Forest Hills The Queen of Queens

Forest Hills

Some call it the Garden City. Others call it the heart and soul of Queens. About 4,500 people call it home, but one thing’s for sure—just about everyone who has seen Forest Hills calls it beautiful.

Sandwiched between Rego Park and North Forest Park, Forest Hills is a gem of an area that is rich in history, culture, beauty and options for both the resident and the visitor. Forest Hills has gone through many changes over the years, but steadfastly remains one of the loveliest locales in the five boroughs.

Dutch Roots

After the Dutch colonized New York in the 1600s, a group of English settlers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony settled in 1652 in what is now known as the Forest Hills area. The area has undergone many a name change through the years—its first name was “Whiteput” or “Whitepot.” The story says that local natives traded the land to the settlers for three white cooking pots. By the time the Revolutionary War came around, Whitepot was developed enough for British General Sir William Howe to place his headquarters on what is now Queens Boulevard in Newtown, an area that was combined with Whitepot in 1893 and sold as “Elmhurst.”  

Cord Meyer, a lawyer and developer, purchased about 600 acres of the land shortly thereafter, and was the person responsible for initiating the infrastructure of much of what we know today as Forest Hills. In the years following the purchase of the land, Meyer brought in gas and electricity and built a bank. After this development seemed to be on a roll, the neighborhood was finally named “Forest Hills,” as it was adjacent to Forest Park and was the highest point in Queens. Meyer’s development company kept producing results in their newly-coined town—they formed public utilities and built 340 houses north of Queens Boulevard.

A Model Community

Another person closely linked to the history of modern day Forest Hills was philanthropist Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage. In 1909, Sage headed up the Russell Sage Homes Foundation and bought 150 acres of land in the area. Her idea was to have a “model community” with tree-lined streets, parks and recreation areas with affordable, attractive housing for everyone from rich folks to the working class and the poor.

It was a massive, well-intentioned project. Sadly, by the time the developers had built the homes, mortgages were set near $25 a month, which was quite a bit of money at the time. The working class and poor were priced out of the area from the start, and Forest Hills’ reputation for being an exclusive, pricey neighborhood was born.

It’s no surprise that the wealthy are drawn to Forest Hills. When Sage was building her homes, she made sure that the designs of the buildings followed strict guidelines, mandating that all buildings were to be crafted in stone, brick or cement and only designed in the Georgian or Tudor style. All roofs were to be of red tile or slate. As a result, a uniformed, crisp and clean look is what Forest Hills retains and is something its residents treasure as unique, then and now. Adding to the beauty of the area was the general landscaping—the job was given to none other than the Olmstead Brothers, the firm famous for designing Central Park. The elegant architecture combined with the fine landscaping made Forest Hills into what many call the “garden city.”

Commuter Haven

In 1909, the Long Island Railroad was electrified and Forest Hills got its own stop. This change made it only a 20-minute ride from Manhattan, good news for commuters—on top of that, the Forest Hills stop on the LIRR is generally regarded as one of the nicest train stations in New York. “Station Square” is the entrance to the neighborhood, and the Tudor styling of the buildings and the lush trees dotting the square enhance the view.

Interestingly, Forest Hills began as a privately-owned vista. In 1922, the Sage Home Foundation sold shares of Forest Hill gardens to an association of property owners in Forest Hills who called themselves the “Forest Hills Garden Corporation.” This corporation literally owns the town, including the streets—they “allow” New York traffic in exchange for services, such as garbage pick up and other maintenance. Day-trippers beware: you cannot park on a street in Forest Hills without a sticker that says you’re allowed to do so.

Life in the Hills

Forest Hills may be a unique anomaly when it comes to owning property, but that doesn’t dissuade the prospective buyer from exploring options there. According to Dawn Greenidge, a broker with Queens-based Terrace Realty, the demographic moving into Forest Hills is “a little of everything.”

“We just sold a two bedroom co-op to a couple with no kids,” says Greenidge, “but they bought it from the couple who had been there before who didn’t have kids when they moved in, and now have one and one on the way.”

And, says Greenidge, a lot of the newcomers to Forest Hills are Manhattan expatriates who come for the quiet, but also for the prices.

“In the city, you can’t get a two bedroom co-op with a million dollars. Here, a lot of times for less, you get a whole house. That’s attractive to them, of course, especially because the LIRR and the subway are so close—people can get to and from work easily.”

Greenidge says that a lot of the ex-Manhattanites come to the area to raise their young families. “We get some people from Long Island, too; empty nesters who want to be closer to the city. [Terrace Realty] also advertises in the New York Times, so we get a lot of transfers—people moving into the city from other areas who look at Forest Hills,” she says.

And as for those more palatable rental and purchase prices, Greenidge says, “A lot of the one-bedroom and two-bedroom units are in two-family houses. I’d say the one-bedrooms are renting around $1,400 a month and up. Two-bedrooms start at $1,800. We just rented a junior four in Forest Hill Gardens that had a doorman for $1,900—and I don’t think that’s too much to ask for what they’re getting. Your money goes a lot further here.”

As for those looking to become a homeowner or cooperative shareholder in the neighborhood, Greenidge says, “There’s a good amount of property available on the market. Most of our co-ops are owner-occupied, and we do exclusives, not multi-listings, but I’d say there’s a lot to look at. A single-family home is going to start at $800,000. One bedroom co-ops start in the high two’s. We can’t keep two-bedroom co-ops—we just sold a two-bedroom, two-bath co-op for $535,000, and it was almost a bidding war.”

In fact, says Greenidge, there’s a lot more than that going on in Forest Hills real estate these days. For the first time in more than 10 years, a new condo took root. In 2005, on 71st Road and Queens Boulevard, the Cord Meyer Development Company (which got its start back with the original Cord Meyer’s 600-acre purchase) completed the 21-story Windsor, consisting of 95 luxury apartments that have a Manhattan appeal.

Conceived by Ismael Leyva, designer of such buildings as The Park Imperial, The Chatham, and the Time Warner Center, the 128,000-square-foot tower will house 725-square-foot one-bedroom units, 1,250-square-foot two-bedroom units and 1,750-square-foot three-bedroom units. The building will also contain a fitness center, fully appointed kitchens and bathrooms, nine-foot-high ceilings with oversized windows, a 6,000-square-foot terrace and 1,600-square-foot roof deck and observatory, an attended lobby, and a multi-level parking garage. The cost for a three bedroom? About a million dollars—relatively cheap, compared with prices for similar properties in Manhattan. One bedrooms start at $510,000, with two bedrooms going for around $675,000.

The development company’s success with the Windsor has prompted a proposal for another large scale condo project in Forest Hills, located along Queens Boulevard. Although still in the planning phases, if approved, construction is slated to begin sometime next year.

If the traffic sticker situation makes you hesitant about a trip to Forest Hills, know that you’d be missing a lot. So many positive changes have been made to Forest Hills in the past several decades, it’s no mystery why the area is a popular one for prospective property owners. Hop on the train instead and explore all the exciting restaurants, shops, museums and theatre that Forest Hills has to offer. Don’t miss a trip to the Alliance of Queens Artists, for example—this non-profit organization makes it’s headquarters in Forest Hills and from 1-6pm Tuesday through Saturday, visitors can wander through the AQA gallery and see a plethora of local, visual art.

And if you’re really going for a Queens art fix, catch a show put on by the Parkside Players. This community theatre ensemble has been producing theatre for Forest Hills since 1981. After the theatre or the gallery (or after simply taking time to do some architectural sightseeing) visit one of the many restaurants or bars in the area, like the Metro-Forest Deli, also known as “Sam’s.” The proprietors of Sam’s have been cooking up meatballs and heros since 1968 and have become a real neighborhood institution.

With all the real estate development and cultural goings-on, it’s clear to see that Forest Hills is one hot ticket.

According to Greenidge, “It’s developed over the years—certainly in the past 10 years. We’re a force on the map as far as great places to live. It’s a progressive area. Prices have certainly risen, but typically, you’re going to get out of it what you put in. This area is consistently increasing in value.”

If the current trends are any indication, Forest Hills will certainly continue to grow and change, but with the regulations the neighborhood operates under (and the care its residents take to preserve their community identity and spirit) it’s safe to assume that Forest Hills will always be the “Queen of Queens”—proving that some things never change.

Mary Fons is a freelance writer and an occasional contributor to The Cooperator.

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