With all the diversions and distractions on parade past our front stoops 24/7, it's easy for Manhattanites to forget that the New York City metro extends beyond the rivers that ring our little island. Vibrant communities large and small spread in every direction, eastward out along Long Island, across the Hudson into New Jersey, and up into the sizeable gap between "The City," and "Upstate." Westchester County occupies part of that gap, and is home to both picturesque towns and villages with names like Sleepy Hollow and Pleasantville as well as cities like White Plains and Yonkers that are every bit as urbanized as Brooklyn or Queens.
Shoehorned in between Putnam and Rockland Counties and sharing a border with southwestern Connecticut, Westchester's 422 square miles are home to nearly one million people - almost half of them in multi-unit residential buildings, many of which are either co-ops or condos - who have come, according to Faye Desanto, manager of the Westchester County branch of Manhattan-based brokerage firm William B. May Company, for "the great schools, the small village life, the beauty of the surroundings," and the "very reasonable" 35- to 40-minute commute into the city.
The land north/northeast of New York City proper has only recently become a haven for commuters and their families, of course. Westchester's Colonial history and early development began within 50 years of Columbus's historic voyage from Spain.
Before the first white explorers, and later settlers, arrived in the Hudson Valley, the area was the domain of a number of Native American groups, including the Delaware, Mohegan, and Wappinger tribes. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Hudson Valley tribes lived in tree-bark wigwams, fished and hunted game in the river and surrounding woodlands, planted and harvested small staple crops and maple syrup, and developed both water drainage systems and erosion-resistant tiered fields.
The first Europeans arrived in what is now Westchester in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in the persons of Italian explorer Giovanni Verrazano (in 1524) and Henry Hudson (in 1609). Lured by reports of fertile soil, temperate climate, and abundant natural resources, other Europeans began to filter into the area to settle.
The first permanent white settlements in the area were Dutch, but by the 1640s, English settlers arrived on the scene and founded towns at Rye, Mamaroneck, Eastchester, and Bedford. It was an act of the New York Assembly in the fall of 1683 that officially established Westchester County.
By the eve of the American Revolution, Westchester was the richest and most densely populated county in New York Colony. The Revolution itself, however, threatened the social and economic fabric of the area, as British and American forces clashed repeatedly throughout the region. Headquartered in New York City, the British army engaged the colonists in major conflagrations at both Pelham and White Plains in the fall of 1776. Throughout the war, farms and manors in Westchester were raided and looted by both British and American soldiers.
When the Revolution ended, Westchester faced major rebuilding of both its economic base and its population, both of which had been devastated by the war. The area did rebound, however, and in 1800 the nation's first commercial toll road - the Westchester Turnpike - was established to get mail carriers and merchants out of the mud and make them more efficient. Better transportation equaled more opportunities for industrial development, and over the next half-century, quarrying and ironworks became new sources of income for Westchester entrepreneurs.
By the latter half of the 19th century, Westchester's population had expanded to nearly 100,000 people, most of which lived in or around Yonkers. Improved rail lines enabled wealthy landowners and merchants to commute back and forth into New York City for business. The Rockefeller family built massive estates in North Tarrytown and Mt. Pleasant to serve as retreats from the crowded city to the southwest.
Westchester's population continued to expand, and by the time World War I concluded in 1920, 350,000 people called the area home. More major traffic arteries opened the county to further economic growth and made it accessible to middle class city workers looking to get out of Manhattan. The post WWII baby boom brought an influx of young working families to Yonkers, White Plains, and the surrounding towns and villages, and ushered in a new era of multi-story and high-rise apartment dwelling. Prices in Westchester were lower than in the city, and sharing more space with fewer people meant that families with children could enjoy cleaner air, less crime, and a more relaxed lifestyle in Westchester than their counterparts in New York City itself.
In the 1950s and 60s, large corporations began to recognize the county's potential as a convenient, attractive, and less-expensive option from which to base their operations. Software companies, pharmaceutical research-and-development conglomerates, and insurance firms put down roots in Westchester, cementing the area's viability as a corporate center, but raising the issues of crowding, pollution, and appropriate land use for the first time.
Like New York City, Westchester played host to a boom in rental-to-co-op- or "“condo conversions in the 1980s, most of the switches occurring in the southern part of the county, in regions abutting The Bronx and along Long Island Sound.
"Anything below Route 287 - which is about a 45-minute commute into the city - is always popular because people want to limit their commute," says DeSanto. "So southern Westchester is always strong because of that, but the further north you go, the more you can get for your money."
According to P. Gilbert Mercurio of the Westchester County Board of Realtors, Inc., "Once the Emergency Tenant Protection Act was passed, Westchester County experienced a very large conversion of rental buildings into co-ops and condos."
According to the Westchester County Department of Planning, a full third of all single-family home sales in Westchester as of 2000 were co-ops and condos, with $72,000 the average price-tag on a co-op apartment, and around $183,000 for a condo. Sixty percent of Westchester's 350,000 housing units are owner-occupied and 40 percent, renter-occupied. There are close to 42,000 co-ops in the county; 25,000 condominiums and about 53,000 rental units spread out among the county's six cities, 14 towns, and 22 villages, according to the planning department's statistics.
Times (and prices) have changed a bit, though, says Desanto, "Nowadays, one-bedroom [co-cops] are selling at the low end at $120,000 up to $135,000 or $140,000, and two-bedrooms are starting at around $150,000 to $200,000, depending on whether they have one or two baths. The smaller condos are starting in the low $200,000s and some are even up to $500,000 now. Then there are the really large units that are comparable to a house - those are starting in the $700,000 range. What you can get for the price here is so much bigger, people come up here and say "˜why not? I'm living in a closet.' That's generally what I hear from people in Manhattan."
Demand for housing has generally been on the steady increase over the last decade, driven in part by continued corporate growth outside of New York City, and by skyrocketing prices in the city itself, but new housing stock in Westchester has been hard to come by. According to Mercurio, "There's practically no [new residential] growth in the county, with maybe the exception of White Plains, which has about 1,000 new rental units in the pipeline."
Desanto adds that, "Anything under $300,000 is still very, very brisk - they're selling quickly and we're getting multiple offers. The $300,000 to $500,000 range has slowed a little since this last September; people are not as quick to jump, and they're bidding a little bit more conservatively. Besides the fact that there are fewer buyers out this time of year, I think they're concerned about the economy, they're concerned about the war, and they're being more conservative."
Even with an up-market slowdown, the overall shortage of brand-new properties in southern Westchester isn't new, says Mercurio. "It's a condition of life in Westchester County. We haven't had more than 5,000 new units a year for the last 15 or so years, largely attributed to the fact that the county is fully developed, the good land has been taken, and there's increasing "˜not-in-my-backyardism' regarding what's left. That makes it very difficult to get anything of significance built here; there's a shortage of housing in all price ranges."
As prices continue to rise and competition becomes stiffer for co-op and condo apartments in New York City, Westchester County has become even more of a refuge for New Yorkers willing to trade a longer commute for more space, lower rents, and more attainable purchase prices. "Open space is a huge draw," says Desanto. "People want some outdoor space, and here, they have outdoor patios or decks. Many of the complexes themselves have beautiful property, and river views. In many cases you can walk right into [your] village, and that kind of neighborhood shop is still there - the kind of thing you get in Manhattan. Outside space is probably the second reason we hear of people moving up here, the first being the schools."
The more humane pacing and pricing is unlikely to endure, however; according to Mercurio, home-hunting upstate is starting to feel a little Manhattanish. "It's certainly taking longer for closings nowadays because there's less choice," he says. "The demand comes from many different sources. One is just natural population growth in the entire region, which has been satisfied by eating into the inventory, which is why there's a shortage. Demand is also propped up by low mortgage interest rates, and it's also propped up by what is generally a pretty good economy in Westchester, notwithstanding what's going on nationally. Our unemployment is low, there's some job growth, and New York City continues to generate buyers who want to buy into the suburbs, so all those things come together against a limited housing inventory."
Says Desanto, for her part, "It's pretty brisk, but we've got a decent amount of properties on the market right now. The biggest problem is for people with pets. Most places will not take pets - most co-ops, anyway - so those people can wait a while. They can be looking for a year before they find something they really like that will also take the pet."
As for the long-term outlook for Westchester, Mercurio feels that demand will stay high, while the available stock may linger right where it is. "Developers are catering to what they hope will be commuters who will be renting. This is a brand-new thing in the county, let alone in White Plains. Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen, but we know from the comments of developers that they're looking to find many of those renters in the form of commuters with jobs in the city but who would prefer to rent up here."
The moral of this story may be to get while the getting's good, if you've been mulling a move upstate for a while. If history - both long past and recent - is any indication, Westchester County is an area likely only to become more desirable as more and more city-dwellers discover its convenience, affordability, and quality of life.
According to Desanto, "The people who come up from Manhattan"¦are afraid that they're going to give up the nice things about Manhattan; the services, the shops, the culture. And we have all of that - we have wonderful restaurants. We have museums and theater, and sporting events. Once they come up and start to understand the wealth in Westchester, they're not really giving anything up. It really is interesting to watch the fear that people have of what they're leaving dissipate as they look at a few things and get to understand the kind of life there is up here."