Exalted Views, Down-to-Earth Prices

in Featured News,North Shore Staten Island

By JOHN FREEMAN GILL
New York Times

AS Fitzgerald might have said, people who live on hills are different from you and me. From Murray Hill to Carnegie Hill in Manhattan, from Brooklyn Heights to Park Slope in Brooklyn, New Yorkers with cash to spend have long sought the high ground. In Staten Island, Todt Hill is a coveted area, as are Grymes Hill and Dongan Hills Colony. But for all its elevation, Ward Hill, on the island’s north shore, has managed to remain below the radar.

“It’s a very secret enclave,” said Estelle Karp, a sales agent with Coldwell Banker Hometime Realty, who has lived on the island for 33 years. “Very few people on Staten Island have ever been there or even heard of it.”

One Staten Islander who made the ascent, and was suitably impressed by the panoramic views she found there, was Muthoo Neravanda, who manages the Brooklyn office of her physician husband, Medappa.

In the late 1980s, the Neravandas, who lived in Dongan Hills, attended a dinner party at a friend’s home on Nixon Avenue in Ward Hill.

“It was awe-inspiring,” Ms. Neravanda said of the vista of Lower Manhattan and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge out her friend’s window. “It was, ‘Oh my God.’ The house was built into the hill, so as you enter you see the expanse of the bridge, and New York City, too.”

The image never left her, and over the next decade and a half, whenever Ms. Neravanda was in the area, she would drive up Ward Hill to admire the views and, she said, “just dream.”

Finally, in 2004, after both their children had grown up, the Neravandas bought a two-bedroom midcentury cottage on Tompkins Circle in Ward Hill, with sweeping views of the Staten Island and Brooklyn waterfronts and the serene blue band of water in between, from the lower part of Upper New York Bay, past the majestic span of the Verrazano and out to the open sea.

They didn’t move in until just this month, having provided the house as a home for their grown daughter and niece for several years.

Now the home has been thoroughly renovated, and the elder Neravandas have the daily pleasure of watching the languorous parade of ships making their way into New York Harbor in what, from this tranquil overlook, seems slow motion.

“Each day it’s different,” Ms. Neravanda said of the view. “One day the whole Narrows was full of mist and the whole bridge was missing, so it was the way it must have looked before the bridge was built, eerie but beautiful.”

As with many houses in Ward Hill, a large proportion of which date to the early decades of the last century, little work had been done on the Neravandas’ home since its construction. It seemed due for a face-lift.

On the outside, the couple transformed it into an angular contemporary. On the inside they added a bedroom to accommodate visiting children and grandchildren.

Although Ms. Neravanda would not disclose the cost of the house or its renovation, real estate records show that a renovated five-bedroom house next door sold last month for $725,000.

WHAT YOU’LL FIND

Many homes have remained in the same families for decades, but as longtime residents either retire away or pass away, Ward Hill has been enjoying an infusion of new residents from all walks of life.

“It’s a real eclectic mix of people, with a lot of artsy people moving in,” said Jody Scaravella, a restaurateur who lives in a renovated Dutch colonial down the block from the Neravandas. “It’s not a boring, homogeneous zone.”

In a terraced garden behind his house, Mr. Scaravella grows produce for Enoteca Maria, the Italian restaurant he owns in nearby St. George. While tending his zucchini in the summer, he said, he is occasionally able to hear live rock music being performed by talented bands at the homes of neighbors who work in the music industry. At other times he hears only the singing of birds.

“Urban bucolic” is how Joseph Carroll, the district manager of Community Board 1, described the area, adding that “it’s economically singular but ethnically diverse.” The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, based on samples from 2005 to 2009, estimated that residents in the area of Ward Hill and adjacent streets were 41 percent Hispanic, 29 percent white, 12 percent Asian and 8 percent black.

The neighborhood was named for Caleb T. Ward, who around 1835 built a monumental porticoed mansion on the crest of a hill 200 feet above sea level. The house, according to its city landmark designation report, is one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the five boroughs and one of the last great houses remaining from a time when Staten Island’s north shore was a resort for wealthy New Yorkers.

Ward Hill, hidden in plain sight above low-rise buildings on Victory Boulevard, defines a neighborhood just a few blocks long and a few wide. Its boundaries, while not universally accepted, are generally considered to be: Cebra Avenue to the south; Victory Boulevard running northeast from Cebra; Fiedler Avenue and Tompkins Circle to the north; and Tompkins Circle and Ward and Nixon Avenues to the east.

The area’s signature views are best obtained from Nixon Avenue, Tompkins Circle and Ward Avenue. Those streets are lined with well-maintained single-family homes, representing a mix of styles: colonials, Tudors, even a ranch or two. But because so many are of older vintage, these prime streets nonetheless have a cozy, cohesive feel.

Nixon Avenue has a manicured aspect that Ms. Karp, the Coldwell Banker agent, likened to the Long Island enclave of Garden City. On the crest of Ward Avenue stand stately if not elaborate houses, with more modest homes mixed in as the hill slopes down in either direction.

“They have something that can never be removed,” Mr. Carroll, the district manager, said of Ward Hill residents. “The people on the perimeter have the views, and the houses on the interior have the serenity.”

WHAT YOU’LL PAY

Compared with neighboring Grymes Hill, its higher-profile neighbor, Ward Hill has relatively down-to-earth prices. While a three- or four-bedroom home with prime water views in Grymes Hill can easily cost more than $1 million, Ms. Karp said, a comparable house with optimal views can be had in Ward Hill for $625,000 to $725,000.

There are seven houses on the market in Ward Hill. Theresa Ferrara, a sales agent with Coldwell Banker Hometime Realty, said that 16 had sold in the last year. According to an analysis by Anthony Licciardello, a sales associate with Robert DeFalco Realty, single-family homes sold for an average of $530,000, after 153 days on the market. Two three-bedroom semidetached houses on Tompkins Circle, both with New York Harbor views, sold for $395,000 each.

The average sale price for houses over the past 12 months has climbed to $411,808 from $278,961 the previous year, with homes remaining on the market an average of 118 days, half as long as the year before.

WHAT TO DO

For those with an adventurous palate, there is a rich variety of local mom-and-pop restaurants in the less-rarefied area below the hill. A 129-step “stair street” runs from Tompkins Circle down to Victory Boulevard, providing a short cut to Sri Lankan, Mexican, Polish and Caribbean menus. “These are authentic restaurants, people expressing their culture and trying to eke out a living,” said Mr. Scaravella, the restaurateur.

The Cargo Café, on Bay Street in nearby St. George, hosts rock, jazz and big-band acts. The Every Thing Goes Book Cafe and Neighborhood Stage, also on Bay Street, presents music, poetry and theater. Richmond County Bank Ballpark, home of the single-A Staten Island Yankees, is a five-minute drive. Nearby Silver Lake Park has a public golf course and tennis courts.

THE SCHOOLS

Elementary students are zoned to attend Public School 16 in neighboring Tompkinsville, which serves prekindergarten through fifth grade. Intermediate School 61 in nearby Randall Manor covers Grades 6 through 8. Each received a C on its most recent city progress report.

High schools nearby include two in St. George: the Ralph R. McKee Career and Technical Education High School and Curtis High School. SAT averages at McKee last year were 411 in reading, 429 in math and 386 in writing; at Curtis, they were 439, 441 and 430. Citywide averages were 439, 462 and 434.

THE COMMUTE

Lower Manhattan is half an hour away, via a five-minute drive and a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. The ferry is so close that some residents make the 10- to 15-minute walk instead. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, a gateway to Brooklyn, is about a 10-minute drive.

THE HISTORY

Ward Hill has been popular with public figures. Lewis Nixon, whose wife, Sally Lewis Wood Nixon, bought the Ward Mansion in 1904, was head of Tammany Hall. Joseph Marotta, a former chairman of the local community board, lived on Tompkins Circle until his death in 2008. At a ceremony in May, Nixon Avenue was given the additional name of Hon. John J. Marchi Way, after the longtime state senator and Ward Hill resident who died last year.

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