Tag Archives: gentrification

Avondale’s next phase


Fancy's on 5th.JPG

After oysters and beer, can’t I just walk home?

While the formerly industrial South Avondale neighborhood has been exploding with new restaurants and bars (Fancy’s on Fifth is set to open imminently on the NW corner of 5th Avenue South and 41st Street, above), the clientele of these venues has often seemed less than truly local. Instead they come from the nearby precincts of downtown, Forest Park, and Crestwood–or slightly more distant suburban locales–with the assumption being that Avondale proper isn’t a “safe” place for hipsters, craft beer drinkers and assorted urban aficionados to call home, even if they like to eat and drink there. As it turns out, this isn’t quite true–and may become even less so as pioneering developers respond to increasing demand.

New to Gardens.JPG

Sprucing up the block

Just east of the 41st Street spine of taverns and cafes, the block bounded by 42nd and 43rd Streets and Third and Fourth Avenue South is illustrative of a changing attitude towards housing. Above looking north towards Third Avenue is the Avondale Apartment project redevleoped by Kahn Properties. Formerly shabby apartments are being renovated for rent to medical residents, young professionals, and others for whom Avondale may not have been on the radar even a couple years ago. Response is brisk and shows that a certain demographic doesn’t mind–and perhaps appreciates–living in a transitional neighborhood still known for low-income housing both substandard and decent (framed across Third Avenue is Avondale Gardens, an award-winning low-income development we helped design about twelve years ago).

4th Ave Burnt.JPG

Seen better days for sure

On the SE corner of 4th Avenue South and 43rd Street is a vacant and severely damaged apartment complex (above) which is currently for sale. Unsightly, yes–but it’s not hurting the traffic at Avondale Apartments. While an older generation may look at the vacant property and shake its head at “blight without hope,” a younger generation shrugs and sees “future development coming soon.”

3rd Ave Houses.JPG

All in the eye of the beholder

On the south side of Third Avenue a collection of older houses lines the street (above). Despite the fact that Third Avenue is also a busy state highway–with too many lanes and higher traffic speeds than a rejuvenating neighborhood deserves–once these houses are even modestly renovated, they have no problem attracting tenants. One local resident who owns a number of rental properties told us that a professional couple recently rented one of these renovated bungalows sight-unseen: they were that anxious to find something decently renovated in the middle of Avondale.


Needs a solution

In the end, to develop a critical mass of attractive housing options, places like the Havenwood (above, Third Avenue just west of the bungalows previously pictured) need change. Long a haven for drug dealing and related crime, it is a destabilizing influence on on otherwise improving block. Whether this means a sale, redevelopment, or another outcome is unknown–but our guess is that pressure in the real estate market will force something to happen. It’s just a question of when.

Corner Big House.JPG

A grand reminder of better times

It is easier to visualize the promise of this faded beauty on the SW corner of Third Avenue and 42nd Street (above). Over 100 years old, It is in the process of being stabilized and secured. Having served initially as a doctor’s residence, it followed the pattern of many large houses in declining neighborhoods across the City and became a low-rent boarding house for many years. Now that the boarding house partitions have been removed, and the massive ceilings and elegant staircase structure have reappeared, the possibilities for the future are many.

Zyp Avondale.JPG

A new era

While downtown itself has been subject only rarely to gentrification conflicts due to the historic absence of housing in the CBD, it is interesting to watch the process unfold in South Avondale. There is a lot of lower-rent housing for people of color; right now the influx of new residents (often white, though not always) has been modest enough that no fundamental balance seems upset. However, as the Zyp bikeshare stand on 41st Street attests (above looking south to Second Avenue), this neighborhood is changing. If the right mix of market and affordable housing joins the newly rejuvenated commercial storefronts, Avondale could demonstrate that a neighborhood of diverse economic, racial, and other groups can truly succeed. Stay tuned.

[Thanks to Fancy’s on Fifth for the mural pic]

The back yard is gentrifying

11th Avenue is no longer cheap rent

11th Avenue is no longer cheap rent

A routine Sunday errand in our Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York City–to purchase a few indoor plants at the local nursery–became a lesson in the fast-moving gentrification of all parts of Manhattan. The nursery, Chelsea Garden Center (at 11th Avenue and West 44th Street looking north, above) got its start in 1984 about 20 blocks south of the current location; it has moved numerous times as rising rents and development pressure became too much for this type of small business. It had been located in Chelsea, East Village/Bowery, and the Meatpacking District; all of these had been bywords for affordable or even cheap living, but are now filled with luxury condos and boutique hotels. The far west side of Hell’s Kitchen would have seemed even 10 years ago to be fairly immune to the extreme gentrification seen in other neighborhoods, but no more. The nursery is finally giving up on Manhattan and is moving to Brooklyn; the landlord will not renew the lease and is instead selling to a developer which will result in another high-rise similar to the recently built one seen in the background of the above photo.

A new west side

A new west side

A lot of the development pressure is coming from the nearby, massive Hudson Yards project, where multiple towers, thousands of housing units, a park, and millions of square feet of office and retail are displacing rail yards, warehouses and old tenement apartments. The picture above shows the first pieces of Hudson Yards under construction in the background, with the MTA‘s new transit stop–the terminus of the 7 line–to the right in the foreground (New Yorkers, ever- vigilant about occupying public space, are holding a protest unrelated to the development).

Rent a 1-BR for $4500/MO

Rent a 1-BR for $4500/MO

The new subway stop is the City’s gift to the developers; the far west side has long been underserved by transit which has, until recently, kept rents low and discouraged major developments: the neighborhood was just too difficult to get to. But all that has changed in the last decade or so, with people being more and more willing to live or dine further from the center of town. Above is a new 71-story luxury rental tower (the Sky) underway across the street from the nursery. Its steep rents and plush amenities are the opposite of what the gritty neighborhood was known for a few short years ago.

Sky Pool

The new Hell’s Kitchen

Above, a rendering of the pool terrace at the new rental building. In Birmingham, most (though not all: see Park Place downtown) of our new residential and mixed-use developments are displacing underused warehouses, surface parking or filling long-empty historic buildings. Rarely are local, family-owned businesses extant in these locations, and new people moving in generally add to, rather than displace, existing populations. Not so in many areas of Manhattan; the musicians, artists, and working class that populated Hell’s Kitchen are hard to find anymore. It’s like a hyper-luxury veil is being draped across the entire island. Real estate has always been vicious and kinetic in this town, but the current pace feels historic as the average sales price for a Manhattan apartment has reached almost $2 million.

But how do we carry the plants from Brooklyn

But how do we carry the plants home from Brooklyn

With the nursery leaving Manhattan (above, the announcement posted at the counter), there will be no other true plant store within walking distance from our apartment. OK, not a huge deal–we can still travel another 20 blocks, but it begs the question: where are all the thousands of high-rent occupants coming to the neighborhood going to get houseplants? The employee ringing us up (also pictured above), when posed that question, smiled and said “Well, you can always go to Home Depot.” Of course he was being sarcastic, but the loss of small neighborhood businesses as bank branches and chain drug stores proliferate is causing Manhattan to be just a little duller, and a little less diverse, with each passing year.

Can we afford it?

Angled parking, streetcars, and rising hemlines

Recent reports in the Birmingham Business Journal have quoted the new owner of the historic Empire Building (First Avenue North and 20th Street) as wanting to redevelop the building into “low-income housing” as opposed to the boutique hotel he’d originally suggested. The reason stated was financing would be easier to come by. Two things are clear: one, the Empire is one of the City’s most recognizable and important buildings, due to its membership in the “Heaviest Corner on Earth” collection of early skyscrapers which formed the nexus of downtown for decades (seen above, first tall building on the left, in a photo ca. 1918). Two, this City has a huge need for more quality affordable housing. Does it necessarily follow that this project makes sense?

Disappearing act: first storefronts, then adjacent businesses

Affordable housing projects downtown have had mixed success. Older developments such as the conversion of the historic Bankhead Hotel into a Section 8 housing development for seniors (above, Fifth Avenue North between 23rd and 24th Streets) often have reputations for poor management, loitering and shady deal-making by the entrances, and reducing demand for adjacent development. On the other hand, the Phoenix Building–which we developed some 7 years ago with a mix of moderate-income and market-rate apartments–has provided affordable loft spaces for artists and others who want to live in an artistic environment. It’s known for photography studios, art shows/performances, and an eclectic vibe. Downtown could use more living units like that. Producing this means choosing the right financing program, marketing astutely, and managing effectively. The developer must have a clear intent at the outset: is it just to fill up a building with lower-income pesople? Or is it part of a greater vision for integration with the surroundings, and for harnessing a meaningful vibe? At Empire, the developer’s true intent remains a mystery.

Hell’s Kitchen, meet Midtown West

As urban areas redevelop, existing, poorer populations are often replaced by newer, wealthier ones in a process known as gentrificationThe Empire report strikes many as out of sync with the normal trajectory: low-income users will be injected into an already gentrifying neighborhood. In New York City, an example of the more familiar trajectory is seen above across the street from our apartment building where poorer residents on fixed incomes share the block with young professionals moving in (Harborview Section 8 housing ca. 1976 to the left, with our building ca. 2012 in the background, West 55th Street looking south between 10th and 11th Avenues). New York has a long history of affordable housing intertwined with market-rate housing in a variety of ways. Other cities in the US–at least in post-war period–not so much. Affordable housing needs to be integrated into any vibrant urban neighborhood–but all-to-often, it isn’t. With negative consequences for all.

Save it, but in the right way

Another out-of-town investor has recently explored turning the Thomas Jefferson Hotel (above, 17th Street North between First and Second Avenues) into low-income housing. This building, with its prominence on the skyline, and interior filled with high-ceilinged, ornate ballroom and restaurant space, is much better suited to a sensitive mixed-use plan (which may include restaurant, event space, housing, and hotel rooms) currently being explored by the local Thomas Jefferson Tower group. We need more investment from places outside of Birmingham. But in this case, the local group is much better attuned to how this building could integrate into the neighborhood.

In the end, we want to encourage all incomes groups to live downtown. But the appropriate way to situate the mix is complex, and needs to be thoughtfully planned. We’d love another Phoenix Building. But not another Bankhead Tower.

[thanks to Birmingham Public Library for the Heaviest Corner pic; bamaboy for the Bankhead Hotel pic; caedan for the TJ Hotel pic]


Due to some travels (and preparations leading up to same), it won’t be until later in August that regular posts occur again on this blog. In the meantime, I thought I’d send a very brief snapshot of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I’m staying the first part of my trip and where I lived way back in 1995. The brick commercial loft building above is where I lived–a 3500 SF loft on the second floor (facing North 10th Street which is the facade you see here). It was an illegal sublet, rented to us by an artist who’d used the place as a studio. At the time Williamsburg was full of artists living in cheaply converted space, with rents extremely affordable compared to fancier parts of Brooklyn, not to mention Manhattan. I was one of a first wave of “invaders”–donning a tie and taking the train back into the city during the week to work a professional job–and I was fascinated by the mix of artists, elderly Polish-Americans, and those like me who found the run-down, somewhat bleak nature of Williamsburg a refreshing break from increasingly gentrified Manhattan.
Today, although my building still appears as untouched and run-down as ever, the surrounding neighborhood has transformed. Below is directly across Berry Street from my old place, where there used to be a vacant lot and a storage warehouse with amazing graffiti:

The new Berry Street

These luxury loft condos are but one example of new construction that has popped up everywhere, along with vacant storefronts and repair shops converted to ultra-hip lounges and restaurants. The lonely, sparse sidewalks were literally choked this evening with hipsters, wanna-bes, and kids from Manhattan in for a Saturday night fling. The quiet sense of possibility I knew back then has been replaced with American Apparel and all sorts of consumption.
There is even a huge new complex at the river, which used to be lined by empty warehouses and weedy yards. Now 35-story condo towers are preparing to open, with new pedestrian piers, tens of thousands of square feet of available retail and restaurant space, and parking garages. An immense old warehouse designed by the architect Cass Gilbert (who is perhaps best known for the Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan, in 1913 the tallest building in the world) in the rarely employed neo-Egyptian style has been totally renovated and is currently renting out with amenities (and prices) not before seen this side of the East River.

From Egyptian warehouse to luxury lofts

The amount of gentrification in the old neighborhood just boggles the mind. It shows how quickly an urban place can transform, within the context of vast numbers of people and dollars that is New York. Does it all feel right? No; I miss the grittiness of the old place. A lot of the new architecture is banal. Most of the artists have departed for cheaper digs further out in Brooklyn or Queens.

But hey, if you just have to have that perfect pomegranate mojito, you no longer have to take the train into Manhattan to get it.

Birmingham, I won’t be around to attend Design Review this coming week, comment on the latest (non-drive-through!) plans for Chick-Fil-A, etc. But we’ll be back and ready to examine lots of new topics in just a couple short weeks. Stay cool.