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Five to Grow On

In a city that never stops reinventing itself, office buildings become luxury rentals, flea markets give way to towering condominiums, and sleepy brownstone enclaves gentrify overnight. Five neighborhoods where change is in the air.

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Glass houses: Everywhere you look in North Chelsea, a new luxury rental building pops into view.  

Columbus Circle
From an office on the fifty-second floor of Carnegie Hall Tower, Dolly Lenz peers over her glasses at the construction site for One Central Park. "Homeless people used to live around here," she says with a shudder. "Now it's going to be the No. 1 neighborhood in New York -- and therefore, the world!" Lenz, a top broker at Insignia Douglas Elliman, is not known for her rhetorical restraint, but this time, she may be onto something. When finished, the two 80-story towers now under construction will contain 191 luxury condos, a Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the headquarters of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a 14,000-square-foot Cartier store, AOL Time Warner's headquarters, CNN's studios, a new Jean-Georges Vongerichten steakhouse, and a retail complex. Four of the ten penthouses have already sold, at prices ranging from $25 million unfinished to $40 million with the works (that's $4,000 per square foot), even though the apartments won't be finished for another two years.

Past is Prologue: Named for its statue, which was donated to the city by an Italian-American group in 1892, Columbus Circle was once a chic urban plaza ringed by theaters and cafés. Over the years, however, the area became best known for automobile dealerships and the mammoth 3.4-acre Coliseum convention center, which was eventually pushed into obsolescence by the Javits Center.

Shadow War: Developers have eyed the site for years, but community activists beat back a succession of proposals, including Moshe Safdie's plan to build a skyscraper there in 1985. (Jackie Kennedy Onassis and other neighborhood activists opened hundreds of umbrellas in Central Park to illustrate the shadow the building would cast across the grass.) Ultimately, developers Stephen M. Ross, Kenneth A. Himmel, and William L. Mack were awarded a contract to build on the site in 1999, on the condition that they maintain a "view corridor" down 59th Street.

Coming Attractions: Donald Trump just completed work on his fourth structure at Trump Place on Riverside Boulevard. And the Park Imperial is nearing completion on 56th between Seventh and Broadway; Deepak Chopra just bought an apartment there, and the building will also be headquarters to Random House. ("That makes the southern border very secure," says Lenz.) Residents who own apartments in the area can expect to see their property value skyrocket, and Ian Schrager's Hudson Hotel will finally have a Zip Code to be proud of.

The Numbers: Rents for studios start at $2,300, one-bedrooms range from $2,900 to $3,200, and two-bedrooms from $3,800 to $4,500. Co-op prices for studios range from $150,000 to $350,000, one-bedrooms from $300,000 to $650,000, and two-bedrooms from $450,000 to $1 million-plus.

The Fallout: The beloved Coliseum bookstore, in business for close to three decades, closed in January because of rent hikes. Some in the neighborhood worry that that's only the beginning.

Long Island City
Liz Picca, owner of City View Cleaners, a mom-and-pop laundry started by her parents in 1984, interrupts our conversation continually to give directions, say thank-you to someone dropping off money he owes, and yell "Ma! Ma!" to get her mother's attention. When one of her customers, Palmina Delagati, perished on 9/11 -- and her sister mentioned she'd been a die-hard Rangers fan -- Picca called her friend Tony Verderame of Ess & Vee Acoustical Contractors, who called his friend Tony Mazzarella, owner of the Waterfront Crab House, who called Rod Gilbert, former captain of the New York Rangers -- who showed up at Delagati's memorial at St. Mary's Church. It remains to be seen whether that kind of small-town fellowship will weather the arrival of luxury high-rises, which have been cropping up along the waterfront in the past few years. When the Citylights co-op opened a dry cleaner, Picca lost 40 percent of her business overnight. "They're all yuppies, and they don't want to walk a block with their cleaning," she explains with a sigh. "Can you blame them?"

The old country: The neighborhood is a true melting pot of Greeks, Italians, Indians, and Eastern Europeans. Rows of apartment houses are interspersed with commercial streets and the occasional velvet-rope nightclub; you can still find a dressmaker to copy a designer frock for about $50. Handbag designer Neal Decker and his boyfriend, Danny Evans, who is Simon Doonan's assistant, pay a mere $769 a month for their two-bedroom apartment, but living cheaply has its trade-offs: At night, prostitutes tap on car windows in Queensboro Plaza, and, as one resident puts it, "Everyone smokes in Queens. You need an iron lung to go into the bagel shop."

On the Waterfront: Thanks to the Queens West Development Project, the waterfront has become hot property in recent years, with plans to develop luxury condos, a riverfront boardwalk, parks, and restaurants. The Avalon Riverview -- a newly built luxury rental -- offers postcard views of the Manhattan skyline.

The Numbers: Rents for studio apartments start at $850 a month, one-bedrooms at $1,000, and two-bedrooms at about $1,300. In the Citylights building, studio co-ops start at $135,000, one-bedrooms at $160,000, and two-bedrooms at $275,000.

Culture Club: P.S. 1 has been drawing Manhattanites across the bridge for years, moma has temporarily moved its entire collection to the old Swingline staple factory, and the SoHo Dorsky Gallery now resides in a former diamond-sorting plant.

Pipe Dreams: On the Boulevard, a Madison Avenue-style boutique that sold gourmet chocolates and bath products, closed after eighteen months on Vernon Boulevard. Working-class families weren't ready to plunk down $35 for candles imported from Paris.

The Financial District
Architect and developer Joseph Pell Lombardi was one of the first to see the appeal of Wall Street -- he bought 55 Liberty Street in 1978, and converted the building to luxury co-ops in 1980 -- and he still believes the area has plenty of room for growth as a residential neighborhood. "If you converted 1 million square feet of commercial space to residential space, you would still only have converted a fraction of the square feet of space that exists on Wall Street," he says. As long as people like Patty Rockmore, co-owner of advertising firm Patty & Toshi, keep moving in, developers will create space for them. Rockmore sold her Park Avenue co-op to renovate cottages in Southampton, then changed her mind and returned to the city in January. "I was on the board of my building, and I loved it -- loved it," she says. Now Rockmore pays $1,800 a month for a large studio at 100 John Street that "looks like a Prada showroom," with frosted-glass panels to offset her bedroom and a view of the Manhattan Bridge. "People like it better than my Park Avenue co-op," she says. "It's like a new beginning."

Identity Crisis: During the recessionary periods that occurred in the seventies and the nineties, developers took advantage of low prices and tax incentives to convert millions of square feet of commercial space to residential housing. With each economic revival, however, prices went up and development stopped. The residential market was just beginning to pick up again before September 11. Now all eyes are on the site of the former World Trade Center, which will determine the next chapter in the Wall Street area's schizophrenic history.

In the Pipeline: In February 2001, the Economic Development Corporation took over 45 Wall Street with plans to build a new stock exchange, and Rockrose Development was instructed to move its tenants out of the building. For the moment, the fate of the exchange hangs in the balance; it may become part of the new construction, or move to a new location altogether.

The Numbers: Typical of the local housing stock is 99 John Street, a converted office building with a doorman, roof deck, and Art Deco murals in the lobby. Large studios with eleven-foot ceilings start at $1,550 a month, one-bedrooms at $1,850, and two-bedrooms at $2,500.

Chelsea Heights
When Shaun Osher arrived in Manhattan from South Africa in 1989, the first thing he did was go to the INS building on 25th Street and Seventh Avenue to get his Social Security card. Ten years later, he found himself selling multi-million-dollar lofts in the very same building, now called the Chelsea Mercantile. "That building has been very good to me," says Osher, 35, a senior vice-president at Insignia Douglas Elliman. "It's my American dream." No one would have equated the "Dirty Thirties" with the American dream as recently as three years ago, when "Chelsea Heights" was a no-man's-land of trash-strewn lots and check-cashing stores, and Billy's Topless was the only local landmark. But when the Chelsea Atelier was converted to luxury condos in 1997, others followed. Since then, developers have bought up loft warehouses all over the neighborhood and converted them to luxury residences such as the Caroline and the Capitol, both on Sixth Avenue near the flea market.

Northern Exposure: The recent real-estate boom has created new boundaries for Chelsea, which now extends from 14th Street, between Sixth Avenue and the West Side Highway, all the way up to 30th Street. Most brokers won't take clients who request Chelsea to the northern reaches without some explanation. "You have to kind of ease them into it," says Osher. Ryan Fitzpatrick, a bond analyst, and Tom Cunningham, a strategy consultant at Interdimensions, didn't need much encouragement in January, when they first laid eyes on a two-bedroom duplex on 29th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, with a working fireplace, one and a half baths, and 1,150 square feet of space -- for less than $500,000. They are currently in contract.

The Numbers: Studios range from $1,600 to $2,000 a month, one-bedrooms $2,200 to $2,600, two-bedrooms $2,500 to $3,500. Buyers can expect to pay $400 to $700 per square foot, or up to $1,000 per square foot in luxury buildings like the Chelsea Mercantile.

Promises, Promises: In a recent speech, Mayor Bloomberg voiced support for building parks and more open spaces in this area, expanding the Javits Center, and bringing the 7 train as far west as Eleventh Avenue. Plans to convert the 34th Street post office into an Amtrak station are going forward.

Prospect Heights
Richard Lazarus, an 81-year-old broker who has lived in Prospect Heights since 1956, still can't get his mind around the rise in real-estate prices over the past three years. "The jumps have been fantastic," he says. "Brownstones that sold for $400,000 to $450,000 three years ago are going for $1 million today." The revitalization of the neighborhood began in the late eighties with the restoration of abandoned apartment houses by private developers, and continued in the late nineties with city-financed conversions for middle-income tenants. The neighborhood runs from Eastern Parkway to Atlantic Avenue, and from Flatbush Avenue to Washington Avenue, with leafy blocks of brownstones on Sterling, Park, Prospect Place, and St. Marks Avenue. Farther east, toward Crown Heights, where tenements line Vanderbilt, and north toward Atlantic Avenue, values decrease. But developers are drooling over the success of recent conversions like the old Daily News building (which is already 80 percent sold) and the Spalding ball factory (100 percent sold).

Signs of the Times: As housing prices have risen, the median age of the population has fallen. But Prospect Heights remains an ethnically diverse, family-oriented area where many residents have held on to their homes for decades. "People want to come to Prospect Heights now, and nobody's selling," explains Lazarus.

The Numbers: Studios rent for $850 to $1,200, one-bedrooms for $1,200 to $1,600, and two-bedrooms for $1,800 to $2,300. Brownstones start at $750,000 and range as high as $1 million. Peter Baran, 39, a former art director for Saturday Night Live, and his wife, Maya, 32, who is expecting their first child, bought their three-story brownstone in 1999 for $418,000, after getting priced out of the Manhattan market. "We worried about what to expect: Is it dangerous? Will we have anything in common with our neighbors?" Peter recalls. They took the plunge anyway, because they needed the space. Now they cook in, hang out on their stoop, and talk across the fence to their neighbors. "Why do people live in Manhattan with no way of escaping the tyranny of their financial situation?" he asks. "So they can get good takeout?"

Urban amenities: Tom's Restaurant -- reputedly the Tom's Diner of Suzanne Vega's song -- is a neighborhood institution where the owner often passes out cups of coffee to patrons waiting on line. Newer to town is Tavern on Dean, an English pub-style restaurant with white oak floors and a long mahogany bar, serving New American fare for the past eighteen months (average entrée: $16).

Culture Club: Prospect Heights is home to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Brooklyn Museum.

Cons: Many of the brownstones were used as rooming houses during the Depression, and are in dire need of better plumbing and modern kitchens. Schools are mixed. P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights consistently underperforms on standardized tests, while P.S. 321 and the Brooklyn New School in Park Slope have won accolades for academic excellence.


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