Bears in the Hamptons

Strawberry Fields Forever?
Summer rentals are already down. But will the bears save the Hamptons from being paved over with insta-mansions?

Last year, more houses were built in East Hampton “than in any other year since we started keeping records,” says town chief building inspector Don Sharkey. “And that was in 1957.” The bull-market stampede for huge houses trampled so many open fields that local environmentalists were estimating the entire East End would be filled up in a decade. Now that the bears are out, will they scare off the contractors?

Certainly, demand for housing has eased up a bit. Jan Robinson, president of Hampton Homes, says fewer people are looking for rentals: “It’s the worst March we’ve had since I’ve been in business.” Prices are following. “The rental market’s in the toilet,” agrees a developer who owns a six-bedroom place with a gunite pool in Bridgehampton. “It backs onto a horse farm. Last summer, I got $50,000 for August; this year, I’ll be lucky to get $40,000.”

“We’re seeing lower prices,” says Frank Newbold of Sotheby’s, and owners who are suddenly willing to negotiate. With sales slow, he says, “the days of pricing houses for more than they’re worth are over.”

But what about development? Sharkey says permits were up in January, down in February, and then back up last month. Many of these were for tear-downs, however, since the town recently instated a moratorium on subdivisions of more than ten acres.

Jed Schutz of Windemere Development sees “pockets of demand: a village location, a waterfront house. With the more unique properties, there’s no slack-off of buyers.” But developer David Schwartz of Haddonfield & Associates says, “I used to build six to eight houses a year,” at $3 million to $7 million. “This year, I plan to build two to three.”

“Restrictions on new construction help keep housing prices strong,” maintains Agawam Realty’s Robert Lohman. Still, he continues, “I just don’t see big houses getting gobbled up north of the highway the way they are consumed south of the highway.”

One East End builder predicts that “a year from now, the view from the Montauk Highway will be of abandoned houses half built.”

The Iceman Leaveth
Out of Fifth Avenue

The Sundance Kid must have been feeling awfully optimistic to put his penthouse at 1030 Fifth Avenue on the market for $15 million. Robert Redford bought his three-bedroom co-op replete with two wood-burning fireplaces in 1997 for $3.7 million after moving from 955 Fifth Avenue. Then, for some reason, he decorated it entirely in New Mexico style. If that or the idea of barefoot jaunts in the park appeals to you, call Kathy Sloane of Brown Harris Stevens, the “Democratic” broker famed for finding casas for Clinton and his fund-raising friend Denise Rich. But the inside’s certainly, uh, un-Manhattan, and at least one broker who’s seen it says that the view out isn’t much, either: “There’s a parapet surrounding the apartment that blocks any skyline.” Redford has star-friendly neighbors – including Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer – but brokers say the high asking price is still an indecent proposal.

Big Deals

Washington Heights
West 162nd Street
6-bed, 31/2-bath, 3,952-square-foot house. Ask: $799,000. Sell: $799,000. Five months on market.

“I wanted something similar to my Victorian workingman’s row house in San Francisco,” says cabaret pianist Peter Mintun. What did he get? An 1896 four-story limestone house off St. Nicholas Avenue, with seven fireplaces, oak and mahogany trim, and enough room for a nine-foot-long concert grand, two smaller pianos, and a collection of antique phonographs. “The moment I stepped in, I knew this was it because it was so well preserved,” he says. “This is the highest sale in Washington Heights,” crows broker Willie Kathryn Suggs, who finally sold it after the seller kept pulling it off the market. (The seller moved to New Rochelle.) Mintun and his partner moved east two weeks ago.

22 West 15th Street
2-bed, 2-bath, 1,350-square-foot condo. Ask: $1.57 million. Sell: $1.59 million. Charges and taxes: $1,345. One month on market.

When a 30-year-old investment banker bought this penthouse last August, he wasn’t planning to flip it – he thought he’d found the perfect bachelor pad. But when an irresistible job offer in Boston suddenly popped up, he rerouted the custom furniture already on the way and sold the apartment for a $295,000 profit, according to the broker, Douglas Elliman’s Tristan Harper. The buyers are a young couple who were already living in the building.

Bears in the Hamptons