Angels of Harlem

A once run-down and dangerous part of New York is being transformed into the city's latest hotspot says Lucie Green

Harlem, with its wealth of cultural history, abundance of oversized brownstone town houses, and convenient transport links, has evolved past its previously dubious reputation into a desirable hotspot for many wealthy young professionals, families, and ambitious developers to invest and relocate. Steven Goldschmidt of the New York estate agency Warburg Realty comments: "People are attracted to Harlem for its beautiful housing stock, with many family-sized residences that are not as readily available in other locations. Other factors include the strong property values and long history. There is excellent transportation, easy access to mass transit and local highways and good services."

Mainstream attention is also fuelling this. Bill Clinton recently moved his offices up there; celebrities such as Roberta Flack and Samuel L Jackson have town houses there, and now Marriott, the hotel giant, is to build a hotel complex with retail outlets, condos, parking and spa facilities in the near future. (Rumour has it the hip W hotel chain is to follow in its footsteps with a competitive $103m proposal for a nearby project.)

In addition, cultural landmarks such as the Apollo Theatre are being renovated, and the newly transformed Art Deco Lenox Lounge jazz club has re-opened for business serving classic soul food. The Studio Museum of Harlem has provided a focus to the Harlem art scene, while new fashionable venues such as The Sugar Hill Bistro, Amy Ruth's and Jimmy's Uptown nightclub, continue to flourish and attract the upwardly mobile, hipsters and celebrities alike.

"There is nothing 'unusual' about Harlem any more," says Goldschmidt. "The signs of gentrification can't be missed, from local cafés and bistros, to the appearance of large, national, brand-name stores."

"In New York now there isn't really an area that's 'out' per se," adds Lisa Simonsen, vice president at élite agency Corcoran. "Everywhere is hot. Before it was much more the haves and have-nots at 96th St; that was your cut off. It's not like that any more. In Harlem there's so many luxury condominiums that have gone up just even in the last year, and continue to go up, particularly on Central Park North. That's a super hot spot, but there are a lot of new developments also.

"You're looking at $800 a square foot now, and it used to be $200-300, maybe even less. Brownstones are going for $1.6m or more. There's just a lot of people I think who previously would have had to move out of the city, now looking to Harlem as an alternative. It's getting pricier admittedly, but you can actually buy a house, whereas that's usually the price of an average two-bed condo downtown. That's a big difference - a house or a two-bed condo!" Indeed, the price of a town house in Greenwich Village alone ranges from $5m-12m.

These areas are also offering lucrative opportunities for buy-to-let investors. "One of Harlem's prototypical developments are purchasers of four-six unit properties who rehab the apartments, retaining one or two for their own personal use, and selling the rest as condominiums at substantial profit. This structure enables an enterprising purchaser to recoup his own costs and continue owning and living in the property," says Goldschmidt.

Simonsen is also witnessing similar activity. "Brownstone town houses can be anything up to 500,000 sq ft, depending on the width. In lots, people buy a whole one, and just split it into two duplexes."

Regeneration of these recognised Harlem hotspots such as Sugar Hill, Central Park North and Strivers Row, has meant that despite scope for still considerable profit, the onus has shifted to newer territories for larger investment gains: namely Spanish Harlem. This area has been slower to catch up due to the poorer transport links on the East Side, but now looks set for a similar invasion. "Parts of the East Side corridor have been hampered by the existence of just one Subway line, as opposed to several lines serving the West Side. However, plans to complete the new Second Ave subway have spurred new development in East Harlem," says Simonsen.

She adds: "Prices in Harlem are getting so high now, that there always has to be that next step. There's limited space in New York, but I can definitely see it happening in Spanish Harlem, just because Harlem is no longer cheap. It's a slow process though.

"That area's just not as gentrified - there are a lot more beggars. So you don't feel like it's 'turning' as such yet when you're there. But a lot of people think it will, and it makes sense that it will, just because of where it's located."

Spanish Harlem (otherwise known as El Barrio) is located between the East river and Central Park, between 100th and 125th St. It boasts a range of similar historical town houses, and remains in the early stages of gentrification. Town houses here, if renovated, fetch up to $1.5m, but you can still buy an entire building with four floors for under $700,000.

And if this is still too expensive? New York magazine, ever ahead of the game, has pointed to Bushwick, Queens, as a future des-res neighbourhood. The July issue boasted a "Queens 50" feature, which presented a tongue-in-cheek guide to the top 50 things to do in the district, before the Starbucks tidal wave takes hold.

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