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Hells Kitchen: Sizzling

The New York Times, November 2013

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/realestate/hells-kitchen-sizzling.html

By C.J. Hughes

In the race to develop the West Side of Manhattan, Hell’s Kitchen can seem the tortoise to the Hudson Yards hare. Yet if Hudson Yards suddenly seems to be going up all at once, its neighbor to the north has been moving ahead in slow, deliberate steps, year after year. About a dozen residential projects are in the pipeline for the neighborhood — some finished, some underway and some in the planning stages.


They include Gotham West, a rental complex with more than 1,200 apartments that recently opened on West 45th Street; 540West, a 114-unit condo under construction on West 49th Street; and, on West 50th, Stella Tower, a 51-unit sister building to the Walker Tower in Chelsea. The Chelsea version was named for its architect, Ralph Walker, and the one in Hell’s Kitchen for his wife. These projects are being built in the area running from West 42nd to West 57th Street, and from Ninth Avenue to the Hudson River. When the name “Hell’s Kitchen” gained currency in the 1800s, the neighborhood ran from 59th Street down into the 30s, west of Eighth Avenue, and was known for its gang violence and squalor. Various parts of the loosely defined area have since been called Clinton, Midtown West and Chelsea North. But despite the neighborhood’s

21st-century respectability, Hell’s Kitchen appears to have sticking power as a name. And for the most part, longtime residents have met the changes with tolerance.

“We’re really that melting pot they talk about in New York, lots of different ethnic groups, different incomes,” said Elke Fears, who has lived in a stoop-fronted brownstone since 1983. “It makes it interesting, and it makes it fun.”

Although Midtown next door is growing ever taller, Hell’s Kitchen has preserved much of its low-slung look. Special zoning put in place in the 1970s prevents most buildings from rising more than seven stories on side streets, and more than 15 on the avenues, including Ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th. So to put up lucrative skyscrapers, developers generally went elsewhere. As a result, many Hell’s Kitchen blocks have a 19th-century vibe. Trees shade intact four-story rowhouses, with corbels bracketing their roofs, and facades the color of chocolate frosting.

Along other blocks, the skyline is at ground level: For decades, Hell’s Kitchen was known, for better or worse, for its parking lots, like the one on 10th Avenue, from 47th to 48th Street, that today is home to Hell’s Kitchen Park. Whatever the lots favored by Broadway-bound suburbanites in the past, chances are they have been taken over by new construction.

A sizable part of the neighborhood is made up of affordable housing, some resulting from the rehabilitation of abandoned rowhouses. Among the large public projects are Manhattan Plaza on 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue, largely inhabited by artists; and Clinton Manor, on 51st Street near 10th Avenue, which has 241 apartments for Section 8 tenants. Some developers included below-market units in exchange for being allowed to erect bigger buildings. Retailers have taken an interest, too. Shops are planned for the Windermere, a shuttered 1881 apartment building at 9th Avenue and 57th that may, after years of delays, become a 200-room boutique hotel, said Mark Tress, the New Jersey developer who has owned it since 2009.

These days, Ninth and 10th Avenues are a thicket of bars and restaurants, many of which cater to a gay clientele. On sidewalks where crack was once dealt openly, cafe tables are crammed in front of plate-glass windows or wide-open French doors. This month Gotham West Market, a supercharged food court at Gotham West, will open with eight mini-restaurants.

All those beer taps may turn the area into a party zone on some evenings, but neighbors seem to understand that a certain amount of carousing comes with the territory.

“Yes, it’s edgy; yes, it’s gritty, but it’s on the cutting edge of the city,” said Elliott Joseph, a principal of the Property Markets Group, which is developing Stella Tower with the JDS Development Group, the team that delivered the Walker Tower. “But as gentrification takes over the entire city, you have to look for neighborhoods on the cutting edge.”
But it’s not as if Hell’s Kitchen’s commercial legacy, which includes lumberyards, auto dealerships and recording studios, had disappeared. Verizon, an occupant of the Stella building, will retain several lower-level floors, just as it does at Walker Tower, also a former Verizon building.

Views from the 18-story Stella Tower will sweep across some of those protected low-slung blocks, and 40 percent of the apartments will have outdoor space. Wood-burning fireplaces will grace some residences, as will concrete kitchen counters and radiant-heat master-bath floors.

But although the Walker Tower recently set what could be a downtown record for a condo when its penthouse went into contract for around $50 million, Stella Tower’s pricing will be lower.

The offering plan for the $80 million project probably won’t be approved until the end of the year. But it looks as if its listing price will average $2,500 a square foot, as opposed to $3,400 at Walker Tower, which developers say is one of the benefits that a transitional area offers buyers. Evidence of the gritty past is harder to find at other projects, like the 95-unit Griffin Court, which opened in 2010 at 10th Avenue and 54th Street as one of the first large from-scratch condominiums in the neighborhood, replacing Sony recording studios. Developed by Alchemy Properties and Jamestown Properties, it has only one unsold unit remaining, a $3.5 million three-bedroom penthouse, said Kenneth Horn, Alchemy’s president.

Other major projects include Gotham West, which has 1,238 units across three-quarters of a city block; the rest of the block is taken up by a busy Hess gas station. Gotham West, which opened last summer, is 25 percent leased, said Melissa Pianko, an executive vice president of the Gotham Organization, its developer. Units there, which have stainless-steel appliances and wide-plank flooring, start at $2,750 a month for studios, she said. About 55 percent of the building is income-restricted.

Suggesting that no lot will be left unexcavated in Manhattan’s current land rush, developers have also been sniffing around way out west, even in areas adjoining the busy West Side Highway.

A pair of buildings near the highway, at 57th Street, will attempt to give the neighborhood an entrance rivaling one of the wonders of the ancient world. The building on the north side of 57th will be a soaring pyramid — but steel, not stone — housing 711 rental units. The project, from the Durst Organization, is to open in 2015. The Dursts were pioneers in Hell’s Kitchen; on the same block is their 2005 Helena, an eco-conscious rental.

Not to be outdone, TF Cornerstone is planning a 42-story, 1,000-unit rental across the street, with a shape that recalls a stack of children’s blocks, but glassier. As the site, which has a Toyota dealership, is zoned industrial, a zoning change will be required before ground can be broken.

Faced with height caps, other developers are thinking wide, not tall.

At 540 West 49th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, the Fortis Property Group and Wonder Works Construction Corporation are putting up two adjacent seven-story buildings with a total of 114 condo units. Called 540West, the complex will be united on its block-through site by a 6,000-square-foot courtyard, which will feature an outdoor movie theater.

Sales began last month, with prices starting at $665,000, for studios, or about $1,500 a square foot. Offers have been accepted for 20 of the units, said Jonathan Landau, Fortis’s chief executive.

Living near Manhattan’s edges often means enduring a lack of public transit, and 540West is no exception. The closest subway, a gateway to the A, C and E lines, is on Eighth Avenue, more than two long blocks away.

Mr. Landau says remoteness is relative: “Frankly, a lot of people who live in New York like to walk a couple blocks in the morning.” Many residents of 540West will work in Midtown anyway, he pointed out, and won’t care so much about catching trains.

So ingrained are car dealerships on Hell’s Kitchen’s western fringe that one development decided to embrace them.
Mercedes House, Two Trees Management Company’s 2011 rental building at West 54th Street and 11th Avenue, takes its name from the car showcased on the ground floor.

In 2013, Invesco Real Estate bought the top 11 floors of the zigzagging building, whose units were built as condos, and turned them into 162 rental units, two of which remain available, according to leasing agents. The one-bedroom is priced at $3,995 a month, with a free month as an incentive; on the West Side as a whole, one-bedrooms average $3,422 a month, according to Douglas Elliman’s rental report for October.

Crime has dropped significantly in the neighborhood, as it has in the rest of the city. In the Midtown North precinct, which stretches across Midtown from the Hudson all the way to Lexington Avenue, 4 murders occurred in 2012, down from 11 in 1993, according to police statistics. All other crime categories were down, too; robberies fell to 123 in 2012, from 1,388 in 1993, the statistics show.

But Hell’s Kitchen has also had growing pains. There are 923 bars in the two ZIP codes that cover Hell’s Kitchen, as opposed to 733 in the two ZIP codes that make up the East Village, and noise complaints are on the increase. This month, a task force was convened to try to persuade the local community board to deny future liquor licenses, though it is the state that ultimately makes any licensing decisions. And there is some talk about how nice a park would be on a blocklong parcel at 10th Avenue between 48th and 49th, now a staging area for a new water tunnel.

Residents are grateful that schools are at least trying to keep pace with the area’s popularity. A larger, airier Public School 51 opened on West 44th Street in September, for instance, and a new home for the Beacon School, an alternative public high school now housed in an overcrowded building on West 61st Street, is being created in an old library warehouse on West 43rd.

Few are arguing these days, though, about the neighborhood’s name. Residents, developers and community leaders say it’s not Clinton. It’s not Chelsea North. And despite the claim to the contrary in at least one glitzy ad, it’s definitely not Midtown West.

The name Hell’s Kitchen, beloved by old-timers and gleefully adopted by bars and bistros, is here to stay. That’s why the takeout joint at 641 10th Avenue is not called Midtown West Chicken, but Hell’s Chicken.