As people search for homes with outdoor space, complexes in Queens with big shared gardens are seeing strong sales.
Pandemics and potential health threats posed by living in close quarters have long had an impact on the way homes have been built.
About a century ago, some developers responded by creating garden cities — low-slung housing, set far apart and extra leafy. And then after World War II, came garden apartments, which despite less fancy architecture didn’t skimp on the greenery.
Though both types of these garden communities cropped up from coast to coast, the borough of Queens is something of a national hotbed, with dozens of examples from Sunnyside Gardens to Parkway Village to Glen Oaks.
Now, as anxiety about germs again informs housing decisions, these simulacra of the suburbs may be getting a fresh look.
“When you can’t go outside, it starts to grind you down,” said Kathryn Giannelli, 37, a social-studies teacher whose previous home, a two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise near Queens Boulevard that she shared with her partner and son, felt increasingly “claustrophobic” as the pandemic progressed.
She recently moved into a renovated two-bedroom, two-bath duplex with a balcony that cost $375,000 at Parkway Village, a 675-unit, 35-acre co-op in Jamaica. “It’s very green and very quiet,” Ms. Giannelli said.
The complex was built in 1947 as a rental before going co-op in 1983. In 2019, the Manhattan-based real estate firm Glacier Equities bought 63 sponsor-owned rentals at Parkway Village that are gradually being renovated with finishes like stainless-steel appliances, quartz counters and coffered ceilings. Sales have been strong, with nine units selling since hitting the market over the summer, though the older stock has traded, too.
Sales at other similar garden communities have largely held steady, which is significantly better than the fate of more traditional apartment buildings in Manhattan, where sales volume was down by about 20 percent in the last three months of 2020. Brokers say that at many garden communities, sales inventory was low in 2020, perhaps because fewer people were choosing to move since they were able to take advantage of the open space in their complexes.
Ms. Giannelli decided it was time to move out of her high-rise when she saw families desperate for an outside experience turn a skinny strip of grass next to rushing traffic into a makeshift picnic ground. “It seemed sort of sad,” she said.
Eager for more lawn and trees, but not the upkeep required for a stand-alone house, Ms. Giannelli found herself reminiscing about Georgetown Mews, a co-op in Kew Gardens Hills where she grew up. Built in 1952 for returning veterans and featuring a common garden — with lawns that roll up to red-brick facades — Georgetown scatters its 930 units across 60 acres.
In the end, she chose Parkway Village, whose porticos and lampposts bolster its case for being “a colonial village of distinctive charm,” as its signs state. But the vibe from looping paths under mulberry, dogwood and maple trees, with structures clustered around quads, could also be that of a college campus.
Parkway Village was developed in part because the early-American look of some garden communities often went hand in hand with racial and religious exclusion. The Fresh Meadows rental complex, for example, a shaded property near the Long Island Expressway with 3,100 apartments in brick and mostly low-rise buildings that also dates to the postwar era, excluded Black renters.
Fresh Meadows was developed by the New York Life Insurance Company, which also developed Stuyvesant Town in lower Manhattan. Both garden communities eventually integrated and both have had several owners since. But the discriminatory policies almost became an international problem. In the 1940s, when the United Nations was at work on its Manhattan headquarters, the global body set up shop at different locations throughout the boroughs, including at what’s now the Queens Museum and at a former gyroscope factory in nearby Lake Success, in Nassau County. Delegates and their staff wanted to live close to where they worked, according to historical accounts, but housing was hard to come by.
So city officials, backed by state banks, developed Parkway Village with an open-to-all mandate. U.N. workers made up most of its early population, and continued to have a major presence even into the 1980s.
“The U.N. was a grand experiment. But their folks couldn’t even get an apartment in Manhattan where the U.N. was,” said Myles Horn, the principal of Glacier Equities. If not for Parkway Village, Mr. Horn said, “it would have been hard to find a place to live.”
Brokers say that the pandemic has made outdoor space a priority for many current buyers. In the fourth quarter of last year, in the western Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, for instance, buyers signed 74 contracts for apartments with outdoor space, up from 12 for the same period in 2019, according to Serhant, a real estate firm. Those 74 deals represented 55 percent of all the contracts signed. Those private outdoor spaces were often terraces and balconies, and not the shared natural amenity offered by garden communities.
In Jackson Heights, among the coveted prewar buildings that back up to or surround verdant private courtyards, there were 177 closings in 2019 but only 106 last year, said Daniel Karatzas, an associate broker with Beaudoin Realty. The citywide three-month ban on in-person showings dragged down the market, Mr. Karatzas said.
“But I can tell you, as someone who lives in one of those complexes, the gardens were used more last year then in any of the 30 years that I have lived there,” he added. “I think they were a good place for families to go and bond.”
Similarly, at Glen Oaks Village, a 110-acre, 2,904-unit co-op with one- to three-bedrooms near the Nassau border, sales volume was down, brokers say. Robert Miller, the principal of Miller and Miller Real Estate, a Glen Oaks brokerage, said that the supply of available apartments was limited because so few people were moving out. “We got a little bit of a trickle because of Covid but not a lot,” Mr. Miller said.
But in a period when buying real estate came with so many new logistical hurdles, brokers point out, a steady sales pace is a sign of strength.
In Sunnyside Gardens, the low-rise landmark section of the Sunnyside neighborhood, where developers in the 1920s intentionally did not max out their allowed footprint, sales grew slightly between 2019 and 2020. There were 15 sales in the section rich with greenery — between Skillman Avenue and Long Island Rail Road tracks — at an average sale price of $1.09 million in 2019, according to public records. And in 2020, there were 18, at an average of $1.05 million.
The even-keel demand doesn’t surprise longtime residents. “When we were holed up during the pandemic, I don’t think we ever paid more attention to the beauty of the natural world,” said Herbert Reynolds, a retired film and theater historian, and president of the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance, who moved from Astoria in 1985. A fiery-orange azalea bush behind his brick single-family attached row house on 39th Avenue was, in particular, “our great excitement,” Mr. Reynolds said.
Queens, of course, is also home to Forest Hills Gardens, the private early-20th century collection of Tudor mansions with red-tile roofs on curving streets that was one of the earliest garden cities in America.
The affluent neighborhood, with street names like Greenway North and Greenway South had 31 house sales in 2019, at an average price of $2.07 million, according to Rachel Borut, an associate agent with Douglas Elliman who lives and works in the neighborhood. In 2020, 26 houses sold at an average of $1.91 million, according to Ms. Borut, who said “house sales hung in, as did values.”
Co-ops, though, did worse, falling from 31 sales in 2019 to 16 in 2020. Buyers seemed leery of buildings with shared spaces like elevators, said Ms. Borut, who has lived in a four-bedroom townhouse, with a backyard, since 2005: “It was the best thing we ever did,” Ms. Borut said.