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Goodbye Malaria, Hello Condos

The New York Times // Mar 23, 2012

IT can seem hard to believe, but there was a time when people didn’t value Central Park for its views.

In the late 1800s, after the park was created, most buildings were still no more than five stories high, residents often decorated with heavy curtains, and an infestation of malaria-carrying mosquitoes was a cause for alarm.

That was before skyscrapers began shooting up around the park, giving rise to the notion of “park views.”

Today, those two words are worth untold millions in the world of New York real estate. Apartments overlooking the park can command prices of as much as $88 million, for the full-floor penthouse at 15 Central Park West, and the developer Gary Barnett is betting he can sell the two-floor penthouse at 157 West 57th Street, the crown jewel of his One57 project, for $115 million.

But if park views at the south end bring such eye-watering premiums, what about residences at the north end?

To find out, I visited the Harlem side of the park. After getting off the subway at 110th Street, I walked just a few steps to 111 Central Park North.

There, from an 18th-floor apartment with a sizable terrace, you can look out on an idyllic view of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s landscaped wonder. Ducks glide through the Harlem Meer. Older residents walk slowly with canes next to groups of adolescent girls strolling through the garden during lunchtime. Just beyond the trees along Fifth Avenue is the Conservatory Garden, where brokers say they have seen brides being photographed. Absent were the horse-drawn carriages (and the accompanying trail of manure) and hordes of tourists that occupy the southern and southwestern side of the park.

The Harlem side is known as the “mountain” region of the park, for its more hilly terrain. On this day the southern sun was shining brightly, and the terrace at 111 Central Park North offered eastern and western exposures as well.

From here, you can see the opposite edge of the park, including the Plaza, and a construction crane hovering over One57 through the haze that offers a reminder of how that 90-story building will tower over most others in Midtown.

Harlem, it turns out, is one of the few remaining places in the city where you can get a park view for relatively low prices.

The price of this view? The three-bedroom three-bath condo, with 1,914 square feet, is listed at $2.39 million.

In 2008, as the financial crisis took hold, a buyer sold a penthouse in the building for $8 million, $500,000 less than he had paid, after trying to flip it for $12 million, said Jill Sloane of Halstead, a broker on the deal.

Walking east along Central Park North I passed low-slung residential buildings of no more than six stories, a correctional facility that houses the disgraced Tyco executive Dennis Kozlowski, and a church on the corner of Fifth Avenue. A small organic-food store is expected to open soon on the block, a sign, real estate brokers say, of the area’s gentrification.

On the east side of the intersection, an agent gave me a tour 1280 Fifth Avenue, which opened last year and was designed by Robert A.M. Stern, the architect of 15 Central Park West.

The Harlem building offers tranquil, unobstructed views of the northeast corner of the park. There are “intimate” views from one seventh-floor corner unit I visited, and “panoramic” views from the higher floors of the 20-story building.

“People realize they would be paying double and triple in Midtown and would not have this kind of vista,” said Tom Postilio, a broker at CORE. “People with a little more pioneering spirit are here investing.”

About half of the buyers in the building so far have been foreign, and have predominantly been all-cash buyers, according to Kathleen Corton, a principal of Brickman, the developer.

Parul Brahmbhatt, a sales associate at CORE, parsed the difference for me in pricing at 1280 Fifth to help me understand the premium placed on park views. Unit 7B, which faces the park, has 1,480 square feet and is listed for $1.87 million. A north-facing unit on the same floor with no park view is going for $1.265 million and is just 10 square feet smaller.

Regardless of which side of the park an apartment faces, brokers and appraisers say a Central Park view is worth 25 percent to 50 percent more than a nonpark view for a similar-sized residence. New York is one of the few cities in the United States that put a higher premium on a park view than a river view, said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel real estate appraisers. Views of the Hudson command a 10 percent to 25 percent premium. “We are inward-looking,” Mr. Miller said.

It’s remarkable to think that in the 19th century “the park was simply a kind of protector, a presentable front yard,” said Christopher Gray, who writes the “Streetscapes” column for The New York Times. Early on, the park also was a health concern. An Oct. 13, 1877, edition of The Real Estate Record and Guide noted that malaria in the park was “becoming more palpably widespread and painful.” The “chills and fevers and other malarious disorders” were causing a “widespread prejudice” among residents “against choosing any locality in the proximity of the park for a place of residence,” The Record and Guide reported. Still, by the turn of the century, Fifth Avenue opposite the park was already the most desirable house site in the city, Mr. Gray said.

(Malaria was later controlled, obviously: The Times reported in 1888 that its incidence among park police officers had sharply decreased.)

Despite the health concerns, developers pushed to build taller buildings. By 1930, the 27-story San Remo towers and residential hotels like the Ritz, at 101 East 57th, were offering spectacularly different views. About a dozen buildings of that size were built before the Depression intervened, halting most construction. “The typical building in 1960 was no different in mass than the typical building in 1925 — they were all 15 to 18 stories,” Mr. Gray said.

The concept of fabulous views didn’t return until after 1961, when a zoning resolution awarded air rights for taller buildings in exchange for building plazas. The move spurred tall building construction.

The concept of marketing park views evolved as well. Nobody bothered with the idea of building penthouses until the early 1920s, preferring to leave tar-topped roofs. In the mid-1980s, Mr. Miller recalled, most new condominium buildings had little-used health clubs and pools on the roofs.

“Now the configurations tend to be weighted toward larger units at the top because of the premiums for larger square footage,” he said. “You get a double premium — for the size and for the view. Developers are marketing for the global citizen as opposed to the family that wants to move into the city.”

The “capitalists” derided in The Real Estate Record and Guide in the 1800s who wanted to build tall ended up having vision akin to that of Steve Jobs, who instinctively knew we wanted iPads and iPhones before we ever thought to ask for one. Mr. Gray imagines that even a Vanderbilt might have a new appreciation today of park views. “Ms. Vanderbilt, in her 1882 mansion on 57th and Fifth, if offered an apartment in 15 Central Park West, would say, ‘Pretty cool, I could dig this.’ ” he said. “She would not say, ‘I want some heavy curtains in here.’ ”

Original Article: The New York Times