In the Region/Westchester; Sales Rising at Big Downtown White Plains Condos

Mary McAleer Vizard - The New York Times

WHITE PLAINS - After years of stalled sales, sponsor defaults and other financial difficulties, Westage Towers and Stewart Place, two large high-rise condominium buildings in this city’s downtown area, have been attracting renewed sales interest, especially in the last few months, according to brokers.

A third building, the Seasons, the largest of the three major downtown condominiums with 316 apartments, has temporarily taken its available units off the market in the hope that their values will appreciate. Westage Towers has 254 units and Stewart Place has 182.

“Since February, all of my people say that things have picked up for the high-rise condos,” said Rita Cohen, president of The Prudential Rita Cohen Realty, in White Plains. “The weather helped, and so did the concern over rising interest rates.”

Some of the uptick in interest can also be attributed, Ms. Cohen said, to the impact from construction projects in the city: the new Federal courthouse scheduled to open in the spring, and, to some extent, The Westchester, a 2.5 million-square-foot me-gamall that opened on March 17.

“With the courthouse, we’ve gotten a lot of lawyers, she said, adding that the impact from the Westchester had not been as strong. “Some of the people who were transferred to work at the mall are helping the upper rental market now,” she said. “If they are transferred in permanently, then we’ll probably see them buying.”

Westage Towers, at 25 Rockledge Avenue, is closing on its final three units this month, said Mitchell Rutter, president of Essex Capital Partners, a Manhattan-based real estate investment company. Fourteen months ago, Mr. Rutter’s firm, which specializes in buying undervalued properties, acquired the Westage Tower’s 36 remaining unsold units.

“This has been a very fine transaction for us,” he said. “Our first buyer was a New York Knick, and the second was a New York Ranger. I think people like that prefer our building, because we’re not on a city street, but in a gated enclave community.” He declined to disclose the athletes’ names.

Both the Seasons, which is across from the White Plains Metro-North station, and Stewart Place, near the College of White Plains, are directly on city streets.

In January 1994, Haseko Corporation, a real estate company based in Tokyo, purchased 91 unsold units at Stewart Place. “We didn’t start marketing the units until April 1994,” said Edward G. Bissen, sales manager. “In less than a year, we’ve sold 40 units, 12 since the first of the year.”

Mr. Bissen said the building has been attracting a wide range of buyers, including “first-time home buyers, who can be young married couples or singles.”

“We’re also getting people who have recently become single, some transferees and empty-nesters,” he said.

When 25-year-old Louis Mauro decided to move out of his parents’ home in Scarsdale he wanted an “ultramodern one-bedroom condominium, with new appliances and a clean look,” he said. He was the second buyer at Stewart Place when it reopened sales last April, purchasing a one-bedroom with a terrace for $135,000.

“I was prepared to pay anything from $125,000 to $200,000 to get what I wanted,” Mr. Mauro said. “But this had everything I was looking for, including low taxes and a central location. The taxes here are low compared to a place like Scarsdale.” And the business he owns, A & C Autobody, is around the corner from his new apartment.

All three condominium buildings were constructed in the late 1980’s, when one-bedroom apartments commanded prices as high as $210,000. Soon afterward, demand for such units dropped off. The Robert Martin Company, the sponsor of the Seasons, converted its unsold units to rental apartments in November 1991. At Stewart Place, only half the units were sold when the recession hit. The sponsor defaulted on the remaining units in October 1991.

What’s spurring sales now at all the buildings is price, Ms. Cohen said. “They’ve gone back to 1986 prices, which is realistic,” she said. “If people would only realize that 1988 and 1989 were aberrations. We’re not going to see those prices again. Everything is price point today. If apartments are priced well, they will sell.”

That strategy accounts for the sales success at Westage Towers, Mr. Rutter said. “The key for us was buying the remaining units at a discount,” he said, “then offering them at below-market prices,” which translates to one-bedrooms at $139,000, two-bedrooms at $240,000 and three-bedrooms at $315,000. “This way there’s still a profit for us and a gain for our buyers,” he said. “We were also able to offer buyers 90 percent financing.”

Mr. Bissen said that at Stewart Place, one bedrooms are about $130,000, two-bedrooms $161,500 and two-and three-bedroom penthouses $300,000.

Price was the primary concern of Floria Watson and her husband, Philip, when they bought their one-bedroom apartment at Stewart Place. “We had looked at the other buildings, but thought they were overpriced for what you were getting.” Ms. Watson said. The Watsons had been renting their apartment for four years before deciding to buy.

“We wanted to see how things were with the building and wait for the prices to come down,” she said. “When they decided to sell again, the price for our apartment was $127,500, which we thought was really, really great. For that we got a one-bedroom with two baths, a terrace, a dressing area and a parking space in an indoor garage.”

The current selling activity is quite a change from a year ago, when high-rise condominiums in downtown White Plains were just beginning to be remarketed after a period of few or no sales. Hoping to jumpstart sales and determine market prices, the Robert Martin Company, a real estate developer and manager based in Elmsford, held an auction last summer of 50 units at the Seasons.

It generated the sale of 26 apartments, at an average sales price of $159.75 per square foot, or about $115,000 for a one-bedroom. “We had hoped to sell for $160 per square foot, so we were pretty pleased,” said Robin B. Steiner, a vice president with Robert Martin’s real estate division.

A few months later, a Hong Kong-based investment group, Glorious Sun, purchased the remaining 173 unsold units for a reported $18 million. Mr. Steiner said that the company planned to continue renting the units until their values appreciate.

“Seeing a white knight like that come in could have helped things along for the other buildings,” he said. “It brought a new interest to this kind of housing.”

Sales at the Westage Towers picked up before the announcement of that transaction, Mr. Rutter said. “Around the time of Robert Martin’s auction, we saw an increase in sales. We benefited by all the publicity surrounding that. I thought people would wait until they saw what prices the auction would bring but they didn’t.”

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