A new ‘starchitect’ building will test Manhattan’s rental market

The 233-unit structure, designed by Bjarke Ingels, is hitting a challenging market


RENTAL inventory in Manhattan is surging and the number of lease signings is plummeting, but that’s not stopping a new “starchitect”-designed rental building in East Harlem from opening in September.

“It’s not a good real estate market, period,” says David Blumenfeld, VP of the Blumenfeld Development Group, which owns the project. “I don’t think we’re really focused on where we start. We’re focused on a couple of years out.”

Still, Blumenfeld is optimistic. Not only does he expect every unit to be rented, he expects all 233 apartments will be filled within a year of the building’s opening — a relatively standard timeline.

“We’re hoping for nine months,” he says. “But I’m going to conservatively say 12 months.”

His confidence stems from the building’s proximity to the 125th Street Metro North Station, which could draw commuters, and the New York Proton Centre, less than two blocks away and whose employees might want to live nearby.

Blumenfeld has a long history of working in the neighbourhood as well: The company developed East River Plaza shopping mall, which opened in 2009.

Even more than that, he’s banking on the building’s design, which was conceived by star Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. Blumenfeld says that he always wanted a striking building for the site, a onetime vacant parking lot on East 126th Street.

“We’re trying to create a neighbourhood that’s growing and thriving,” he says. “I didn’t really want to build a boring Manhattan building.”

The Design

Horizontally, the building is shaped in a T

Ingels’s design, which Blumenfeld says he had to “bring down to a bit of reality”, entails a gently curved facade with high, angled windows that catch the sunlight. He named the building “The Smile” because its facade lightly resembles a curved mouth.

Apartments range from studios to two bedrooms. Prices run from US$2,300 (RM9,647) a month for a studio to about US$5,000 a month for the most expensive two-bedroom apartments. “A Bjarke Ingels building somewhere in midtown would be  21⁄2 times the price,” Blumenfeld says.

The median Manhattan studio price in June was US$2,705, according to a report by Douglas Elliman; the median two-bedroom was US$4,756. “Unlike typical apartments, these are a bit larger, which plays into a post-Covid world,” Blumenfeld continues.

Studios are mostly 450 sq ft; one-bedrooms are roughly 600 sq ft; two-bedrooms are around 850 sq ft. The aesthetic is “minima-list-meets-architectural loft”, he says, with white resin floors that “make the apartment super light and comfortable”.

Also inside is a fitness centre, a “wellness retreat” with a spa and dance studio, and a rooftop swim club with a plunge pool, whirlpools and barbecues.

The Market

Apartments range from studios to 2-bedrooms

Despite the building’s advantages, it arrives during an historically bad period for Manhattan rentals.

“Price declines have been accelerating,” says Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of appraiser Miller Samuel Inc. “The challenge in the market now is that, because of the exodus of Manhattanites, the market still hasn’t woken up.”

Worse, the rental market will be more challenging than the purchase market over the next year or two, Miller continues, “largely because unemployment has been heavily skewed towards lower-wage earners, who tend to be renters”.

Blumenfeld says he has multiple plans to fill the space. One-fifth of the apartments are zoned for affordable housing.

Depending on applicants’ income brackets, studios could cost as little as US$1,023 a month, one-bedrooms could cost US$1,090 a month and two bedrooms could cost US$1,297 per month. Blumenfeld says his company has received about 55,000 applications for these 47 units.

Another 23 of the apartments are for people who qualify for middle-income housing and range from about US$2,000 a month to US$2,849 a month.

“We put a wide range on that extra tier, but the problem is we were trying to attract nurses, doctors, firemen, police officers — and a lot of those people don’t really want to go through the city’s application process,” he says. “So, we’ll see how that comes out.”

Blumenfeld is in conversation with those and other groups to encourage their members to move in. “We’re talking to law enforcement groups,” he says, in order to provide “an extra bonus to come to the building”.

Ultimately, he expects The Smile’s design and amenities will do most of the heavy lifting. “Look, I’ve spent 20 some-odd years in this community,” Blumenfeld says. “People are looking to grow within this community, and having a jewel of a building like this is something that can make them proud.” — Bloomberg