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Alex's Wonderland

02/04/2008, By MAX GROSS

January 31, 2008 -- WHEN he wasn't too busy writing the Federalist Papers or founding newspapers or dueling with vice presidents, Alexander Hamilton made a home for himself in the Harlem neighborhood that now bears his name: Hamilton Heights.

Clearly, Al knew a bargain when he saw one.

Few Manhattan neighborhoods are as affordable or as filled with gorgeous housing stock as this one. Convent Avenue and Hamilton Terrace (where the Hamilton Grange memorial is now stationed) are filled with Queen Anne, Gothic, and Romanesque Revivals that wouldn't look out of place in Brooklyn Heights.

Or take the prewar apartment buildings along tree-lined Riverside Drive. These structures don't look all that different from pricier buildings 50 or 60 blocks south.

And, up until a few years ago, Hamilton Heights real estate was dirt cheap. (See related story.)

Sadly, you won't find the giveaways you once could, but there are certainly excellent prices by Manhattan standards - and prices are often negotiable.

"If this house were on the Upper East or Upper West Side, it would be double the price," says Daniela Kunen, a broker with Prudential Douglas Elliman, referring to a magnificent four-unit, $3.75 million townhouse she has on the market at West 144th Street.

And you can still get a one-bedroom condo for less than $300,000.

A smattering of prewar rental buildings were converted to condos last year.

"We're doing three new conversions," says Mary Jo, a senior vice president at Barak Realty.

The buildings are at 660, 680 and 690 Riverside Drive and are being sold both renovated and as-is at less than $600 per square foot. (A number of rent-stabilized apartments are not being redone; tenants are being offered units at a discount.)

Citi Habitats is also marketing four recent conversions and expecting another four buildings to hit the market later this year.

"Over the last year, we've had 70 units sold," says Russell Miller, a managing director at Citi Habitats.

"I got a one-bedroom that was about 1,000 square feet," says Aditya Shah, who recently bought a one-bedroom in a conversion on Riverside Drive. "It was either that or a studio in Brooklyn Heights."

Shah, recently engaged, wasn't crazy about starting married life in a studio.

"We might end up killing each other," he says.

And it's difficult to argue with what he bought. Shah paid $271,000 for his one-bedroom

While a bargain like that can be hard to find, brokers have noticed sellers willing to play let's-make-a-deal.

"The market has definitely softened a bit," says Adam Petrelli, a broker at Bond New York, "And you can negotiate on something that has sat on the market."

Pricier houses in the $2 million range have sold for well under asking price - in at least one case for almost $500,000 under.

"I tell people, 'Don't lower the price, but take what makes you happy,'" says Willie K. Suggs, a broker who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1980s.

And although some might think that they'll get nosebleeds from just how high Hamilton Heights goes (it stretches from 135th street to 155th street, between St. Nicholas Ave. and the river), it has easy access to the A, C, B, D and 1 subway lines

"I timed it yesterday, and it takes 21 minutes door-to-door" to work in Times Square, says Shah.

There are some obvious problems with Hamilton Heights, however.

"My biggest gripe is restaurants," says Vonetta McGee, a broker with The Corcoran Group who lives in the neighborhood. "And I'd like a nightlife."

Indeed, there are far more 99-cent outlets along Broadway than restaurants. ("If you want to make a fortune in Harlem, open a Two Boots," says Amos Levy, a Hamilton Heights resident.) But a new gourmet sandwich shop called Vinegar Hill opened last year next to two new restaurants, Tres Pasos and Café Largo.

Meanwhile, a Starbucks and a Pathmark both recently opened on the Hamilton Heights border

"The Pathmark was huge," says Suggs. "People just couldn't wait for that."

Also missing until recently were new residential buildings. New condo developments such as RiverBridge Court on West 148th Street have sold briskly; the only available unit is a two-bedroom, for $719,000. And there are more coming, including Aqueduct Court on West 152nd Street, with three-bedrooms around 1,000 square feet in the $600,000 range.

Al's old neighborhood is hitting new heights, indeed.

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