NICHOLAS FEVELO FOR NEWS
By Jason Sheftell
For the past 50 years, Staten Island has sat quietly in the background as the forgotten borough, watching other New York neighborhoods skyrocket in possibility and real estate value. Finally, due to city investment, committed developers, the right mix of urban growth ingredients and one of the prettiest streets in New York, a Staten Island neighborhood is making a bid to become the next great place to live in the five boroughs.
Stapleton, a sleepy North Shore waterfront hamlet with small-town roots and big-city feel, has all it takes to attract artists, downtown types who like the water, and young locals taking advantage of the proximity to lower Manhattan. It has a housing infrastructure where perfectly restored historic homes on still-bucolic streets go for $359,000.
Even if we’re five years too early, this neighborhood could be the safest real estate bet going, presenting the top housing value of anywhere within eyesight of Manhattan. It’s cheaper than Red Hook, has an easier commute than Clinton Hill and beats Sunnyside on rent and house prices by almost 50%. Before you think I’m crazy, take a look at what you’ll find in this neighborhood on the verge of reinvention.
Tucked behind Broad St. near Tompkins St., Harrison St. is undoubtedly the most attractive residential block that you have never heard of or stepped foot on. Built by wealthy merchants through the 1800s, the street is filled with single-family homes of varying architecture and a few brick apartment houses standing tall behind dogwood and cherry trees, which swirl pink petals in the air in springtime when the wind picks up. All have front lawns and backyards. From the top of a few, you can see the Wall Street skyline and harbor.
Real estate developer and broker Frank Rizzo owns Cornerstone Realty Partners, a company committed to the North Shore. He recently bought two homes on the street that he refurbished.
A British woman who often entertained owned both houses, which are next to each other. She used the double-wide backyard, commercial kitchen and parlor room with a bay window for weekend parties and weeknight art salons.
“Hardly anyone moves away. It is different from anything else around, and it competes architecturally with the top streets in Brooklyn or Manhattan. It kills them when it comes to value and price.”
One of the three-bedroom homes refurbished by Rizzo sold within three weeks on the market to an artist and college professor moving from Brooklyn. It was listed for $359,000. The other home was just put on the market for $349,000. Both could be undervalued. Apartment rentals go for $1,200 for a one-bedroom basement apartment and $2,500 for three bedrooms on or near the street.
Harrison St. is now inhabited by artists who left Manhattan for a better lifestyle, Albanian families who all seem to be related, and other Staten Islanders who keep to themselves. One house, a Greek Revival mansion, has an iron gate and a sculpture garden with a bronze-cast winged horse. A Queen Anne down the street looks regal. A towering home with restored brick has a mansard roof in perfect condition. Three Federal-style brick houses bookend the street.
Nicoko Jerome, 73, has lived here for more than 70 years. He sits on his porch watching the world go by. If he sees a morsel of garbage, he picks it up. He’s even been known to pretty the flowers in someone else’s yard.
“It’s what you do when you live here all your life,” says Jerome, a former bricklayer. “The next block over isn’t like this. They don’t care like we do. You should have seen this street in the ’40s. It was more beautiful then.”
Tulips and cacti line front steps across the street at the home of Jeffrey Kolafinski. His parlor room is open and white, like an art gallery. The marble fireplace mantels are original to the home. The kitchen, built and designed by Kolafinski, has views of the garden and nooks filled with heirlooms. He moved here in 1989 after visiting friends and falling more in love with the street each time he came.
“This street, this house — it’s a historic treasure,” says the former East Villager, who has worked for the block’s preservation. “A woman came by once and knocked on my door. She was very old and she was very sweet. She said she was born in this house. We had tea. It was like seeing a real ghost. Leaving Manhattan was the best thing I ever did. I could never have this house or life there.”
Bay St. Retail Corridor
Broker and developer Rizzo drives Bay St. every day, checking “for rent” and “for sale” signs. Right now, music bars, a tattoo parlor, Chinese takeout shops, 99-cent shops and tired storefronts characterize the street. A Harley-Davidson dealership kicks off the stretch. A 100-unit rental building is in construction near an abandoned 1950s movie theater that cries out for rebirth as an art film house.
“Couldn’t you see this coming alive?” asks Rizzo, who with investors owns a few small buildings on the street that he plans to convert to rentals. “A wine shop over there, a pet shop here, and apartments above it all. This place could hop.”
Nearby Tappen Park looks more Missouri town center than New York green space. A fountain and brick park building meet near intersecting pathways leading to a stone edifice that houses the Staten Island Savings Bank. A public library is getting a multimillion-dollar renovation. Retail opportunity surrounds the green, where a popular Mexican restaurant, liquor store and beauty parlor hold sway.
Just two blocks from the harbor, this park and retail corridor has the potential to become as crucial to Stapleton as Bedford Ave. is to Williamsburg, Franklin St. is to Greenpoint, and Vernon Blvd. is to Long Island City.
Spearheaded by Ironstate Development, the Hoboken-based company responsible for waterfront successes Port Liberte in Jersey City, Pier Village in Long Branch, N.J., and Shipyard in Hoboken, Homeport Phase 1 will be an 800-unit-plus rental complex with more up to 40,000 square feet of retail space on the Stapleton coastline. Taking over land occupied by a naval base, the City will create a waterfront esplanade and roadways with over $33 million allocated through the NYC Economic Development Corp. Phase 1 should be completed in 2013.
An investment secured by the Staten Island borough president will improve Stapleton’s Staten Island Railway station, where residents can get to the ferry in four minutes. The commute from the new development will be less than 30 minutes from the front door to the Manhattan ferry terminal. David Barry, who runs Ironstate with brother Michael, is gung-ho about adding something iconic to the New York waterfront and rebuilding the neighborhood image.
“A few things amazed us about the area right off the bat,” says Barry, whose interest in the North Shore was piqued when Staten Island visitors to Long Branch kept telling him there was nothing like it on their home turf. “Little to no access to the waterfront, not a lot of great retail, and no desirable housing geared to the area’s young population. When we met with the borough president [James Molinaro], that concerned him, too, as they want to keep their young population at home as well as attract people from all over the city.”
The opportunity was up Ironstate’s alley. In Hoboken and Long Branch, the company has used retail and housing to jump-start derelict city sections.
“Stapleton has everything you need for urban revitalization,” says Barry. “Bay St. was once a huge retail stretch. The little park is beautiful, transportation to the ferry and lower Manhattan is minutes away, and it has the urban fabric and affordable housing to further development. The municipal leadership is also strong. It’s the perfect storm for neighborhood growth.”
City officials are equally excited about Staten Island’s future, and have been securing millions in waterfront investment.
“The city’s contribution to the Stapleton Waterfront Development is an investment in the future of Staten Island,” says NYC Economic Development Corp. president Seth W. Pinsky. “This project will be a catalyst for the further revitalization of the immediate neighborhood and other surrounding North Shore communities.”
The Sri Lankan effect
There is a quirk, too. Staten Island is home to the largest Sri Lankan community in the Western Hemisphere. More than 5,000 Sri Lankan immigrants live in the area, giving it a colorful ethnic mix focused on food, culture and education.
Lakruwana Wijesinghe recently opened the newest restaurant on Bay St., after owning Manhattan’s first Sri Lankan eatery, which he launched in the 1990s. Named Lakruwana after his first name, the restaurant’s dining experience mimics a meal in a Sri Lankan home. Jayantha, his wife, runs the kitchen.
Everything in the restaurant was imported from Sri Lanka, including bamboo walls, wooden chairs and menus served in traditional wooden masks. Some meals, like the popular native dish lamprie, are served on banana leaves. The experience is as fine a neighborhood gem as a meal in Chinatown or having Polish food in Ridgewood. They even sell home goods like bowls and statues.
“A few families came here, one after the other,” says Wijesinghe. “Now we have a big community who help each other. I hope this restaurant is a little bit of paradise.”
So what’s holding the neighborhood back? Reputation and neighborhood stereotypes are the main obstacles to Stapleton’s success. Most people who criticize the area have never seen it, and might enjoy the ferry ride, local beaches, affordable housing prices and sea air.
Also, the notion that the North Shore is too far is absurd for anyone working near Wall St. Stapleton is closer to the Financial District than are Harlem, central Brooklyn or Astoria.
One of the mansions on St. Pauls Ave. leading to Van Duzer St. has become a primary location for the HBO hit “Boardwalk Empire.” Loft buildings are being converted to living spaces. Wine and coffee shops in Stapleton Heights attract an easygoing island crowd living in St. George. Bay Street’s reputation as dangerous could end soon, returning the area to historic prominence and a time when it was home to five working breweries.
Public schools need improvement, but that could happen as the area upgrades. Public housing projects slightly inland are less tough than they seem, with streets branching out to Victorian homes. Crime is normally relegated to certain thoroughfares. Still, such stereotypes present a problem for rapid improvement.
“People say New York is so diverse, and yet most of the people who live in the city don’t even see Staten Island as part of New York,” says Cornerstone’s Rizzo. “It makes no sense. This is a great part of New York with amazing streets and lifestyle. Yeah, we have some hodgepodge building, and our esthetic isn’t as pretty as Brooklyn, but I’m trying to change that. It’s a challenge, but the people who come here now are going to get a big bargain on price. There is no reason we shouldn’t compete with Long Island City or Williamsburg. Soon we will.”
YOU SHOULD KNOW
When you head to Stapleton, here are a few things to do and see.
Getting there: Take the Staten Island ferry to the Staten Island Railway. Get off at Stapleton, the second stop, five minutes from the ferry terminal.
Lakruwana: Delicious Sri Lankan food in an authentic setting. 668 Bay St. lakruwana.com.
Cornerstone Realty: Frank Rizzo still has a Harrison St. property for sale for $349,000. Call (718) 447-8100.
The Streets: Harrison St. is the gem. Enjoy the architecture. Don’t litter or make noise. Vanderbilt Ave. is named for island-born Cornelius.
Read the full article from The Best Places to Live in NY by the NY Daily News.