting priced out of other parts of Manhattan and gentrified Brooklyn.

The median household income has been rising in Washington Heights, which runs from 155th Street north to Fairview Avenue and is shouldered by the Harlem River on the east and the Hudson River on the west. The area saw telltale signs of change four years ago, when Starbucks and Staples opened.

Now, with the economic outlook looking bleaker by the week, several recent open houses there were busy with prospective buyers looking to relocate from rentals in more expensive parts of Manhattan or from pricey Park Slope in Brooklyn.

A 1,300-square-foot, three-bedroom co-op at 825 West 179th Street, which had been on the market for about two weeks, attracted a steady flow of apartment hunters.

The bright, second-floor unit, located in the Cabrini apartment building, was on eye level with the ramp to the George Washington Bridge. If that was a mark against it, it won points back with its view of the Palisades cliffs across the river. The asking price for the co-op was $559,000, and its monthly maintenance was $747.

For the sake of comparison, a two-bedroom co-op on 72nd Street is currently on the market for $1.29 million, and a three-bedroom co-op just north of that on 79th street is going for $1.65 million.

“This is the last bastion of affordability,” said Troy Johnson, 40, who has two dogs and was looking to buy in this pet-friendly building. He said he knew the neighborhood, but “I never thought I would live up here. Things change.”

Johnson, an actor who just finished a stint in the popular Broadway show “The Drowsy Chaperone,” said he
wanted to move from his rental some 30 blocks south on Riverside Drive.

“I have some friends that live up here,” he said. “I guess I’ll be close to the Riverside [Park] for my dogs.”

The co-op unit had a large open living room, a dining room, a renovated walk-in kitchen and a bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub.

A couple looking at the apartment liked the view and thought the span of the George Washington Bridge would look “cool” at night.

They also liked the area because of the proximity to 67-acre Fort Tryon Park, and to Bennett Park, a Revolutionary War site that overlooks the Hudson River. The Cloisters, a museum dedicated to medieval art, and Columbia Presbyterian Hospital are also nearby.

On 181st Street, one of the main retail strips in the area, eateries and bodegas are interspersed with dollar stores and flower shops.

Also at 825 West 179th Street, Maria Pascal of Prudential Douglas Elliman held an open house in a first-floor unit.

“We’ve had a few people, but it’s been quiet,” said Pascal, hoping that more apartment hunters would show up. “We just put this on the market, and this is the first open house we’ve held.”

The five-room unit was quieter than the one on the second floor. The asking price was $499,000, and the monthly maintenance was $622.

The roughly 1,000-square-foot unit had two bedrooms, a drawing room that is currently being used as a work space, 11-foot ceilings, a renovated eat-in kitchen with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, and a railroad-style, 35-foot hallway.

At an open house farther south at 812 Riverside Drive at 157th Street, buyers milled around a renovated two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit.

The fifth-floor unit had an asking price of $1.04 million and monthly maintenance of $1,360. The marble lobby was accessed by a buzzer system through a large entryway and double glass doors.

Bianca Franco, who is 22 and works at Worldwide Biggies, a digital film studio in Times Square, was looking at the apartment with her parents and her boyfriend.

“We’re looking for a place where we can all live together,” she said, explaining that she was living in a small rental by herself on West End Avenue.

“The space here is incredible,” said Franco’s boyfriend, Michael Schere, 23, who works in Soho. “You really get your money’s worth.”

The 1,687-square-foot unit had a view of the river, a maid’s room/office that included a full bathroom, a triangular-shaped bedroom and three walk-in closets that would make any clothing hound salivate.

Another young couple was taken with the space but not the price.

“This is a good neighborhood, but not good enough for these prices,” said Marc Brooks, 30, a nurse at Montefiore Hospital. “These prices don’t reflect the recession — it should be a lot less.”

Brooks was checking out the open house with his wife, Melanie, 34, who is a high school teacher. “We want to own an apartment instead of renting,” she said. “But this is out of our budget.”

Citi Habitats broker Sandy Edry took them to see another condo in a neighboring building at 801 Riverside Drive. The apartment was an “add-on” to the open house at 812 Riverside Drive, meaning that a broker can accompany a buyer who expresses interest on the spot.

Some of the rooms at 801 Riverside, a prewar building, were irregular shapes — triangles, or parallelograms, because the building was on a triangular block.

Two side-by-side apartments had a combined asking price of $1.32 million with a $1,527 monthly maintenance. But for those not interested in spending that much, the apartments were available as two separate units.

Edry said Citi Habitats had three people interested in the property as a combo, but noted that they would need to tear down the shared wall. He said there were also a number of offers for each of the single apartments.

Combined, the two apartments would measure 2,000 square feet — the aggregated unit would include four or five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a formal dining room and living room.

“This is a conversion, non-eviction plan building,” said Edry, meaning that the tenants can decide whether they want to sell or continue renting.

The combined apartment was on the market for about a week.

“We’ve already sold about 14 units in this building,”
said Edry.

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