In the past four years, the middle-class home buyer in New York has gone through something like the five stages of grief. First there was denial ($300,000 for a Hell’s Kitchen studio? You must be joking), then anger (only people from Iowa pay those kinds of prices!). Then we tried bargaining (and learned that in this market, negotiations are a one-way street). Finally, there was depression, the sinking realization that finding an affordable home in Manhattan big enough to raise a family was out of reach forever.
Now it’s time to move on to the fifth and final stage: acceptance and resolution. The fact is that there are still plenty of neighborhoods left that haven’t been “discovered.” You just have to free yourself from the notion that living in New York means living on the island of Manhattan. This is not the same old list of “alternative” neighborhoods. Nothing against Cobble Hill or Long Island City or Greenpoint, but their secret has long since gotten out. Prices have already climbed out of the bargain basement and are now happily ensconced in the second-floor guest bedroom. No, we’re talking here about some lovely beneath-the-radar spots where you can buy an entire house for less than you might spend on a “cozy” alcove studio in Manhattan.
And price is not the only attraction. You’ll also discover that giving up on Manhattan means gaining other things. Like a backyard, a tree-lined street, a basement, even a dining room. But let’s be clear, these aren’t bland suburbs. Bellerose, Ward Hill, Kingsbridge, College Point, Jersey City, and Stuyvesant Heights are lively, walkable urban hamlets within easy commuting distance of midtown. Of course, prices won’t stay low forever. If you don’t act now, you risk experiencing the sixth and most agonizing stage of real-estate grief: the why-didn’t-we-buy-something-back-when-it-was-affordable stage.
This sleepy Queens neighborhood at the edge of the city, where children play catch on quiet streets, hasn’t changed much since it was first developed in 1906. Thanks to strict zoning laws, Cape Cods and English Tudors on tree-lined blocks still make up most of Bellerose’s housing stock. Many of the area’s single-family homes were built a half-century ago and have nice-size yards and small garages and are modestly priced. Recent immigrants from India and Pakistan have begun to bid up the housing market. Their influence has helped infuse some life into bland commercial streets like Hillside and Jamaica Avenues, where the action has been mostly limited to a few Irish bars and the occasional mom-and-pop grocery. A few blocks east on Hillside Avenue, in Floral Park, street life gets a little more interesting, with great Indian markets and takeout joints like the hugely popular Usha Foods. The petting zoo at the Queens County Farm Museum is kid heaven. And the ponies can be played in person at Belmont Park.
Prime areas: The blocks north of Hillside Avenue offer solid Cape Cods on large lots. South of Hillside to 88th Avenue are graceful brick Tudors, some small and affordable.
Wrong side of the tracks: South of 89th Avenue, the housing stock goes downhill, with muttlike Colonial-ranch-Tudor modern hybrids on small lots creating a looser, less orderly feel to the blocks.
Commute to midtown: From the Bellerose L.I.R.R. station, it’s 30 minutes to Penn Station; about an hour on the X68 express bus that stops at 268th Street and Hillside Avenue. Local buses can be taken to the F train at Hillside Avenue and 179th Street in Jamaica; from there it’s about 30 minutes to Manhattan.
Hot-button issue: Plans to build three new public schools on vacant land at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center are pitting residents worried about increased traffic against school officials desperate for more classrooms.
Public schools: Bellerose is in District 26, the best school district in Queens, where no elementary school had fewer than 62 percent of students scoring above state proficiency standards in reading. Overall, 76.3 percent of this district’s students met or exceeded reading standards, and 71.6 percent met or exceeded grade level in math. District 26 is struggling with overcrowding. At the beginning of the school year, it was at 101 percent of capacity.
Hotshot brokers: Vinod Patel of Century 21 Laffey (718-347-3202), and Frank Rocchio of U.S. 1 Adams (718-343-4404).
A hilly peninsula surrounded by Flushing Bay, the East River, and Powells Cove, College Point, Queens, has a snug small-town feel. Vintage Victorians with generous yards, modern two-story waterfront condos with Mercedes-Benzes parked in front, and affordable though blandly square two-family brick structures allow room for a range of income levels. On weekdays it’s as pleasantly quiet here as a village on the Hudson River – the loudest sound is the laughter of children playing on a backyard tire swing. College Point Boulevard has family-run diners, small vegetable stands, and a famous sausage shop called Empire Market. At well-lit Herman A. MacNeil Park there’s a waterfront esplanade, boccie courts, and basketball hoops. Nearby is the College Point Yacht Club. La Guardia is only ten minutes away (and that’s with traffic); an Old Navy, a Circuit City, the twelve-screen College Point Cinema, and the tremendous Times printing plant have recently sprouted up around the defunct Flushing Airport on Twentieth Avenue, and bustling downtown Flushing is minutes away – but a walk along the water in College Point can feel like moments stolen at the end of a beach vacation.
Prime areas: Two-story condos with serene water views have been built on reclaimed waterfront marshland on the East River and Powells Cove. The best properties are north of Fourteenth Avenue, where the houses are more stately, the yards are larger, and the trees are thicker.
Wrong side of the tracks: Some blocks south of Twentieth Avenue, where many new houses have been built, are still blighted with the auto-repair shops and iron-roofed warehouses that once dominated the area.
Commute to midtown: Ten minutes on a local bus to Flushing, where the L.I.R.R. can be boarded at Flushing Main Street for a twenty-minute ride to Penn Station.
Public schools: District 25 has strong schools, with 58.5 percent of elementary-schoolers reading at or above grade level and 55.4 percent scoring above the statewide standard in math.
Hot-button issues: Because of La Guardia’s proximity, many would-be buyers worry about airplane noise, but flights generally take off over the water. Some residents complain about the flow of trucks to industrial pockets and the large new stores.
Hotshot brokers: Patrick Mazza of First Choice Real Estate (718-445-1884), and Willard Rose of Century 21 Weber and Rose (718-631-2121).
WARD HILL AND STAPLETON
While prices in some of Staten Island’s more outlying – and more suburbanly sprawling – neighborhoods are verging on astronomical, charming old Ward Hill and Stapleton are just beginning to awaken. The homes here on winding, sometimes steep streets were built mostly in the thirties and forties, with some dating back to the 1890s. Beautiful wooden Victorian houses on leafy, quiet blocks, some with sweeping views of New York Harbor, are a short drive or a twenty-minute walk to the free ferry, to golf, and to open spaces in Silver Lake Park. The Newhouse Gallery for Contemporary Art and the Botanical Gardens are in nearby Snug Harbor. And at the ferry terminal, which is a mile away, plans are in place for the Staten Island Institute of Arts & Sciences Museum, the National Lighthouse Center, and 20,000 square feet of stores and restaurants – with a Yankees minor-league baseball stadium nearby. At perfect arm’s length from this development are Ward Hill and Stapleton. So don’t be surprised when prices start climbing.
Prime areas: Property values tend to rise as you ascend Ward Hill. Mud Lane has gorgeous nineteenth-century Victorians and Tudors still selling in the low 300s. Veteran state senator John Marchi lives on exclusive Nixon Avenue. Near the top of the hill on Ward Avenue, there are some gorgeous brick and stone Colonials with magnificent views. On Tompkins Circle, a three-bedroom home built in the thirties with panoramic views stretching from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, just sold for $350,000. “I was advertising it as a million-dollar view at 50 percent off,” says realtor Jon Salmon.
Wrong side of the tracks: Down the hill, developers are beginning to build tidy, affordable brick townhomes with finished basements on Beach Street, which used to consist of weed-filled lots. But the lower part of Stapleton still has a seedy feel, with run-down commercial buildings. Property values continue to struggle against the low-income wake of a massive sixties housing project on Broad Street.
Commute to midtown: Five minutes to the ferry, another 25 minutes for the harbor crossing, followed by a twenty-minute subway ride.
Public schools: Some parents opt for nearby private schools like Our Lady of Good Counsel, which is on Ward Hill; Trinity Lutheran on St. Pauls Avenue; or all-girls Notre Dame on Grymes Hill, because at public elementary and intermediate schools like P.S. 14, P.S. 16, and I.S. 49, only about 35 percent of students were reading at or above national averages. I.S. 61, a magnet school for the performing arts, covering Ward Hill, had a more respectable 50 percent at or above grade level. Covering the whole area, Curtis High School, with a highly competitive honors program, is well regarded.
Hot-button issue: Long-brewing plans to develop the former Navy Homeport area at Stapleton as everything from movie studios to a racetrack remain stalled.
Hotshot brokers: Jon Salmon of Salmon Real Estate (718-273-1200), and Betty Siller of Key Realty (718-816-9700).
Bordering tony Fieldston and Riverdale in the Bronx, hilly Kingsbridge has some marvelously quiet blocks with still-affordable Tudor townhouses and small Colonials. It’s a diverse area, with Orthodox Jews, Hispanics, African-Americans, and aging Italian and Irish populations. Turn one corner and you’ll hit a Greek market; another, and you’ll find a market selling plantains and El Diario. Kingsbridge has a shopping district on Broadway and large apartment buildings that keep the population dense enough to maintain a nice buzz of sidewalk traffic. At the neighborhood’s northern edge, the richly forested 1,146-acre Van Cortlandt Park provides a bucolic respite, with two golf courses, tennis courts, a stable, and a freshwater lake.
Prime areas: A tidy area of Tudor townhouses and small detached Colonials lies between Irwin and Kingsbridge Avenues. “Up the hill” west of Irwin Avenue is still the Kingsbridge Zip Code, but these forested, winding roads are generally considered Riverdale, where home prices start in the mid-300s.
Wrong side of the tracks: Areas east of Broadway are marred by ugly high-rises and views of the Major Deegan Expressway.
Commute to midtown: The No. 1 and 9 subway line and express buses whisk residents down Broadway; midtown takes about 30 minutes.
Public schools: Elementary schools are overcrowded and generally low-performing, but Kingsbridge children have long attended a well-regarded middle school in Riverdale. That could change with controversial plans that call for building a new middle school in Kingsbridge. This would allow the local school board, headed by former state attorney general Oliver Koppell, to add high-school grades to the Riverdale middle school. Riverdale residents have been loath to send their children to the low-performing John F. Kennedy High School, which serves the whole area. In sprawling District 10, only 28.7 percent of elementary-school students were meeting reading standards, and 20.2 percent met mathematics standards in the most recent tests.
Hot-button issues: City Hall has presented a $110 million plan to turn the medieval-looking Kingsbridge Armory into a sports, entertainment, and retail complex, but many residents want it used for a public school.
Hotshot brokers: Bradford Trebach of Trebach Realty (718-543-7174), and Susan Goldy of Susan Goldy Incorporated (718-549-4116, extension 10).
DOWNTOWN JERSEY CITY
“The sixth borough,” as some call Jersey City, has long been thought of as an about-to-gentrify area, but the renaissance is now in full flower, with new waterfront apartment towers and offices and good restaurants on Newark Avenue and in the surrounding historic neighborhoods. Young couples are fixing up stunning mid-nineteenth-century brownstones and hopping on quick ferries to Manhattan that cost as little as $2. New statistics show Jersey City homeowners and landlords spent $129.1 million on rehab work on old buildings last year, up $40.1 million from 1998. There’s good reason for that sort of investment in an area where neighbors sit on stoops and speak kindly to passersby on the sidewalk, where well-tended parks temper the urban grid. There are three marinas here, astounding Manhattan views, the Science Museum at Liberty State Park, hip watering holes near Exchange Place, and, for those who crave suburban pleasures, a multiplex and shopping mall at spiffy Newport Center Mall – which has a Baby Gap, a Gap Kids, a regular Gap, and a Gap Men, along with some other non-Gap stores. There is also a new light-rail train that runs up the Hudson from Bayonne and will eventually reach Hoboken.
Prime areas: Classic brownstone blocks are near Hamilton Park and near the Grove Street path station. On the waterfront in the Newport section and a mile south on the grounds of the former Colgate-Palmolive factory, developers like the Lefrak Organization and Essex Waterfront are slapping up new rental and condo apartment towers for young Wall Streeters who want to look across the water at night at the office towers where they work all day long.
Wrong side of the tracks: Since most of the gentrification is coming from people who commute to and from Manhattan, home values are likely to stay lower and housing stock rougher anywhere out of walking distance from a path station or a ferry.
Commute to midtown: As little as ten minutes on the $1 path train and eight minutes on ferries that cost between $2 and $5 each way, from many points in Jersey City to landings in midtown and downtown Manhattan.
Public schools: For years, the best choices have been top-rated and competitive-entry private schools such as St. Peter’s Prep, St. Dominick’s Academy, and All Saints; or the well-regarded public McNair Academic High School. But the opening of charter schools like Elysian, Hoboken, and eight others in Jersey City proper has begun to draw middle-class families back to the public-school system.
Hot-button issues: Early-morning drivers looking for shortcuts to the Holland Tunnel entrance clog residential streets. Property taxes are high, roughly double the rates in New York City, but state funding for local projects is low.
Hotshot brokers: Amir Yehezkely of Century 21 Bright Star (201-604-2100), and Muriel Leyner (author Mark Leyner’s mom) of Agresti Realty (201-420-9400).
This small area of gorgeous brownstones at the southern edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn is primed to soar. Unlike other areas of Bed-Stuy, where the housing stock was decimated by decades of deep economic and social trouble, the Heights held on to its truly grand residences and leafy charm. Now pressure from inflated Fort Greene is spilling over, with realtors hungry for listings pamphleting every address in the neighborhood. Some streets are virtually interchangeable with those prized blocks off Central Park West. However, Manhattan-quality services like dry cleaning and shoe repair are missing from the shopping areas on busy Fulton Street. Influential ministers preach to large Sunday crowds at grand churches like Bethany Baptist on Marcus Garvey Boulevard and Our Lady of Victory on Throop Avenue. The renowned bed-and-breakfast Akwaaba Mansion fans the prosperous and homey feeling on Macdonough Street.
Prime areas: All of landmarked Stuyvesant Heights proper is grade-A. These are the tree-lined and stately blocks east of Tompkins Avenue, west of Stuyvesant Avenue, south of Halsey Street, and north of Fulton Street.
Wrong side of the tracks: The blocks are hit-and-miss north of the prime area, some with regal brownstones, others with modern eyesores, but the escalating prices of Fort Greene are rippling throughout the area nonetheless.
Commute to midtown: Board the A or the C train at Utica Avenue, and the ride to midtown is about 25 minutes.
Public schools: The two elementary schools in the area, P.S. 308, which has a gifted program, and top-rated P.S. 21, are good, but other schools are troubled, leading families with means to opt for private schools like Berkeley-Carroll in Park Slope, Brooklyn Friends School in the downtown area, and Packer and St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights. Students at Boys and Girls High School, which serves a wide area of Bed-Stuy, score below the citywide average on standardized reading and math tests.
Hot-button issues: Residents fight to get a fair share of city services like street repair, garbage pickup, and snow removal. Crime remains a big concern and continues to keep prices low: The 81st Precinct, which covers half the area but includes far more troubled areas farther north, had nineteen murders and 45 reported rapes in 1999, up from ten murders and 29 rapes in 1998. The 79th Precinct, which also spreads north, had 27 murders in 1999, compared with 17 in 1998.
Hotshot brokers: Jerry Minsky at the Corcoran Group Brooklyn (718-923-8018), and William Turner of Cross Boro Realty Company (718-467-1800).