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You Wanna Piece of This?

Rao’s opens its doors to residents—but they’ll have to do their own cooking.

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Go up to Rao’s, the notoriously selective pasta joint at East 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, and it looks much as it has for decades: bright-red façade on a dodgy-looking block, a natty Frank Pellegrino at the front of the house, maybe Robert De Niro or Billy Joel at one of the ten tables. But cast your eye upward starting this week, and you’ll see one big difference: a banner stretched across the bricks that reads LIVE ABOVE A LEGEND. Yes, this week, the upper floors of the building—until recently bricked up and all but abandoned (as in the photo below, from 2002)—will become Rao’s City Views, a 22-unit luxury rental. “People will get here because of the mystique and end up staying because of the apartments,” says Corcoran’s Neal Sroka, the listings broker, who rarely handles rentals but made an exception for the restaurant he loves. With prices that are more East Village than East Harlem ($2,000 a month for a one-bedroom to $5,400 for a two-bedroom penthouse with a terrace), will anyone bite?

Apparently, two people already have. A telecommunications entrepreneur who’ll pay about $3,000 a month for her corner two-bedroom admits that she could be living in a building farther south for the same money, explaining that the restaurant is “part of the appeal.” The few blocks surrounding Rao’s were long an oddity in East Harlem, staying relatively stable through the high-crime seventies and eighties. Now they’re at the forefront of the gentrification boom sweeping north from 96th Street, and, in fact, the apartments over Rao’s are priced about the same as most new developments in the area. A two-bedroom nearby on 117th Street is leasing for $2,600 a month; a one-bedroom on 118th is $2,000. “The market’s hot—in twenty days, we’ve rented 26 apartments,” says Justin Brunwasser, manager of Vertical City Realty, which specializes in East Harlem. (The sales market is even hotter; the average price for a one-bedroom in 2004 was $230,855, up 8.6 percent from 2003, according to Jonathan Miller of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel.) In fact, says Ron Straci—who co-owns the building with his family and the restaurant with Pellegrino—this plan to renovate has been in the works for several years.

Which brings us to the crucial question: Will signing a lease get you a reservation? “The answer is no,” replies Straci. “It’s easier to get an apartment than a table.” Tenants will have to comfort—or torture—themselves with the pervasive hallway aroma of garlic and tomatoes.


Movers
Cash and Carey
The suddenly omnipresent Mariah Carey, who’s zigzagging the city to promote her recent release, The Emancipation of Mimi, took time out between appearances recently to shop for a new apartment, sources say. The songbird, already the owner of a triplex in Tribeca’s Franklin Tower, may be considering a nest at—where else?—the downtown celebrity haven Morton Square. It’s not Mary-Kate and Ashley’s 5,700-square-foot penthouse (still available for $9.495 million) that’s caught her eye, however; instead, Carey reportedly toured a triplex townhouse-style apartment with four bedrooms, four-and-a-half baths, and a private entrance that rents for $28,000 a month. Broker Charlotte Van Doren of Stribling refused to comment; Carey’s publicist, Marvet Britto, says Carey’s not looking to move. “She’s happy where she’s at,” says Britto. “She has an amazing apartment.”


Triple Assessment
1255 Fifth Avenue, Apartment 3CDE
Three-bedroom, 3.5-bath, 3,042-square-foot prewar condo with 108-square-foot terrace.
Asking Price: $3.385 million.
Charges and Taxes: $2,908 per month.
Broker:Thomas Demsker, William B. May. It’s hard to impress seasoned Manhattan brokers, but this upper–Fifth Avenue spread managed to do just that. The owner combined three loftlike apartments—already unusual in the neighborhood—to create a one-of-a-kind space. But, say the experts, the very traits that make it so eye-catching may also prevent the sale from being a walk in the Park.

Susan Abrams, Warburg Realty: “It’s fabulous,” declares Abrams, “but it’s still difficult to get people to come up this high.” (The building is near the corner of Fifth Avenue and 107th Street.) She says it’s the kind of apartment to which an agent would have to drag a customer, but once there, “they’ll get taken with it immediately.” Also, the property’s a prewar condo, enhancing its value.
Her assessment: $3.325 million.

Mary Anne Fusco, Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy: “Unusual spaces aren’t easy to sell,” says Fusco, “and most people who would buy this want to live downtown.” Though the mezzanine adds something, she adds, the real livable space is all on the main floor. “Basically, you have two bedrooms and a yoga room,” she explains. “Everything else is flash.”
Her assessment: $3.45 million.

Suzanne Sealy, Prudential Douglas Elliman: "It's downtown uptown," says Sealy, who was enthralled by the sunset views of Central Park’s Harlem Meer. “People in New York buy for space, light, and views. This has all three.”
Her assessment: $3.35 million.


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