Friday, January 20, 2012

REBNY opposes New Brooklyn Heights Commercial Landmark District

An interesting situation is unfolding at the eastern edge of Brooklyn Heights.  In September 2011 the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a landmark district called the "Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District". This area includes 21 commercial buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century, from 7 story Romanesque-style to a modernist skyscraper, and several Art Deco era buildings as well. I frequent the area, and have often admired several of the included buildings, though I find the skyscrapers somewhat forbidding.

This week, Crains New York reported that the Real Estate Board of New York - an industry advocacy group representing most of the real estate agencies in Manhattan and many in the outer boroughs (my agency - M. Woods & Associates LTD -  is also a member of REBNY) - sent out direct mail to residents in the area asking them to oppose the landmark district and to press their City Council members to vote down the designation.  According to the Crain's article, the City Council has never denied or adjusted the borders of a historic district after it was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).

The reason is because LPC has such a long process of considering proposed landmark districts, that most of the arguments have been hashed out by the time it gets to City Council. LPC has often designated smaller areas that ones proposed by preservationist lobbies such as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (of which I am a member).  In this case, the Municipal Art Society of New York, Brooklyn Heights Association and New York Landmarks Conservancy proposed the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District.

Again, I frequent the area, and I do love the older Gothic and Romanesque buildings that were designated. I think there is a reason to protect these buildings. They are rather low buildings that are now in zoning districts that would allow much higher buildings, and therefore in danger of being torn down.  But I am undecided as to whether it is necessary to include the skyscrapers. After all, it's these are the tallest commercial buildings to be found in Brooklyn (with the exception of nearby Metrotech), now that the Williamsburg Savings Bank is mostly condominums.  In addition, which of these buildings is in danger of being torn down?  There are thousands of Art Deco era buildings on Manhattan that have been in service just as long, and are not deemed to deserve landmark status.

The reason given on the Municipal Art Society's web page speaks about recognizing the tremendous commercial growth that the district experienced "after (italics mine) the borough was consolidated into Greater New York."

REBNY's commentary has to do with the increased bureaucracy inherent with a landmark designation. It takes longer and is more costly to maintain the buildings' facades. I particularly note the quote from REBNY president Steven Spinola“The city just continues to landmark away its economic future.”  To some extent, I agree.  I support the landmarking of examples of past great architecture - I am around it more than most.  I am so grateful that the Village and Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope - all areas I love to be around - have been deemed worthy of landmark status.

But this issue has caused me to examine why I am so happy about it. And the truth came to me when I pondered when I thought about which buildings in this new district seemed deserving, others superfluous. The answer: height. While I love looking at all the Greenwich Village townhouses, I love more the sun on my face!  Same with Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights Brownstones. The townhouses are lovely, but I grew up in a Cape Cod and see the beauty there too.  Skyscrapers, in my opinion, don't need landmarks. But we do need more height restrictions in neighborhoods around the city. 

Another beef I have with Art Deco sky scrapers is the relatively small amount of window area they sport relative to their facade size. I worked in office buildings for many years, and often felt so stifled. How many occupational health studies have been done in office buildings that come up with a recommendation that more sunlight = more happy and productive workers? 

So here, I think REBNY has a point: we need to be able to innovate and upgrade. Particularly I think that is true of our commercial properties. It's hard enough with residential properties. Commercial properties should be icons of our future, not hallowed relics of our storied past.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

THAT's 700 Square Feet!?!

Found this post on the other day that highlighted a great issue: measuring square footage of a property and whether, or how, to report it.

With prices above $1000 per square foot in many parts of Manhattan, we care about every inch! As mentioned in this blog post, square footage is measured in several ways. In new development condos, for instance, the square footage is measured by the floor plate. That means some of the square footage in the apartment is between the drywall and the studs, unfortunately.

In prewar apartments, square footage is often (but not always) measured from interior wall to interior wall. Why the difference?  Because floorplans for the prewar buildings are often not available. As a result, new layouts are drawn using interior wall measurements only.  So next time you see a 650 square foot prewar and a 650 square foot recent development listing, and one feels a lot bigger, you know why.

The actual issue discussed in this blog post is whether to list the square footage of a property in the marketing materials. The author tells a story of a very particular buyer who tried to back out when the actual square footage differed from the listed amount by less than 1%.  That's a pretty extreme example to me, but it happens.

A colleague of mine doesn't list square footage because she finds that people have different opinions of the same number. Instead, she asks them to tell her how much they think the space is. Predictably, answers vary all over the map.

The truth is that layout greatly affects the perception of square feet. In my opinion, potential buyers will tell you how much usable square footage they see. Does the unit have a long hallway from the entrance to the foyer? Wasted Space. Square bathroom or narrow rectangular bath? The wide square shape may be perceived as larger. Galley kitchen or open kitchen with breakfast bar? That's a toss-up. Some will count the separate kitchen as more space, while others will perceive the narrow kitchen as smaller than it really is.

I've gotten pretty good at figuring out - within 50 square feet or so, how big an apartment is. Sometimes I work forwards. For instance, if a prewar apartment has a 12' x 22' living room and a 12' x 15' bedroom, then total square footage is likely between 750 (if a galley kitchen) and 850 (if eat-in kitchen).  Other times, I work backwards. For instance, if an apartment is a full floor of a townhouse, then you take the size of the town house (ie, 20' wide by 40' long, a typical size in the West Village) and subtract 50-100 square feet for the interior staircase. A longer house makes for a bigger apartment with an interior dining room and/or a second bedroom.

One thing I do not recommend is using a "rule of thumb" or "legendary" square footage. I once knew a seller who represented that his apartment was a certain square footage because "the coop assigns one share per square foot". Unfortunately, the buyer's appraiser found that the real number was nearly 300 square feet less. The buyer cared very much about the square footage and wanted a huge price drop. Turns out he cared about the price per square foot, even though the property appraised for the contract price. He didn't want it unless he was getting a deal, even though he'd been through the apartment several times and felt it met his needs. Ultimately, the sale died.  Moral of story: do take a measuring stick and measure the apartment yourself, even if you "know" what the rough number is.

As a broker (and a person with a decent - though hardly perfect - spatial perception), I appreciate an approximate square footage in the listing information. It helps me understand whether I should even bring a customer to a specific listing, or if it would be too small. I use floorplans and photos to help me make that decision (and the more information a listing has, the more likely I am to shortlist it for a customer).

Bottom line: Measure the property, even if you have documents stating a particular square footage. Always use the word approximate. Provide more visual information to complement the square footage information (floorplans, photos, etc.). It could save your sale.