Following former President Clinton’s lead, fresh residential opportunities and commerce are coming to Harlem.  The press is calling it a housing renaissance.  New zoning approved last fall for south central Harlem, the area’s most desirable location, allows for modest increases in residential density and also encourages ground floor retail businesses.  The zoning changes are intended to balance growth and preservation while promoting commercial development to support the revitalized community. 


Harlem’s streetscapes offer a kaleidoscope of architectural elements.  There’s a mix of 5-8 story apartment buildings on the wide avenues, and 3-5 story rowhouses on the midblocks with an occasional historic mansion.  While some brownstone facades are ordinary, others are embellished with cherubs and garlands and often are punctuated with elaborate stoops and bay windows.  Many of the houses have details dating from the late nineteenth century; others have been stripped entirely of original features, especially those whose institutional metal doors recall the 70’s when city funds were used to renovate abandoned properties.  While $2 million plus asking prices may be raising eyebrows, recent transactions have included $1.75 million for a shell on Lenox Avenue, and $2 million for a 25 footer on West 138th Street.  Vacant shells can be bought from $600-800,000, and fully finished townhouses for $1.5 million and up. 


The rush to northern Manhattan by developers is providing affordable housing not only for 2nd and 3rd generation African American and Hispanic New Yorkers, but for artists, academics, families and single professionals who feel priced out of other Manhattan markets.  The first project to inspire free market condominium development was The Washington Irving Condominium at 203 West 112th, which sold out in 30 days last summer.  A restoration of a turn-of-the century building, the project created 13 condo apartments of 4 bedroom/2 bath units, 2 per floor, with original pocket doors and fireplaces, high ceilings, washer/dryers, stainless steel kitchens, Jacuzzi tubs and concierge services.  Sales averaged $450/sf and $600/sf for the upper floors. 


Alongside the free market developments are those with income restrictions.  At Striver’s Gardens, 300 West 135 Street, where occupancy is expected January 2005, 75% of the total 169 units will be subsidized and sold to those who meet specific income requirements.  Applications will be selected through a lottery system monitored by city housing officials.  Brand new construction, the complex comprises two buildings, 7 and 12 stories, with a central glass enclosed atrium, retail shops at street level and underground parking. 


Harlem’s hottest investment product is the buildable square foot on vacant lots.  Selling at an average price of $70 per buildable foot (or an average of $700,000 per lot), these empty parcels are becoming scarce, and what was once wasteland is being transformed into future housing stock. 


As Harlem redefines itself, the tarnished 60’s image of graffiti and trash-strewn buildings and squatters is being replaced with spiffy new mixed-use construction, high-end restoration and pride of ownership.  Today’s buyers are focusing more on current issues of improving schools and expanding services than on past concerns for safety.  Harlem real estate is ripe with great expectations.