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Covid in NYC, What’s Life Like? On Real Estate, Safety, Culture, and Entertainment…

Some still shelter in the suburbs, others take advantage of distress pricing in NYC rentals. But the beloved “Christmas in NY” of other years is just a memory

December 2020: Tree in Rockefeller Center before being decorated. Photo: Terry W. Sanders

The city has suffered tremendously from the lack of entertainment and the need to remain indoors. In a city that thrives on its cultural offerings, the majority of many institutions have remained closed, and the museums that have opened are on very limited scheduling. The Metropolitan Opera is closed until next Fall, movie theatres remain a high-risk factor, and social distancing although mandated, is still not insurance that one will be safe. But I don’t believe that one insurmountable event will ultimately alter the entire course of our lives.

Winter scene at Wollman Memorial Skating Rink. Central Park, NYC. Photo: Snappy Goat

As we’ve all experienced, life holds a variety of mysteries. Some predictable, if enough thought is given to circumstances, and others catching us by surprise. I was reminded of this premise while watching HBO’s recent mystery ‘who dunnit’, “The Undoing.”  As in this highly charged story, we were given all the evidence but were still taken by surprise by the ending.

Such is the case at the moment in New York City, with all evidence pointing at increases in the feared virus, Covid-19.  For those lucky enough to have dodged the bullet, we remain optimistic at the newly released data on the efficacy of Pfizer’s vaccine. We remain hopeful that we have the opportunity to receive the prescribed two doses, before we get hit, or shall I say, while remaining safe?

What has become unimaginable, are the numbers of people who flout the mandate to continue to wear a mask, practice safe distancing, and above all, refrain from large gatherings, in spite of the most family-oriented season before us.  I recently heard a report from a nurse on the ‘front line’ commenting in shock, that a dying patient was still denying that the reason for his condition (while ‘hooked to a ventilator’), was due to Covid! What does it take for people to register the warnings and the severity of the information being communicated?

New York City is experiencing the most obvious side-effects of a disease-torn city.  A few days ago, I felt the need for a holiday pick-me-up, and chose Ralph Lauren’s mansion of fantasy on Madison Avenue as my outlet.

The magnificent Ralph Lauren flagship store in NYC. Photo: Grace Russo Bullaro

 

As soon as I entered, I realized the monumental change in its reality.The salespeople – as always- were attentive and ready to assist, dressed in Ralph’s splendor, but the decoration was simply unable to camouflage the mood. In this case it was doubtful, tentative, somewhat fearful, and above all, distanced. It made me sad, as I remember well the preceding years and the gaiety and joy emanating from the store– the shoppers, the festive décor– but mainly the crowds waiting to be helped.  All of the above were absent on my recent “Ralph” venture. I should add that the decoration was as magnificent as always, and if you’re in the neighborhood, I’d highly recommend that you visit the Ralph Lauren mansion at the corner of 72nd and Madison, as a wonderful diversion from the city’s lack of splendor this season.  As mentioned, you won’t be bothered by crowds!

Christmas decor at Ralph Lauren. Photo: Laura Wagner

One of the most obvious features in this year’s seasonal [lack of] spirit are the many empty storefronts. Worse is the need for outdoor dining when the temperature hovers in the mid to low ‘40’s.  I recently had lunch at an outdoor (transitional) café and by the time I was eating the second bite of my omelet, I realized that it was cold! I should add that I’m a ‘fast eater’ so it wasn’t as if I was dawdling over my food.  But it was simply the cool breezes that seemed to have refrigerated my lunch, long before I was finished.

The new mandate by Governor Cuomo to end indoor dining for the next two weeks is yet another reminder of the malaise being currently felt by many who miss the seasonal joy of what is usually the most wonderful time of the year—especially in NYC which is famous for it. The number of restaurant closings, as a result, is astounding, and I can think of no one who is not affected – most especially the restaurateurs and their staffs.

Being associated in the real estate market, the major question that I’ve been asked over these months has been: “how is the market?”.  My answer has not fluctuated, the market remains dry, (i.e., ‘flat’). However, recently, there’s been a slight uptick in activity, created by people seeking NYC rentals. This has been based predominantly on a younger age group seeking the excitement of the city at more affordable housing prices.

For starters, the broker’s fee – which had equaled 15% of the first year’s annual rent, has been almost completely eliminated, mainly as an incentive to stimulate interest. This represents a large portion of the annual rent, as these fees often amounted up to $10.000 and more, depending on the price of a typical rental. A one bedroom apartment with some amenities, such as doorman, dishwasher, close to public transportation, some light (not facing a brick wall), non-walkup (elevator building) will still cost up to $3000+ per month. With the addition of a broker’s fee, equaling $5400, and amortized over the first year – a very basic one-bedroom apartment would run an additional $450 per month! Now that the fee (for the most part) has been eliminated, this becomes a very appealing savings, making many smaller units more reasonable.

Outdoor dining. Photo: Laura Wagner

On the flip side is the current interest in townhouses and brownstones; that is, single family dwellings. Many are of the belief that apartment housing has become a risk factor, based on the numbers residing in a typical apartment building. The fear is that people tend to congregate in hallways and lobbies.  An ‘average’ NYC brownstone, typically 18’ wide covering approximately 5,000 to 8,000 square feet, over 3 – 6 stories, not on a ‘park street’ (meaning in close proximity to Central Park/ Gramercy Park/ Carl Schurz Park) will cost anywhere from $5 – 10M. And be prepared that the numbers will double/ triple as you get closer to Fifth, Park,  the river and parks! So for all who continue to ask, the residential real estate market in New York City (including Brooklyn, and parts of Queens) remains high, by comparison to anywhere else in the country, in spite of a temporary freeze, which many believe will end with the release of the vaccine, and a return to NYC. At least ‘my fingers’ have been kept crossed!

A frequent sight in pandemic NYC. Photo: Grace Russo Bullaro

Yet another side effect of the pandemic is the idea to turn empty office space into residential apartments. An article in today’s New York Times asks the question: “Midtown is reeling. Should its offices become apartments?”.  

However, the main buzz during the pandemic relates to the throngs of people who have chosen to remain in their secondary shelters and many, from what I’ve read, appear to be enjoying the break.  Not surprisingly the Long Island, Connecticut, upstate New York residential markets have surged with a huge rise in overbidding on properties.

Aside from this obvious result of the pandemic, the city has suffered tremendously from the lack of entertainment and the need to remain indoors. In a city that thrives on its cultural offerings, the majority of many institutions have remained closed, and the museums that have opened, are on very limited scheduling. The Metropolitan Opera is closed until next Fall, movie theatres remain a high-risk factor, and social distancing although mandated, is still not insurance that one will be safe.

We cannot help but wonder when (and if) there will be a return to ‘normalcy’ as we once knew it, or if the consequences of this year will remain with us for the foreseeable future.

I do not believe that one insurmountable event will ultimately alter the entire course of our lives, but I do feel that the incoming administration, and the effects of a new government, will certainly help lighten our spirits–at least beginning on January 20th– and that we, as a country, will return to a democracy we can be proud of.

 

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