Above the Fray

In New Jersey, over-the-top gardening is no longer flying under the radar.

As forest and farmland have yielded to suburban sprawl, cities large and small across the country are reclaiming the urban landscape and becoming greener. Much of this green revolution is taking root high above street level, in the form of mini-parks and farms sprouting from the unlikeliest of places. Fueled by increased sustainability concerns and the burgeoning locavore movement, rooftop gardens are everywhere—out of sight but, increasingly, top of mind. Take our nation’s capital, for example. In 2012, Washington DC added 1.3 million square feet of rooftop garden space. From ancient times, when Nebuchadnezzar hung world-wonder gardens from the terraces of his Babylonian palace, rooftop gardens have captured our imaginations.

Even on a micro scale, what apartment dweller hasn’t tended herbs and potted tomatoes on a patio or fire escape? Well, now “agri-tecture” has become big business. In Brooklyn, rooftop farms are practically commonplace— beehives hum, chickens lay eggs, and organic vegetables begin their farm-to-table journey. The benefits of these Edenic aeries are manifold. Besides creating natural spaces and gardens, and optimizing space, the greening of roofs increase sustainability by reducing and reusing storm water, countering carbon dioxide, improving quality of life and the health of building occupants. To some, a green roof is a purpose; to others it is a passion. One extreme example is the Pasona, a human resource conglomerate in Tokyo. It’s headquarters is green inside and out with, a roof sprouting sweet potatoes, green interior and exterior walls, and a hydroponic rice-paddy foyer, which is harvested several times a year. The rooftop movement differs from country to country, and region to region, but make no mistake— it has definitely taken root here in New Jersey.

77 Hudson Jersey City Installed by Let It Grow, of River Edge, NJ   Four years ago, this rooftop garden was installed in Jersey City on an 11-story paring building structure between a KHovnanian condo high rise and an Equity Residential rental tower. This was a huge engineering feat, as much of the parkland material was installed by crane. Built on Styrofoam and two feet of fill on nearly an acre, it includes a pool, hot tub, dog run, African fire pit, children’s play area and even a landscaped hill. Undeterred when Hurricane Sandy struck and wind-stripped the soil (leaving roots exposed), the building replaced the landscape with heavier soils, planted more densely and installed a glass windshield. According to Randy Brosseau, KHovnanian Area President, it’s all worth it: “The garden adds a lot of value to our residents’ lives, whether using the facilities, enjoying the parkland or enjoying the view of the plantings. The green roof to many is a good reason to buy at 77 Hudson.”

NJIT Cafeteria Garden Newark Installed in 2010 by “My Local Gardener” with Peter Fischbach and Julie Aiello  You can’t get fresher or healthier food than the vegetables that are served at NJIT’s cafeteria. For three years, NJIT students and faculty have enjoyed farm-to-table vegetables harvested from an elevated 220 sq. ft. organic roof garden outside the student pub. On an existing “green” roof—which already had a faucet—the design team installed 10 recycled flower boxes and filled them with a light soil that wouldn’t weigh down the roof. According to NJIT chef Peter Fischbach (right), who envisioned the project with Julie Aiello, Director of Marketing and Sustainability for Gourmet Dining Services (GDS), the campus food purveyor, they plant rotating crops of healthy vegetables four to five times a growing season, including lettuce, beets, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, kale, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, peppers and peas. They also grow a large selection of herbs, which are used to season the food. Meanwhile, the garden has germinated other campus organic gardens. According to Fischbach, “The project has been so successful that it has inspired other colleges serviced by GDS—Seton Hall, Manhattan College, Kean University, FDU in Madison. And we are preparing to put in a garden at Bloomfield College.”

Revel Atlantic City Installed by Cagley & Tanner of Las Vegas Last summer, Revel, the upscale resort in Atlantic City, opened a two-acre Sky Garden to recall the beauty and ambiance of the great Atlantic seaside resorts of the past—following the practice of situating a resort in a garden that descends to the beach. While the hotel’s architecture is 21st century, the designers sought to enhance the vista with a mix of nostalgia and modern ingenuity. This homage to the lawns that swept down to the ocean begins, in fact, at 114 feet above sea level, and is landscaped for seasonal interest—with 20,000 plants ranging from native sea grasses to Japanese Black Pines that create a Pine Grove surrounding an outdoor fireplace. (Planting the large pines required creating a deep recessed area under the roof surface to allow for root growth.) Their hard work paid off, as the garden successfully weathered the forces of Sandy.

Extra Space Storage North Bergen Extra Space Storage, with its landscaped roof, definitely wins the “good neighbor award.” While only the on-site manager has access to Extra Space Storage’s rooftop garden, the company installed the nearly half-acre landscaping to “ensure an aesthetically pleasing view for all for the high-rise condo properties that surround our building,” explains Clint Halverson, Vice President for Corporate Communications and Investor Relations. The mechanics of creating a rooftop garden involve a number of variables: structural support, irrigation, installation stories above ground level, wind buffers and— not the least of concerns—waterproofing, root barriers and drainage. However, the rewards also are significant. Gardens insulate, reducing heating and cooling costs up to 30%. And they shield a building from urban noise. In the end, though, the greatest selling point of a rooftop garden is its aesthetic and recreational appeal. In a world of concrete, glass and steel, we welcome anything that speaks so eloquently to our senses and spirit.

Editors Note: Sarah Rossbach is the author of Feng Shui: The Art of Chinese Placement, which was described by The New York Times as the “bible of the practice.”

The Big Build Up

The Big Build Up

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Is there a second story in your future?

Moving up doesn’t have to mean moving out. More and more, owners of one-story dwellings in the Garden State have been addressing their space issues by adding a second floor. Yes, it’s expensive. And yes, it’s messy. But in many cases, “building up” makes more sense than shopping for a new home. There are any number of reasons to add a second story to your current home but, needless to say, they are all related to space. The big question is Why go through the time and trouble to do so if you could just buy something that suits your needs? Well, for starters, that would mean having to put your own (presumably undersized) house on the market for sale, or as a rental property. So there’s a major hassle factor. Also, you may be locked into a great mortgage rate in your current abode, or for some reason be unable to qualify for a favorable rate on a new property.

The most common answer to Why build up? is that you love your home, your neighborhood and your neighbors, and are willing to put up with the inconvenience in order to stay put. From an architect’s perspective, the primary challenges of designing a new home involve understanding a wide range of variables, and then reconciling them with the desires of the homeowner. The most cost-effective solution almost always involves using the existing foundation and exterior walls. A talented architect, working in concert with a structural engineer, should be able to check off most of the items on your list. For older homes—or homes that were constructed cheaply to begin with—there are going to be structural issues. However, rarely are they insurmountable. Hopefully, the solutions won’t bust your budget. Consulting with that structural engineer is a must. Understanding local building codes is obviously important, too. You’d be surprised to see what’s on the books in your town when it comes to staircases, ceiling heights, and room dimensions. The engineer should also be able to tell you with absolute certainty whether you can get the job done without tearing out your first-floor ceilings. This greatly reduces the mess and expense. From a builder’s perspective, adding a second story isn’t all that different than building from the ground up.

In most cases, the addition fits neatly atop the current first floor, and uses the existing exterior walls as the primary support. In some cases, a modular addition can be employed, which offers significant savings. It’s partially assembled on the ground and then lifted into place with a new roof, or under your existing one. The interior finishing work is not all that different than any other home remodel job. From a realtor’s perspective, it usually makes sense to find something with more space in the same neighborhood. Especially in depressed markets, finding more space is cheaper than creating it. Of course, that generates a couple of potential commissions, but the facts do bear out this position. The addition of a second story rarely recoups the investment when it’s done. On average, in suburban areas, at least, the number seems to be around two-thirds. In other words, a $150,000 second-story addition may only increase your home’s value by $100,000. This is math you may be willing to live with, but it’s math you should do (with a competent and trusted realtor) before going all-in. Among the classic mistakes homeowners make is assuming their current attic construction will support a second floor. It almost certainly won’t.

Attics are not built to handle second-story traffic. There is no cost savings to be had here—it’s not as simple as simply raising the roof and converting gloomy storage space into a bright and airy second story. Also, that attic staircase you’d planned on repurposing is unlikely to pass muster with local building codes when it connects the two new living spaces. If you do not currently have a staircase in your home, keep in mind that it will have to go somewhere on your first floor—and that you may lose a room. Speaking of which, the plumbing, electric, heating and air conditioning systems that serve your first floor will need a lot more space on the first floor to make it up to the second floor. Some homeowners end up opting for an entirely new and separate set of systems for the addition. Keep in mind that part of the expense of adding a second story almost includes a new furnace, AC unit and water heater. Another consideration is what you’ll need to do to the exterior of your home to make it come together. That re-siding project you’ve putting off the last few years? Now’s the time to squeeze the trigger.

You should also think about pulling together the interior. Indeed, a less common but still-critical mistake homeowners make is failing to really think through how the new second story will relate to the “new” first story in terms of how the entire home is used. Moving bedrooms to the second floor opens up all sorts of possibilities on the main level. If you determine how you might be using the first-floor space in the future, you can leave yourself a lot of options, especially if a new kitchen is part of the long-term plan. When it’s all said and done, a basic second-story addition will eat up a half-year of your life and cost you at least $125 to $150 per square foot, soup-to-nuts, plus professional fees. Depending on your desired finishes and a handful of other variables, the price tag of a 1,000-foot addition is likely to be in the neighborhood of $150,000. Does that make sense in your neighborhood? Ultimately, that’s a call you’ll have to make.

 

Brush with Greatness

An award-winning documentarian is leaving his mark on the Lambertville art scene

Bill Jersey

How do you segue from a gig as Art Director of the 1958 sci-fi potboiler, The Blob, to become one of the pioneers of the cinema vérité movement? If your name is Bill Jersey, you grab your camera, prop it on your shoulder and never look back. The legendary documentary filmmaker—now a robust 85 and a fixture in Lambertville arts circles—laughs that his Fundamentalist upbringing on Long Island hardly predicted his future stature as a cinematic trailblazer. In fact, Jersey never saw a film until he ran off to join the Navy. He was 17. “The first film I saw was on the USS Arkansas, a battleship that I went on to the South Pacific,” recalls Jersey from his home office along the banks of the Delaware River. “I enlisted in the Navy to get away from home. It was my escape.” The G.I. Bill helped bankroll his undergraduate studies in art. “Studying art in college was the only thing I could do that was acceptable to my parents,” he says. “I couldn’t go to the movies, dance, drink, smoke, swear or play cards.”

After graduation, he put his paint box in mothballs and tested the waters at Good News Productions, a religious film company in Valley Forge, PA. “I told them I didn’t know anything about film,” says Jersey. “They hired me anyway, and I learned how to be an art director. I also realized how little I knew.” So he headed West to graduate film school at the University of Southern California. Graduating in 1956, he dipped his toe in the B-movie drama pool as Art Director of The Blob, Manhunt in the Jungle and 4D Man. But he was primed for documentaries. “There was something about wanting to connect to people in the real world and finding them much more interesting than working with actors with a script,” he says. “If you really care about people, they will know it, and they will open themselves up to you. And that’s what makes a good documentary.”

In 1960, Jersey launched Quest Productions and began attaching his own vision to a slate of industrial films for corporate giants Western Electric, Exxon and Johnson & Johnson. He won his first Emmy Award in 1963 for directing Manhattan Battleground for NBC-TV’s DuPont Show of the Week. Ever the maverick, Jersey never felt compelled to toe the company line. “I don’t do ‘promotional’ films,” he emphasizes. “I found you have to really try to understand the company better than they do. I try to give them what they need, even though frequently they would not describe their needs that way. The only way is by taking the big risk, the hero’s journey, to look at things honestly.” Jersey got a chance to kick-start that journey when he filmed A Time for Burning in 1965. Commissioned by Lutheran Film Associates, the cinema vérité Civil Rights documentary records the failed mission of young Lutheran Pastor Bill Youngdahl to integrate a large, all white church in Omaha.

A Time for Burning tracks the crises of conscience and faith that arose when the minister encouraged his white congregation to engage with black congregants from a neighboring Lutheran church. Despite his gentle, faith-based approach, Pastor Youngdahl’s impact on Omaha’s Lutheran community proved to be, as Jersey predicted, incendiary. “The Lutherans wanted a film about the church and race,” he recalls. “So I found a minister who had an integrated church in New Jersey and was being called to a big al lwhite church in Omaha. I knew he’d want to integrate it, and that there could be some tension. I met with the minister, who said, ‘You can do a film here, there’s no problem.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s what you think.’ “Look,” adds Jersey, “the church didn’t need a film about a minister getting kicked out of his church.

They needed a film about how wonderful the church was, and how Jesus was going to be loving to everybody.” Unencumbered by a script, narrator, captions, timelines or media stars and filmed with a minimal crew, A Time for Burning became a benchmark Civil Rights documentary that subsequently received critical acclaim, an airing on most PBS stations nationwide, and an Oscar nomination. It thrust Jersey to the forefront of the cinema vérité movement where he has remained for almost 50 years, producing and directing independent documentaries on such hot button issues as racism, criminal justice, gang violence, AIDS, Communism and integration. “For me, cinema vérité means letting the truth drive the story,” explains Jersey. “I don’t set out to prove anything— as many documentarians do. The difference between me and others is that I believe in being a participant observer. I explore options with my participants in the belief that our encounters will open them up to seeing more of themselves—not to see themselves as I see them. It’s a tricky business; but in my view, it’s an essential part of being a documentarian.”

A Time for Burning continues to be a staple in film schools where Jersey is a sought-after guest lecturer. In 2004, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the prestigious National Film Registry. Despite his résumé of more than 100 films, Jersey—with typical self-effacement—claims to have lost count of the awards and honors he’s received. In the mix are names like Emmy, Oscar, Peabody, DuPont Columbia, Christopher, Gabriel, Cindy and Cine Golden Eagle. Jersey continued in the winners’ circle this spring, garnering a Peabody Award for Eames: The Architect and the Painter. The documentary profile of visionaries Charles and Ray Eames had a healthy theatrical release in late 2011 prior to debuting on PBS as part of the American Masters series. It should come as no surprise that Bill Jersey—father of five and grandfather of five—has no intention of winding down. “On the contrary, I’m winding up!” he says with relish, as he now juggles two careers instead of one.

With a new two-hour documentary in the works—The Failed Revolution—about the history of the Communist Party in the U.S., Jersey has also enthusiastically returned to painting. He takes full advantage of the lush natural landscapes in and around his home, a charming 19thcentury boat builder’s cottage in Lambertville on the canal bordering the Delaware River. “We love it here!” he enthuses. “And since my passion is painting, this is a great community to be a part of.” A fan of painter Edward Hopper—“his use of light”— Jersey brings his filmmaker’s eye to his painting: “One of the reasons I like landscapes so much is I like being out in the country where the light is changing. If you’re painting a river, you’re painting something in motion. The light does not sit there for you. That lovely shadow from the rooftop that you love will be gone in 15 minutes. It’s a very alive process.”

Sharp and witty with energy to burn, Jersey spent his 85th birthday with his wife, Shirley Kessler, painting in Italy and enjoying his favorite sport—fine dining. He’s quick with a quip when asked if “80 is the new 60”. “Not in the knees,” he laughs, “but in terms of intellect and one’s capacity to engage in meaningful interaction with the world. That’s what keeps me young. Every day I read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times because those are two perspectives I need to understand the world.” “Life is good!” admits Jersey, the eternal optimist. “With all my aches and pains, I am grateful—that’s the magic word—for every minute of every day!” There are Jersey tomatoes, Jersey Boys and Jersey Devils, but there’s only one Bill Jersey.

All photos courtesy of Bill Jersey

 Editor’s Note: Bill Jersey’s paintings will be on exhibit at a one-man show at the Bank of Princeton Gallery in Lambertville, NJ, November 15 through December 15, 2012. A Time for Burning and Eames: The Architect and the Painter are available on DVD. Judith Trojan has written and edited more than 1,000 film and television reviews and celebrity profiles for books, magazines and newsletters. Her interviews have run the gamut from best-selling authors Mary Higgins Clark, Ann Rule and Frank McCourt to cultural touchstones Ken Burns, Carroll O’Connor, Judy Collins and Caroll Spinney (aka Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch). Follow Judith’s media commentary in her FrontRowCenter blog at judithtrojan.com.   

 

Out of Characters

My 30-day affair with Twitter 

I am a cyber shut-in. I’m all about stamps and dial tones. I am an analog anomaly, the subject of eye rolls and exasperated sighs from techie teens, two of whom live under my roof. I am part of the generation whose fingers did the walking across yellow pages decades before they touched a keypad. To me, Twitter “tweets” seemed like 21st century postcards—an old idea shrouded in new technology. Go to any antique store (or to eBay if it’s easier) and read the flipsides of those ancient souvenirs. Same number of characters, same depth of thought and feeling. Am I the only one who sees this?

Apparently I am. Nevertheless, one day my inner narrator whispered, “Look how much fun everyone is having as they fast-track through the ether world. Don’t you want to have fun, too?” So with deep skepticism and almost no eknow-how, I decided that I was going to give myself one month to figure out what Twitter was all about. My first hurdle was setting up my Twitter account. I felt an overwhelming surge of prickly heat before I even found the Twitter home page. Forget it. Too complicated. I listen to my body and it was telling me in every way that this was a stupid idea. Three days later I was enjoying a meal at the home of a friend who spends a good portion of his day inside the virtual world.

Normally I don’t have much to contribute when dinner conversation requires a degree in cyber-speak. Which is why everyone was surprised when I turned the topic to my brief and unsuccessful dalliance with Twitter. A Twitter account? Really? My host chuckled and said it takes about two minutes to set up. He’d do it after dinner. And that is how I had the Senior Chairman of the Visual Effects Society, the founder of the Visual Effects Awards— the special effects supervisor of countless big-budget movies—usher me into the world of Twitter. He even wrote my first tweet: Hi – I’m here. Sadly, it was probably my best.

My next step, I was told, was choosing people to follow. By the time we said our goodbyes, I had my own account, six people to follow, one tweet (or is it Tweet, upper case?) and had already absorbed a quirky story about New Jersey’s own Danny DeVito. If you didn’t know, Danny likes to tweet. Whenever he goes someplace new, he likes to take a picture of his bare foot and post it on Twitter. When asked why he does this, Mr. DeVito replied with a shrug, “People seem to like my feet.” I verified this story (with a couple of phone calls) and it’s true; Twitter @DannyDeVito and you can see photos of his foot. With a bounce in my step and a song in my heart, I announced to my teenage sons that I had a Twitter account. Silence.

Then, in concert, “No one will follow you, Mom. You don’t have any friends.” Yes, I do. “Are they on Twitter?” No, I don’t think so. “So, who’s going to follow you?” I slumped away. Before turning in for the night, I returned to the Twitter web site and discovered the How To Promote Your Profile option. I clicked on it, started reading, and promptly fell asleep. This is not how I learn. I needed to dive right in and get my hands dirty. I posted my first solo tweet: Writing this article for Edge magazine. How to tweet? The next day I had two followers. I felt great. I was liked! So, I tried another tweet to get more people: What happened with Katy Perry and Russell Brand? Is anyone surprised? I now hang my head in shame. What an awful tweet. Asking questions? Really? I later learned this was an efaux pas. Or a faux epas.

Apparently, another breach of etiquette is tweeting a response to a dinner invitation. You text that. Texting is conversational and more intimate; tweets are statements. I learned this from watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, my guilty pleasure. Still, I had two followers, which is two more than I’d had 24 hours earlier. They looked young in their pictures, and sounded young in their tweets. I decided I should try to pull in more young adults, because they seemed to really like me. Then it hit me. Is Twitter a popularity contest? This was just the kind of garbage that went on in high school, and I was right back in it.

The only difference was that the entire world could witness my fumbling, not just a contained environment like a school. Whatever unfiltered idiocy that spilled out of my brain and onto a page would not only be broadcast for the entire world to see, but stored for eternity in some cyber-warehouse. I know that people find this kind of “immortality” appealing. I don’t. What did I have to say that was worth saying at all, much less saying in 140 characters? The question is almost metaphysical, isn’t it? So naturally I turned to my older son, age 17, for sage advice. “Write what you’re feeling, or doing,” he said. “Write something people would appreciate.” Then he turned his back on me and resumed doing his homework. The meeting was over, but I wouldn’t leave. He mumbled something about status update. “What’s that?” I asked. Now, he spun back around and glared at me. “Why are you even on Twitter?” “Because I have to,” I answered. “I’m writing a story. Can I follow you?” “No!” Other people tweet with confidence. I’m not talking about the Oprahs and Kelly Ripas of the world, celebrities who use Twitter as a tool to promote their talk shows. Or Conan O’Brian, who broadcasts mildly amusing quips. Or George Clooney’s tweet about going to a baseball game and then saying goodbye because he has to change his user name. (By the way, did you know that Lady Gaga has more Twitter followers than the Pope, the President, and Katy Perry—combined?)

No, I’m talking about average folks, like my very first follower, who sometimes tweeted three or four times a day! She followed me because she wanted me to follow her, and I did; sometimes in horror, other times in awe. My follower “friend” tweeted that her mother called her an ugly weed so that she was never aware of anything until she was older. I wasn’t t sure exactly what she meant, but it sounded so sad. My very next tweet was from Barack Obama. It said In America we don’t give up, we get up. Yes, I thought, even ugly weeds can become flowers with a “can-do” attitude. Then the President tweeted that he was going to sign the payroll tax cut extension into law. My follower tweeted I’ve been out of work so long that I’ve forgotten how to hate people. Funny, but weird! The pressure to write something great was compounding by the hour.

I was riddled with performance anxiety. I would never have the guts to say something like “Color is an intense experience on its own,” and send it off into the universe unprotected. As a rule, if I am going to say something moronic, I want to be able to see how it lands on my listener’s face (because that’s half the fun in uttering banalities) or, at the very least, be able to defend myself. Tweeting, I was coming to understand, is like the speed-dating version of a blind cocktail party. Everyone is trying to impress everyone else, with nothing to back it up. However, it wasn’t until my younger son, age 13, began looking closely at my coterie of Twitter pals that total disillusionment set in. The young and attractive blonde woman who tweeted about all the racy things she wanted to do to other people, to herself, to me was not the flirtatious scamp I imagined her to be. Nor was my other follower all she seemed to be. I had wondered why she was always telling me about all the cool free stuff she was scoring—Playstation 3, Guess jeans, gift cards from Ikea and Best Buy, and CA$H—just by clicking onto a particular website or email. “Stop!” my son bellowed. “Mom, stop!” He demanded to see my Twitter account. I handed him my phone and after a few seconds he informed me that my friends were fake. “Definitely the blonde one is fake because all she talks about is sex and it’s an advertisement.” It is? He raised his eyebrows and nodded his head. “It’s hacked,” he said. “If you see a person post a link asking you to visit it, don’t do it!”

He repeated this warning to reinforce its seriousness. He refused to tell me what would happen if I did click onto these other links. Instead, he looked me in the eye, shook his head and murmured, “It’s bad, very bad. Don’t go there.” “Okay,” I said obediently, “I won’t.” But was he absolutely sure my friends are fake? Yes. Even the first one? The nice chatty one? Noting the disappointment in my voice, he tried to soften the blow. “Well, I’m not 100 percent sure about her.” But I knew he was right. She was a fake, too. Then, to add insult to injury, follower number one dropped me while my son was holding the phone. “Snap, crackle, pop,” he smiled, “you’ve been dropped!” Of course I was dropped.

If you have nothing to bring to the table, who is going to invite you to dinner? Alas, in my month on Twitter, the most followers I had at one time was three. And near as I could tell, only one was real: ABC News. I am still waiting for the dinner invite to ABC’s house, and will text my RSVP. The fact that I even cared about the number of followers I had ticked me off. It really did stir up all those 10th grade emotions and insecurities. Three decades after completing my secondary education, I not only had slipped back into the worst part of high school, but had discovered the worst part of Twitter.

I actually felt lonelier when I was on Twitter than I did when I was off-line. As my month on Twitter drew to a close, I decided the two things I liked most about it were the news feeds and traffic updates. But, what’s the catch phrase? Oh yeah, there are Apps for that. So is there a need for Twitter? Socially, there is a place for it, but a need? I don’t think so. As a promotional tool for celebrities and event planners? Maybe. My read is that this is a moment that is happening, and people are lapping it up. It’s an easy way to be heard even if you have nothing important to say. It is freedom of speech if you can crush your thoughts into 140 characters. Perhaps, deep down, what appeals to people most about Twitter is that it is evidence that you exist.

Hi – I’m here. See, proof that I’ve lived. I tweeted a total of six times. Technically, I suppose the number was four. I did not write the first tweet, nor did I author the last one. My oldest son wrote my final tweet, and although it is something I would never say, I posted it because he finally came around and tried to help me explore this cyber world that seemed so vast and so alien to me. With that in mind I give you my final tweet exactly how my son wrote it: – omg i think i might be obsessed with this new thing called #internet shopping. “There’s a pound sign in front of internet,” I pointed out, ever the editor. “Mom, that’s a hashtag.” “What’s a hashtag?”

Editor’s Note: J.M. Stewart lives and works in Southern California. She interviewed Joe and Gia Mantegna for the Hot Stuff issue of EDGE and is working on an EQ vs. IQ feature for the upcoming Gray Matter issue.

All Photos credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

 

For the Birds

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

That suburban sea of emerald lawn may make your neighbors green with envy. But birds will give your yard the cold shoulder.

  • Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Birds will do more than fill your yard with their songs. Their skills at hunting less-desirable insects and cross-pollinating plants make them the kind of neighbors you really want. Given that New Jersey is a stopping-off point for dozens of migrating species—not to mention our year-round feathered friends—transforming your backyard into an avian Welcome mat is well worth the trouble. Open lawns are rather barren and sterile for wildlife. So says Scott Barnes, the Programs Director for the Central Region of New Jersey Audubon. “The more trees, shrubs, and perennials you can plant in their place, the more likely you are to attract birds.” According to the experts, attracting your favorite songbirds requires little more than some patience and planning.

  • Plant the right things. If you want to attract birds, you need to cut into that swath of green lawn—most bird experts recommend transforming at least 25 percent of your grass coverage into lush gardens to attract birds. The key, according to landscape designer Jose German, is to appeal to a bird’s palate. “Planting bushes and trees that produce berries is the first step, especially if you want to feed them naturally,” he says. “That’s the easiest way to provide the foliage, nectar, pollen, berries, seeds and nuts that many species of wildlife require to survive.” He recommends shrubs and bushes such as serviceberry, elderberry, winterberry, viburnum, blueberries and raspberries, to provide plenty of food and a place to perch. Flowers and plants also attract birds, but the key to appealing to the local bird population is selecting plants that are native to New Jersey. Consult the experts at your local garden center if you want to ensure that the plants you choose are common to your area. “The key element for anyone trying to increase and benefit birds in their yard is planting native vegetation,” Barnes says. “Native plants with flowers or berries provide important food for many species of wildlife, including birds.”
  • Provide water. “Water features are magnets for wildlife,” says Barnes. Birds need fresh, clean water for drinking and bathing—whether you go with a simple birdbath or a more elaborate pond or other water feature. You should change the water in your birdbath every two to four days—or as needed to keep the water replenished and fresh. Keep in mind that smaller water features will be more likely to attract the smaller birds, and a more elaborate pond with waterfalls and multiple pools will be more likely to attract a wider variety of birds.
  • Give them shelter. Birds need a place to call home— and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a prefab birdhouse from the local home improvement store. “Wildlife require places to hide in order to feel safe from people, predators and inclement weather,” German says. “You can convert your yard into a heaven for birds if plant bushes and shrubs that will feed and protect them from predators.” If you do want to invest in a birdhouse, choose one that suits the kind of bird you’d like to attract. There’s a big difference between what the robins want (a simple, covered shelf where they can build a mud nest) and purple martins (a grander, multi-roomed shelter).
  • Share a snack. While many birds can thrive on insects and fruit, others are looking for a different kind of feast— and an appropriate feeder can help you attract the birds you want, and avoid the pesky squirrels you don’t. “Selecting the right seed and the right feeder is important,” says German. “For example, nyger seed is high in calories and oil content seed, loved by finches and other wild birds. It is really small, so squirrels and big birds are not attracted to it.” The Audubon Society recommends using a variety of targeted feeders and feed mixes—such as a special hummingbird feeder stocked with one part sugar to three parts water—to attract the greatest variety of birds to your door.
  • Keep it au naturel. While chemical fertilizers and weed killers may make your lawn look golf-course perfect, they can damage the environment and the birds that live there. But fortunately, there are techniques for keeping your lawn lush without harming the environment. “You can have a beautiful lawn without all of the chemicals,” German says. Step one is having your soil tested to determine its composition, so you can develop a specific plan of action to amend the soil for a healthier lawn. Aeration is also key, especially if your lawn is heavily traf

    Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

    ficked. “Organic fertilizers are highly recommended at the beginning and the end of the landscaping season—it should be rich in organic material, like compost or compost tea,” German recommends. And to help control weeds, German suggests overseeding the lawn. “A thicker lawn reduces the opportunities for the weeds to grow.”

  • Go a little wild. Letting parts of your backyard become a bit overgrown and not-so-manicured—including allowing a few weeds into the mix—can help support a larger and more varied bird population. Long native grasses offer seeds and shelter for various birds, and other weeds can attract certain species. “A weedy garden with plant stalks and seed heads to search for insects in will help attract hummingbirds,” Barnes says. Leaving some dead leaves and twigs can help foster nest building for birds—or provide homes for insects. “A decayed trunk is good because it will host caterpillars and insects,” German says. Consider it a smorgasbord for your favorite feathered friends.

    Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

    Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

RARE BIRDS Beyond creating a safe and inviting habitat for birds, perhaps the biggest reward for the backyard birder is spotting a rare or exotic species from the back porch or kitchen window. Some are year-’round residents of the Garden State, but many more are merely visiting on their way north or south. It is an absolute certainty that, at some point, you will spot species you’ve never seen before and want to know more about them. So expect to familiarize yourself with the local Audubon web site, and buy a couple of field guides. Your largest additional investment is likely to be a new pair of binoculars. A lot of “backyard birders” keep them hanging by the kitchen sink or living room picture window. In recent years, optical companies have produced an overwhelming number of binoculars aimed at the bird watching market. Once you’ve completed your backyard project, it’s time to go shopping for a new pair. What are the rules for sorting through so many choices? Stick to these pointers for your first pair and you should be in good shape:

  • Pick a magnification. Unless you have a multi-acre property, 7X should do just fine.
  • Read online reviews. Pay particular attention to comments about the quality, brightness and sharpness of each model. This is what you’re paying for, right?
  • Do you wear glasses? If so, some designs are friendlier than others. Rubber eyecups typically don’t work as well as turn-and-lock eyecups. Glasses-wearers also tend to find compact models problematic.
  • Pick a price point that suits your family budget. If you need a new refrigerator, don’t spend $1,200 on binoculars. Price is determined largely be quality. The “mid price” for good binocs is around $300. If you want to test the waters with a cheaper pair, that’s okay—there are some decent ones available on sale for $50 to $100. Just know that you may be making another investment in a year or two. In terms of brands, you can’t go wrong with Bushnell or Nikon—and at the higher end of the spectrum Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski—but do 10 minutes of research before pushing the BUY button.

Better yet, instead of buying online, find a store that carries the models you’ve pinpointed as possibilities and try them in person. There is no right and wrong way to hold binoculars—everyone handles them differently. Feel the shape and weight in your hands, sense how they fit your face, and trust your instincts. This is especially true if you wear glasses.

The Lease You Can Do

The laws of gravity and unintended consequences have collided in the New Jersey real estate market. The result is a warming trend in rental properties.

Photo credit: AVE/Kormanv

Throughout the United States, our jobs, our investments, our savings, our confidence, even our very homes are at risk. In New Jersey, the decline in home values since 2006 has changed the very complexion of the real estate market. And many professional predictions for 2012 forecast a continued downward trend. One of the consequences has been a rental boom, with some statistics indicating that vacancy rates in the third quarter of 2011 dropped sharply to 5.6%— the lowest level since 2006. Unfortunately, this has also led to a decrease in rental inventory and an accompanying increase in rents, which reached a median last year in the Garden State of about $1,500 for a one-bedroom. For any homeowner contemplating a move in the near future, the dilemma remains unchanged: Is it better to sell or stay? For everyone else, however, the question becomes: Does renting make more sense? The answer may surprise you.

Photo credit: AVE/Kormanv

A Different Animal In the gold-plated days before the economy tanked, the vast majority of renters in New Jersey were people who couldn’t (or chose not to) cough up enough cash for a down payment on a house or condo. Since many mortgage companies were offering loans with no or low down payment and a cursory credit check, almost everyone with a pulse could own a home. Today’s renter is a slightly different animal. One of the biggest barriers to home ownership is building a nest egg big enough to buy the nest. Among renters canvassed in a recent survey conducted by Trulia, an online real estate search engine, 51% confirmed insufficient down payments as the reason they had become renters rather than buyers.

Recently federal regulators have been suggesting that buyers must put down as much as 20% and sometimes even more. Right now, New Jersey has the highest average down payment rate in the country at 13.71% according to LendingTree. Some 36% blamed their inability to qualify for a mortgage as the reason they rent. Either their income was too low or their credit was sketchy. My, how things have changed. Job insecurity is another characteristic of the average renter’s profile.

An uncertain future makes relatively short-term rental and lease arrangements a preferable alternative to long-term home ownership. While owning over renting had long been the Holy Grail of real estate investing, the analysts who crunch these numbers now generally agree that purchasing a home in the current environment is the right move only if the property will be held for at least several years (the longer the better). For example, a buyer paying $400,000 for a home with 3% down and a mortgage under 5% will only start to come out ahead of a renter paying $2,000 per month after four years! This gives the “let’s wait-and-see” renter solid footing to continue leasing, even in a buyer’s real estate market. Of course, some people by nature are simply not cut out to be home owners. These individuals prefer to leave clogged drains and leaky roofs to the super or the landlord. Add to that our state’s high real estate taxes, and you have another reason why renting trumps owning for those who can afford to be choosy.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The Foreclosure Factor So where are we in the home-buying market, at least pricewise? According to the Case-Shiller Home Price Index released mid last year, home prices in Northern and Central New Jersey were down 24.2% from their 2006 highs, and down a more modest 3.4% from 2010 to 2011. Some experts believe that we could see the beginning of a rebound in 2012, or perhaps in 2013. More, however, are inclined to think that the market hasn’t bottomed yet. They cite an anticipated influx of foreclosures expected in 2012. The foreclosure factor is likely to have an impact on the rent vs. own decision, although which way it breaks is anyone’s guess.

The normal flow of foreclosures was impeded for a couple of years after it was discovered that some major banks were “robo-signing” key documents. It has taken a long time to go back and untangle the paperwork problems, resulting in tens of thousands of people being allowed to stay in their homes. Soon they will be hitting the street en masse—presumably as renters—while their homes will be vacant and available for sale or rent. What kind of numbers are we looking at? According to Michael Bonner, Founder and CEO of PropertyPilot, a real estate data and analytics company, there are over 150,000 properties in some state of foreclosure throughout New Jersey that will hit the market soon. This could put more downward pressure on home prices for the next year or two, making uncertain buyers much more uncertain. Many will undoubtedly opt to become (or remain) short-term renters.

Photo credit: AVE/Korman

Upscale Options With more people in New Jersey renting and new construction slowed to a crawl, the supply of apartments is dwindling. Which means that prices are likely to rise. Vacancy rates are tightening, with projections they will fall to 2.4% by the end of 2012. That means that for every 40 occupied units, there is only one empty and available. As a result, some developers are actually converting their for-sale condos into high-end apartments for lease. That should ease some of the supply-and-demand pressure. More important, it creates a new and appealing product for the shifting tastes and elevated expectations of the New Jersey renter. AVE, a division of Korman Communities (a pioneer in corporate housing), specializes in the suburban midrise residential rental market. Amy Barricelli, AVE’s Vice President of Marketing, confirms that the rental sector is on the upswing and describes New Jersey apartment-seekers as a “growing, savvy and discriminating” clientele. AVE’s hybrid business plan offers both furnished and unfurnished apartment units.

The former are available on a daily-rate basis for relocations and professionals in between homes. The latter are distinctive, yet reasonably high-end with an average monthly rent of $2,000 for a one-bedroom. For that price, residents enjoy a friendly home-like environment filled with healthy and high-tech amenities and social activities. As to AVE’s typical renter profiles, Barricelli says that among the company’s three New Jersey communities, their current resident population includes some newly married, some recently divorced, some corporate types, some Gen-Xers and some boomers. All are looking for the bells, whistles and extra creature comforts that can be difficult to find in a typical rental property. Barricelli adds that Korman views New Jersey as fertile ground for future growth and development of this type of rental option.

A Home-Buying Comeback? As long as home ownership is part of the American Dream, it would be unwise to bet against a comeback. The coming wave of foreclosures may create a new surge of renters, however it will also reset prices in the housing market, and ultimately help to stabilize it. It will be interesting to see whether the homes snapped up in foreclosure end up in the hands of those American Dreamers, or whether savvy investors buy them and convert into rental homes. Who knows? There could be a rental bubble awaiting us. How ironic would that be? It is not as far-fetched as it seems. For now, the rental market seems to be flexing its muscle, although Standard & Poors has suggested that the current gap between buying and renting is narrowing. This could mean the only sure winners in real estate in 2012 will be the landlords, the smart investors, and the property managers. The one unalterable fact is that people need a place to live. And since home is where the heart is, these days it makes little difference whether it’s owned or rented.

 

Act of Faith

Transforming an imperfect space into something usable and new is easier than you think. Just pray you pick the right architect. 

Opening page: The historic Chapel at Ft. Hancock on Sandy Hook. It was poorly illuminated; the beautiful trusses and ceiling boards were hidden in shadows. I upgraded the lighting and electrical, converted side rooms into bathrooms, reopenend the boarded-up balcony, and now it can accommodate weddings and other large functions.

The scenario is a painfully familiar one. House-hunters pass on what they think is a train wreck, only to discover a year or two later that someone else scooped it up for a song and transformed it into a showplace. Old homes are full of exciting potential, but can also be petrifying. Whether you are renovating before you move in, or tackling them on a project-by-project basis after you’ve taken up residence, it’s hard not to think about Tom Hanks’s excruciating slide into The Money Pit. Right actor. Wrong film.

In Sleepless in Seattle, Hanks actually provided the correct blueprint for a major home renovation. His architect, Sam, had the ideal relationship with the homeowner. That job was going to turn out beautifully. I should know. As an architect who specializes in repurposing historic spaces, I’ve lived both movies. In Sleepless, architect and client had an ongoing dialogue, which also included the contractor (played by Rob Reiner). Issues were openly discussed and strong decisions were made. This is the type of situation that inspires a positive relationship, with the kind of mutual respect that delivers the confidence needed to move forward and make the transformation happen. Which is a roundabout way of saying that, before you trust your instincts and make a potentially life-altering financial decision about a great old space, you need to talk to an architect. We are in touch with the pulse of trends and issues that affect every aspect of a renovation. When brought on board early, we can help clarify the challenges, discuss different options, or even assist in the actual selection of a property.

When weighing a decision, particularly with higher values at stake—such as the purchase of a home to be remodeled versus remodeling your own residence—including an experienced architect in the conversation not only gives the process an exciting kick-start, it will probably pay for itself many times over. So, how does one start? Select a few architects to interview. Ask to see examples of their work and possibly go visit one or two. Have a prepared list of questions that represent your main concerns. Try to engage them in the kind of dialogue that is important to you. After all, you may be entrusting them with the very space where your children will grow up, or that you may retire in. The closer the relationship and bond you develop, the more in-tune your architect will be to your values and beliefs. These all eventually translate into the solution, the look and—most importantly—the feel of the renovation.

Open A Window One good piece of advice I can offer is once you’ve made your choice, gather all the information you’ve been thinking about to share with your architect. I encourage my clients to begin collecting images, articles, books and even physical materials they find appealing. Even if these items involve structures and spaces that are seemingly unrelated, they are extremely helpful. They are the window into your thoughts. The architect’s job is to interpret them. Using these as a starting point, we can develop a vocabulary that relates to, and works with, the existing property—but which might also reference your collection for inspiration to an entirely new and different direction. An early mentor of mine taught me how to engage and enjoy the process, as well as the reward of the product itself. We too often miss this by focusing solely on the budget, schedule and layers of tasks to accomplish. Taking the time to work closely with your architect helps to bring the importance of the function, aesthetic and space itself into view. Have faith in the process. Embrace it with confidence and trust rather than fear. You never know. Your success story could become the plot for the next Tom Hanks movie.

Editor’s Note: Bob Kellner specializes in adaptive reuse and sustainable design. As an architect, his portfolio runs the gamut from large-scale work (including the master plan for Bank of America’s Corporate Headquarters and for Ft. Hancock on Sandy Hook) to major renovations in iconic properties (among them the Waldorf-Astoria and Plaza hotels) to the diversity of more modest commercial interiors. Bob enjoys residential work as a balance to larger-scale projects for the opportunities they present to focus on details, materials and concepts that are more personal. He is the recipient of numerous design awards.

Need to Know

The easy questions are often the hardest to answer.

We asked a group of area experts & celebrities to weigh in on the really important ones… Am I good enough to sing professionally?

Anthony Laciura: In a sense, it would be simpler to answer the question Am I good enough to be a doctor or a lawyer? Often someone has a voice, but it’s not as endearing to the listener as they think. To determine whether someone has a sound special enough to build a career around, it takes a minimum of a year with at least one voice lesson a week. Professional singers have to learn how the body works and how to rely on their senses, how to keep an even pressure of breath so that the vocal chords vibrate at exactly the same rate. Remember, you’re dealing with a part of the anatomy that’s the size of a dime. It takes great patience on the part of student and teacher. I’ve been involved with singers who had really ugly voices when they began, yet through sheer will and study built good, long careers. Is it ever too late to start a professional singing career? There’s always an exception, but my gut reaction would be that if you’ve hit 50 and haven’t done anything yet, you might not possess the physical strength and stamina to launch a singing career. Anthony Laciura has performed as a tenor with the Metropolitan Opera for more than 25 years. His talent for playing character roles has won him an entirely new audience as a cast member of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Anthony plays Eddie Kessler, right-hand man to power broker Nucky Thompson.

Why am I always stuck in traffic? Bernie Wagenblast: The short answer is “because you live in New Jersey.” There are over five and a half million licensed drivers in our state and sometimes it seems as if all of them are trying to get to the same place you are! When you consider there have been few new highways added since the 1970s it’s probably no surprise traffic often is jammed. While you can’t totally avoid traffic, there are some simple steps you can take to minimize the delays. First, and most important, collect as much info as you can before you leave on trips of over an hour and, if possible, continue to do so while you’re traveling. Some of the better GPS units will warn you about congestion. There are a number of websites you can check before you go that will alert you to accidents, construction and even how fast traffic is moving. On some you can even look at traffic cameras to see for yourself how crowded the roads are. You can also dial 511 for traffic updates—not just in Jersey, but in New York and Pennsylvania. Second, most people know only one way to get where they’re going. Regardless of the length of your trip, always have alternate routes in your mind. Google Maps is one of the sites that offers alternative routes—pick the one you like, but print out the others in case you have to divert. If you hit a wall of traffic, you can switch to Plan B or Plan C without getting angry or panicking and getting lost.

Bernie Wagenblast specializes in transportation communications. He began as one of the original reporters for Shadow Traffic in 1979, and today you can hear Bernie’s voice on the trams at Newark and JFK Airports, and throughout the New York City subway system.

What should I order for dinner? David Burke: Always ask to hear about the specials. Are they seasonal? Do the match the weather? Are they really special? I was at an Italian place one night and they had 15 specials. To me that’s not special. There are certain things I find irresistible. Peking Duck. When I see that on a menu I automatically order it, even if I’m not in a Chinese restaurant. Stone crab with mustard sauce. Paella, but only at a really good place. I love Florentine ravioli with the spinach and the poached egg. In terms of seasonal items, you can’t go wrong with Copper River salmon or shad roe in the spring, and pheasant and venison around the holidays. And truffles when they first hit the season. If you are less adventurous and looking for reliable, a good restaurant should always do the simple things well—Caesar salad, roasted chicken, crab cakes, omelets, bread. Chef David Burke knows his way around a menu. He owns Fromagerie in Rumson, Primehouse in Chicago, Prime in Connecticut, and Fishtail, David Burke Townhouse and David Burke Kitchen at the James Hotel in Manhattan.

Katie or Matt? Terry Schaefer: As a Today Show producer I marveled at Katie’s capacity to wing it, ever so intelligently, like the girl in school who borrows your notes and then gets a better grade on the test. But Matt’s style was more my own. He comes to the studio every morning precisely at 5 a.m., ensuring two full hours to prepare for the show. He walks onto the set impeccably dressed just before 7, carrying carefully edited notes and questions for each of his segments, clipped together in perfect order, from hard-news interviews to cooking segments. Katie would arrive later, sometimes much later, and often read producers’ notes and questions at the last minute. She’d scrawl her own notes next to theirs, borrowing a pen to write, ingesting and processing information with lightning speed. Frequently she challenged the structure of the show, calling the executive producer in the control room with very last-minute suggestions, then she’d slide into the anchor chair with seconds to spare. But when the cameras rolled, there they were, side-by-side, each ready in their own way to deliver the news of the day, on America’s number-one morning show. Their easy chemistry and mutual respect was real. They valued their differences, even relied on them to get the job done. Each was a genuine pleasure to work with. Terry Schaefer worked at NBC News for 26 years, 17 of those as a producer for the Today Show.

 What is the difference between a $1,500 watch and a $15,000 watch? Samuel Friedmann: Design, materials, innovation and quality. The biggest cost of building a great watch comes before it is built. It’s in the blueprint. It takes two years and countless trips back to the drawing board to design a breathtaking timepiece. It takes 12 separate factories to make the components. Then they must be assembled into a work of art—a work of art that works. The finishing is done by hand, because a machine can’t “feel” when each tiny piece fits just right. When the watchmaker looks inside, he sees things like a solid-gold rotor, things that tell him this is a wonderful machine. When the consumer sees this watch that embraces the body, the beauty of the timepiece is obvious to the eye. Think of it as the difference between a house built by a good architect and a great one. Both look nice when they’re brand new. Only 10 years later will you know which architect was great. Samuel Friedmann is President of Gevril Group. The Gevril name has been associated with museum-quality timepieces dating back to the 16th century.

Do actors love to play wise guys as much as we love to watch them? Vincent Pastore: Absolutely. And not everybody can play a wise guy. You must do your research, know the character. Do you think Ron Howard or Henry Winkler could play the role? Chazz Palminteri, Pacino, DeNiro—they are true wise guys. Personally, I prefer no Dons in my organized crime movies. I like the lowlifes. In Donnie Brasco, Pacino played the lowlife role to a tee. I loved the last scene when he knew he was gonna get whacked. He put his jewelry, wallet, everything in the drawer. He told Johnny Depp, “I put my neck out for you, Donnie.” That was real loyalty. Omertà. The code of silence. I think the chivalry is what attracts the actors to those old wise guys that embrace Omertà. John Gotti might have been the last of the real wise guys. As a member of The Sopranos cast, Vincent Pastore created one of the most enduring wise guy characters in television history: Salvatore Bonpensiero, aka Big Pussy.

Why am I not making my own pasta? Teresa Giudice: Given that gourmet pasta can run $7 a pound and more—and that it’s so simple to do— I don’t know why. There’s something magical about making it yourself. It does take a little more time and effort, but the reward is so, so worth it. When it comes to making pasta from scratch, you need to buy a decent machine (there are good ones for $30 and great ones for under $100) and use the same basic recipe with only two ingredients: flour and eggs. What determines the final product is how you cut it. For most pasta shapes, the dough should be as thick as a nickel. For ravioli, which overlaps at the edges, the pasta should be as thick as a dime. Two things to remember after you’re done: add salt to the water after it boils but before the pasta goes in…and make sure your sauce is done by the time the water comes to a boil. Fresh pasta cooks quickly! Teresa Giudice became a reality TV icon on Real Housewives of New Jersey…and is now an accomplished author. Her second cookbook—Fabulicious!—made the New York Times Best-Seller List.

I’m 44. I’m single. What now? Norah Marler: Get comfortable with yourself; it’s okay to be single and at this time of your life it’s okay to be a little selfish. Enjoy some “me time” by doing all the things you haven’t been able to get to because you’ve been too busy giving your time to others. Perhaps you’ve been longing to go back to school or take dancing lessons, learn to ski or become a world traveler. Whatever your desires are, now is the time start living them. Then commit to the best interests of the person you love: You. Analyze your past, present and hoped-for future and develop a program for achieving that future. Make a list of what you want and what you need. Create a life plan that will fulfill your needs. It’s your life—create it as you wish, but you must follow a Think-It…Plan-It…Built-It blueprint. Norah Marler is 44 and has been single for many years. She is a passionate advocate for women’s health, safety and wellness, the author of No More Dating Pigs and the mind behind the nomoredatingpigs.com web site.

 

Pied à Terre

Before grabbing that little place in the city, there are a few things you need to know.     

For many New Jersey residents, “having it all” means something more than a blissful suburban existence. It also includes having a small Manhattan apartment. In the chaos of our current economy, some Garden Staters—through skillful investing or trading down their now-empty nests to smaller houses—have turned this longstanding dream into a reality. The process is complicated, but it can be simplified by breaking it down into four decisions: finances, type of transaction, size, and location (probably in that order). And, of course, finding professionals who can help you to make each decision a realistic one. We’ll leave the money issues to you and your accountant. Just keep in mind that, in any real-estate transaction, you can expect to spend more than you planned to—and in Manhattan, you can depend on it. You’ll also want to investigate any tax advantages that might accrue to you as the owner of a condominium or co-op.

CO-OP VS. CONDO VS. RENTAL It’s worth mentioning here that, contrary to the situation in most American cities, co-ops are much more common than condos in Manhattan. One real estate broker, a specialist in co-op and condo sales, made a point of explaining that, all things being equal, condos provide a wider choice to the out-of-town owner, since many co-op boards will decline to approve buyers who want a pied-à-terre. Most board members will favor full-time residents, who are less likely to turn their keys over to a parade of friends who want to spend a weekend in the city. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the price range you’ve established, you may want to explore a rental apartment instead. It often involves a lower total monthly outlay than a condo, but keep in mind that you’re not building any kind of equity as a tenant, and that Manhattan is rumored to have been an Algonquian name meaning “Island of Soaring Rents, Major Capital Improvements, and Two-Year (sometimes one-year) Leases.” If you or your spouse works in the city, there may be a way to write off part of the monthly rent as a business expense, but as a rule the tax advantages of renting are not as attractive as owning.

SIZE, LOCATION & FEATURES These are the “fun” decisions, less fraught with legal and financial issues and easier to figure out. The price of an apartment is determined by a combination of the square footage, location and amenities. The more you know about the value of each in the constantly shifting sands of New York City’s co-op, condo and rental market, the more bang you’ll get for your buck. The bells and whistles that drive up the price include having a doorman, a terrace, a non-closetsized kitchen and a good view. But you knew that already. Not everything, however, is intuitive to the out-of-towner. For example, discrepancies in prices between one-bedrooms and studios may not be overwhelming. Neighborhoods that seem on-the-fringe when you’re visiting the city may actually be on the cusp. And that Upper East Side neighborhood that used to be out of reach when you were twentysomething and just out of college? Well, there’s good news on that front, too. Manhattan has changed dramatically (Gothamites like to do everything dramatically) in the last 20 years. Areas like Tribeca, the Flatiron district, the Lower East Side, and the Meatpacking district—where most apartments were once cheap, but often of dubious quality and lacking in amenities—have become the hottest residential neighborhoods in town. Consequently, the Upper East Side, once the magnet for people of means looking for apartments, has become relatively reasonable. It’s one of six neighborhoods in the city that offers good deals, interesting features or a little of both: Wall Street: Numerous palatial old office buildings in the Financial District, abandoned by brokerage firms, have been converted to apartments.

They feature high ceilings, great detailing, and virtually bomb-proof construction. Many have extraordinary harbor views. The neighborhood is safe, because there’s almost no activity down there after the offices close up in the evenings and on weekends. Great transportation, good values, peace and quiet—but you’ll be trekking to Chinatown for groceries. Battery Park City: Safe, serene, secluded and new—the oldest buildings only date to the mid-’80s. Self-contained, with stores, restaurants, doctors, and a movie theatre. There’s a yacht basin, should you choose to navigate back and forth across the Hudson. The negatives: getting anywhere else in Manhattan can be a chore, and, somehow, the grit and energy of Manhattan are muted, almost mallified (if not mollified). Chelsea: Between 14th and 23rd Streets, west of Sixth Avenue. Restaurants by the score, endless nightlife, lots of culture (music, dance, theatre, and one of the city’s biggest gallery scenes). The far western reaches are a bit isolated, and most of the bargains are gone, but you’re in walking distance of most of what makes it worthwhile to put up with the city. The Garment District/Flower District: Roughly, Sixth to Eighth Avenues, 23rd Street to 42nd Street. Until recently, a desolate stretch of loft buildings, factories, storefronts, and tenements. Largely rebuilt, including an eye-popping stretch of towers on almost every block of Sixth Avenue from 23rd to 34th Streets. Variable values, and the area retains distinct traces of funky, unsanitized, pre-war New York, but there’s easy access to the Flatiron, boasting one of the biggest groupings of topflight restaurants in the city, and the bright lights and theatres of Times Square. Tudor City: A little-known enclave overlooking the United Nations. Very safe, lovely parks, river views from some apartments. Walking distance to midtown, frequent buses to the Theatre District. A word from a broker who has done many deals here: caveat emptor—the apartments tend to be smaller than in other areas, and this is an older development—some of the units will need work. Nonetheless, the values are excellent and there is a distinctly Old World flavor that many find enchanting. The Upper East Side: Overbuilding, and the preference of many young singles for more exotic neighborhoods from Williamsburg to Harlem, has left a lot of empty apartments here. There’s no fire sale; prices have held steady, as landlords anticipate the economy’s resurrection, but you can negotiate a good deal if you do your homework. This is the famous Silk Stocking district, ancestral home to the rich and famous. Proximity to some of the world’s greatest museums, such as the Metropolitan, MOMA and the Guggenheim (although the Whitney is moving to the Meatpacking district), world-class restaurants, Central Park and, depending on how far east you go, river views.

DOLLARS & SENSE All well and good, but you’re still asking, “How much?” There’s no easy answer. However, speaking with various knowledgeable brokers, and checking the Real Estate section of The New York Times and the listings in Trulia you can come up with some ballpark figures. There is a large stock of condos—particularly studios and smaller one-bedroom—in areas that are neither too pricey nor too unappealing, that are listed for anywhere from $200,000 to $600,000. You can, of course, pay multiples of those prices for apartments with particular features, but that’s the range for the typical pied-à-terre in a fun and convenient neighborhood. Rents in the same neighborhoods for something decent start at around $2500 a month and skyrocket from there. To get a feel for the city, which seems to change overnight, link to blogs like Curbed NY, New York Condo or, for the statistically literate, UrbanDigs. But in the end, the best way to find your dream pied à terre is to put on some comfortable shoes and start walking. New York has always been a town for strolling, and that’s how you’ll find the true, and often not immediately evident, nature of its neighborhoods.

The Home Run

Photo courtesy of Frank IsoldiIt’s that time of year again. For Sale signs are popping up everywhere you look. And once again, it’s a buyer’s market this summer. House hunters can afford to be picky, and they should be. Holding out for something extraordinary—price wise, property-wise or both—is half the fun of the hunt! When’s the best time to make your move? When the stars align and you walk into a home with some feature that blows away everything else you’ve seen. A charming front porch. A killer kitchen. The master bath of your dreams. A suburban oasis in the backyard. There are a lot of names for the house that speaks to you in that deep, intimate way. We call it the Home Run.

 

 

RECIPE FOR SUCCESS • Westfield The owners of this 1880s bungalow pulled off the impossible—a thoroughly m

Photo courtesy of Shari Holtzman

odern kitchen while maintaining the home’s Arts & Crafts charm and functionality.

VISION IN WHITE • Westfield “Heavenly” isn’t a word one uses to describe a bathroom, but in this case it’s totally appropriate. That claw-foot tub is an updated take on a Victorian classic.

Photo courtesy of Frank Isoldi

FRONT AND CENTER • Westfield Colonial Revival architecture can be kind of a yawnfest, but the curb appeal of this unusual 1920s eye-opener carries through all 12 rooms.

Photo courtesy of Irene Katz

RULE THE POOL • Scotch Plains Every homebuyer needs a tipping point. After touring the interior of this suburban contemporary, it’s the pool that says “Jump right in!”

Photo courtesy of Joan Kylish

CLOCK WATCHER • North Plainfield Technically, it would be incorrect to call this magnificent 1911 converted gatehouse a “timeless beauty.” No winding required.

BEAM ME UP • Westfield Vaulted ceilings, leaded glass, original wood planking, stone fireplaces—we surrender! It’s another gatehouse, this one constructed in Wychwood circa 1928.

Photo courtesy of Sherrie Natko

Editor’s Note: Each of these properties was on the market as of May 15, 2011. For more information contact the listing brokers. All have 908 area codes: Shari Holtzman 233–5555 ext. 210; Frank Isoldi 233–5555 ext. 202; Irene Katz 301–2892; Joan Kylish 301–2043; Sherrie Natko 233–3014.

Donna Donaldson Home & Interiors
Ricciardi Brothers
Williams Lift Company
Summit Fireplace Centre
Reel-Strong Heating and Cooling
Mosquito Shield
Home Again Design
Hannon Floors
H.G. Edwards Windows and Doors
General Plumbing Supply