Chinatown real estate was for a very long time isolated from the city around it. But the neighborhood’s resistance to change is finally beginning to buckle under the weight of monumental amounts of money. Today, developers are slowly making inroads into the final frontier below 14th Street. Though Chinatown’s center has zoning restrictions that prohibit high-rise building, and many old-school family landowners refuse to sell, new construction is edging in from Soho and Tribeca, and, says Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Cindy Yin, buyers are homing in.
Projects near Soho or the Lower East Side, like the Forward Building and 129 Lafayette, have sold briskly, says Corcoran’s Glenn Schiller. The new condo at 123 Baxter Street could be anywhere in Manhattan, with its wine consultant and spa treatments. The building’s Website puts it in “Soho South” and plugs its proximity to Little Italy—even though, notes Charles Lai, executive director of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, “upwards of 75 percent of the people [on that block] are Chinese.” That disconnect may be why five apartments here recently saw price drops, though they remain expensive—about $1.25 million for a large one-bedroom.
In Chinatown proper, no-frills condos like Hester Gardens seem to do best. Its apartments, finished well if not luxuriously, pack more bedrooms than is typical. (No-frills, in this context, means less than $1 million for a two-bedroom.) “Chinese buyers”—still most of the customer base—“don’t care about a concierge service,” says Century 21 NY Metro’s Sherri Shang. She says many would rather forgo those extras beyond the basics (laundry, parking, and doorman) in exchange for low monthly charges.
As for resales, Chinatown is still hard to break into. A search on Trulia.com at press time showed just ten apartments available for sale, compared with 47 in the West Village. Tenants, many with regulated rents, just don’t leave. (Though if you or a pal can read the Chinese-language dailies, the classifieds are still used by independent brokers and landlords; the World Journal has the largest circulation.) Most owners, tempted though they may be, aren’t cashing out, and that may be why Chinatown isn’t a façade like Little Italy. “If you want to make sure there’s still a thriving community, then maybe selling to the highest bidder isn’t what you want to do,” says Lai. “When [it’s] so sanitized, it becomes a bedroom community, with the same shops selling the same things. People will have to venture elsewhere to get that authenticity.”