The Town House Morphs 

Aug 28, 2003

Return to news


WHEN Alan Wilzig and Karin Koenig move to a new town house in TriBeCa next year, Mr. Wilzig, a kinetic 38-year-old bank chief executive, might not even give Ms. Koenig a key to the front door.

''He wants me to go in through the main lobby for security,'' Ms. Koenig, a 33-year-old artist, said as she perched serenely on a lime-and-cream-colored footstool in the couple's rented loft this week. ''The unique thing about it is that it's a town house with all the amenities of a regular building, which is what every Manhattanite is addicted to -- the doorman.''

The couple, who are to be married next month on the Greek island of Mykonos, recently bought a $4.45 million town house at the Hubert, a new 33-unit condominium development at Hubert and Collister Streets that features two town houses attached to a larger loft building complete with lobby and 24-hour concierge service.

In addition to using the fitness center in the cellar and directing package deliveries to the doorman, owners of the new town houses will be able to enter their homes through the lobby, which connects to their own basements through a corridor. Mr. Wilzig, in a rare moment that found him seated, said he would mount a buzzer in his office at the Trust Company of New Jersey to alert him if anyone triggered an alarm on the front entryway to the town house.

In a bid to sell newly built luxury town houses, the developers of the Hubert, along with those building Morton Square in the West Village, are pitching a hybrid: the privacy of single-family homes, along with the comforts of an apartment building, including doormen, superintendents and other co-op-style services.

For wealthy people looking for more space than a traditional apartment, the town house has long been the Manhattan alternative to the suburbs. ''It's almost like 'Gone with the Wind,' '' said Michele Kleier, president of Gumley Haft Kleier, a Manhattan real estate firm. ''It's Tara. You can actually go in the backyard and pick up a piece of your earth, as opposed to a co-op, where you own shares in something that you don't even understand.''

Developers of the new town houses are betting that some buyers will want something more than that piece of dirt. Robert A. Siegel, who is developing the Hubert with a financial partner he declined to name, said he bought and renovated a Gramercy Park brownstone himself in 1998, but wished he had a doorman to receive packages and a superintendent to fix backed-up toilets.

The remaining 6,600-square-foot, three-story Hubert town house is being offered for $6.25 million, with a $2,991 monthly common charge.

''When you think about it, why wouldn't you want a town house with all of the services?'' asked Jules Demchick, president of the J. D. Carlisle Development Corporation, which is putting six town houses into the 147-unit Morton Square project near the Hudson River. The town houses, which are about 4,000 square feet and range from $3.5 million to $4 million, will have private gardens and separate front-door entrances. Owners will be able to park their cars in the 140-car garage and have their garbage collected by a superintendent and groceries delivered by a concierge.

The new town houses may tap into a growing appetite. Ms. Kleier reported a recent increase in inquiries about town houses by young couples with children. ''They figure if they spend $5 million or $6 million, they are going to get a 3,000-square-foot apartment,'' she said, ''or they can get a 7,000-square-foot town house with a backyard.''

According to the Douglas Elliman Manhattan Townhouse Report, prepared by Miller Samuel Inc., a New York real estate appraisal firm, more town houses were sold last year -- 150 -- than in any year since the concern began tracking sales in 1989.

Some real estate agents question whether the new crossbreeds are true town houses. At Morton Square, the town houses are not even completely distinct properties: three levels of lofts are stacked on their roofs.

''In Manhattan, a single-family town house is something other than a condo, other than a co-op, other than part of a planned community,'' said Bruce Ehrmann, a senior vice president at Stribling & Associates who marketed three newly built TriBeCa town houses designed by the late John Petrarca in 2000. The houses, though modern, still fell within the rubric of the traditional fully independent town house.

To many town house buyers, the concept of newly built is anathema. ''My feeling, at the end of the day, is that one buys a new development to do the new exciting urban thing in Manhattan,'' said Leslie Mason, a town house specialist at Prudential Douglas Elliman in New York. ''You buy a town house so you can relive the Edith Wharton experience.''

Sally Susman, a Manhattan public relations executive, recently signed a contract to buy a five-story town house in Gramercy Park. After she and her partner looked at nearly 100 apartments in full-service buildings, they abandoned the dream of a doorman when they fell in love with a 19th-century brownstone. To Ms. Susman, the romantic appeal far outweighed the loss of some luxury services. Besides, she said, ''I'm not a huge fan of new construction.''

The marketers of the Hubert recognized that they had to persuade Manhattan's notoriously status-conscious real estate brokers to embrace the new project. With glass and steel facades, the new town houses have few echoes of their brownstone and brick predecessors.

BEFORE ground was broken in January, the Sunshine Group, a real estate firm that specializes in marketing new luxury residential projects, convened a panel of the city's semantically correct town house brokers to come up with marketing lingo. The developers had originally considered calling three other multistory units built into the main body of the condo building town houses, too. But the brokers at the panel discussion dissuaded them. James Lansill, senior managing director at Sunshine, said that might confuse buyers and drive them away. Those units, he said, sold as ''maisonettes.'' In the town houses, Mr. Lansill said, the brokers ''didn't want us to call anything a patio, but a garden -- they really focused on the nomenclature of the town house buyer.''

Rather than buy the new town houses, some have chosen simply to remodel the old versions. Jon Kully, a 28-year-old architect who is renovating a federal-style brick town house on a leafy block of 20th Street in Chelsea, exhibited all the breezy idealism -- and contradictions -- of a newly minted architecture school graduate as he traipsed through the construction zone this week in cargo shorts, a black T-shirt and flip-flops. A marketing brochure he produced called the project ''the activation of history rather than the preservation of a concealed archive.''

''A developer does something in order to sell it,'' he said. ''It is not something that is done with integrity.'' Mr. Kully said he is wildly overbuilding the town house, which he calls a showpiece. This fall he will move into the upper floors and try to sell a duplex on the ground floor.

The town house blend is not a new idea. In 1963, developers of an apartment complex at 333 East 69th street installed 16 town house units on the ground floor, eight with separate street entrances. At the time, the architect William J. Conklin, the chief designer of the project, said he wanted to reinvigorate the Upper East Side streetscape. This month, one of the town houses, a two-story, three-bedroom unit with three and a half baths and a private garden, sold for $2.6 million, according to real estate sources.

The developers of Morton Square said concern for the streetscape prompted them to mix town houses in with a more traditional 14-story apartment building. ''We wanted to break up the block and give it a residential feel,'' Mr. Demchick said. Walking down Morton Street on a bright summer morning earlier this month, Mr. Demchick said the town houses would fit in on the tree-lined cobblestone street, where they would face a boxy brick rental building with five stories and 112 units.

The Hubert town houses and condo building are sandwiched between one industrial conversion and a row of warehouses, just a block from a traffic circle. ''The location is a loft location, not a town house location,'' said Judith Thorn, a broker with Ashforth Warburg in Manhattan. ''It's not the charm where you're looking at an ivy- or wisteria-covered house across the street that dates back to the 1800's.''

Buyers like Mr. Wilzig and Ms. Koenig are already used to the industrial location. They currently live in a two-bedroom loft in an elegant building around the corner from their new town house. In the cluttered apartment, antique cabinets are stuffed with Murano glass vases and guilloche enamel perfume bottles. Painted motorcycle helmets line the windowsills, and two full-size motorcycles sit by the windows. The couple bought the 6,554-square-foot town house in part to hold their collections. ''There is more space than we will know what to do with at the present time,'' Mr. Wilzig said. ''Until hopefully there are a couple of little Wilzigs to take up some of that space.''

Given their family plans, it was ultimately the security of being attached to a conventional doorman building that attracted them. In a regular town house, he said, ''you can spend whatever you want and have the greatest attention from alarm companies and otherwise, but she's still got to turn it off to walk in -- and if somebody's walking in behind her with something poking her in the back, you're done.''

But he still wanted the autonomy of a town house. Originally, the Hubert's developers wanted to offer part of the roof above his town house as a terrace for a third-floor condo. For Mr. Wilzig, that would have been a deal-breaker. ''I told them up front that I am not buying this at any price with half a roof,'' said Mr. Wilzig, who negotiated the full roof into the contract. Without it, he said, ''you take away the illusion of total independence.''


Hot Property Book

The stars of HGTV's “Selling New York” let fans step inside the high-profile world of Manhattan real estate in a wild and one-of-a-kind novel of stormy egos, sumptuous homes, and staggering fame and fortune. Written by Michele, Samantha & Sabrina Kleier.