The Real Deal New York

More tar beaches erode on New York rooftops

November 09, 2007
By Matthew Strozier

Outdoor space always commands New Yorkers’ attention. There’s nothing new about that. But well-equipped rooftops have become a new frontier in the search for the extra amenity to lure higher-end buyers.

“Not only do people love it, but it’s come to a point where people expect it,” said Marshall Berman, director of the investment and acquisitions section for American Development Group. “There is no reason, if you can provide it, not to.”

The incentive for the developer is clear.

“The roof is there, you don’t have to build it,” said Berman. So the simple option, he said, is to do nothing — just keep mechanicals away from tenants. Maybe place some decorative rocks, a planter and chairs. “That is what they did in 1980s,” Berman said. “Now, for just a little bit more money, what could you do with the property?”

The answers are getting creative these days. Infinity pools, moon gardens, tennis courts, real lawns, elaborate pergolas with high-end wood finishes, and even individual cabanas are filling tops of apartment buildings as developers look to outdo one another. American Development itself has planned several roof amenities for new buildings.

Landscape architects agree that there’s a renewed interest in roof gardens. “That is definitely a trend I would see in garden design and real estate,” said Kate Orff, a landscape architect whose firm, Scape, has seen an upsurge in calls about roof gardens. “Landscape in a broader sense adds value to any property, in my opinion, and to home design.”

Orff is a proponent of green roof systems, which cover roofs with a contiguous membrane to allow landscaping. This reduces heat-island effect and storm-water runoff, among other environmental benefits. Green roof contractors like Long Island City-based Plant Specialists Inc., which works with Orff, make the designs into reality.

Rockrose Development built a lawn on the roof of its new 51-story residential building at 2 Gold Street, along with a solarium with a kitchen and a gas-burning fireplace for winter use. In Long Island City, the developer is planning a roof deck with a bocce court and a swimming pool with a retractable roof.

“It’s come a long way,” said Charles Singer, Rockrose’s director of market research. “Years ago, people would call the roof the ‘tar beach’ and people had to bring their own chairs [up there.] Everything has gotten upscale. You can’t give tenants enough amenities these days.”

In some cases, classic ideas are being redefined. Pergolas can be built with teak, an expensive tropical hardwood that lasts for 100 years. One developer is reviving Victorian-era-style moon gardens to fit the hectic schedule of New Yorkers. The moon garden at the new building Sutton 57 has a range of night-friendly plants, including lambs ear, white liatris, shasta daisy, and Oriental lilies.

Monica Klingenberg, executive vice president of the Marketing Directors, said closings in the building are expected in April, and the garden is drawing lots of questions. “They are intrigued by it. Everyone says, ‘What’s a moon garden?’”

Developers say that the added expense of the designs going on roofs is not huge when compared with the prices of the units adjoining them. Berman, for example, said that adding an infinity pool — a small lap pool that can double as a hot tub — is minor for a penthouse that could sell for $12 million. Berman even said that selling cabanas on the roof garden — which American Development is doing at some projects — was driven by unused roofs where tenants couldn’t be assured a spot, particularly to grill. So the firm realized it could cut up private spaces with lattice or low fencings and “extend the apartment.”

Still, New York presents plenty of challenges for the developer looking to dress up roofs. The first is wind. “You don’t want to be clipping pedestrians off the street with lawn furniture,” said Klingenberg.

Architects also take what they can get in terms of plants or trees that live 30 or 40 stories in the air. Bayberry, river birch, and miscanthus are popular. In addition, buildings in historic districts need approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to insure rooftop additions are appropriate. One landscape architect, for example, said a pergola in Lady’s Mile had to come down once after a complaint to the commission.

David Dew Bruner, a landscape architect based in the city and in Columbia County, NY, said he thinks underutilized rooftop spaces are now getting noticed. “I think people,” he said, “are just starting to appreciate outdoor space.”

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