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New York Times
Sunday, November 14, 2004

Hello From Queens - Why Aren't You Here?

By Gay Jervey

'Outer Borough' Finally Attracts The 'In' Crowd

In the final year of the HBO series "Sex and the City," the character Carrie Bradshaw and her Prada-touting friends experienced a number of firsts: Charlotte converted to Judaism and settled into a happy marriage with Harry; Samantha let a man into her heart; and Carrie finally saw the Eiffel Tower and, it appears, snagged Mr. Big—maybe for good. And as for Miranda, she not only married Steve but also did something that at the time seemed even more shocking. Lured by a house with a backyard, high ceilings and a working fireplace, she moved (gasp) to Brooklyn.

When she broke the news, a wide-eyed Carried nearly tripped over her Manolo Blahniks. Her response: "That is information that I can't handle."

The self-defined hipsters who have always considered Manhattan the center of the universe have gradually incorporated Brooklyn into their map of the world. But Queens?

Now, that would be going too far.

What is it about Queens, a borough that has been home for millions, that brings out the real estate snob in so many upwardly mobile New Yorkers? First of all, there is the very resilient "All In The Family" factor.

"Everybody thinks of Queens as the home of Archie Bunker and not much else, said Michael Carfagna, an independent real estate broker who lives and works in Queens. "For years we have had that stigma. We really have."

Molly Sheridan, a publishing consultant who has lived in Forest Hills for more than 30 years, agreed. "People think of it as being all working class, blue collar—far away and foreign—kind of a no-man's land." she said.

Yet with real estate in Brooklyn and Manhattan so breathtakigly expensive, that image may crumble among the Manhattanites who couldn't find their way to Astoria or Kew Gardens without

Like the character Miranda of "Sex and the City", Deborah Knudsen, 44, an advertising executive, made a move in October that would have once been inconceivable to her. With her husband, eric, 35, a copy manager at Macy's, she exchanged a charming but relatively small—approximately 550 square feet—West Village apartment for a 1,150 square-food, six-room apartment, complete with a dining room and garden view, in the heart of the historic district of Jackson Heights, Queens.

People were saying, "I can't believe that you are moving to Queens,'" Ms. Knudsen said. "I simply can't believe it!" They were very surprised.

James Hill, 33, an architect who moved to Jackson Heights from Brooklyn in 2002 with his wife, Sarah, a designer, knows exactly what Ms. Knudsen is talking about. "When we first moved from Williamsburg to Queens, our friends were saying: 'What! What are you doing?!'" Mr. Hill said. "They really couldn't believe it. They were saying, "Queens?!"

Pamela Liebman, the president and chief executive   of the Corcoran Group, thinks many Manhattanites have an outdated image of Queens. "In the old days people thought of Queens as the place where your grandmother, but not you, might live." she said. "But no more."

"It seems to be the next big thing," she added. "Queens has this gritty feel to it in parts, which makes it feel cool. When I go to speaking engagements and people ask what is the next big thing, a lot of speakers are starting to say, 'Queens, Queens, Queens.'"

There are several reasons. For one thing, many renters and buyers alike are finding Manhattan and Brooklyn far too rich for their blood. Consider the following data collected by Mr. Carfagna: the average price per square food for a co-op in Queens is $250 to $400, versus $500 to $700 in Brooklyn. In Manhattan, according to the most recent figures from the Douglas Elliman overview prepared by Miller Samuel Inc., the average price per square foot of a Manhattan apartment is $820, with condos and luxury apartments costing more.   

And then there is the sheer convenience, particularly to Midtown Manhattan. "Queens is a tremendous solution for many people," said Jeffrey Silverbush, the owner and president of Century 21 Best in Elmhurst, Queens. "They can have affordable space in a nice, safe neighborhood, with good amenities. And you can be in Manhattan so quickly."

Popular Queens neighborhoods like Astoria, Jackson Heights, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens are easily accessible by several subway lines. "I have gotten from my house in Forest Hills to Midtown in less than a half hour," Ms. Sheridan said.   

Ms. Knudsen, whose office is at 42nd Street and Avenue of the Americas, said: "I leave the house at 8:15 to 8:20 a.m. and am in the office at about five minutes to 9. Recently, I had an evening function to go to in the city. I left it at about 10:30 p.m., jumped on the train and was home in no time at all. There were lots of people on the street near my apartment, and I felt completely safe."

For residents of Manhattan and Brooklyn who can't afford to buy in those boroughs anymore, Queens offers a number of neighborhoods that have the restaurants and night life that might appeal to them—Astoria, Jackson Heights, Forest Hillsa nd increasingly, Long Island City.

"The up-and-coming neighborhood clearly is Long Island City," said Andrew Heiberger, the founder and president of Citi Habitats. "There is definitley a major housing shortage in the New York City area and anything with close proximity to Manhattan via train or car is going to be very desirable. Long Island City is literally a stone's throw away."

For years, people have been talking about Long Island City as the next big thing, but its time may have finally come. According to Jon McMillan, the director of planning for the Rockrose Development Corporation, recent rezoning laws that allow for the development of the Long Island City waterfront—as well as the conversion of the Hunter's Point Warehouses and factories into residential space—have intensified interest in those areas.

Next spring, Rockrose will break ground on seven buildings that will eventually house 3,200 units. "The city has finally gone in there and fixed the zoning in a very, very careful, block-by-block way, so that this neighborhood can start to blossom as a residential neighborhood, and buildings can be converted," Mr. McMillan explained. "Residential housing will gradually replace taxi repair shops."

The changes in neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, he said, have happened in a geographically logical way, and it makes sense for Long Island City to be next.

"There is an evolution of the gentrification of the waterfront areas, moving up from Brooklyn," Mr. McMillan continued. "If you imagine that things started in Brooklyn Heights, moved to Dumbo and then up the river to Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the next stop heading north is Long Island City, which is one stop away from Grand Central on the No. 7 train."

Long Island City has also benefitted from the fact that the Museum of Modern Art temporarily relocated there while its Manhattan headquarters were being renovated. "That brought a lot of people out to Queens," said Ms. Liebman of the Corcoran Group. "It drew a lot of attention to the area, and a lot of that buzz has stayed."

In addition, thanks to the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, and the nearby Socrates Sculpture Park, "there is sort of constellation, almost a critical mass of visual art in Long Island City." Mr. McMillan said.

"You get the artists and sculptors hanging around, opening up studios and living in that area, he said. "That is exactly the kind of thing you want for the developement and creation of a new neighborhood."

Furthermore, Mr. McMillan said, Long Island City "offers spectacular views of Midtown Manhattan—the United Nations, the Chrysler Building."

"When you are in Long Island City, you can almost feel as if you can reach out and touch the buildings," he said. "You have this psychological connection to Manhattan, and that is important."

Ms. Liebman predicted that "two years from now people are going to say, "Wow, I wish I had bought in Long Island City." "And I don't know that they are going to call it Queens anymore," she added. "I think they will probably end up breaking up the neighborhoods. They will say, Oh, I'm in Astoria,' or 'I'm in Jackson Heights,' or 'I'm in Long Island City.' Just like people started to talk about Brooklyn. The idea of 'Hey, I went to Dumbo' or 'Hey, I went to Williamsburg.' And each of those Queens neighborhoodds will develop their own personality and persona, much like what has happened in Brooklyn. There is no doubt about it, Queens has become hip."


"Rodney Dangerfield grew up in Queens," noted Herb De Cordova, a broker with Prudential Douglas Elliman. "Since he recently passed away, I think it would be appropriate to say that Queens is finally getting the respect it deserves."

Brokers are getting a wider range of inquiries about apartments for sale. Recently, Megan Hoffman, a broker with the Corcoran Group, listed a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment in a prewar building in the Jackson Heights garden district for $400,000.

"I was inundated with calls, many from Manhattan," Ms. Hoffman said. "People are starting to be drawn to Queens and, in this instance, Jackson Heights because of not only the affordable space, but also the fact that it is such a thriving, diverse community. If you are walking down the street, you can hear four different languages all at once. You will see somebody carrying a Hermes bag, and somebody who is an average Joe. And I think that is great. That is one reason why people live in New York—so that they can be surrounded by all different kinds of people.

The neighborhood's diversity was a plus to the Hills, who landed in Jackson Heights after exhaustive searches elsewhere. Several years ago, after they both graduated from the Parsons School of Design, they moved to Williamsburg. They hoped eventually to buy a loft in a factory that was being renovated. But by the time the building was ready for occupancy in 2001, the loft's price had doubled and they could no longer afford it.

So the Hill's began to hunt in other parts of Brooklyn. "We started out looking in the better areas, like Park Slope," Mr. Hill said. Because those neighborhoods were too expensive, they searched Prospect Heights, Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. "After six or seven months, we still couldn't find a place that we could afford that suited our needs," he said.

On a Sunday morning in the late summer of 2001, Ms. Hill noticed an advertisement for a two-bedroom apartment in the Jackson Heights historic district. "It had a working fireplace, a dining room and eat-in kitchen, and I thought something must be wrong with it." she said. "It must not have a roof! We walked into this apartment and I said 'You mean we can afford this! Oh, my God. I can't believe it." Several months later, the couple bought the apartment for $173,000.

They have never looked back. And now the same friends who were so shocked that they would leave the hip confines of Brooklyn love to visit them. "They come out here and say, "Wow!" Ms. Hill said. "They want to go to restaurants out here. This is a very vibrant neighborhood that you wouldn't necessarily know about."

For their part, the Knudsens were all set to leave Greenwich Village and buy an 1,100-square-foot apartment in Inwood in Upper Manhattan for $444,000. "We had put a bid in, and then my husband said, "Why don't we check the neighborhood out at night?'" Ms. Knudsen said. "So we went up there for dinner on a Friday night, and it was pretty desolate. We realized that we would not be particularly comfortable walking home from the subway late at night. Inwood is beautiful, right on the Hudson. But there is just not that much going on up there, and that is not why you live in Manhattan.

Several of their colleagues had suggested that they check out Jackson Heights. What they found, Ms. Knudsen said, "was just this great neighborhood, a little-known jewel. We walked into this apartment, and it was just gorgeous—completely renovated, two bedbrooms, a living room, dining room, great kitchen, and it overlooks a garden. We fell in love with it."

Earlier this fall, the Knudsens bought the apartment for $333,000. "We are happy as clams here," Ms. Knudsen said. "My husband is a real foodie, and he was so psyched about all the different restaurants: Indian, Thai, Colombian.

Still, Queens is far from having the cachet that Brooklyn has gained. "When I do my open houses in Jackson Heights, the people who are calling me are the people who have vision," said Ms. Hoffman of the Corcoran Group. "You just need some trailblazers   to go out there, and that is exactly what we are starting to get."

Trailblazers notwithstanding, some people suggest that, at least in the interest of its image, there is one thing that Jackson Heights could use. "We need a Starbucks," Mr. Carfagna said, smiling. "We will know that we have arrived when we have a Starbucks."