Residents Reclaim First Floor Spaces Long Used by Doctors

By Amy Zimmer on November 20, 2013 8:16am 

MANHATTAN — Doctors, dentists and psychotherapists have long set up their offices on the first floors of apartment buildings on quiet, leafy streets of neighborhoods such as the Upper East Side.

But with a tight housing market, developers can get more money for those spaces as apartments — which is why maisonettes have become de rigueur.

Maisonettes — which means “little home” in French — are ground-floor apartments, usually in full-service buildings, that have their own entrances from the street.

Although ground floor apartments tend to be less expensive for buyers than those on upper floors — by roughly 25 percent, according to real estate experts — landlords can charge more for dwellings than for office space.

“It’s more valuable as residential,” Susan Hewitt, founder of the Cheshire Group, the developer of the Philip House, a recently gut-renovated pre-war building at 141 E. 88th St. which converted the apartments from rentals into ultra-luxury condos.

That's why the firm replaced medical offices with maisonettes.

“There’s great water pressure," Hewitt added.

For some residents, living on the ground floor can come with drawbacks. There can be noise and odors from the street, security concerns and the fact that passersby can peer into your living space.

But there can also be benefits.

“If you’re the kind of person who wants your own door and privacy, but wants someone to take your packages and use the gym, maisonettes offer the way to have both,” Hewitt said.

The Philip House's maisonettes — which have outdoor spaces larger than some studio apartments — have something else that many buyers covet: high ceilings. They're some 12 feet tall compared to the 9.5 feet on the upper floors.

The maisonette residents have access to the building’s high-end amenities, but at a discount. A 1,300 square foot two-bedroom space — with a 540-square-foot private outdoor area — is currently in contract for roughly $2,200 per square foot, while apartments on the upper floors are fetching between $2,300 and $2,400 per square foot, Hewitt said. 

Though a “smaller universe of people” tend to seek out maisonettes, these first floor apartments have their fans.

“Sometimes people don’t like elevators or don’t want to be dependent on an elevator, or they want services but want independence,” Hewitt said. “If stroller wrangling is part of your day, it totally makes sense.”

She added, “If we were in ‘Brownstone Brooklyn,’ there are definitely people who want ground floor with backyard. There’s a sort of cool and unexpected factor.”

In Brooklyn, at the new 32-unit Carroll Gardens condo project called Sackett Union, maisonettes were among the first to be snatched up. The three ground floor units sold for an average of $2 million each, and were $30 to $40 less per foot than apartments on upper floors, said Ken Horn, president of Alchemy Properties.

“Of the three people who bought, they all have young children and like the fact of having a private backyard where they can barbecue,” he said, noting that different grilling rules often apply to terraces on upper floors. 

“They like the concept of walking into the front door and walking into home.”

The increased sense of safety in the city has made maisonettes more desirable, real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller said.

The move from medical offices to maisonettes has been happening for nearly two decades, Miller said, noting that the market for professional ground floor office space in co-ops and condos has failed to keep pace with residential demand.

Ground floor residential space on the Upper East Side, for instance, sold for a 20 percent premium above ground floor professional space in 2013, he noted.

“I remember in the '80s when I first started appraising, you could count on one hand how many condos had ground floor units," he said. "By-and-large it took years for them to sell, at significant discounts. Today that math doesn’t apply.”

Doctors are not as hot on offices in apartment buildings — which in many residential neighborhoods can only be used for such services instead of commercial uses — as they used to be, Hewitt claimed.

“Medical practices are changing,” she said. “It used to be that individual doctors had individual offices. But most medical services are consolidating. Practices are bigger.”

In the process, communities are losing vital services, said Jack Nyman, director of Baruch College’s Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute.

Having medical offices conveniently located near residents so they don’t have to take a subway, bus or car is important, he said.

“I think it’s a healthy thing for an urban environment to have what we call ‘doctors’ row',” he said of the first floor offices.

“It provides a sense of safety, security and comfort when you have healthcare people there."

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