Parkchester Wins Following as ‘Hidden Secret’

The Wall Street Journal
June 20, 2014
Parkchester, the large apartment complex in the Bronx, was originally constructed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. as a middle-class city-within-a-city under the same precepts that guided the development of the insurance giant’s more-famous project in Manhattan—Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.

Like its Manhattan sibling, Parkchester has experienced ownership upheavals, but for more than 15 years it has been owned by the same investors and is now regarded as a stable, well-maintained and affordable place to live.

MetLife built the 129-acre complex between 1938 and 1942 on land that had been used as a Catholic residence for neglected and abandoned children. The architectural plans, which were on display at the 1939 World’s Fair, emphasized green space in the form of landscaped pathways and playgrounds.

Parkchester is “a little bit of a hidden secret, because a lot of people still think of the Bronx as burned-out buildings in the South Bronx,” said Francisco Gonzalez, district manager of the local community board.

The development spans 171 buildings with around 12,271 units that are a mix of rentals and condominiums. Many of the red brick buildings feature decorative sculptures on the sides of the facades.

Beyond the complex itself in the east-central Bronx, Parkchester is commonly thought as a broader neighborhood in its own right that includes dozens of surrounding blocks bordered by the Cross Bronx Expressway to the south and the Bronx River Parkway to the west.

The area is well served by public transportation, with stops for the No. 6 subway line and express buses. The No. 2 and 5 lines also stop near the neighborhood. Travel time to Midtown Manhattan is around 35 minutes.

MetLife sold the complex to a group of investors led by developer Harry Helmsley in the late 1960s, and neighborhood leaders say a period of decline followed as the new owners converted the complex into condominiums in the 1970s and 1980s.

“You had vacant apartments, trashed apartments, the beginning of high crime,” said Fernando Ferrer, who was Bronx borough president from 1987 to 2001. “The condominiums began to dramatically lose their value.”

The nonprofit organization Community Preservation Corp. teamed with private investors in 1998 to form the Parkchester Preservation Co., which bought more than 6,000 unsold condos from Mr. Helmsley’s ownership group that are now rented out to tenants.

The partnership spent $250 million renovating the buildings, an undertaking that involved electrical upgrades, asbestos abatement, replacing all the windows and installing new plumbing systems, according to Rafael Cestero, president and chief executive of Community Preservation Corp.

Mr. Cestero said the company is committed to a continuing investment in the property. “We see the sponsorship of the rental units as a long-term proposition that adds an important element of stability,” he said.

Monthly rents for one-bedrooms in the complex start at around $1,100 and one-bedroom condo asking prices start at around $105,000.

In the larger Parkchester area, which is a mixture of multifamily homes and apartment buildings, the median price for residential property is $115,000, according to data this week from real-estate website

The Parkchester complex houses dozens of large retailers, including a Macy’s, as well as bank branches, a Blink Fitness gym and fast-food restaurants. A movie theater that closed last year is being converted into a Marshalls.

In the 1960s, the city negotiated with MetLife over allegations that the company had accepted only a handful of black and Hispanic tenants in the Parkchester complex. MetLife later announced that it would accept qualified black applicants, without saying whether it had followed exclusionary practices. The company on Friday declined to comment on the matter.

Today the complex is racially and ethically diverse. According to the most recent Census statistics, 43% of Parkchester residents are African-American, 38% are Hispanic, 13% are Asian and 4% are white.

“It’s like the United Nations, and you see the community come together for things like concerts and arts and crafts,” said Noel Cohen, a real-estate broker who has worked in the area for several years.

Residents often say they were primarily drawn by Parkchester’s affordability. “It was the cheapest place I could find an apartment to buy,” said Hilliard Greene, a jazz musician who bought a studio in the complex for $80,000 in 2007.

But many also cite Parkchester’s quality of life. Mr. Greene, who moved to the Bronx from Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, said he appreciates the area’s cleanliness and its “curbside appeal” in the form of mature trees and landscaped areas.

“I may end up here for the rest of my life,” he said.

Parks: Small public playgrounds in the area include Caserta Playground and Castle Hill Playground, both of which have handball and basketball courts.

Schools: P.S. 106, an elementary school with around 1,200 students, received a C grade on its 2012-13 progress report from the city. Castle Hill Middle School has an enrollment of around 750 and got a B grade on its last progress report.

Restaurants: Local eateries include Taqueria Tlaxcalli, a Mexican restaurant on Starling Avenue, and Neerob, which specializes in Bangladeshi cuisine and is also on Starling.

Entertainment: The Bronx Zoo is within walking distance. Farther away is the New York Botanical Gardens.