Astor Place Goes Upscale-Last Days of Skaters’ Hub?

On a north-facing triangle of Astor Place, the skeleton of a new 21-story residential tower has been racing skyward out of a gaping pit on the former parking lot adjacent to the Cooper Union, casting a shadow across the octagonal streetscape and Tony Rosenthal’s teetering cube.

The contours of the building’s bulbous silhouette, which somewhat resembles a beach towel caught on a sea breeze, is beginning to emerge amidst the imposing façades of the Public Theater and the 19th-century buildings on Lafayette Street that once housed the city’s most powerful publishing houses-and where, just two years ago, hotelier Ian Schrager was to develop a boutique hotel designed by Rem Koolhaas.

That hotel project collapsed, but in its wake, the Related Companies is constructing Manhattan’s latest loft building to be stamped by a world-renowned architect. The Madison Avenue–based real-estate concern, with an $8 billion portfolio that spans more than 21,000 apartments across nine states-including its crown jewel, the crystalline towers of the $1.7 billion Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle-appears ready to affix one more rock to its diadem.

The Astor Place project (which has been named “The Sculpture of Living”) signals a striking new direction for Related into a burgeoning downtown market. It’s also the celebrated architect Charles Gwathmey’s first-ever multifamily residential tower. But more than any of these things, it’s a sign that this small area of Noho is poised to become downtown Manhattan’s next important driver of the luxury real-estate market. That the gateway to the once-bohemian and still hardly wealthy East Village should become a place where $8 million lofts abound and celebrities stride quickly past pedestrians in sunglasses and baseball caps may seem strange at first. But with all the development in neighborhoods much more eccentric and further afield-most notably, the meatpacking district-the question that probably occurs to everyone but the skaters smoking at the foot of the giant cube at Astor Place is: “What took so long?”

Neighborhood groups contend that Astor Place is the sole remaining area below 14th Street that has yet to be remade according to the tastes of newly minted hedge-fund managers and Hollywood celebrities. But with asking prices ascending north of $1,400 per square foot, that can’t last long. The East Village, long left off the luxury real-estate map, has become the newest darling of Manhattan developers.

“I don’t think Lafayette Street is any different than Greenwich Street. Acceptable areas have expanded. It’s the history of the real-estate cycle,” said developer Richard Born, who is a partner with Mr. Schrager on a 70,000-square-foot residential project nearby, at 53 Bond Street. “Areas where people now live were horrific years ago. There isn’t a bad neighborhood left in Manhattan,” he added.

Next week, Related will open a sales office at 400 Lafayette Street to begin marketing the zinc and limestone building’s 39 loft apartments, which will range from $2 million for a two-bedroom to more than $10 million for the penthouse. All apartments will feature kitchens and bathrooms outfitted by Mr. Gwathmey, who has designed the private homes of Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, along with the residences of David Geffen and Steven Spielberg.

“We’ve been trying to develop this site for at least seven years. We’re just thrilled to finally be at a point where the building is coming out of the ground and entering the marketplace,” said David Wine, Related’s vice chairman.

Related signed a 99-year-lease on the land owned by Cooper Union, and the tower is just the latest in a series of high-profile luxury residential developments that have sprouted on the blocks abutting the southern tip of Astor Place.

The Astor Place boom is just the beginning. A phalanx of developments up and down the Bowery has been giving the tired boulevard a new sheen.

Stretching south from Cooper Square along the Bowery, at least three new luxury residential developments have gone up in the past two years. Black S.U.V.’s now idle outside Kos, the new, soon-to-be-opened members-only club owned by Lenny Kravitz and Denzel Washington, and some real-estate experts see a meatpacking-district-style development coming to the eastern reaches of downtown Manhattan.

“In a large swath of downtown Manhattan, I think the market values have all equalized. You could almost close your eyes and throw a dart at the map and find that the market is in demand,” Mr. Born said.

Lofts now command seven figures at 21 Astor Place, the Carl Fischer lofts at 52 Cooper Square and, soon, Related’s tower at 445 Lafayette Street, where developers have been no less ambitious.

The infusion of luxury real estate on Astor Place began three years ago, real-estate experts say, when the landmarked Carl Fischer Building, once the home of the eponymous music publisher, was first converted into 26 lofts ranging from 1,452 to 6,762 square feet and asking upward of $9 million for the penthouse. The apartments were delivered raw and featured built-in amenities, including broadband Internet access. In April, tennis ace Jim Courier paid more than $3 million for a 2,618-square-foot apartment that belonged to the film producer Julian Iragorri. The penthouse recently traded for $7 million in May.

“I think Carl Fischer was the pioneer; it didn’t have much to compare it to at the time,” said Leonard Steinberg, a Douglas Elliman broker who specializes in luxury downtown properties.

In 2002, Fort Lee, N.J.–based El-Ad Properties, the developer of 12 New York buildings, purchased 21 Astor Place from Goldman Sachs and completed a $63 million conversion of the former 19th-century Mercantile Library designed by George Harney. The project comprised 50 loft condos, including a 7,278-square-foot penthouse (complete with 3,094-square-foot wraparound terrace) that was asking upward of $6 million-prices more typical of Park Avenue than the East Village.

“We strongly believe that Astor Place is one of the best residential neighborhoods in the city,” said El-Ad president Miki Naftali. The apartments in Mr. Naftali’s project came outfitted with sliding room dividers, 15-foot ceilings, double-entry doors finished in zebrawood, closets constructed of semi-opaque glass and cantilevered staircases.

It’s something that’s been tried before-and failed. Why it seems to be working now may be a simple question of real estate following every other Manhattan commodity: It’s new, so it can be made trendy.

“That location has been the object of several developments,” Related’s Mr. Wine said. “We’ve really seen the site reflecting the growth of residential real estate downtown. Following in the footsteps of 21 Astor Place and Carl Fischer, this site is an opportunity to build an unbelievably important building.”

Already, the effects of the luxury incursion are being felt. Apartments in the El-Ad development at 21 Astor Place that sold for $900 a square foot last year have since resold at $1,200 per square foot.

“I wish I would be able to sell the whole building again now-I would get at least another $100 to $200 per square foot,” said Mr. Naftali.

“I think it’s a very interesting strategy. It’s a big contrast in that neighborhood: You walk out your door and you have Cooper Square and St. Mark’s Place and all the things you don’t associate with paying $2,000 a square foot for,” said Trichia Cole, an executive vice president in charge of new development at the Corcoran Group. “But Astor Place is centrally located. If you’re a midtown banker, you can be at work in five minutes. You have the subway right outside your door.”

Of course, the things in the East Village not associated with luxury real estate are rapidly disappearing.

“We feel like we’re a community under siege,” said East Village artist Anna Sawaryn, who’s also the chairwoman of the Coalition to Save the East Village. “The East Village was the only place left in Manhattan where a designer could open up shop in the neighborhood. Now rents are going up and they can’t afford to be here. This is one of the last real communities in Manhattan. It’s something people seem to forget. We know the name of the guy at the coffee shop; we say hello to each other on the street. What’s happening here is that it’s all changing. The people moving in go to their jobs and then come home; they don’t get involved in the community.”

It’s the familiar New York development story: Artist community becomes trendy, Wall Street money moves in, chain stores follow in tow.

“A lot of what’s going on in the community is to figure out how to develop without destroying the good parts,” said David Reck, the chair of Community Board 2′s zoning committee. “We’ve had a lot of problems with Cooper Union-mostly with the oversized buildings they have proposed. Cooper Union and N.Y.U. have been taking advantage of the Community Facilities Zoning bonus. Simply because they’re universities, they are able to build a larger building, even when a private developer wouldn’t be able to get that bonus.”

Under the Cooper Union’s master plan, approved by the Department of City Planning in February 2003, the college will break ground in 2006 on a nine-story, 165,000-square-foot academic building at 41 Cooper Square that will cost the institution $100 million. The existing structure at 51 Cooper Square will be torn down to make way for a mixed-use commercial building that will rise 14 stories and total 300,000 square feet, according to school officials. Private developers will lease the land from Cooper Union and develop the site, with revenues from the lease going back to the institution. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, Cooper Union pays no taxes on these funds.

“We’re a full scholarship institution, and it will benefit Cooper Union financially to make 51 Astor Place available for development,” said Cooper Union treasurer Robert Hawks. He described the institution’s development plans as inclusive of the community where it has been based since Peter Cooper established the college there in 1859. “I think change is inevitable. Projects that have nothing to do with the Cooper Union are springing up on quite a few sites,” he added.

Mr. Hawks may be right. Developers have been eyeing Cooper Union and tagging along on the heels of the school’s efforts to revitalize its physical plant.

Current projects include a rental building at 199 Bowery, the Bond Street Lofts at 57 Bond Street and, most recently, a 16-story tower set to rise at 195 Bowery, which will house 13 floor-through condos ranging in price from $825,000 to $2.7 million.

“There isn’t a sanctuary where people can get away from it. Luxury is moving everywhere. Astor Place is pretty much Soho. And there’s a whole slew of developments set for the Bowery,” said Douglas Elliman’s Mr. Steinberg.

“Any site that’s buildable, someone is going to fight to build,” said Mr. Born. “People are turning over every stone in this city looking for a site to build a residential building. The market is there.”