A Journey Through Chinatown

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Luxury Condos Arrive in Chinatown

September 17, 2006. New York Times [ source ]

AT one corner of Mott and Hester Streets, sidewalk bins at a Chinese grocery overflow with dried shrimp, and a bakery sells sweets filled with red bean paste, while across the street, lunch menus at the Original Vincent's Restaurant promote the day's linguine specials.

But there is a new sign at this intersection, which many people now consider to be the heart of Chinatown. It reads: "Hester Gardens, Luxury Condominiums."

In an area that has been defined for more than a century by densely packed tenements that have been home to working-class immigrants, Hester Gardens is proof that Chinatown is finally sharing in Manhattan's housing boom, and as a consequence, the neighborhood is opening to a much broader slice of New York City.

"There is a lot of new construction in Chinatown right now, and it's being built by Chinese and non-Chinese investors,'' said Lisa Chin-Tostes, a vice president of Manhattan Apartments Inc., who is very familiar with Chinatown real estate. "It seems like everywhere I turn, I see a new building going up."

At least five high-end condo buildings have opened in Chinatown in the last two years, and at least eight more are under construction or being planned. The different developments offer a wide range of amenities, and prices are often at or above $1,000 a square foot, the average for all Manhattan apartments.

Some of the buildings have penthouse apartments selling for as much as $3 million, and they come with luxuries like whirlpool bathtubs and built-in flat-screen televisions. Other buildings cater more specifically to an upscale Chinese-American market, which prizes luxury but also places a higher premium on features like well-ventilated kitchens to accommodate Chinese cooking than on shared amenities like a fitness center or an elaborate lobby.

Either way, the new buildings are attracting buyers who previously might have never considered living in Chinatown. There are non-Chinese New Yorkers looking for an alternative to SoHo or the Lower East Side, including creative types who want to be near art galleries or young families who want to enroll their children at top public schools in Lower Manhattan.

But there are also Chinese-Americans who in the past would have been more likely to spend their real estate dollars in trendier parts of Manhattan or in the suburbs, including professionals who work in Chinatown and are looking for pieds-à-terre.

The new construction will blur Chinatown's boundaries, but there is little fear of Chinatown's being completely overrun, since many of the projects are geared specifically to the Chinese market. Still, local community groups fear that the new development could lead to an erosion in affordable housing for new immigrants.

Some of the fuzziness on boundaries can be attributed to marketing campaigns.

The Web site for 123 Baxter Street, an address on the cusp of Chinatown, markets the area as "SoHo South," even though the building sits directly across the street from Public School 130, where the student population is 88 percent Asian. The building has scheduled its grand opening next month.

Lisa Maysonet, a senior vice president at Prudential Douglas Elliman, the 7-story, 23-unit building's exclusive broker, said its location and special features like Brazilian cherry-wood floors and wine refrigerators would appeal to people "who want luxury but want to stay under the radar and who think SoHo is too trendy already -- I think trust-fund babies with ripped jeans is the profile we're looking at."

William Fegan, a partner in TriBeach Holdings, which last year finished turning a 12-story garment factory building at 129 Lafayette Street into 27 luxury condo lofts, said: "It used to be that Little Italy felt threatened by Chinatown, but now SoHo is pushing over, and Chinatown is receding and feeling threatened. The whole corridor is getting gentrified."

Even as SoHo pushes in on the western edge of Chinatown, the Lower East Side is doing the same to the east. The building at 173 East Broadway, which originally housed The Forward, the Yiddish newspaper, and more recently the Chinese Alliance Church, has been converted to 29 high-end condos marketed as being on the Lower East Side.

Michael Bolla, the exclusive broker for the 10-story building, said that many of the apartments sold for $1.5 million to $2.5 million and that one buyer spent $4.5 million for an entire floor.

"A few years ago, who would have ever imagined these kinds of condo prices in Chinatown?" said Charles Lai, the executive director of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. "This is either a renaissance or gentrification to the hilt."

But he said he believed Chinatown would survive despite its shifting borders. Lafayette Street may be a new frontier for SoHo -- Cathay Bank opening its "SoHo Branch" on the first floor of 129 Lafayette -- but Mr. Lai noted that the street was still home to many institutions catering to the Chinese, like the Chinatown Dialysis Center.

Mr. Fegan, the developer of 129 Lafayette, said the building was originally not marketed as being in SoHo "because we didn't want people to be disappointed when they discovered they had really ended up in Chinatown."

But the apartments at 129 Lafayette have a SoHo aesthetic since they are in a converted industrial building, and asking prices rose from $650 per square foot when they went on the market about two years ago to $1,000 per square foot within a year.

Michael Chapman, a broker at Stribling who sold most of the apartments and bought a two-bedroom there himself, said the building attracted photographers and designers, investment bankers and a few Chinatown professionals.

"Some people who looked initially didn't move forward because they thought the neighborhood was too Chinese," he said. "But I just love it because it's much less crowded than central SoHo, and it's quiet in the evenings."

Ed Rawlings, one of the architects involved in the restoration of 209 Hester Street, at Baxter Street, said his project's investors "really appreciate its being on simultaneous and overlapping boundaries."

The six-story building, a former police stable later used as a warehouse, will have a floor added to it and will be converted into 14 high-end condominiums, including several triplex maisonettes with private entrances.

Mark DuBois, the other architect on the project, said that special zoning in the area protected the scale of the neighborhood by limiting heights to seven stories. "I think that ensures that this whole stretch of land that used to be a no man's land is going to be a transition zone that's different from the crowds and heavy retail in SoHo," he said.

Hester Gardens, at 158 Hester Street, is just two blocks east of Baxter, and has penthouse apartments priced as high as $1.67 million and offers granite countertops and hardwood floors, but it gives itself away as a development geared to the Chinese-American market because it lacks what would otherwise be a basic amenity in a building of its kind -- a gym. The 8-story, 61-unit building has attracted a mix of young professionals and retirees, as well as Chinatown professionals looking for pieds-à-terre close to work.

Irene Eng, who is in her late 20's and grew up in Queens, works in advertising in Midtown and shopped for apartments in Queens and elsewhere in Manhattan before buying a one-bedroom in the building. "I probably didn't envision moving to Chinatown while I was growing up, but times have changed," she said.

Peter Poon, the architect who designed Hester Gardens, bought an apartment that he will use as a pied-à-terre to avoid the long drive home to Scarsdale after a late night at work. But he eventually plans to turn the apartment over to his parents, and he was surprised when he found others just like himself.

"I think this was a market that not too many people were thinking about when we started, but all Chinese somehow want to be involved with the welfare of their parents," he said.

George Chung, a 74-year-old retired real estate investor and one of the first buyers to move into Hester Gardens, said he watched as the building went up and called for an appointment as soon as he saw a phone number posted outside the building.

He traded in an apartment in Flushing, Queens, he said, "because I belong here in Chinatown." He said he could get the best Chinese food, have easy access to Chinese newspapers and videos and still get anywhere else in the city quickly since he's near nine different subway lines.

Shing Wah Yeung, the vice president of Well-Come Holdings, which developed Hester Gardens, said that many buyers learned about the building by word of mouth and added that the rising inventory of apartments across Manhattan had made it a little harder to sell. "But Chinatown is a different animal compared to the rest of Manhattan,'' he said. "In many ways it's an easier market to target than the mainstream.''

Well-Come Holdings' last big project in Chinatown was an 11-story, 81-unit condominium completed two years ago at 148 Madison Street, right next to the Manhattan Bridge.

Mr. Yeung said the finishes there were more basic -- carpeting instead of hardwood floors and tile instead of marble in the bathrooms. Condos at 148 Madison sold for about $450 a square foot originally, and many buyers were Fujianese immigrants, including some who live outside Chinatown and rent their apartments out to fellow immigrants. (Chinatown's population historically has been Cantonese, but most new immigrants in the last 10 to 15 years have come from the southeastern province of Fujian.)

Philip Lam, who owns Green City Realty and manages many of the apartments offered for rent at 148 Madison, said many of his clients run Chinese restaurants in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. "But they buy the condos as an investment, and so when they retire they can move back to Chinatown," he said.

Apartments there have appreciated significantly, with asking prices now hovering at $850 per square foot, or $560,000 for a studio and $698,000 for a two-bedroom.

Another new project on the eastern end of Chinatown that will probably appeal to the Fujianese market is a 13-story condominium planned for 136 East Broadway. Mr. Lam, who is working with the developer, said that since most Chinese immigrants tend to prefer washing their dishes by hand instead of using a dishwasher, "we'll save that space for a washing machine."

He added that the building's designers have been told to find top-of-the-line exhaust hoods for the stoves, "because Chinese cook a lot of fish, and that requires good ventilation."

Mr. Lam said that even as apartment prices have risen in Chinatown, they are still low for Manhattan. "The prices have gone up, but compared to the Village or Midtown or TriBeCa, these are still very good prices," he said.

In a four-story walk-up on Market Street recently renovated by Mr. Lam's company, relatively low rents have attracted non-Chinese tenants. Tom Vitale recently moved into a one-bedroom that he rents for $1,600. "I looked everywhere below 14th Street, and Chinatown is pretty much the only place I can still afford," he said. Three immigrant families shared the space that he now occupies, he said, "so the tide is definitely turning."

But it is often hard to forget that his street is deep in the Fujianese part of Chinatown. "You can walk down the street and not see another single white face for 10 minutes," he said. "I feel a little like an outsider, but that's O.K. because everybody in New York City is an outsider."

All the new development, which includes at least five hotels, may be a sign of the area's healthy real estate market, said Mr. Lai, the museum director. "But the big question is how it will impact the historic core of Chinatown and whether the lower-income people who live here and the industries they work in can also continue to survive."

Chinatown's garment and restaurant industries were hard hit by Sept. 11, he said, and have yet to recover fully.

Because most of the new projects are on undeveloped land or in buildings vacated by garment factories, few working-class Chinatown residents have been directly displaced. "But the concern is that as the prices continue to go up, there will be more pressure to push tenants out," said Robert Weber, the director of public policy at Asian Americans for Equality, a nonprofit agency that works for affordable housing.

Mr. Weber's group helped persuade the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to set aside $16 million for acquiring Chinatown buildings to maintain them as low-income housing. But finding apartment buildings to buy has been harder than anticipated, Mr. Weber said.

"Landlords want a lot more for these buildings than what they should be worth," he said, citing a 20-unit tenement building on Henry Street where the owner asked $3.8 million but the building's rent rolls suggested it was worth only half that much. Rents in the building ranged from $47.77 a month for a rent-controlled apartment to about $1,000 a month.

Mr. Lai said SoHo's growth at the western edge of Chinatown was also sure to be a continuing concern for the area. The museum has plans to move from its current home in a converted school building on Mulberry Street to an old warehouse building on Centre Street, on a block that is ripe for condo conversion.

"Some people say to me, ‘Charlie, you're a traitor for leaving the heart of Chinatown,' " he said. "But then others recognize that Centre Street is in fact in Chinatown, and they say, ‘You're going to be our fortress, and this way we can stop SoHo from encroaching further.' "


Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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