Our House Is On The Mount Morris Park House Tour This Sunday

Our StaircaseI know this is a bit late to be posting this, but if you’ve been reading this blog and want to see our end result, our house will be on the Mount Morris Park Annual House Tour this Sunday, June 9, from 11am to 4pm.

That’s our place in the picture to the left. It’s in rather stark contrast to what you expect in a Harlem brownstone (see pictures below) – but we had no original detail to work with.

Apparently something like 600 people will be traipsing through our house. But it’s all for a good cause. MMPCIA does some really great work. We bought those little surgical shoe covers for people to put on so they don’t track too much dirt through the house.

MMPCIA (Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association) produced a rather good video about the house tour. It’s narrated by Syderia Asberry-Chresfield who lives on our block and has gotten to be a good friend.

Harlem brownstone stoop

Our entire house will be open – including the rental unit. (Our tenant was gracious enough to say yes to the house tour). That presented a bit of a staffing challenge for MMPCIA since they provide volunteers to monitor the people going through the house – but it all worked out.

We were hoping to get the garden to a point of completion. We’ve made progress, but it’s not quite there yet. We’re using old joists as “decking” that’ll be laid directly on the ground with pea gravel between them and under them. We’ve applied rot inhibitor to them but over time they’ll disintegrate. At some point we’ll do something better, but the joists will do the job for now and they fit our budget since they’re pretty much free.

Other than the garden, things are pretty much complete. We’re not fully decorated yet – we just have “placeholder” furniture in the living room, our master bedroom bed is just a futon on the floor, and we’re going to need furniture for the roof deck and garden – but we’re getting there. Harlem brownstone stairs on house tourWe’re a bit “house poor” at the moment – but grateful we got through the project and can afford to live here now that it’s done – even if we can’t afford all the new furniture we want 😉

More details about the house tour are available on the MMPCIA website. You can can also purchase advance tickets at a discounted price on their site.

So please join us on Sunday. And when you come through the house, feel free to say ‘hi’..

Townhouse Shells South of 125 Are Now $850K & Up

For a while now I’ve seen the market going up. Clients come to me and want a $500-600K shell south of 125th Street, and there’s just nothing I can do for them. I finally got around to pulling the comps to demonstrate what I knew from observation…

Here are the class C4 & C5 buildings that sold for less then $900K in the past 6 months south of 125…

  • 319 West 112 – $875K, 2/10/12
  • 53 West 119 – $250K, 2/13/12 – Too low to be a real sale – probably a partial interest
  • 254 West 121 – $895K, 4/2/12
  • 326 West 113 – $720K, 4/24/12 – This seems to have gone through a recent foreclosure. A shell a few doors down is listed at $1.4M and has multiple offers, so I think this sale is a bit out of the ordinary and not a true comp either.
  • 133 West 119 – $830K, 4/27/12
  • 164 West 123 – $618,400, 6/25/12 – Two doors down from me. The owner knew it was worth more. Last I knew he either wanted to bring in someone to help fund the development or he wanted to sell it. I suspect the new LLC is a combination of the old owner and a new investor who’s funding redevelopment – so it’s not a true sale either.

So none of the “real sales” were less than $830K, and take into consideration that those deals were probably all negotiated late last year. The market is much hotter now, so prices are even higher now.

Bottom line you’re probably looking at $850K or more for a shell south of 125 these days. And realistically, if you want to renovate it well you need to buy all cash. A pretty typical Harlem townhouse is about 3600 sq. ft. (18′ x 50′ x 4 stories). You should budget $250/sq. ft. for a decent renovation – so that will cost you $900K which is pretty much the max amount you get on a 203(k) to rehab a building to 2 family.

If you’re wondering what you get for $800K+, here are pics from one of the places listed above…

gutted townhouse in Harlem

fireplace in Harlem townhouse shell

staircase in harlem townhouse shell

I know it’s harsh to say you need $900K in cash to buy a shell south of 125, but it just is what it is… The good part is that you’re not over-investing. Things that are well renovated are selling for $2.5M+ (but that’s another blog post).

110 West 123 Collapses To The Ground

A little after 4pm today Dan and I felt what I thought was an earthquake. Our whole building did a quick, but major shake. It wasn’t an earthquake – a building down the street form ours (110 West 123rd Street) collapsed to the ground – only about 15 minutes after Dan walked past the building…

building collapse

A permit to do structural work had been pulled a few weeks ago, and they had started work earlier this week. First a construction fence, and then I saw the ground floor was pretty much gutted. Given what I had seen I thought for a moment about calling 311 and asking that a structural inspector check out the job to make sure everything is safe. But I didn’t call. Lesson learned on that one. Guess there are times when being a meddlesome neighbor is a good thing.

There was an empty lot to the left (east) and the block association’s community garden to the right (west). The building was sold late last September for $600,000. The last two SRO tenants had stopped living there around November, and the new owner put it on the market for $1.1M in December.

I had taken a couple clients through the house back in December/January. There were serious structural problems evident in the cellar. Here are some pictures of what the foundation looked like…

bracing to support failing structure

In the picture above you can see that they had put bracing in to support the structure that was failing. You can also see that a portion of the foundation had failed and was patched with cinder blocks.

In the picture below you can see another part of the foundation that failed was patched with brick…

brick patch of foundation

One of the times I went through it our contractor joined us. He told us he was “scared of the building”. That it was the type of building that could collapse without warning if you messed with it. He wasn’t worried so much about the patches as he was about parts of the foundation where the mortar was missing…

missing mortar in foundation

All in all it was VERY spooky to be in that cellar. You could just feel trouble. It wasn’t just that it was dark and dank – I go through a lot of places like that. It was all the bracing and patching.

The problems with the building were evident even outside the building. We were in the community garden next door a few weeks ago and I snapped this photo of the corner of the building…

problems at corner

Stuff like that just isn’t good – especially when combined with a wonky foundation.

The extension you see in the picture above is actually interesting. It hadn’t settled, but the rest of the building had. So at one point the floor sloped rather dramatically – probably went up 9 inches over as many feet.

The origin of the problems is that the townhouse used to be part of a row of townhouses, but over time all but this one were torn down. It was never designed to be a freestanding house. To be a freestanding house it needed a lot of reinforcement.

Our contractor said it would be best to tear the place down and start over. If it had to be salvaged you’d have to cocoon it and put walls all around it. Problem is, the garden folks didn’t want to give up land, and the party wall on the other side was already 6″ over the property line. I’m not sure there was really a way to save this building. At most, the façade could have been braced and the rest of the building demolished.

I will say it’s unusually lucky that the workers had left the site when the collapse happened and the community garden was closed and locked. Apparently no one was even walking past. While demolition was most likely what was needed – there are cheaper ways to demolish a building. The City is going to want to get paid all the overtime for their workers. NYPD, FDNY, Parks Department, etc. Apparently right now they’re taking every piece of the building out, spreading it on the street to look for body parts and anything else that can help them in their investigation – how much is that going to cost?

Inside it was a grand townhouse – 20 foot wide. There were some incredible fireplaces…

great old fireplace

And a grand staircase…

The ceilings were really high, and on parlor there were some that had great plaster work…

In fact the ceilings were so high that the 5th floor could see over it’s neighbors to the south – all the way to midtown.

It’s sad to see buildings like this die, but alas, it happens…

Shell Coming On The Market South of 125

I know some of you who read the blog are looking to do a project similar to what Dan and I have done. The problem is finding shells south of 125 that aren’t ridden with problems (legal, structural, etc) is easier said than done.

Just today I found out about a place in the Mount Morris Park historic district that’s about to go on the market. It will need a total gut renovation – so it’s a similar sized project to ours. It’s a good sized place (I estimate it to be over 4,000 sq. ft.) so the asking price is a bit higher than some other shells, but it’s got the square footage to justify the price.

There is a Certificate of No Harassment in place, so financing is an option, but even so you’re looking at a total investment (purchase + renovations) of around $2M for moderately high-end finishes. While you could do the project for less, that level of finish will result in the place being worth a bit under $3M when you’re done (assuming the market doesn’t drop) – so the project should be profitable.

If you’re interested and want to know more, send me an e-mail – jay@beatingupwind.com

127 & 136 W 123 Are Adding Floors

A year or so the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association began work to try to get the blocks between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell landmarked. Currently they’re recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, but not by NYC’s Landmark Preservation Committee.

mount morris historic district map with extension shown

The gray area is the part that’s landmarked, the blue area is on the National Register, but not landmarked – that’s the part MMPCIA has been working to get landmarked.

Well, on our block it’s a bit too late… Two buildings on the block are adding stories – something they wouldn’t be allowed to do if they were landmarked. The two buildings are 127 West 123 and 136 West 123. I’m fine with 127 adding a floor, but I’m really disappointed to see 136 add a floor…

127 West 123rd Street

127 West 123rd Street is one of two old townhouses that are sandwiched between the two halves of the Windows on 123 condos. Windows on 123 maxes out the possible building height and sorta dwarfs the townhouses. So from my perspective it’s not horrible that floors are added to the townhouses… Here’s a photo right after they started adding the floor…

127 west 123rd street

I wish they had set the extra floor back a little, but given what it’s up against, it’s not horrible… Here it is again as a 3D drawing…

127 w 123 3D drawingActually, I’m a little surprised 75′ is the max height on a 60′ wide street – but that is what it is…

136 West 123rd Street

In contrast to 127, 136 West 123rd Street is one of 16 continuous brownstones that have not been altered. Adding a floor to it is a much bigger deal since it breaks something that still has the potential to be pristine…

Brownstones on West 123rd Street between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell

I’m really disappointed that the view you see above is going to be marred by an extra story on top of one of those buildings. Not only are they going up a floor, but they’re pushing the back wall back to the maximum 65 feet with the minimum 30 foot rear yard…

136 west 123 street 3D drawingIf we had been landmarked LPC could have mandated that the additional floor be set back far enough that it not be visible from the street. At least there’s some set back (6′ 6″), but a 10 or 15 foot setback would have been so much nicer.

As sort of a side note, 136 W 123 was for many years the neighborhood hangout – mostly older (Belizian?) guys with who were pretty big into music. (We even bought a couple CDs off one of the guys – and they weren’t bad). There used to be a social club in the ground floor which had it’s ups and downs. The guy who lives behind them on 122nd Street still has a bullet hole in his window thanks to that club. When the club closed they just moved their socializing onto the stoop. They’re generally good guys, but their hanging out got pretty loud. Just the other day one of the neighbors I “met” due to the RCN incident told me she got only 4 hours of sleep a night during the summer because they were so loud. So 136 being renovated will really change the block since it was one of the remaining centers of the old culture on the block.

Back when MMPCIA started their push to get the blocks between Lenox and ACP landmarked, I wasn’t so keen on the idea. I still don’t think landmarking is warranted for the north side of our street which already feels like it has three zilliion styles of architecture. But as I thought about it, the unbroken row of 16 brownstones on the south side of the street was worth protecting – but once 136 gets rehabbed, that purity will be gone. We can never go back to what it used to look like.

The architect seems like he’s got it in him to do a decent job. I just hope his client is spending the money to execute a good design. If we’re going to have a visible addition marring the view – please, just let it be fairly well designed.


I went to see the Windows on 123 lofts yesterday and looking down I could see that there were already additional floors added to some of the brownstones on the south side of the street. Here you can see that 132 West 123 has an extra floor added already…

132 West 123 additional floor added

That’s a rather large amount of “stuff” that was added and it’s fairly close to the edge – yet it’s not readily visible from the street, so I’m hopeful that the additional roof on 136 won’t be visible either. [136 is the one two doors down with the blue tarp.]

152 West 123 also has an extra floor, but it’s stepped back further and features a bigger/nicer roof deck off what I assume is the master bedroom…

123rd street roofs

I just find it really odd that they had the money to add an extra floor, but not enough to restore their cornice.

[In the picture above you can see our bulkhead in the distance. It looks pretty small compared to everything else…]

So seeing that there are already several with extra roofs added, I’m far less worried about roofs being added – though I’m hoping none get added on 122 that would block our view 🙂