NY Daily News

Best Places: New York City developers are converting garages into spacious new condos

January 10, 2014

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Oil-stained floors, flickering fluorescent lights and sooty broken windows may not sound like the makings of a multimillion-dollar condominium, but parking garages across the city have developers
revving their engines.

The gunk and grime will be gone by the time the builders are through, of course, as they tackle the hottest — and dirtiest — trend in high-end real estate. It’s an unusual, only-in-land-starved-New York story: the parking garage condo conversion.

At roughly a half-dozen sites, developers are clearing out the Fords, Beemers and Range Rovers to make way for horse-hair beds, custom cabinetry and 6-foot soaking tubs.

They’ll be painting a garage to put up paradise.

“It may be a garage, but most of these buildings are old — I guess you could call them prewars,” jokes Peter Armstrong, managing director of Rigby Asset Management, a boutique development shop with two decades of experience converting old buildings to condos.

So even where garages are concerned, they don’t build them like they used to.

At 17 E. 12th St., that means 11-foot ceilings and 50-foot-wide, column-free floors.

“The idea was keep the space open to park more cars,” Armstrong says. “Turns out that’s good for parking people, too.”

Not that Armstrong will be cramming them in.

In some cases, these conversions are gut renovations, keeping the glorious industrial architecture intact. In others, developers recycle at least some of the building, usually the steel structure and the floors.

Armstrong has undertaken both, including a rehab in SoHo a decade ago and a strip job now on E. 12th St.
There, he plans to create just one apartment per floor and a duplex penthouse on top. Units will come on the market in the spring, as construction gets underway, with completion expected in the summer of 2015.
Conversions have advantages beyond the buildings’ generous dimensions and layouts.

In low-rise neighborhoods like the Village, newer zoning restricts the height of new construction on side streets to four or five stories, in line with the surrounding townhouses.

But through a loophole in the zoning, developers can file for a conversion and keep their bigger garages intact. Armstrong started with an eight-story building, and he’s then shearing off the back so he can add square footage to the top of his project, with two additional stories.

“To me, I don’t see a garage,” Armstrong says. “It’s just a skeleton with great bones.”

A development team of Continental Properties and DHA Capital is doing the same work under the hood of a garage just a block north, at 12 E. 13th St.

The builders took an eight-story former Hertz garage, gutted it and added a crystalline triplex to the brick base. That top unit is listed for a whopping $31.5 million.

As The News reported last fall, Leonardo DiCaprio — who just launched his own racing team — was among those to check out the soaring space, which is now under construction.

He’s not the first cool cat to fall for garage living, either. In popular culture, it all started with Fonzie, who made a home in the apartment above the Cunninghams’ garage on “Happy Days.”

The Fonz’s move was no problemo, but developers can’t say the same thing.

“Taking these buildings apart and putting them back together isn’t easy,” said John Cetra, principal of Cetra/Ruddy, the architects behind 12 E. 13th St.

Still, Steven Fisch of Continental Properties says the painstaking work removing the floors and rebuilding them is worth it. His building boasts 67-foot-wide units with only four columns in the entire space for each of the eight full-floor apartments below the penthouse. Prices start at
$7 million.

“Buyers are going to walk into a 67-foot living room with huge windows along the whole length,” Fisch said. “It beats any loft in SoHo.”

There are practical advantages for developers converting garages, too, notes Douglas Elliman broker Leonard Steinberg. “To vacate them takes just a set of car keys, rather than millions in legal fees and payments to move out tenants.”

Gale International, a four-generation real estate concern from Long Island, is asking the most for a garage apartment, a $35 million, five-bedroom triplex penthouse at 21 W. 20th St.

It’s a clever design, skipping the conversion and cantilevering over an existing garage that will remain in operation. The rest of the building is a narrow slot of apartments beside the garage, making the project look like a giant L-piece from a game of Tetris.

But that misses one of the biggest perks of rebuilding a parking garage: a parking spot, of course. Units at both 12 E. 13th and 17 E. 12th each come with one.

Were the developers constructing a new building, there would be only one space for every three units or so, based on parking maximums set out in the zoning code.

Flank, the developers of 224 Mulberry St., is going even further: Buyers of each of its seven units, which range in price from $6.25 million to $30 million, will get two parking spaces each.

The firm wanted to construct an entirely new building on its site in Nolita, but the developer made sure to keep a portion of the three-story structure intact to preserve its “existing use” as a garage. On top of it will rise five stories of brick and limestone luxury.

The garage trend is at least a decade old. In 2003, Armstrong converted 73 Wooster St., where he kept the garage facade totally intact (it lies in a historic district). But the pace of conversions is accelerating.

Brooklyn’s gotten in on the act with Love Lane Mews in Brooklyn Heights. Showing the desirability of such conversions, the three-bedroom penthouse there sold a year ago for $2.73 million, a record for an apartment of that size in the area.

Still, some developers are eschewing conversions for teardowns.

Miki Naftali, whose rehabs include the Plaza Hotel and 21 Astor Place, decided to demolish a Hertz garage he recently bought at 210 W. 77th St. because he wanted an 18-story tower instead of the seven-story structure there now.

“The building was nothing special, and I didn’t want anything in the way that could compromise our designs,” Naftali said.

But he could be missing out on some carburetor cachet.

“New Yorkers love conversions,” Steinberg said. “You can almost brag, ‘This used to be a garage,’ and watch your guests gasp.