Halal and hipsters on West 29th Street

A look at one rapidly evolving 29th Street block
By Jane C. Timm | October 31, 2011 07:17PM

264 Fifth Avenue

Twenty-Ninth Street, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, is a block in transition. Once dominated by knock-off purse dealers and wholesale perfumeries, this diverse stretch is now home to a hip hotel and pricey new boutiques.

It’s also the site of the Masjid Ar-Rahman mosque, and the scents of halal now mingle with those of Stumptown Coffee, the Michelin-starred Breslin Bar & Dining Room, and the Pakistani and Indian restaurant Gourmet Palace. A few doors down is the church where Donald Trump married his first wife, Ivana.

The block, residents and brokers predict, is poised for a development explosion. Local landlords say they are now raising rents for tenants, and receiving countless inquiries from developers, restaurateurs, and retailers looking to move onto the block.

“There [are] not that many areas left to develop right around Fifth Avenue,” explained Larry Rich, senior vice president of marketing at the brokerage Core, who often shows apartments in the area.

Twenty years ago, when Tracey Dewart bought a co-op at 12 West 29th Street, the area was full of “junkies and homeless people,” she recalled. Dewart, who now owns retail space in the building, said there are still people clogging up her stoop, but these days, they are well-coiffed Ace Hotel guests and Stumptown devotees.

“Actually, there are more coffee-drinkers than there were junkies,” Dewart said. “I’m not sure which [is] better.”

The biggest catalyst for change in the area has been the transformation of the single-room-occupancy Hotel Breslin into the hipper-than-thou Ace Hotel.

Since the Ace opened in 2009, young, creative types have started moving into the area, their sights set on prewar real estate with a proximity to nightlife, said Rich. He noted, however, that the area is not yet prime residential real estate.

“The ladies who lunch are not going down to 29th Street,” he said. “These are the trendy pioneers.”

And there is more to come. “This is the very beginning of it,” Rich said. “Something’s happening here.”

This month, The Real Deal went building by building to get a closer look.

264 Fifth Avenue

Shamiana International bought this 14-unit rental building in 1982, according to city records. The ground floor of the 83-year-old structure has three small stores, including Royal Sari House and Lakhani Sportswear. But the loss of other nearby T-shirt and luggage stores is hurting retailers like these. “They depend on the presence of multiple storefronts to make the business work, and when the Ace moved in, it shut down several stores,” Dewart said. “Those who have tried to stay are having trouble.” Kaufman Management’s Kathy Morrow, who manages 264 Fifth, said monthly residential rents range from $1,800 for small studios to $3,400 for larger one-bedrooms. The owner is currently repairing the fa├žade and replacing the roof, Morrow said, and will raise rents once the work is done. In the last year, Morrow said the owner has seen an increase in inquiries about purchasing the building, which isn’t for sale. Retailers have regularly expressed interest in combining some of the smaller storefronts into one space, which Morrow said is possible if there’s turnover among the ground-floor tenants. She declined to give asking rents for the retail stores, but Jason Pruger, an executive managing director at Newmark Knight Frank Retail, estimated that the spaces would likely lease for $100 to $125 per square foot.

6-10 West 29th Street

This 16,000-square-foot Central Parking System lot is sandwiched between 28th and 29th streets. According to PropertyShark, it’s been owned since the 1960s by Philmar Realty Corp. Neighborhood insiders said the site has never been developed, largely because the 28th Street side is in the Madison Square Park North Historic District.

12 West 29th Street

Dewart owns the two bottom floors of this building; the upper floors are occupied by the seven-unit co-op where she lives. For years, Dewart said, her retail tenants sold T-shirts and knock-off purses — occasionally, she’d be surprised to see them get busted by the cops. Today, she’s hoping to lease the now-vacant, 4,000-square-foot space to an artist, like Robert Hite, the painter, photographer and sculptor who had a temporary gallery there last winter. While restaurants often inquire about the space, she said, the co-op shareholders don’t want an eatery on the premises. Dewart said she’s asking around $50 per square foot for her retail space, which comes to about $2,000 a month more than she’s charged past tenants. Other owners, too, are charging more. On the residential side, a one-bedroom unit in the building, which rented for $4,500 in April, jumped to $4,950 in August, according to StreetEasy. Dewart said the area “has always been full of artists and architects and graphic designers,” but the Ace “put us on the map.”

14 West 29th Street

Gentrification often leads to conflict, as restaurateur Ken Friedman learned in 2009, when he made plans to open a dive bar on the ground floor of this landmarked building, owned by the Lillian Goldman Family Foundation. (Goldman was the wife of the late Sol Goldman, a real estate tycoon who had amassed New York’s largest private real estate empire when he died in 1987, with more than 600 properties. After years of battling over his estate, Lillian ended up with approximately one-third of it.) The building has rental apartments upstairs and retail space on the ground floor. To make way for Friedman’s bar, building management evicted the two retail tenants, including clothing wholesaler Bhopi International. But after complaints about alcohol consumption from the mosque across the street (another factor, reportedly, was a Breslin event that featured chef Fergus Henderson cooking whole pigs for a crowd of foodies), Friedman agreed to move the bar to the Breslin basement. Now, restaurant management said that project isn’t going forward either. The ground-floor retail spaces at 14 West 29th Street are still boarded up. Pruger estimated that the landlord could likely command a rent of $75 to $100 per square foot for the space, slightly more for a restaurant. “Even next to the Ace, it’s still a side street,” he noted.

16 West 29th Street: The Breslin Bar & Dining Room

On the ground floor of the Ace Hotel is The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, from Spotted Pig restaurateurs Friedman and April Bloomfield. Since opening in 2009, the Breslin has become one of the city’s most popular — and hard-to-get-into — restaurants. Pruger noted that restaurants and boutiques brought in by the Ace likely pay lower-than-market-rate rents, because the Ace sees them as an amenity for its visitors.

18 West 29th Street: Stumptown Coffee Roasters

The Ace also brought in Stumptown, the Portland, Ore.-based coffee purveyor, to provide caffeine fixes for the MacBook-toting bloggers and techies who park themselves in the hotel lobby.

20 West 29th Street: The Ace Hotel

This landmarked 1904 building is owned by LGF Enterprises, another part of the Lillian Goldman family holdings. In 2007, GFI Development Company paid $40 million for the long-term lease, and brought in Ace hotelier Alex Calderwood. With a few remaining Hotel Breslin tenants staying on as permanent residents, the 260-room hotel opened its doors in June 2009. Rates range from $169 a night for bunk beds to $800 dollars a night for a suite. The popular lobby bar draws boisterous crowds on the weekends. On the building’s Broadway side, Friedman and Bloomfield reincarnated the defunct John Dory Oyster Bar, and the Lower East Side-based boutique Opening Ceremony was one of the earliest shops to sign up for the Ace’s retail space. They’re joined by No. 7 Sub, a sandwich shop that garners long lines at lunchtime.

22 West 29th Street: No. 8a

The Ace opened No. 8A, a travel and design shop, here in February 2010. It’s run by Elizabeth Beer and Brian Janusiak, who also own the boutiques Project No. 8 and No. 8b downtown. The stores sells travel gadgets, New York-made trinkets for travelers, and hip but easily packable clothes.

1200 Broadway: Gilsey House

Before Gilsey House went co-op in 1979, it was a hotel famed for its regulars (like writer Oscar Wilde) and for being the first New York hotel to offer phone service to its guests. Property values for the 33 apartments here have jumped around 40 percent in the last few years, to $850 to $950 per square foot, according to Jesse Meyer, a Bellmarc agent who lives in the Gilsey. Unit 5B, for example, sold for $1.65 million last year, up from $1.12 million the last time it traded, in 2004. This summer, unit 4B sold for $1.36 million. Newcomers are mostly young professionals and artists looking for a prewar loft feel, Meyer said. “The guys from the Ace really cleaned up the area,” she said, adding that the Gilsey’s retail tenants — toy, eyewear and jewelry wholesalers — have been sprucing up their retail storefronts to attract a higher-paying clientele.

13 and 15 West 29th Street

In the late 1800s, the famous opera singer John Chatterton and actress Lillian Russell lived at 13 West 29th Street. Today, the building and No. 15 next door are owned by the A.R. Rahman Foundation, an anti-poverty organization founded by Rahman, a Bollywood singer, songwriter and musician. According to StreetEasy, the foundation purchased the two apartment buildings from Auto Park Inc. in 2001 for $2.5 million. That same year, the Masjid Ar-Rahman mosque opened in the basement that connects the two structures. Gourmet Palace, a Pakistani and Indian restaurant, occupies the storefront at 13 West 29th Street. At 15 West 29th Street, the halal (which means prepared in accordance with Muslim specifications) restaurant La Sani occupies the first-floor storefront space.

9 West 29th Street

This row house was once home to wealthy tobacco merchant David McAlphin, along with his three children and eight servants. It was also the site of the high-profile theft of a diamond brooch, according to an 1869 New York Times story. Today, the five-story building, owned by PMH Realties LLC, is a combination of office and studio space. Tenants include the corporate offices of the Breslin Bar, the TV production company Spin the Bottle and the research consultancy Brand Keys. The ground floor houses a computer sales and repair shop. Tad Lowe, the CEO and founder of Spin the Bottle, said his company has been located on 29th Street for over a decade. The area’s convergence of halal and hipster is part of the reason he loves it — when the mosque’s call to prayer rings through the streets at the end of each week, Lowe said, laughing, “That’s how we know it’s Friday!”

1-5 West 29th Street

The landmarked Marble Collegiate Church is the oldest building on the block; the current structure was built in 1854 for a congregation that dates back to 1628. Famously, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale first preached on “the power of positive thinking” here. Former parishioners include Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump married his first wife, Ivana, here in 1977.