Columbus Square arrives

<i>Rental and retail project fills up, but faces stiff competition</i>

Kathy Rudney, a broker with Prudential Douglas Elliman, is handling rentals at Columbus Square
It’s away from the heart of the Upper West Side. Its rents are up to 30 percent higher than the competition’s. And its shops more closely resemble strip-mall offerings than what’s typically found on city blocks.

But Columbus Square, a mega mixed-use complex that spans six blocks from West 97th to 100th streets between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues, is posting enviable rental and retail numbers in a down market, according to brokers familiar with the project and the neighborhood.

Since May, the project has leased 290 of 454 apartments in two buildings at the site, where five buildings are planned, for a rental rate of 64 percent. One-bedrooms there list for about $3,400, which dwarfs the $2,300 average that postwar equivalents in the neighborhood usually command, brokers said. Once complete, Columbus Square will have 710 apartments.

Of course, with the housing market still weak, tenants are receiving generous extras from the co-developers, Stellar Management and the Chetrit Group. Those incentives include up to three months of free rent, plus coverage of the broker’s fee, for signing a 14-month lease, according to Kathy Rudney, the Prudential Douglas Elliman broker handling rentals. But the base rents, she noted, are firm.

“We will never undervalue our property,” Rudney said. “It’s worth every penny, for what you get.”

The amenities would seem to rival those of the city’s top condominiums. There’s a 70-foot indoor saltwater pool at the base of the 29-story tower at 808 Columbus, the centerpiece of the complex. And the apartments — with oak floors, garbage disposals and country-style doorknobs — earn praise from tenants who relocated from desirable co-ops.

But not everybody agrees those eye-catching touches are worth the price. Other new rental buildings, such as Silver Towers and Sessanta on West 60th, are giving Columbus Square a run for its money.

Eric Hamm, a broker who runs the Upper West Side office of Citi Habitats, said competing buildings are pulling potential tenants away from Columbus Square. “We are not finding a whole lot of success with the building,” said Hamm. “We have not seen a whole lot of transactions come through this office.”

Instead, he pointed to Silver Towers, farther south on West 42nd Street, which Citi Habitats is marketing. It offers in-house services such as pet grooming and pedicures. The rental complex, built by Larry Silverstein, has 1,254 apartments in a pair of 60-story towers. It has dangled a two-months-free deal, and has asking rents that are lower than Columbus Square’s, at $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom, said Hamm. Still, he added, it’s only about 40 percent leased.

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While initial numbers at Columbus Square are strong, they may not accurately reflect the total health of the project, other brokers said. For one, starting this summer, the project still has to unload 256 more apartments, flanking the eastern side of Columbus Avenue in three more side-by-side glass towers, including 795 Columbus Avenue.

A rendering of 795 Columbus Avenue

In addition, Columbus Square’s location, abutting the 17-building Frederick Douglass housing project instead of the ornate brownstones and Art Deco co-ops found elsewhere on the Upper West Side, could prove a hindrance for future renters, said broker Adam Disick, chief executive of the Triumph Property Group. Renters prefer to be closer to Columbus Circle, with its stores and nightlife, said Disick, who’s currently marketing another competing rental called the Sessanta, which has two towers on West 60th Street between Amsterdam and West End avenues.

Since May, the Sessanta, which features a 40-foot pool looking out on English-style gardens, has leased 261 out of 301 apartments, said Disick, adding that one-bedrooms are $3,100. He said that if the Sessanta, which was built by Algin Management, had rolled out incentives before December, when it began offering a month’s free rent for signers of 13-month leases, the process might have gone even faster.

“If somebody comes to us from [Columbus Square], we tell them we’re in a better location,” Disick said.

Columbus Square faced opposition during its development from next-door neighbor Park West Village — a seven-tower mix of condos and rent-stabilized and market-rate rentals.

Those residents, joined by local politicians, sued to stop the new high-rises, which they said blocked light and air and ate up open space. Sure enough, on a recent morning, a shadow cast by 808 Columbus could be clearly seen along the façade of the building next door. With the buildings up, though, there is a sense of resignation among members of the Park West Village Tenants’ Association, said president Maggie Peyton, who’s rented at Park West since 1963. (That was two years after the complex opened, in the wake of an infamous slum-clearance project from master planner Robert Moses, which displaced thousands of low-income residents.)

“Nobody ever likes change,” Peyton said.

Still, some new residents at Columbus Square are already talking it up. Teresa Bruce last month moved from a two-bedroom prewar co-op on the Upper West Side — she’s lived in the neighborhood for 30 years in a series of co-ops — to a two-bedroom at 808 Columbus. For Bruce, who hopes to leave the city in a few years, renting makes sense. Some other options, like the Donald Trump-built rentals on Riverside Boulevard, were too far from the subway, and two-bedrooms at 15 Central Park West, where she also looked, were upward of $10,000 a month to sublet.

“I’m a finish freak,” said Bruce. Columbus Square, like many of her co-ops, seems to pride itself on finishes too, like its glass-fronted kitchen cabinets. “And this is not easy to find in a rental,” Bruce said.