The Real Deal New York

Mott Haven’s real estate ascension is an uphill climb

October 01, 2005
By Alison Gregor

With an ample supply of empty industrial buildings and a smattering of picturesque town homes, Mott Haven in the South Bronx would seem to have the qualities needed to be the next Williamsburg. It has a booming, though tiny, antiques district and a section of residential apartments along Bruckner Boulevard near Lincoln Place, the result of a five-block rezoning done almost a decade ago.

Just north of that is a concentration of about 250 townhouses built in the late 1800s that have landmark status and currently sell for at least $500,000 each.

There’s also some celebrity cachet Mo Vaughn, former first baseman for the Mets, announced he is reviving two neglected Mott Haven housing projects.

But most importantly, say developers, Mott Haven has the location, location, location that is so important in real estate development. It’s a short ride on the Lexington Avenue subway line from Midtown Manhattan, but also allows city residents easy highway access to the rest of the Northeast.

So why isn’t this South Bronx neighborhood taking off?

“It’s just not Williamsburg,” said Sid Miller, a neighborhood real estate broker and founder of the Haven Heights Group. “The problem with Mott Haven is there is not enough supply of warehouses and brownstones in relation to housing projects, subsidized housing and five-story walk-up tenements.”

Crime rates have dropped, as they have throughout the city, but the neighborhood remains highly segregated by race, ethnicity and class, residents say. While those fleeing Manhattan are doing so because they can’t hack the borough’s high rents, they still earn enough to push up Mott Haven prices much to the chagrin of locals.

“It’s a no-win situation,” said Javie Diaz, who works as a bartender at the Bruckner Grill, a favorite watering hole for Mott Haven’s newer residents. The bar opened two years ago in the antiques district. Diaz said he moved to Mott Haven almost a decade ago with his mother, who lives in the housing projects.

“Everyone who moves here likes it,” he said, “But if you’re going to move to this neighborhood, which doesn’t have any amenities, you want to pay reasonable rents.”

That’s why he left his former apartment. Diaz said he recently moved from his cramped quarters at the Clock Tower loft building, a former piano factory converted into about 150 living spaces by Brooklyn-based developer Carnegie Management Corporation. The first spaces became available in 2002.

“In three years there, rent went up drastically,” said Diaz. “A two-bedroom apartment is now $1,300 or $1,400 a month. That’s way overpriced.”

Other two-bedroom apartments in Mott Haven’s antiques district offer more space for much less, about $900 a month, he said. Also, though the Clock Tower loft building was portrayed in several news articles as a bellwether of Mott Haven gentrification, it has been tied down in litigation from former tenants.

That negative publicity may also be hobbling Mott Haven’s revival in general.

“No matter what it becomes, this neighborhood will still be the South Bronx,” Diaz said.

The area’s newest residents tend to live around Bruckner Boulevard or 133rd Street, except for those who purchase one of the townhouses, located in three small historic districts pocketed between 133rd and 144th streets. Some of these landmarked blocks look like they might have dropped out of Greenwich Village. Miller said he paid $50,000 for his four-story brownstone on 138th Street back in 1990. Now, it is probably worth about $600,000, he said.

“What do you get for half a million in Manhattan? A walk-up studio,” he said. A row house in Mott Haven might have 12 rooms.

“What a great way to raise kids,” he added.

But, ironically, that property appreciation is driving away many hardworking Hispanic families who have lived in Mott Haven for decades, even if they are cashing in on the increasing property values. For example, Jose Noyola, who runs a streetside clothing stand, put his four-story town home at 142nd Street and Willis Avenue on the market for $600,000 after buying it as a fixer-upper 12 years ago for $250,000.

“This is a poor neighborhood that has been improving, because there are some new houses,” Noyola said. “But now, old-time families can’t afford it.”

Noyola’s home, where he no longer has to pay down a mortgage, is registered as a church, so he doesn’t have to pay taxes on it. Still, climbing prices for utilities have sunken him. “The utilities are so expensive, we can’t afford to live here,” said Noyola, who plans to pack up his family as soon as he sells out. “We’re moving to Miami.”

Some families bought townhouses for as little as $15,000 back in the 1960s, said Miller, and the properties have remained in the family since then. There is very little available in vintage townhouses for a purchaser who wants to move into Mott Haven.

But developers say there has been some new home construction. Still, the area north of 133rd Street in Mott Haven is dominated by government-subsidized housing projects that are decades old and might scare off some potential homebuyers.

“The problem is the quality of the housing stock there is very old,” said Michael Schwartz of Equity Realty and Consulting Corporation, which does a lot of multifamily development in the Bronx. “At night, when the commercial and industry is gone, it’s very barren. It’s not a prime residential area.”

In the meantime, neighboring communities like Port Morris are being rezoned to promote commercial and residential uses in largely abandoned industrial space, which may steal some of Mott Haven’s thunder. Hunts Point is also seeing some urban in-fill home construction, developers say.

North of Mott Haven, near the Hub as well as around Yankee Stadium, along with neighborhoods like Melrose and Morrisania, residential development, almost all of it subsidized, is more widespread.

Schwartz said he believes only larger-scale construction of apartments may eventually allow rejuvenation to take a firm hold in Mott Haven.

“For it to be a prime area, there would have to be some concerted effort to develop a pocket or area with a major group of buildings, perhaps 300 or 400 units in four or five developments,” he said. “Everything would then feed off that.”

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