Every New York apartment has a catch, and so when Ashley Falcon, a gregarious fashion stylist, considered the built-in closets, roomy kitchen and plentiful windows in a particular Greenwich Village rental while apartment-hunting two years ago, she decided that she could stomach the downside: living above a funeral home.
Ms. Falcon’s mother, in Miami, protested, talking of spirits and such, but the stylist was ready for her: “If you died in New York City,” she asked, “would you stick around the funeral home? Wouldn’t you go explore?”
It was her father’s perspective that carried the day. “Everything in New York,” he noted, “is on top of something.”
Living above commercial space is a hallmark of New York City homemaking — an ongoing reality for some, a nostalgia-inducing (if perhaps odious at the time) rite of passage for others.
Condo owners come home to awnings illuminated by the glow of bank signs. Renters find that after sharing a ventilation system with a restaurant, they are forever turned off by the cuisine of an entire continent. Members of co-ops that own the ground-floor commercial space debate whether it’s preferable to live above an appliance store (because anyone’s coffee maker can suddenly break) or a children’s boutique (useful only to some).
Having a bakery, locksmith or hair salon in your building can represent the ultimate in convenience. And some business owners mitigate the downsides by acting as concierges, accepting deliveries for the apartment-dwellers above or agreeing to hold keys for an out-of-town guest.
“It’s just friendship,” Zakirul Chowdhury, a salesman at Wines on 1st, near East 14th Street, said of his willingness to extend such favors to residents of 224 First Avenue, who live above the store.
As in other realms, though, a little distance can be a good thing. The joys of having world-famous ramen noodles or herb-infused cocktails at one’s disposal are sometimes obscured when cohabitation is involved. The businesses that make the city vibrant can appear, smell and sound very different to those who share walls, ducts and pests.
The commercial space beneath an apartment also often factors into the price, although there is no exact calculus for determining how.
“Lower-floor apartments in general tend to get lower prices,” said Andrew Gerringer, the managing director of the Marketing Directors, “but when you look at the use below, certain uses would make it even lower than other uses. There are so many pieces that come into this question.”
So far, Ms. Falcon, 25, has found living above a funeral home surprisingly pleasant. Sure, the occasional hearse is parked out front in the morning. She might pass a coffin or two on her way to work, and returning home in the evening, she must sometimes gently cut through a pack of black-clad mourners before slipping her key in the door.
There have also been unexpected perks.
“We’ve never had a bug problem,” she added, crediting “all the formaldehyde.”
Corlie Ohl, a broker with Citi Habitats, has shown apartments in Ms. Falcon’s building many times over the years. Some people are put off by the funeral home, Ms. Ohl acknowledged. But she emphasizes the positive.
“I say, ‘It’s going to be quiet downstairs,’ ” Ms. Ohl said. “And everybody knows you don’t want to be above a bar.”
To hear brokers and developers talk, it’s a wonder there are any bars in the five boroughs.
When a Lower East Side co-op board was scouting out potential tenants for its street-level commercial space recently, for example, “the one thing they didn’t want was a bar,” said Richard Lech, a Halstead broker who has sold half a dozen apartments in the building, on Avenue C.
The board chose a dance studio, turning down a bar despite its willingness to pay more than double the rent, said Cynthia Poulton, now the co-op’s president.
When Heatherwood Communities began seeking commercial tenants for the ground floor of 568 Union, a high-end rental building on Union Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, “bars were not what they were looking for,” said Chris Havens, who spearheaded the effort as a broker with aptsandlofts.com.
Then Kwaku Nyampong, a former bartender at the St. Regis New York hotel, came in with an intriguing proposal. It would be less a bar than an elegant lounge. The kind of place where the bartender knows what you drink, where a dinner companion might happily wait while a resident preens upstairs. It would be like a plush hotel bar — not just a non-nuisance, but a draw.
“We thought that it would be a nice amenity for the building,” explained Douglas Partrick, an owner of Heatherwood.
Mr. Nyampong hopes to open the bar, Lounge 568, by the end of the year; he’s still finalizing the ingredients for what will be the signature cocktail, a punch called “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Other developers also consider their clients when choosing commercial tenants.
At 50 North 5th, a Williamsburg rental building where the apartments have oak hardwood floors and Caesarstone kitchen countertops, Richard Mack, the chief executive of the Mack Real Estate Group, said that “several big-box tenants have expressed interest in the retail space.” But Mr. Mack prefers to hold out for something “more consistent with the more boutique and bespoke nature” of the neighborhood.
“The revenues produced by the retail are small as an absolute percentage of the building,” he said. “So you really need to make sure that your retail mix enhances the leasability of your apartments. You’re almost better off leaving them vacant until you find the right mix.”
Whether a commercial tenant underfoot is a nightmare, an asset or a nonissue can transcend the type of business, hinging instead on the particulars. When does it close? What sort of clientele does it draw? Just how reliable is that ventilation system? If it breaks, are there the will and money to fix it?
Juliette Soucie, a personal trainer, had a fairly positive experience living above a small hair salon on East 76th Street. The salon kept business hours, five days a week, and when the music got too loud — the speakers were in the ceiling, a k a Ms. Soucie’s floor — the problem was solved with a friendly request. Today the space is occupied by an outpost of Drybar, a salon specializing in blow-drying women’s hair. It’s open seven days a week, as early as 7 a.m. some days and as late as 10 p.m. Blow-dryers are loud. Music, played at a volume that might drown them out, can be louder. And the long hours and festive atmosphere that lure customers have meant nothing but irritation to Ms. Soucie, 43.
For months, she and Drybar went back and forth. In moments of desperation, she says, she would hold a white-noise machine to her jaw, discovering this to be a way of masking vibrations. She spent more than $4,000 for the advice of Alan Fierstein of Acoustilog, an acoustic consultant who said he indeed found noise-code violations.
Drybar, which hired its own consultants, ended up installing insulation and other equipment to reduce the impact on Ms. Soucie, said Michael Landau, a founder of the company.
“Between lawyers, consultants and the work we did,” Mr. Landau said, “we spent tens of thousands of dollars to get something right that we thought was right from the beginning.”
“This is certainly part of living in New York,” he added. “I see it from all perspectives.”
As for Ms. Soucie, she has a new rule for herself: “I will never, ever live in a building above a commercial tenant,” she said. “There are too many variables that are not under your control.”
And then there’s this: “I’m a person with really curly hair, and I don’t even own a blow-dryer,” she said. “It’s the worst kind of irony.”
When Mim Nelson-Gillett saw the Greenwich Village apartment she had agreed to sublet from a friend in the ’80s, shortly after college, she was alarmed. The place was above David’s Cookies, the Magnolia Bakery of its time, and Ms. Nelson-Gillett, who had struggled with her weight for years, feared she would live in a state of constant temptation.
It didn’t turn out that way.
“It felt like I was in a chocolate shower all the time,” she said. “Kind of sickening.”
On the upside, Ms. Nelson-Gillett, now a business coach living in New Jersey, was never tempted to sample the treats concocted underfoot. “I couldn’t bear the thought,” she said. “It changed my relationship to chocolate.”
Alan J. Goldberg, a lawyer specializing in landlord-tenant disputes, warns that coin laundries can be problematic. He remembers being hired by residents who attributed their bedbug infestation to the presence of the laundry beneath them.
Jenet Levy, a Halstead broker, has sold four apartments in a Cobble Hill prewar condo with a dry cleaner and a laundromat on the ground floor. “People are always asking me, ‘Is there laundry in the building?’ ” Ms. Levy said.
Her answer: “No ... but yes.” Her buyers, she said, tend to be drawn in by the convenience.
In the late 19th century, it was common for New York City families to live over their street-level businesses, said Michael Kovner, a Brown Harris Stevens agent who teaches a course on the history of Manhattan residential real estate for the Real Estate Board of New York.
“If they couldn’t afford to buy the building,” Mr. Kovner said, “they would rent the store, and usually you could sweeten the deal if you had the apartment right above it. They could do business until 7, 8 at night, and they could start again in the morning. It was a great time.”
The most extravagant example: Bergdorf Goodman. The Goodman family lived above the store — in a 17-room penthouse apartment, one of the grandest in New York. Family members shared an elevator with shoppers, Mr. Kovner said, adding that if a family member or a pram-pushing nanny walked into the elevator, “you’d go right up to the apartment, even if you were in there to buy a fur coat.”
It became less common for families to cohabitate with their businesses about 40 years ago, as real estate values rose, Mr. Kovner said.
The practice became so unusual that when Brigitte Prat broached the idea of buying a building to house both her own apartment and her children’s toy store and hair salon, friends — even, she suspects, her mother — “thought it was this outrageous, berserk investment for someone who pretty much works paycheck to paycheck,” she recalled.
But Ms. Prat did the math: Rent for a larger space to house her store, LuLu’s Cuts & Toys, plus the mortgage and fees on the apartment she shared with her daughter, Lulu, far exceeded the mortgage on a roughly $1 million building.
It worked out. In 2004, she bought a building on Fifth Avenue in North Park Slope. Lulu, 9 when they moved, didn’t need a babysitter; she did her homework upstairs while her mother worked downstairs, as close as if they were simply hanging out on two floors of a house. If Ms. Prat was home on a day off, she could be at the store in seconds in an emergency.
Still, before renovating her apartment a couple of years ago, Ms. Prat could hear the wails of snipper-fearing children from inside her shower. And the biggest challenge has been training herself to refrain from peeking into the store every time she leaves home, because a peek can easily turn into an hour.
Ms. Prat, 49, has since opened two more shops. One, a baby store, is just steps away, and the other, a children’s used-clothing boutique, is two blocks away. Not only does it feel like a commute, but once , when Ms. Prat was restocking shelves late at night, the upstairs neighbor asked her to please turn the music down.
Friday, December 20, 2013