For years, internist Wendy Ziecheck and her business partner, Christopher Barley, saw patients in an 800-square-foot space on Central Park South. As doctor’s offices go, it was elegant, with windows overlooking the park. But it was cramped, so in 2003 they decided to find a larger space, preferably on the Upper East Side near the hospitals, and ideally on the ground floor of a prewar. “It’s easy access for patients without bothering the residents, [and] it’s ideal because your name’s on the outside of the building and passersby see it,” Ziecheck explains. “The doorman greets the patients, and the lobby always looks nice.” She had heard those types of properties were growing scarce, but it couldn’t possibly be as onerous as the hunt for a new home. Or could it?
Patients are accustomed to waiting, but these days doctors are doing a lot of it, too, as their search for new spaces stretches out longer than they’d ever imagined. “At least with the residential market, customers have choices. There’s a much bigger pool,” says broker Paul Wexler (pictured) of Corcoran Wexler, who specializes in ground-floor apartments and physician’s offices. It took three years for eye surgeon Jacqueline Muller to find a suite on Park Avenue, partly because she was holding out for that address—“there’s a certain prestige,” she admits—and also because she was repeatedly outbid. Twice, she was beaten out by another doctor. Another buyer wanted to build a triplex apartment. (Prices, of course, are way up. Tenants pay $85 per square foot per year on prime East Side avenues, compared with $50 two to three years ago.)
Wexler says competition from apartment-hunters—because ground-floor spaces come cheaper than comparable units upstairs—is partly to blame, but doctors are being pushed out for other reasons. Residential developers aren’t allocating street-level space for medical offices anymore, preferring larger lobbies or amenities like fitness rooms or play spaces. Turnover also has slowed as more physicians share space, to cover the ever-increasing monthly expenses. So what’s the cure? Just like buyers and renters in the residential market, they have to take their time or settle for less. In Ziecheck’s case, it meant rubbing shoulders with lawyers and bankers in a midtown tower. “We have a whole floor!” she says excitedly—and, she jokes, a building full of prospects.