A Slice of Relaxed Life, Sandwiched by Parks
The New York Times
May 27th, 2007
SWATHED in the lush spring greenery of Riverside and Morningside Parks, this Upper West Side neighborhood is a lot quieter since Columbia University students went home for the summer earlier this month. The wide sidewalks still have a pleasant buzz, but instead of backpacks, the accessory of choice seems to be strollers.
Once considered something of a “secret” among residential neighborhoods, Morningside Heights is experiencing a surge in popularity, particularly among young families lured by the spacious apartments, the parks, excellent private schools and access to transportation.
Jane Blumenstein, a mother of two who arrived as a graduate student at Columbia in 1994, has seen the change among members at Congregation Ramath Orah, the Orthodox synagogue on 110th Street that she has attended for 10 years. Five years ago, she said, there were many more older people, among them Holocaust survivors, and only about five children in the Shabbat program. Now there are almost 20, all of them from the neighborhood.
“Lots of young families have moved in, instead of moving to Jersey and Riverdale,” said Ms. Blumenstein, who with her husband, Jay, bought a two-bedroom co-op on Riverside Drive in December 2005. “People are seeing this as a place they can make their life.”
Anchored by the spires of the interdenominational Riverside Church to the north and the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine at the southeast corner, but dominated by the presence of Columbia, the 0.3-square-mile enclave is often described as laid-back.
According to Barbara Hohol, who calls Morningside Heights “the last refuge of the surviving hippies,” newcomers are quick to embrace the unhurried spirit of the neighborhood, which is bordered by 110th and 125th Streets and the parks on its eastern and western flanks. Small businesses and mom-and-pop stores line Broadway, which has carefully tended plants in all its medians.
“The new people coming in are blessedly casual,” said Ms. Hohol, a jewelry maker who arrived in 1957 as a Barnard College student. “It’s totally unpretentious.”
What You’ll Find
A multiethnic community of 33,250, Morningside Heights is 53 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, a little over 14 percent Asian, and almost 14 percent African-American, according to census data.
Its landscape is dominated by institutions. Besides Columbia, Barnard, Riverside and St. John the Divine, these include Teachers College, the Union Theological Seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Bank Street College of Education and the Manhattan School of Music. Residential buildings vary from grand structures with views of the Hudson River along Riverside Drive to a few small but elegant doorman buildings on some side streets, and tenement-style structures, many of which are still rent controlled or stabilized.
There is a new 95-unit condominium at 110th Street and Broadway, and a new 20-story rental building, Avalon Morningside Park, being developed by AvalonBay Communities, near St. John the Divine. A portion of the 296 Avalon units will be reserved for lower-income tenants, the first of whom will arrive in a year.
Cynthia White is moving soon to a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath co-op on West 111th Street after having shopped for a couple of years. It has exactly what she wanted: character, but modest renovations. “I wanted prewar, unmolested charm, and I wanted light,” said Ms. White, a Macy’s executive. She paid $800,000 for the 1,200-square-foot fifth-floor co-op, with river views from the dining room.
Columbia is the biggest property owner, and according to Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the chairman of Community Board 9, its relationship with the community is contentious at best. Describing it as “a 2,000-pound gorilla,” he said, “Columbia does wonderful things for the community in general, but when it comes to what Columbia wants, they don’t care what anyone else has to say.”
The situation is unlikely to improve over the next three decades. The university has announced plans for a $7 billion expansion on 17 acres west of Broadway and north of Morningside Heights, between 125th and 135th Streets. It will include 18 academic and research buildings as well as housing, and will bring in 9,000 more workers and students. While the site is not in Morningside Heights proper, residents say they are already concerned. At Morningside Gardens, a 983-unit middle-income self-managed co-op, and the General Grant Houses, a 1,940-unit public housing development, residents feel particularly vulnerable. “For Morningside Gardens and all the surrounding buildings, it is going to be 30 years of dust and trucks and rats,” said Joan Levine, a retired teacher who moved into Morningside Gardens when it opened in 1957. University officials maintain that they do their best to accommodate the community. Recently, for example, said La-Verna J. Fountain, assistant vice president for public affairs, Columbia decided not to put the student health services department in a building it owned on West 113th Street after residents protested.
What You’ll Pay
While prices have gone up in Morningside Heights, it still offers good value compared with the rest of the Upper West Side, said Michael T. Stansfield, an associate broker with Bellmarc Realty. People who can’t afford the West 70s, 80s and 90s are migrating north, where “the same size apartment is going to be cheaper by $200,000 to $300,000, depending on what you’re looking for,” he said.
James Perez, a senior vice president with Brown Harris Stevens, has two two-bedroom, two-bath units on Riverside Drive, one listed for $1.549 million, the other for $1.895 million. Because of the varied housing stock, Mr. Perez explained, “two-bedrooms can be anywhere from $800,000 to $1.5 million.” A one-bedroom on 111th sold for “$500-plus,” he said, while at the Strathmore on Riverside Drive, a one-bedroom would top $1.5 million.
Sabrina Seidner, a vice president of Nest Seekers International, has a one-bedroom, one-bath listing on 110th Street for $690,000 and says there are still some bargains out there. “A one-bedroom whose asking price was $295,000 recently sold for $286,000,” she noted. “You can find a funky little space for $300,000, but you have to focus on it and make it a job for six months or a year.”
Studios are rare. Mr. Stansfield says they range from $255,000 to $375,000. An alcove studio is currently available in a new condo building at 545 West 110th Street, said Ronnie Russo Landau, a Corcoran vice president. It is listed at $699,000.
Morningside Gardens apartments rarely come on the market, but range from $165,000 for the smallest studio to $710,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath unit with a terrace, according to Michael J. McMahon, general manager of the Morningside Heights Housing Corporation.
Area rents range from an average of $1,435 for a studio to $2,863 for a two-bedroom, according to Citi Habitats’ monthly average for April.
What to Do
The 323-acre Riverside and the 30-acre Morningside Parks are a big reason that Duane Cranston, a lawyer, and his fiancée, Sara Holliday, an account manager for a graphic design firm, are looking forward to moving here. They expect the renovation of their two-bedroom co-op on West 111th Street to be completed in the next two or three months.
“The park is going to be a huge asset,” said Mr. Cranston, who works for ESPN, the cable television sports network. “All the greenery and being able to feel like you’re in the city but not in the middle of it were important factors.” Morningside Park has basketball courts and a baseball field; Riverside Park has volleyball, tennis, soccer and a bird sanctuary.
Broadway offers all kinds of shops, many of them small businesses like Liberty House at 112th Street. It started 40 years ago as a crafts collective to benefit the civil rights movement but now sells clothing. Ms. Hohol, the jewelry maker, laments the absence of a movie theater but says the restaurant scene has some affordable options. “There are still low-end restaurants if you don’t feel like cooking,” she said. There is also a good bit of variety. Broadway between 112th and 113th Streets has Le Monde; Nacho’s Kitchen; Nussbaum & Wu, a Chinese-Jewish bakery/deli; and the Mill Korean restaurant.
There are chain supermarkets in addition to the Milano Market and the West Side Market, which reopened recently at the corner of Broadway and 110th Street.
Among the public schools are three in the same building, nearby at 234 West 109th Street. One of those is Public School 165, the Robert E. Simon School, which teaches kindergarten through Grade 5. Among its fourth graders in 2006, 54.3 percent scored at or above grade level in English, versus 58.9 percent citywide. The math rating was 56.4 percent, versus 70.9 percent citywide.
Mott Hall II, at the same site, has a college preparatory curriculum for Grades 6 through 8. Of eighth graders, 79.6 percent met English standards, versus 36.6 percent citywide; 78.6 percent met math standards, versus 38.9 percent.
The closest high school is Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School on West 102nd Street, where 2005 SAT averages were 387 on the verbal, versus 497 statewide, and 389 on the math, versus 511. Private schools abound. Among them, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has a preschool program as well as a free program for 4-year-olds in conjunction with the Department of Education. Riverside Church also has preschool offerings.
Other private schools include the Cathedral School, also at St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue, and the Bank Street School for Children on West 112th Street. Both teach prekindergarten through Grade 8.
Commuters to Midtown can get the No. 1 local train at the 110th Street/Cathedral Parkway stop, then switch to the Nos. 2 and 3 express trains at 96th Street. The trip takes about 20 minutes. Bus routes include the Nos. 7, 11 and 104, which go north and south, and the No. 4, which goes to 110th Street, then heads east and down Fifth Avenue. The Nos. 100 and 101 travel 125th Street, and the No. 60 goes to Kennedy Airport.
Farms dominated what was called Vandewater Heights, after a local landowner, until 1818, when the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum opened between 116th and 120th Streets and started the influx of institutions. The asylum eventually moved to Westchester, and Columbia moved from Midtown to take over the site in 1897.
The Encyclopedia of New York City details major change in the late 19th century: Riverside Drive was built in stages; Riverside Park was built in the 1870s, Morningside Park in 1887. In 1906 came the subway.