Jan. 15, 2014 - New York Post Online

When Eric Benaim began brokering apartments in Long Island City, back in 2006, convincing people to move there required imagination.

“I had to paint a picture of what this neighborhood would eventually be like,” he says, recalling how desolate it looked. “I don’t have to do that anymore,” he adds.

Today, the East River waterfront brims with sleek high-rises, some of which rival those of Manhattan in grandeur. “Buildings here have so many amenities, they’re almost like cruise ships,” says Benaim, founder of the LIC-based brokerage Modern Spaces.

Indeed, with everything from screening rooms and roof decks to indoor pools, spas, barbecue pits, outdoor fireplaces and even dog runs, LIC’s high-end buildings are almost like self-contained cities. But the neighborhood’s premium services have traditionally been as much a necessity as a luxury — holdovers from when it was a “nowhere” neighborhood with few bars, restaurants and entertainment.

“In 2005 or 2006, when these buildings first came online, developers had to make their buildings amenity-rich because there was nothing to do in the neighborhood,” says Benaim, who bought his own LIC apartment in 2006. “Now you still need those amenities just to be competitive here — even though there are things to do outside of the building.”

What’s most unusual about the neighborhood, however, is that unlike in Manhattan — or even Brooklyn — the choicest amenities go to renters rather than buyers. In fact, according to Benaim, 90 percent of the new luxury housing stock in LIC is comprised of rental units.

Gantry Park Landing, which opened 18 months ago, is a typically amenity-laden LIC waterfront rental, with a gaming lounge with ping-pong table and Wii-equipped TVs, yoga studio and roof deck.

Studios go for $2,400, one-bedrooms for $3,300 and two-bedrooms fetch $4,100 — and they’ve rented quickly, appealing to New Yorkers seeking luxury digs without having to pay the prices of prime Brooklyn or Manhattan. “A couple of weeks ago, we had a dinner to celebrate our Gantry Park Landing being 90 percent full,” says Mitchell Hochberg, president of Manhattan-based Lightstone Group, for which the 199-unit Gantry was their first Long Island City project but not the last, as two more rental buildings are on the way. “We went to Alobar restaurant right in the neighborhood, and I felt like I was in Williamsburg.”

They’re hardly the only big buildings with tricked out amenities: at 4705 Center Blvd. (where rents start at $2,425 according to Streeteasy) the tower has a rooftop pool and massage room.

Nearby, another recently launched luxe rental is TF Cornerstone’s 4545 Center Boulevard, which features beach volleyball and tennis courts. The building houses 820 apartments — of which just 27 units remain; one-bedrooms are priced at $2,800 and three-bedrooms go for $5,300.

Demand is so high that many, many more luxury rentals are planned. This year will see another 2,000 freshly built apartments hitting the LIC market, including TF Cornerstone’s 585-unit 4610 Center Boulevard, situated along the river, with an exterior that cantilevers above the Pepsi sign. John McMillan, director of planning for TF Cornerstone, describes it as “Florida glass and curving balconies whipping around the corners.” Units are expected to run slightly higher than at 4545 Center Boulevard.

Smaller buildings like the 188-unit Maximilian have rents starting at $2,180 have seen prospective tenants filling the showrooms on the weekend. Just off the waterfront, in the rapidly developing — yet slightly grittier Court Square neighborhood — is the newly opened Linc, a soaring, 42-story, 709-unit building at 4310 Crescent St. One of several Rockrose developments in LIC, Linc features studios from $2,150, one-bedrooms for $2,600, two-bedrooms for $3,500 and three-bedrooms for $4,800; the jewel of the building, a 1,400-square-foot three-bedroom, with 11-foot ceilings and a wraparound terrace, will hit the market this spring at $5,700. At the moment, five months after the first tenants moved in, 350 apartments remain vacant at Linc.

Rockrose also owns the nearby building housing the destination cocktail spot Dutch Kills. In an area of burgeoning hipness, a craft drinks joint is a treasure: “They help the neighborhood and they’re good tenants,” says Justin Elghanayan, a partner at Rockrose. When asked if there are plans to upgrade the property, he says, “Why would I want them to go?”

Along those same lines, when Sarah Obraitis and her French Canadian husband Hugo Dufour lost their lease on M. Wells Diner in Hunters Point in 2011, Elghanayan intended to do everything in his power to keep them in LIC. Understanding the importance of having a destination restaurant in the neighborhood, he even offered a piece of vacant lot where they could plant a food truck.

Ultimately, Elghanayan offered the couple a fair, long-term lease in a former auto body shop which they transformed into the buzzy, red-walled M. Wells Steakhouse — directly across the street from Linc.

Obraitis says that she and her husband were inundated with opportunities to open up in Manhattan or Brooklyn. But they enjoy living in Long Island City and like working close to home. “When you get beyond the high-rises here, the low-scale vibe reminds Hugo of some quarters in Montreal,” says Obraitis, a Queens native. “Other parts of New York were already being well-served by restaurants. Here, the doors were opening. Rockrose came to us and so did PS 1 [MOMA’s LIC satellite where M. Wells maintains a café]. Long Island City is having its time. The area is ready to seize the moment and seize tenants like us.”

In order to keep those tenants, though, Long Island City must deal with its shortage of condos. Indeed, apartments available for purchase currently represent less than 10 percent of the recently constructed stock. But that will soon change. Encouraged by rising condo prices — in the 48-unit Vista, at 4415 Purves St., square-foot prices jumped from $680 to more than $1,000 this summer — independent developers are stepping into the condo breach.

Indeed, while the TFs and Rockroses of the world stick mostly with rentals — preferring to realize profits as the neighborhood evolves — lesser-known developers are taking advantage of LIC’s condo dearth. Companies like JMJ Contracting and Ascent Development are building on a smaller scale. Construction just began on the so-called Finger Building, a lean 15-unit project at 4277 Hunter St., which is expected to be completed in 2016. Sales commence on Saturday for Ivy28, a Queens Plaza project with 28 units that start at $860 per square foot. By June, LIV@MurrayPark will bring 38 more units, selling for $850 to $900 per square foot.

Over the next three years, Benaim expects to see 400 condo units hitting the LIC market.

“With so many rentals out there and those prices leveling off, more people are doing condos,” he says. “I see that as the next trend. There’s currently a lack of condos, there’s demand for them and prices have risen to a point where they’ve never been.”

By Michael Kaplan