Even for normally unflappable New Yorkers, the news that Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Boulevard was named “Neighbourhood of the Year” by the popular real estate blog Curbed was event-worthy. Beating far more bourgeois districts such as Manhattan’s West Village and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, the early January accolade was confirmation that Harlem is ready for its real estate close-up.
The timing mirrors a larger shift in Harlem’s economic and demographic development. Founded as a colonial Dutch village in 1658, Harlem has spent the past century as the cultural and physical centre-point of New York’s African-American community. Made famous by literary legends like Langston Hughes and music halls such as the Lenox Lounge and Apollo Theater, Harlem has been both fêted and feared during decades of cultural highs and economic lows.
But over the past 15 years, a wealthier Harlem has begun to emerge, encouraged by middle-class homebuyers unable or unwilling to pay exorbitant Manhattan prices. Whites may be the most noticeable newcomers but bigger-budget buyers of all ethnicities are now calling Harlem home.
As with most of New York City, Harlem is far safer than it was a decade ago – with crime rates roughly equal to the more gentrified Upper West Side to the south. Urban amenities are still scarcer than the districts below 96th Street. But a recent spate of shop and hotel openings suggests a commercial critical mass may be forthcoming.
On Frederick Douglass Boulevard, the four-star Aloft Hotel – and its hip WXYZ bar – opened in January, the first new Harlem hotel in 45 years. A few weeks earlier Red Rooster Harlem arrived on Lenox Avenue – the new “neo-soul food” restaurant by Swedish/Ethiopian celeb-chef Marcus Samuellson (who featured recently in the Expat Lives page of this section). In between are a handful of high-end bars, bakeries – even beauty salons and yoga studios.
Beyond the increase in amenities, Harlem’s most immediate appeal remains its affordability. According to Stephen G Kliegerman, executive director of development marketing at Halstead Property, premium Harlem homes are priced between $500 and $700 per sq ft – compared with at least $1,000 per sq ft just 15 minutes south on the Upper West Side. But location and transportation are also key lures; Harlem is in Manhattan, with half a dozen subway lines within walking distance and close to Central, Morningside and Mt Morris parks.
“Harlem’s upswing may have begun back in 2004 or 2005 but the market remains far from mature,” says Kliegerman, whose firm is marketing 20 projects in the area. “Not only is there still great value in Harlem but a tremendous opportunity for price appreciation and growth.”
That market – much like Harlem itself – is as vast as it is varied. At one extreme are Harlem’s historic brownstones – row-houses built mostly in the 1920s and often abandoned during the crack-fuelled blight of the 1980s. But amid the decay lies a level of architectural detail virtually unrivalled in most of Manhattan: neoclassical façades, elegant wooden banisters, hardwood floors – even colourful stained-glass windows.
“Because of the area’s poverty, these buildings were usually left untouched,” says Janet Forman, a journalist and film producer who bought an empty brownstone for just under $1m with her husband, a cinematographer, in 2006. “They may be buried under 100 years’ worth of paint,” adds Forman, who moved to Harlem from the Upper West Side. “But all the original mouldings, rose-oak woodwork, even pieces of folk sculpture are there.”
Brownstoners like Forman are, perhaps, the most pioneering Harlem buyers – prepared to endure pricey, lengthy renovations for a home filled with atmosphere. Forman’s restoration took two years and ran to $400,000, requiring the couple to rent while they waited.
For those lacking such fortitude, renovated brownstones can be purchased move-in ready, such as a five-floor residence priced at $1.2m through Halstead on West 129th Street. Alternatively, Harlem now offers more than two dozen new-build projects – from conventional co-ops and luxury penthouses to converted warehouses and former tenement housing.
The sheer number of new Harlem developments has resulted in a level of oversupply. The result is some of the best-priced property in Manhattan – particularly at the higher end. Indeed, central Harlem condominiums sold for an average of $537 per sq ft in 2010, almost 20 per cent less than in 2007, according to property price-tracking sites Streeteasy and Propertyshark.
“Much of the value is due to the level of inventory [oversupply],” says Shimon Shkury, president of Ariel Property Advisors. “But the pipeline is slowing down.” Prices will eventually begin to rise, he adds, “but whether that happens in 2011 or 2012 is still too hard to predict.”
Nonetheless, listings such as a 1,799 sq ft apartment at the SoHa 118 development for $1,495,000 through The Corcoran Group suggest prices at the luxury level are creeping upwards. As does a 1,268 sq ft home at 88 Morningside Drive for $880,000 through Halstead Property.
Deeper-pocketed consumers, too, are taking advantage of uptown affordability. Rusty O’Kelley moved to a 3,000 sq ft new-build penthouse on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in 2008 after years living downtown in Chelsea. “The main driver was the sheer amount of space I could afford,” says O’Kelley, who paid $1.95m for his home. He also appreciates what made Harlem desirable and affordable in the first place – multiculturalism in an increasingly racially stratified city.
“I like the sense of diversity I’ve found here,” he says. “My building has white, black, Asian, Latino buyers.”
● Prices 40 per cent less than comparable property midtown or downtown.
● Well connected.
● Truly diverse.
● Still lacks essential services.
● Brownstones need costly renovations.
What you can buy for
● $499,000 850 sq ft renovated two-bedroom condo in the heart of Harlem.
The Corcoran Group: www.corcoran.com, +1 212 3553550
Halstead Property: www.halstead.com, +1 212 3812570
Ariel Property Advisors: www.arielpa.com, +1 212 5449500