November 29, 2008 12:49 am

Made in Manhattan

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When Billy Grace, a native New Yorker, decided to sell his apartment on the Upper East Side and look for a different place to live in Manhattan, he had certain expectations for his new neighbourhood.

He wanted an area with interesting architecture that was close to galleries and good restaurants (he and his wife are self-described “food fanatics”); one that was not too long a commute to his midtown office; and – perhaps most importantly – one that had a park or two for his one-year-old son to run around in.

“On the Upper East Side, the buildings are beautiful and Central Park is a wonderful asset but I wanted a change,” he says.

His choice? West Chelsea, an area that extends from 18th Street to 25th Street west of 10th Avenue, sandwiched between the Hudson River Park and the new High Line Park, a former elevated freight railroad being remade into a public green space.

“It is a new neighbourhood that’s coming into its own,” says Grace, a finance executive, who just bought a three-bedroom, three-bathroom condominium in a new building there. “The High Line offers a reprieve from being in your apartment and all the concrete that surrounds you in New York. The community will build around it, additional restaurants will come in and it will become more of a neighbourhood.”

He’s not the only New Yorker who sees a bright future for West Chelsea.

While the area was for many years strictly a commercial district, full of drab, old warehouses and car parks, it is beginning to emerge as a hip residential neighbourhood attracting a range of homebuyers, including families. The seeds of change were planted in the mid-1990s, when art galleries, priced out of renting in Soho, began migrating north, quickly establishing West Chelsea as the new centre of New York’s contemporary art scene. Soon after big name restaurateurs – such as Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio – opened eateries along 10th Avenue and the strip became a destination for the city’s foodies.

“In every gentrification of a neighbourhood, there have to be pioneers,” says Leonard Steinberg, executive vice president for Prudential Douglas Elliman, one of New York’s biggest real estate companies. “First come the artists, then the restaurants, then everyone else.”

When the city rezoned West Chelsea as a residential neighbourhood in 2005, developers pounced, tearing down the old warehouses and commissioning famous architects to create modish replacements.

For example, 520 West Chelsea, where Grace bought his condo, was designed by Selldorf Architects, the company behind the Neue Galerie and the David Zwirner Gallery in New York as well as the interior for Philip Johnson’s Urban Glass House. Shigeru Ban, the modernist Japanese architect, designed the Metal Shutter Houses, a building still under construction on 19th Street, while Jean Nouvel, the Pritzker Prize-winning French architect, is creating a 23-storey glass-and-steel tower at 100 11th Avenue.

And then there is the project that started it all: the Frank Gehry-designed headquarters for InterActiveCorp, Barry Diller’s media and internet empire. With its sloping glass forms and fanciful curves, the complex might not be residential but it is indisputably one of the most prominent structures in the area.

“These buildings are what make West Chelsea the most architecturally distinctive neighbourhood in New York,” says Steinberg, who also edits a newsletter about trends in the city’s luxury housing market. “The architecture has drawn the attention of not only Manhattan but the rest of the world. You might not like the IAC building but you can’t ignore it.”

Because of the neighbourhood’s vibrant arts scene, many of the buildings were designed with the collector in mind. The residences have a modern, loft-like feel, with open floor plans, high ceilings and ample wall space. The kitchens feature stainless steel appliances and the bathrooms are marble but they aren’t over-the-top or flashy. The condos’ colour palates tend to favour softer, clean shades, so as not to distract from the art.

West Chelsea is not strictly for aesthetes, however. Because of its proximity to Chelsea Piers, the enormous athletic facility, and two neighbouring parks, the area is appealing to an outdoorsy, sporty crowd as well.

The Hudson River Park, running from 59th Street to Battery Park along Manhattan’s west side, was revamped a few years ago and includes tennis courts and soccer fields, batting cages, a children’s playground and a dog run. The High Line is, meanwhile, an abandoned mile-and-a-half segment of the former elevated freight railroad of the West Side Line, between 34th Street and the West Village. At the moment, wild grass and plants grow along most of the route but it will open to the public in early 2009.

The area is attracting a broad range of buyers, says Erin Aries, a senior vice president and director at Brown Harris Stevens, a high-end sales and rental company. “It started with the edgy artist buyer and the pied-à-terre buyer but we’re starting to see families – people who want to make this their home,” she says. “It’s attractive for people who want to be part of the renewal of this area.”

For the most part, those moving to West Chelsea are already New Yorkers: people who know the city and have already seen how the neighbourhood has changed, according to Emily Beare, a senior vice president at Core Group Marketing, which works with developers. “We have a lot of creative types – people who work in film, television and the art world,” she says. “We have people who lived in Chelsea before or who lived in the West Village and now find it too crowded, too expensive and want to be near parks. We have baby boomers who are tired of living on the Upper East Side.”

Of course, prices in West Chelsea aren’t exactly at bargain levels. This is Manhattan, after all. But there is a wide range of prices per square foot, depending on the quality of the building and its interior finishes. “In West Chelsea, you get a broad spectrum,” Steinberg says. “In some small buildings you can buy for $900 per sq ft but there are also some buildings that are priced at $5,000 per sq ft.”

At 100 11th Avenue units from 890 sq ft one-bedrooms to 4,675 sq ft, five-bedroom penthouses are priced from $1.6m to $22m, while the residences at 520 West Chelsea – eight with two bedrooms, 16 with three bedrooms and two five-bedroom duplex penthouses – have nearly sold out at prices from $1.9m to $10.5m. Aries says most properties in the neighbourhood sell for $1,300-$2,700 per sq ft, compared with a range of about $1,800-$2,500 in the West Village. “But the difference is that we’re able to show 2,500 sq ft properties,” she says.

“A lot of people went to the West Village to see what they could get for $3m, then they came here because they could get much more,” Beare confirms.

Steinberg calls this a “value opportunity”. Aside from the abundance of space, “where else can you get a stainless steel façade, central air conditioning, views of the river, park and skyline, incredible ceiling heights and architectural consistency from the front door to the roof?”

All is not perfect in West Chelsea, however. Although construction continues apace – with 19th Street a cacophony of throbbing jack hammers, roaring dump trucks and clanging steel – the crisis on Wall Street has hit the entire New York City market hard. Median prices in many districts declined in the third quarter as did sales volumes and emerging neighbourhoods, such as West Chelsea, are hardly immune.

Another big drawback to the former warehouse district is its distance from public transport. The nearest subway stop is 8th Avenue and, even at a brisk city pace, it is about a 15-minute walk. It is also a hike to amenities such as supermarkets and post offices. “There’s a Gristedes [grocery store] on 8th Avenue and there’s Chelsea Market but you’re not going to run there for a half gallon of milk,” Beare says. “The pleasures – the nightlife and the galleries – are all at your fingertips but the basics – grocery stores, dry cleaners, banks – aren’t here ... yet.”

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Estate agencies

Brown Harris Stevens, tel: +1 2129069200, www.brownharrisstevens.com
Prudential Douglas Elliman, tel: +1 2127276164, www.prudentialelliman.com

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