Downtown Real Estate Bounces Back Strong and Tight

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Low inventory is the story, market-wide By David Gibbons That the financial crisis is over and our economy is in full recovery is old news-at least from the viewpoint of several high-profile real estate insiders, all experts on the downtown market. "The word 'recession' is not even used in the last six to nine months," said Andrew Barrocas, CEO of MNS, a real estate brokerage firm specializing in residential properties. "We're far out of that." For the fourth quarter of 2012, the MNS report on new development sales showed solid overall gains on a quarterly and yearly basis. While the Upper West Side topped closings (65), two downtown neighborhoods, Battery Park City (48) and Chelsea (46), were strong contenders. All other areas south of 34th Street showed lively activity, with rents still high and sales prices exceeding pre-crisis levels. "Downtown is mimicking the rest of the market," said Lori Ordover, CEO/founder of the Ordover Group. "The big issue is a lack of inventory." According to The Corcoran Report, total available listings in Manhattan reached their lowest number in more than seven years during the past quarter. Residential development stalled in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers (September, 2008); significant numbers of new properties are not expected to crop up for several years. "It's a very tight market," said Gary Malin, president of Citi Habitats, a leader in NYC sales and rentals. The crux of the matter is liquidity: Larger institutions, such as banks involved in real estate, have been slower to rebound and remain cautious about lending. The purse strings are still tight, both for developers seeking to obtain financing and potential buyers hoping to secure mortgages. The days of huge luxury condo towers selling out to eager buyers based on nothing more than a floor plan, a virtual tour and a dream are over. Nevertheless, the brokers are optimistic. "The overall big picture for downtown Manhattan is very positive," said Ariel Cohen, exclusive agent for 75 Wall Street, a 346-unit luxury condo high-rise on the market since 2009. Given his stake in the area, Cohen is understandably bullish. "Lower Manhattan has been an ongoing, emerging category since 2004," he said. "Chelsea and Tribeca have already emerged. Battery Park City is a very mature market. Now, in the Financial District, we are heavily emerging." "I live in Tribeca, and every day I get seven or eight postcards from brokers saying, 'I could sell your apartment.' I know that, but I don't want to move," Ordover said. "I love living downtown. I think it's the most vibrant part of the city." Cohen said that sales at 75 Wall Street picked up "dramatically" in the second quarter of 2012; the building is now more than to 60 percent sold. At an average of $1,220 per square foot, its remaining units compare well: "A husband will call me and say, 'My wife wants to live in Tribeca, but please tell me what you have in the Financial District.'" Even on the fringes of Tribeca, Cohen points out, prices are in the $2,000 range. Both Barrocas and Malin agree, comparing the Financial District favorably to Greenwich Village for value-and adding the Lower East Side. Another strong indicator for downtown is its preponderance of first-time buyers and young families, many from other parts of Manhattan. Ordover marvels at the stroller gridlock on West Broadway and stiff competition for exercycles at her favorite spinning class. "They're starting to call the Financial District the Diaper District," Cohen joked. "Our buyers run a big gamut," he said. "It's not just your Wall Street-driven clientele." Both note many positive signs for the community, including good new schools opening; Condé Nast's impending move to the new World Trade Center tower; and plans for a downtown performing arts center. For "affordable" new development downtown-i.e., in the range of $1,500 to $2,000 per square foot-Barrocas looks east from the Bowery to the river. "Obviously, the development process takes time," he said. "Two, three, four years out, I can only predict numbers being stronger than they are today." He noted the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project for nine city-owned lots along Delancey Street, approved last September, as a potential game-changer in the area.

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