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New York Post
Saturday, September 24, 2005

Queens of Convenience

By Lisa Keys

Easy commute, cheap pads, untapped potential

Feeling underwhelmed by Manhattan's $700,00 one-bedrooms and $2,000-a-month studios? Good news: There's a borough a quick subway ride away that offers a whole lot of bang for your buck—plus all-important lifestyle extras, like quality restaurants, supermarkets and new boutiques.

Think we're talking about Brooklyn? Nah, silly—we speak of Queens, the borough poised to become the next big thing.

"Queens," says Debbie Gleason, a broker at ArdorNY, "is New York's best-kept-secret."

But not for long. With Manhattan's real-estate prices breaking records each quarter, those in search of "quality of life" within the city's borders are, more and more, bypassing the "new" (read: pricey) Brooklyn, and moving to Queens.

Waves of change are on the horizon. Out in Long Island City, luxury condos will rise along the waterfront; nabes ranging from Woodside to Forest Hills are seeing their share of development, too. Adding to Queens' much-touted mix of ethnic restaurants and chains (readers of the Queens Tribune recently voted Applebee's as the best place to dine with friends) are pockets of new businesses that cater to a younger, hipper—more Manhattan, shall we say?—crowd.

"Queens has a lot to offer," says Donna Reardon, branch manager at Prudential Douglas Elliman's Bayside office. "No matter what you're looking for, we have it here."

Still, the boroughs myths dies hard. Though Queens has long shed its Archie Bunker stereotype, it's still dismissed by many as merely the welcome mat for the world's huddled masses yearning to be free.

But while Queens remains the most diverse country in the nation, it's also drawing a more decidedly local crowd: New Yorkers. Queens' latest arrivals include displaced Brooklynites, rent refugees from Manhattan, and, surprisigly, those who fled for the leafy lawns of the suburbs, only to return.

"If you would have told me 15 years ago to move to Queens, I would have laughed," says Giovanni Ravello, who after 17 years in Manhattan, moved to Astoria in December. "The Queens I remembered in the '80's, '90's, was all immigrants, or you'd go there if you were really poor."

Now, however, "It's what everyone's doing", he says. "If you don't want to spend all this money in Manhattan, Queens is where you go."

Most recently, Ravello lived in a fifth-floor walk-up studio on the Upper East Side, paying $1,400 a month for the tiny room. Now, for $1,500 month he spreads out in his spacious, two-bedroom pad. Plus, "The food is better in Astoria than the Upper East Side," he adds.

"For someone looking to spend $950 to $1,00 for a one-bedroom, your options are basically Washington Heights, Bushwick or Astoria," says independent broker Aly Lizardo, who specializes in Astoria rentals.

Not surprisingly, Lizardo—noting the neighborhood's diversity, cheap movie theater and the recent opening of its third Starbucks—touts Astoria as the best option.

"There's not much to do in Washington Heights, except take the bus to the Upper West Side," she quips.

O, pioneers!

Indeed, while a Queens address may not (yet) impress your friends, it'll virtually guarantee you easy living. Unlike "fringe" neighborhoods in Brooklyn, nearly every Queens nabe boasts a solid infrastructure, from hardware stores to decent groceries.

That's partially what attracted Dan Nadel and Domenique Zuber to Queens. The couple had been renting in Crown Heights for five years, and grew frustrated by the lack of shopping and services.

"That was a major reason why we wanted to move," says Zuber, communications director at the Anti-Defamation League.

Hoping to buy an apartment , "We knew we couldn't afford anything in Brooklyn," says Nadel, a writer and editor with his own publishing house, PictureBox, Inc. "Plus, I was kind of tired of Brooklyn. I wanted to try something new and move to a place where I'm neither a stranger nor am I bumping into everyone from college."

That place, as it turns out, was Jackson Heights. Earlier this month, the couple closed on their two-bedroom, plus formal dining froom, co-op for $355,000—and couldn't be happier.

"We didn't want to live in a yuppie heaven, like Park Slope, or Williamsburg, hipster heaven," Zuber says. "Jackson Heights is totally diverse, which is great." And the couple is far from alone in their move.

August—traditionally the quietest month in the real-estate market—was "probably the busiest month I've ever experienced," says Michael Carfagna, an independent broker in Jackson Heights.

"More people are coming from Williamsburg and Park Slope," he adds. "There are a lot of new faces with baby carriages in the neighborhood. It's looking more and more like a mini-Brooklyn here."

According to the recent data from Neglia Appraisals, both Brooklyn and Queens have seen impressive price gains for single-family homes between 2003 and 2004, with Queens climbing 13 percent, just edging out Brooklyn's 12.4 percent. But the average 2004 price in Queens was $411,142; in Brooklyn, it was $443,326.

And despite the fact that hot Queens neighborhoods, including Astoria and Corona, are seeing year-over-year price appreciation of more than 25 percent, appraiser Dominick Neglia notes that it's still possible to get a two-family home for under $500,000 in Queens.

Better than the 'burbs?

Queens is seen as an "emerging market," according to Steve Love, managing director of ArdorNY, which just opened its first Queens office earlier this month.

"I don't quite see the demand, yet," Love says. "But six months from now, we're going to be having a different conversation about Queens. There will be a significant movement toward converting rental properties into condos; we're already starting to see that."

Not as if it was a no-mans land before. "Queens has always had its areas, says Nervin Coronado, manager of Laffey Associates' Jackson Heights office. "Bayside, Whitestone, Forest Hills have always been upscale."

"We're finding that other areas are going upscale now, too, like north Flushing and the Jackson Heights Historic District. The quality of life has changed. Queens has more stores, more restaurants, more places to take the kids."

But perhaps the biggest selling point of Queens is that it's, well, Queens. Janine Pipolo-Marcus lived in Queens for eight years; her husband, Corey Marcus, was born and raised there. But in 1999, the couple moved out to Long Island.

"I was naive," she says. "I didn't think you could find a nice-sized property in Queens, and I wanted an in-ground pool."

The couple got their pool—along with a hefty tax bill. In three years their taxes ballooned from $11,200 a year to $19,000.

"That's when I thought, we have to get out of here," says Pipolo-Marcus. "It as a combination of the taxes, the stuffy neighbors, and the traffic on the LIE got worse."

Longing to be closer to their flower business, the Rose Connection, the couple decided to return to Queens.

"In my mind, I was willing to trade my yard," Pipolo-Marcus says. Instead, however, the couple found that in Bayside, there were nice houses with large yards—including a high Ranch with an in-ground pool—on the market.

They bought the home in 2002 for $733,000; todays it's valued at more than $1 million. Moving back, says Pipolo-Marcus, "was the best thing we ever did."

"Long Island wasn't for me," adds Marcus. "A Queens person might yell at you—but at least he talks to you, and the next day he might invite you to his cousin's party."

Indeed, the more Queens changes, the more it seems to stay the same. "In the general perception, Queens is not cool," admits newcomer Nadel. "But who cares. The general perception is that Williamsburg is, so what do they know?"