REAL E$TATE 2000: The Next Best Things

“We have great opportunities right now, and they’re ours to blow, in the great New York tradition,” says Kent Barwick, head of the Municipal Art Society. In today’s tropical real-estate climate – with hawkish community groups agitating for more parks and real-estate tycoons displaying expansionist tendencies – blowing it hardly seems likely. The new Penn Station stands to open up the far West Side in midtown. The redeveloped Con Edison site in the East Thirties could mean a new neighborhood – “mober” (midtown over by the East River), anybody? Columbus Centre, on the site of the old Coliseum, could reconnect lower Broadway to the Upper West Side. The city’s waterfronts could be transformed by new subway lines, shuttling New Yorkers to parts of the city that have effectively been noncontenders for eons. And parks on a scale unheard of since the reign of Robert Moses could give the city’s asphalt and concrete a sorely needed wash of chlorophyll. It’s the largest land grab the city has seen in 50 years.

1. It’s hard to gaze upon Con Edison’s hulking Waterside electric-and-steam plant in the East Thirties and see Emerald City. But the giant 4.5-acre power plant and four parcels of land occupying nine acres along the East River recently inspired a fierce bidding war between developers. A partnership formed by the Fisher brothers (known for their high-end office buildings), residential kingpin Sheldon Solow, and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter won out – for a reported $600 million. Whatever the price tag, it will be years before luxury condominiums rise from this dismal stretch of waterfront, which was a slaughterhouse district before Con Ed commandeered it. City-planning commissioner Joseph Rose says he’s interested in seeing around 4 million to 5 million square feet of commercial and residential property, with buildings each “in the range of 40 to 50 stories.” There should also be public access to the waterfront – an esplanade, perhaps. Community groups are already demanding height limits in the plans.

2. Trump World Tower, at First Avenue and 47th Street, will eventually stand 90 stories high, making it the tallest residential building in the world – and one of the most controversial developments in recent history. Urban planners and neighbors like Walter Cronkite took issue with Donald Trump’s $360 million spire near the U.N. when he announced it a year and a half ago, but so far, the courts have said he is within his rights. A happy upshot of the ruckus could be a long-due overhaul of the city’s zoning laws – including a cap on the height of buildings throughout most of the city. “Trump World Tower is a good example of a developer seeing how far you can push the zoning ordinance until everyone says We can’t let this happen again,” says Bob Yaro, executive director of the not-for-profit Regional Plan Association. Still, not everybody’s been boycotting the building. “I heard some ambassadors have bought there,” says Elizabeth Stribling, head of Stribling & Associates. The 372 apartments are selling for between $700,000 and $13 million; the Trump Organization says the building is already 60 percent sold – even thought it won’t be fully finished until April 2001.

Brokers say the combination of Trump World Tower and Bridge Tower Place – a 38-story luxury high-rise under construction at First Avenue and 61st Street – should rev up the residential market along First Avenue in the Fifties. Designed by the same architect as Trump World Tower, Bridge Tower Place (a Brodsky Organization project) is shooting up right across the street from the new Bridgemarket under the 59th Street Bridge, where knowing East Siders are checking out the new Terence Conran shop and Conran-run restaurant Guastavino’s. A Bed Bath & Beyond and Sports Club/LA nearby are under construction. Traffic brings more traffic, says Marilyn Harra Kaye, owner of Prudential MLBKaye International Realty and a local resident for 25 years. “Nothing was here a few years ago,” says Kaye. “My daughter was never allowed to walk under the bridge alone. But now it’s beautiful. Now foreigners want to be near Bridgemarket.”

3. After 50 years of jawboning the issue to death, Manhattan may yet get its Second Avenue subway line, starting at 125th Street and ending at Whitehall Street in the financial district (with a fork near 14th Street that would stop in the East Village). “We have all these new high-tech and financial-services businesses here in the city,” says the subway line’s most vocal proponent, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “The only way to keep them here is by expanding access to other parts of the city.” The West Side has three lines serving it, but the East Side has just one, leading to chronic overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line. The Lower East Side and the East Village, especially, have little access to mass transit.

One catalyst for a new subway is the $4.3 billion East River Access, the MTA project championed by Governor Pataki; in the next few years, a tunnel will connect the Long Island Rail Road to the Metro-North line, and both trains will pull into Grand Central Terminal. Long Island commuters will arrive at the train station and pour onto the Lexington line. That’s where things get prickly; the MTA proposes that the Second Avenue subway run from 125th Street to 63rd Street, where it would merge with the N and the R lines. But Silver has said he’ll hold up the state budget until the Pataki administration commits to building a full-length line. “East River Access means you’re going to be bringing in 20,000 to 25,000 people during rush hour without giving some relief to the overcrowded Lexington line,” says an exasperated-sounding Silver. “It’s shortsighted, very shortsighted.”

4. “The Farley project is the kernel of what’s to come on the West Side,” says architect Alexandros Washburn, Senator Moynihan’s former public-works adviser and ex-president of the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation. It was Washburn who spearheaded the plan to convert half the Beaux-Arts James A. Farley Post Office into the new Pennsylvania Station. The Farley Post Office was designed by McKim, Mead and White as the fraternal twin of the original station. It is conveniently situated right across Eighth Avenue from what Senator Moynihan calls “that little hole in the ground” – what’s left of the old and still-mourned Penn Station. The $600 million project, designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, is how the city will atone for past sins; after all, it was the destruction of the original Penn Station in 1963 that led to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The new Penn Station, expected to be completed in 2003, will handle an estimated 30 percent increase in traffic by 2020 – thanks to a new high-speed link to Boston (and eventually Washington, D.C.), new transit links in New Jersey, and a new rail link to JFK, to be finished in 2004.

Then there are the hotly debated plans for the No. 7 train (which already carries passengers from Grand Central to Times Square) to continue to Penn Station and then on to the Jacob Javits Center. And Metro-North commuters from Westchester may be coming into Penn Station via Amtrak tracks sometime in the future. With talk of expanding the Javits Center – which is dwarfed by rivals in other cities – and the possibility of a new NFL stadium at the site of the West Side rail yards (where Mayor Giuliani’s dreams of hosting the Olympics may yet come true, too), transportation is suddenly getting a lot of airtime.

“The Farley building will eventually have an entrance on Ninth Avenue,” says Washburn, “a gateway to the west that stands to open up blocks and blocks of undeveloped real estate.” In fact, it has already begun to happen, according to Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Looking out the window of his West 34th Street Manhattan office at the desolate rail yards, Stern notes that “in this whole area, from the Starrett-Lehigh building at 26th Street to 42nd Street west of Ninth Avenue – where the Lincoln Tunnel comes out – there’s a ton of land that’s empty or filled with marginal buildings.” It’s a haven for artists and architecture firms looking for relatively inexpensive studio space; Richard Meier, Gwathmey Siegel, Ian Schrager, and Massimo Vignelli are all in the same building at Tenth Avenue and 36th Street. The largest project now under construction in the area is Larry Silverstein’s Riverplace, two residential luxury buildings occupying a full block between 41st and 42nd Streets on Eleventh Avenue. Riverplace will add 1,800 apartments, retail space, and a 34,000-square-foot health club to the neighborhood. “I think Yale art historian Vincent Scully had the most wonderful description of today’s Penn Station,” says Alexander Garvin, a member of the New York City Planning Commission. “He always says that at Penn Station, you scuttle into Manhattan like a rat. A new Penn Station would be a magnet around which the West Side is going to redevelop.” Also in the offing: a new and improved Madison Square Garden. Just two weeks ago, Cablevision announced that it will demolish the Garden and rebuild on the same site or in the nearby rail yards.

5. Despite predictions twenty years ago that Long Island City would become the next SoHo, this part of Queens never quite registered with the new bohemians. Instead, it’s getting a more traditional kind of makeover: Queens West is fifteen residential and four or five commercial buildings planned for the Long Island City waterfront, an area known as Hunters Point. Starting at the giant red Pepsi-Cola sign, Queens West will eventually occupy 74 acres on the bank of the East River – and 1.25 miles of waterfront. The project was developed by a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation, working in conjunction with a few developers, including the Zeckendorfs.

The first building up is Citylights, a 40-story co-op beside Tennisport’s bubble. The next building, tentatively called Avalon Riverview, breaks ground this spring, and the waterfront park that arrived with Citylights should double in size to six acres over the next year, eventually running the 12.8-acre length of the property. “There will actually be waterfront access for the first time in probably a century for Mr. and Mrs. Hunters Point,” says Carolyn Bachan, president of the Queens West Development Corporation. Eventually, Queens West stands to usher an additional 13,500 residents into the area. “Every landowner there is dreaming of sugarplums,” says Kent Barwick, head of the Municipal Art Society: “In no time at all, this coast could become a kind of gold coast – that is, if it’s properly planned.”

“The view from my thirty-ninth-floor apartment is breathtaking,” says Edward Sadowsky, president of the Citylights co-op board and a partner at the Manhattan law firm Blank Rome Tenzer Greenblatt. “Besides, I only have a four-minute commute to my office in the Chrysler Building.”

6. “Brooklyn has the least amount of parkland of any county in the state,” says Joanne Witty, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation. Suddenly, it stands to get some. With the waterfront no longer being used to unload cargo, and the Port Authority piers seeing action as warehousing and parking, an 80-acre greensward seemed hard to argue against. Witty expects to have a draft of a plan for the new park this spring (funded with $2 million from New York State). The 1.3-mile-long property running south from Atlantic Avenue to just past the Manhattan Bridge encompasses Piers 1 through 5 and the Fulton Ferry Landing under the Brooklyn Bridge. Until recently, developer David Walentas, the largest landowner in dumbo, expected he would build a hotel and marina here. But the city nixed his proposals in December, saying the plans would change the character of the neighborhood (such as it was), block views, and create too much congestion. Local community groups suddenly had more room to push for the park. “It can have chunks of green space and cultural activities, along with some level of commercial activity,” says Councilman Ken Fisher. “It would be a destination, with ice skating, a hotel – comparable to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Ghirardelli Square, and Fisherman’s Wharf.”

7. If the old Coliseum – the first of the Upper West Side urban-renewal projects – was considered a late-vintage monument to Robert Moses, the $1.6 billion Columbus Centre, future home of Time Warner/AOL, has to be considered an early monument to the new economy. The two 750-foot towers being developed by the Related Companies and Apollo Real Estate Advisors (with others) will include a concert hall for jazz that will be considered part of Lincoln Center, a top-tier Mandarin Oriental hotel, stores, restaurants, and 225 luxury condominiums. “It will connect the theater district with Lincoln Center,” says Alexander Garvin. “With Columbus Circle coming back, all that marginal stuff on Broadway will disappear,” adds Robert Stern. “Broadway will become a promenade. Right now, Starbucks is the gastronomic highlight, but this will bring vitality down from Broadway’s upper reaches.” It helps that neighboring 2 Columbus Circle – the sixties’ neo-palazzo that was the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Art – is on the block. Sure, it’s possible the winner won’t tear down the lollipop-legged dinosaur, but that seems highly unlikely. And once the new buildings become a reality, residential prices in the long-depressed area will only shoot up further, says Halstead Property senior vice-president Deanna Kory.

8. “Every single time I drove by the Washburn Wire factory on the FDR with Moynihan,” Alex Washburn (no relation) remembers, “he would point it out and say, ‘This would not be allowed to happen in Japan. But we’ve become blind to it.’ You could set your watch by that comment.” Not anymore. East Harlem is getting the largest commercial development in its history. The $160 million East River Plaza, the future home of a big-box Home Depot, a Best Buy, and a Costco, will be built on the site of the long-abandoned Washburn Wire Factory – the plump white elephant squatting between East 116th and 119th Streets alongside the FDR Drive. The current developers bought the factory site at a foreclosure auction held by the federal government. “Washburn Wire is key, because it’s one of the most dilapidated sites the city has harbored for almost 50 years,” says Washburn. “What is happening now proves there is commercial potential. When you look back ten years from now, it will look like a no-brainer.”

REAL E$TATE 2000: The Next Best Things