It’s a Thursday evening at Tino’s Delicatessen on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx borough of New York City, almost closing time. As the workers behind the counter wrap up trays of baked ziti, a group of older men in blazers sip wine and laugh among themselves, and at another table two students from nearby Fordham University chat over sandwiches. Walking into the store, with its photograph-covered walls, kitschy décor, and the smell of toasting paninis wafting from the kitchen, reminds me of visiting my grandmother’s house—never mind that my grandmother wasn’t Italian.
I order the Gianluca—two chicken cutlets topped with garlic sauce, smoked gouda, and roasted peppers between slices of crisp ciabatta—and take a seat. I watch as the man behind the counter fills my order. Here, food is not simply made, but crafted: The meat and cheese are sliced fresh, and no panini gets handed over without spending at least five minutes toasting in the press. I take my sandwich, now swaddled in aluminum foil and radiating warmth, pay at the register, and walk out into the night. Further down Arthur, similar scenes are being enacted in the other family-run businesses that line the street and make up the neighborhood of Belmont, the Little Italy of the Bronx.
Just across the street from Tino’s, however, the green scaffolding crouching over the sidewalk announces the presence of something very new in a neighborhood that prides itself on tradition: a development company called AB Capstone is constructing a six-story student housing complex. The building has been christened Artù Viale (Italian for “Arthur Avenue”), and with over 31,000 square feet of residential space divided up into 45 apartments, it will tower over the shops and cafes on the block when it opens in the fall of 2016.
If its physical presence is imposing, the trend it represents is perhaps more so: Students are moving into Belmont, and in order to accommodate them, landlords and developers are reshaping the neighborhood’s housing stock and gentrifying the area in the process. I have experienced this movement firsthand—I lived in Belmont for two years before graduating from Fordham last May. Many forces have contributed to the changes in the neighborhood: Fordham’s growth over the past few years, the rise of student housing as a lucrative investment, the elitism of academia, and the high price of real estate elsewhere in the city. If these forces prevail, Belmont 15 years from now will be a very different place—one more example of how private development fueled by student spending is changing university neighborhoods across the country.
You might pass it on the Bx12 bus while heading up Fordham Road to do some shopping at the Gap Factory Store or Payless, or maybe you’re driving yourself, and you don’t notice the sign announcing Arthur Avenue Next. Even if you did, all you would see on the corner is a 7-Eleven and maybe a group of school kids milling around under the gas pump canopy. If you did get off the bus or take a right on Arthur Avenue, you wouldn’t be immediately surprised by what you find there: rows of brick apartment buildings, a few divey bars, a laundromat. But if you keep going, you arrive at the corner of 187th Street and Arthur, the home of Palombo Pastry Shop and Casa Della Mozzarella, Tino’s Deli and Ann & Tony’s restaurant. There are quite a few people on the street, many of them pushing wire carts filled with grocery bags, some of them sipping coffee at tables on the sidewalk. And isn’t this a little odd, because here you are deep in the Bronx, the borough that even today calls to mind images of broken neighborhoods and urban decay, yet you’re standing outside a specialty cheese shop across the street from a busy sidewalk cafe.
Palombo. DeLillo. Cosenza. Teitel Brothers, Madonia Brothers. Addeo & Sons. The stores that bear these names are just a few of the businesses that form the backbone of the neighborhood. The people who visit these stores in Belmont’s Little Italy, unlike those who patronize its Manhattan counterpart, are regulars, not tourists. “We have people who live in the neighborhood who come in and buy their bread every day,” says Larry Addeo, co-owner of Addeo & Sons bakery.
When people line up on a Saturday morning outside Vincent’s Meat Market, for example, they are looking not for souvenirs, but their Sunday roasts, the sausage for their meat sauce, the food that will feed their families for the coming week. “That’s an old school way of shopping,” says Addeo. The stores are small and unassuming, many of them crammed to the walls with shelves. They weren’t built to catch the eye of visitors from Iowa, but they are in many ways as worthy of a cross-country flight as the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. Belmont’s stores have been serving the Italian community for decades—some for a century or more. And despite their venerable age, these businesses are thriving. Stroll down the street even on a weekday afternoon, and you’ll find throngs of people crowding around countertops and display cases to purchase fresh meat, bread, and produce. Some former residents make the trek from as far away as Connecticut just to do their grocery shopping.
“People still come from all over to go shopping on Arthur Avenue,” says Joseph Migliucci, the owner of Mario’s restaurant on Arthur. “They can’t get the specialties that you get here. You can buy them in the supermarket, but it’s different.”
In a city that grows and changes constantly, Belmont is something of a holdout: It has retained an authentic old-world culture revolving around traditional food and the small businesses that produce it. Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx Borough Historian, notes that Italians began to move to Belmont in large numbers in the 1890s, drawn by jobs constructing the nearby Bronx Zoo and easy access to Manhattan on the old Third Avenue elevated train. That initial wave of immigrants gave rise to many of the businesses that line its quiet, leafy streets today.
In a city that grows and changes constantly, Belmont is something of a holdout: It has retained an authentic old-world culture.
Since the 1980s, Albanian, Mexican, and Dominican immigrants have flocked to the area, altering its ethnic makeup. At Beato, a bodega on the corner of Hughes Avenue and 189th, just a block from Arthur, the TV is always tuned to a Spanish-language soap opera, and if I want to buy a pair of scissors off the back wall, I ask for tijeras. In the warmer months, the bright jangle of bachata music streams out open car windows on the street below my apartment. When I walk by Malesia Cafe on Arthur and 188th on a sunny day, I almost always come across a group of old men with buzz cuts sitting outside, smoking cigarettes, speaking Albanian in low voices or silently observing the passersby. Nonetheless, Belmont has kept its distinct Italian character. “The area still remains heavily Italian,” says Ultan, “and that of course means that the businesses who cater to Italians are still there.”
One of my favorite Belmont shops, DeLillo Pasticceria on 187th and Arthur, has been churning out top-notch cannoli since brothers Rocco and Joe DeLillo founded it in 1925. Surrounded by its gracious wood-paneled doors and gold-finished display cases filled with sweets, I feel like I’m lounging in a palace treasure room whenever I sit down to eat there.
I stop by on a weekday evening to talk with owner Anthony Florio, who grew up in Belmont and whose family purchased the store from the DeLillos in the ’80s. For him, the Italian shops and restaurants are about much more than the food. He says those businesses are “the only thing that’s kept this neighborhood alive over the years.” Addeo agrees, pointing out that businesses like his employ local residents and bring new people into the area. ”I think so long as the businesses thrive, then the community continues to thrive,” he says, and adds that connections between the local businesses are vital as well. “We all are dependent on one another.” They’re both right—through shifting demographic changes and economic ups and downs, shops and restaurants like DeLillo and Addeo & Sons have been a constant presence.
If you stand outside the Artù Viale construction site and look north, you can see the crenellated stone of Keating Hall, one of the main buildings on Fordham’s campus. Artù Viale is typical of the kinds of luxury real estate developments now popping up around urban universities across the country, but the trend goes far beyond private real estate development. Rather, these new student housing complexes have roots in broader changes occurring in colleges and universities across America. To put it simply, institutions of higher education have become enclaves for the economically privileged, and luxury accommodations are just one of the ways schools have shaped themselves to cater to their students’ increasingly upper-crust tastes.
In his 2013 book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco assesses college admissions practices and finds that they “are heavily weighted in favor of students from families with means.” The numbers support the claim. Delbanco points to one study from the 2005 book Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education that analyzed admissions data at 11 schools from 1970-1990. Researchers found that in those years the percentage of students in the bottom income quartile remained steady at about 10 percent, while the percentage of students from the top quartile rose from “one third to fully half.”
The situation has not improved in recent years. According to the 2004 Paying For College report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students from the lowest income quartile attending private four-year institutions—schools like Fordham, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania—dropped five percent from 1990-2000. A revised joint study by the Pell Institute and Penn published this year found that students from the highest income quartile “represent a considerably higher share” of students attending top-tier public and private universities. William Deresiewicz, writing in The American Scholar in 2008, summarizes the situation: “Elite colleges are walled domains guarded by locked gates, with admission granted only to the elect.”
While prospective students compete with each other to get into top schools, the schools are also in competition over students. In their race to attract the best and brightest and gain access to their parents’ checkbooks, Delbanco writes that “top colleges vie for students by offering amenities superior to those of the competition.” College brochures boast of fitness centers, gourmet dining options, and, of course, spacious and attractive dorms. Harvard, for example, plans to spend over $1 billion renovating its upperclass dorms as part of its House Renewal program, which began in 2012. Elite students demand elite living spaces, and schools have been ramping up their efforts to keep them satisfied.
Now, private developers have begun to tap into the demand as well, and Artù Viale is a prime example. It has already received an enthusiastic response from Fordham students. Deanna Toffales, a junior at Fordham, is among those considering living in the new building. “I would definitely be interested in that housing,” she says, citing its convenience as a big selling point. “The location is great, [and] from the apartments that I have seen on Arthur already, it seems like a good strip.”
Joseph Zanzuri is overseeing Artù Viale for AB Capstone. The project is the company’s first foray into student housing, but Zanzuri emphasizes that this is no ordinary dormitory. Artù Viale is being styled as “luxury student housing,” he says, and AB Capstone is funneling over $30 million into the project to make sure it lives up to its description. The building is going up in a neighborhood dominated by century-old apartment buildings and simple townhouses, and it will offer amenities unheard of in Belmont, including a gym, rec room, 4,000 square foot outdoor terrace, and even “specialized vending machines” stocked daily with fresh food. Citing parental concerns about safety in the neighborhood, Zanzuri points out that the building will be equipped with a $400,000 security system, which is well beyond the standard $20,000-$50,000 systems used in most other residential buildings.
“We’re building a space where you don’t have to leave where you are,” says Zanzuri. “You could stay here all day and enjoy your time.”
Artù Viale highlights the wave of a new kind of immigrant in Belmont: students. Although it has no official association with Fordham University, located just four blocks to the north, the project clearly targets Fordham students. The university is growing fast, which has prompted the administration to build or renovate three dormitories on its campus over the past five years, and a larger student body has a spillover effect in Belmont as well. Of the 6,918 undergrads and graduate students who take classes at the Bronx campus, called Rose Hill, about half live on campus. The rest either commute from home or rent apartments and houses outside the school’s gates. Artù Viale covets that population. “There’s enough students off campus,” says Zanzuri, “so that’s why we’re offering.”
Campus Crest developments, especially those located in the warmer climates of the South and West, look more like five-star resorts than anything close to student housing.
The Fordham administration offices are located in Cunniffe House, a stately building with wood-paneled hallways lined with paintings of former presidents of the university. Joseph Muriana and Thomas Dunne, the Associate Vice President and Vice President of Government Relations & Urban Affairs, respectively, work in this building, where they keep in touch with everyone from local Belmont store owners to members of Congress in Washington, DC. Their work helps maintain Fordham’s ties with the world outside its gates, but in Belmont, those ties run particularly deep. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the local housing market.
Property owners in the area rely heavily on student tenants to keep their buildings full and the rent checks coming in. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Muriana, noting that off-campus apartments provide “an alternative” to Fordham’s dormitories—an alternative that many students prefer to university housing. Local property owners are acutely aware of that preference. Dunne notes that when Fordham built two large new dorms in 2010, nearby landlords expressed concerns that the buildings would put a dent in demand for off campus housing. Dunne reassured them that Fordham simply “could not accommodate everybody here on the campus.” Belmont has long taken up the slack.
The housing imbalance caught the attention of AB Capstone when it first began assessing the neighborhood for development three years ago, and Zanzuri points to it as one of the major reasons the company decided to go forward with Artù Viale. After studying Belmont’s housing stock and assessing student housing demand, the company’s researchers concluded that a new luxury development would be feasible. “We realized that Fordham University needs it,” Zanzuri says. “We found that we could be an outlet for that niche.”
Niche is an apt way to describe AB Capstone’s latest venture. Although still a small segment of the overall market, student housing has become an increasingly popular real estate enterprise in recent years, and other companies have already seen great success with similar projects. American Campus Communities, the largest student housing conglomerate, has developed $4.2 billion worth of properties since 1996. Campus Crest is another major player. Founded in 2004 and based in Charlotte, N.C., it began by building a student housing complex near the campus of the University of North Carolina–Asheville. Just 10 years later, it had expanded to include 81 properties spread across 27 states, providing housing to well over 41,000 students and counting.
Campus Crest developments, especially those located in the warmer climates of the South and West, look more like five-star resorts than anything close to student housing. Outdoor pools, clubhouses, spacious gyms, and rec rooms are the norm, and some units even come with balconies and outdoor decks for grilling and partying. Campus Crest attributes its rapid growth to its unique business model. “We didn’t just build apartments,” its website boasts, “we built an entire college lifestyle.” To that end, the company organizes regular social events, roommate mixers, and even service projects for its residents, which are the kinds of community-building activities normally hosted by the Resident Assistant in a dorm or the university itself.
Campus Crest began on suburban campuses, but the company has recently expanded into urban student housing as well. Cira Centre South is the name of its new development in Philadelphia’s University City neighborhood, home to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Cira Centre South is an indication of what student housing has become, and what it will look like in the future. The building houses 850 people in a 33 story steel and glass tower—so tall that on a recent flight into Newark Airport, I could pick it out while soaring above the Schuylkill River. It offers completely furnished apartments, from studios up to four bedrooms, marketed to students and young professionals.
The units are sleek and modern, with floor to ceiling windows, built-in desks, and plenty of room, but the community spaces are even more impressive. Residents of Cira Centre South enjoy a heated rooftop infinity pool, a 24-hour gym spread across two floors, and a gourmet coffee bar, among other glittering amenities. On top of that, the whole building is pet-friendly, and includes a one-acre outdoor play area so Spot can get his exercise, too. Artù Viale seems like a footnote compared to a development of that scale, but it’s taking advantage of the same trend. Students are no longer satisfied with Spartan accommodations, and their parents are willing to pay to get them into something better.
The changes in the type of student on America’s college campuses have a lot to do with how expensive it has become to attend college in this country. Education has been touted as a stepping stone to success and prosperity since the days of the American Revolution, but in the past few decades, attaining a college degree has become prohibitively expensive for the people who stand to benefit from it the most: the working poor.
The statistics on the rising cost of college are sobering. Even after adjusting for inflation, the 2015 Pell Institute–Penn report charts a 128 percent rise in the average cost of college since 1970. On top of that, Pell grants, one of the main financial aid resources low income students rely on to subsidize their education, have not kept up with this rising cost. The report notes that Pell grants now cover only about 27 percent of the average cost of college, compared with 67 percent in 1970. As a result, lower income students are increasingly turning away from private four-year colleges and universities in favor of cheaper community colleges and for-profit institutions. The report concludes that these trends are creating “increasing stratification” in postsecondary education. Rather than being a great social equalizer, an education at a top college in America has moved out of reach for a large portion of the population.
At Fordham the issue is even more acute. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that during the 1999-2000 academic year, Fordham’s cost of attendance (tuition, fees, and room and board) stood at $29,897. The university’s admissions department places the current cost of attendance for a freshman at $63,667, which means that after adjusting for inflation the cost of attending Fordham has ballooned by over 48 percent in the last 15 years. The school prides itself on granting generous scholarships, but with rising costs outpacing federal financial aid, these kinds of offers are no longer the same hand up they once were. In addition, the hefty price tag seems at odds with the school’s mission statement, which touts “the alleviation of poverty” and “the promotion of justice” as goals of a Fordham education. But the hike in tuition falls right in line with the trend occurring at colleges all across the country.
Gaby Gutierrez is one of many Fordham students who have moved into Belmont. Until graduating this past May, she lived at 2454 Arthur, a small brick apartment building just a block away from Artù Viale. She chose to move after her junior year. ”No matter how you spun it, it was just a better deal to live off campus,” she says, “financially and just sanity-wise.”
Many other students share her sour view of Fordham housing, but for a variety of reasons. Some are fed up with Fordham’s housing policies, which prohibit cohabitation and underage drinking. For others, such as sophomore Erin Shanahan, cost is the main incentive to move off campus, and an apartment in Belmont could save her quite a bit of money. “Cost is definitely the number one issue,” she says, noting that university housing and a meal plan set her back over $16,000 a year. “Cutting that out of my expenses or at least minimizing it would definitely be a welcome change.”
High cost and restrictive policies are only part of the picture, however. Living off campus comes with other, more intangible benefits, one of which is a greater sense of independence. Sophomore Kate Lowe points out that leaving the dorms and “living on your own” in itself is a big draw. For junior Rob Palazzolo, even the more tedious side of apartment living, such as paying utility bills and dealing with landlords, is worthwhile because it will prepare him for life after graduation. “The day to day grind that kind of constitutes a real existence” is important to learn, he says.
There are still plenty of students who choose to live in Fordham housing. For those who stay on campus, the convenience of being close to classrooms and other students is key. Even so, these benefits can diminish over time. The migration off campus has ripple effects: When all of your friends live in apartments, you don’t want to be the one left behind. Junior Deanna Toffales faces just such a situation. In theory, moving into the upperclass dorms would be “a social move to be with the rest of your class,” she explains, but with so many heading out to Belmont, “there’s just no reason” to stay in Fordham housing. “The majority of my friends that are in my grade now are all going off campus,” she says.
A typical Friday night in Belmont. In a townhouse on Hoffman Street, someone is throwing a party, and the steady thump of dance music pulses through walls and windows and spills onto the street. In a third floor living room on Hughes Avenue, four students pass around a bong and paw through a bowl of Tostitos while watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. At the corner of Arthur and 189th, the balding, 300-pound local celebrity “Suits” collects five-dollar bills from people walking into the sweaty confines of Mugz’s, the popular student bar he runs. At the laundromat, a mother keeps an eye on her three children as the dryer spins through the last minute of its cycle. Further down Arthur, Tino’s, Vincent’s, and the other Italian food stores have long since closed, their lights off, the soppressata hanging still above the counters. Students have a complex relationship with Belmont, one that is deepening with their growing numbers in the neighborhood. On the one hand, they bring new business to the neighborhood’s stores, but on the other, their increased spending power has set off changes in the area.
Gutierrez’s experiences since moving into her apartment highlight the changes. Her apartment offers more space and comfort than her previous Fordham dorm, and she has been a loyal customer at Belmont’s stores and restaurants. “I can go like three times a day” to the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, she says, where vendors sell everything from fresh produce to hand-rolled cigars. Over a glass of red wine at her kitchen table, she emphasizes her appreciation of the neighborhood—things like trips to La Cantina for wine tastings on the weekend, or shopping for fresh vegetables on Arthur Avenue. She’s built relationships with various store owners. “They’ll recognize me when I come in,” she says.
Gutierrez is the kind of student Belmont shop owners love, and many view Artù Viale as an opportunity to bring more like her through their doors. Gerardo Petti works at Full Moon Pizza, one of many popular pizza joints in the area. He’s the son of Stan Petti, the pizzeria’s owner, and grew up in Belmont. As we sit beside a long counter filled with specialty pies, he tells me he’s looking forward to having more Fordham students living just steps away from his shop. “Why not put student housing there? More customers for us, more customers for everybody,” he says.
DeLillo’s Anthony Florio says that students represent more than just new business. By moving into the area, they make Belmont a better, safer place. “Of course they support the local businesses, which is great,” he says. Speaking of Artù Viale he adds, “If more ambitious kids come here … and they start to dorm here, they live here, they help the neighborhood out.”
Phil Marino, the executive director of the Belmont Business Improvement District, also hopes that the new project will be a windfall for local businesses. I meet him at the BID headquarters, which occupy a second floor office next door to Full Moon. Considering the vibrant neighborhood it represents, the interior is surprisingly spare: two peeling laminate desks, a poster on the wall, a filing cabinet tucked in the corner. Marino, however, has enough presence to make up for the lack of decoration. A burly man with a wry sense of humor and a heavy Queens accent, he served twice as the Bronx Borough Commissioner and was hired as the BID’s director after retiring from the Department of Sanitation. He sees Belmont at a high point in its long history—and he intends to keep business booming.
The reason behind the population shift is clear. Students, backed by their parents, have much more spending power than the average Belmont resident.
“I think this neighborhood’s a lot cleaner and safer now than it’s been back years ago,” he says. “I think it’s healthy.” The signs of the neighborhood’s economic health lie right outside the office’s front window. The numerous family-owned businesses, many of them a century old or more, have maintained a strong customer base and made Belmont a cultural and culinary destination for many. According to a count by the New York City Police Department, the neighborhood’s annual Ferragosto street fair drew an estimated 28,000 people last year, “and I didn’t even advertise that much for that,” says Marino. On the surface, then, the area appears to be thriving.
Like many other local business owners, Marino views students as a largely positive presence in the neighborhood. He notes that during the academic year, they create a noticeable increase in foot traffic on Belmont’s streets. They also bring their parents to shop and eat, and many come back for years after they graduate, drawn back for “a cappuccino and a piece of pastry.”
However, there is a flipside to the student presence in Belmont, especially from a development standpoint. The core businesses in the neighborhood remain family-owned and operated, but many of their longtime customers have moved away. According to data from the BID, 85 percent of the clientele travel more than five miles to get to Belmont. Connections between families and friends in the community, including among those who have moved out, have allowed Belmont to hang on to its authentic Italian flavor: people who grew up shopping in these stores and got to know their owners continue to shop there today.
Yet in recent years the situation has become more precarious. Although non-student residents still make up the majority of the neighborhood’s population, recent investments in the area have targeted mainly students. AB Capstone is spending tens of millions of dollars to build Artù Viale, but the project offers few benefits for the families and elderly people who live in Belmont. The company is not the first to cater exclusively to students in the area, either. Responding to Fordham’s growth, local landlords and management companies have successfully marketed their buildings to students for over a decade. Marino knows from experience that old-world enclaves like Belmont are vulnerable and increasingly rare in New York.
“We don’t want it to die,” he says. “My old neighborhood where I grew up, it was a neighborhood like this. You go back there now, it’s totally different.”
The reason behind the population shift is clear. Students, backed by their parents, have much more spending power than the average Belmont resident. Data from the US Census Bureau places the median family income for Bronx Community Districts 3 and 6—which include Belmont—at $24,259. According to data from the university’s Office of Financial Aid, the median family income for Fordham’s class of 2018 is nearly $150,000 per year—over six times the median income in Belmont, and nearly three times the 2013 nationwide median income of $52,250. In addition, over 41 percent of the residents in the two community districts fall below the poverty line. All this makes students a very lucrative demographic, and landlords have taken notice.
Until selling it to another company last year, KPP Management owned the building I used to live in at 2475 Hughes Avenue, two blocks away from Artù Viale. In the spring of 2013, they renovated a few units in the building, which had previously housed non-student residents. When my roommates and I moved off campus and into one of the remodeled units the following summer, the rental paperwork showed that KPP was charging us triple the previous rent. Since then, students have moved into several other apartments throughout the building, and it appears that more are on the way. Edward Riva, a managing partner at KPP, explains that by renovating old apartments and offering prospective tenants everything from free TVs to fully-furnished units, the company seeks a foothold in the student housing market.
“Our goal is to fill these buildings with students,” he says.
For landlords, the appeal of students boils down to money. Parents act as financial guarantors on student leases, meaning the rent gets paid on time. “We’ve never really had a default on a student tenant,” says Riva. Because they can rely on their parents and they usually split the rent between two or more people, students are also more willing to pay higher rents on refurbished apartments. “Obviously to renovate a unit costs money, so we’re charging a little bit more money,” Riva says. “We’re not getting pushback because you break it up between a few students.”
Rafael Labour is a real estate agent at LandSeAir, a real estate firm in Belmont. He’s seen plenty of landlords compete for students since he started working there. From the landlords’ perspective, students offer financial stability that Belmont’s lower-income residents simply can’t match.
“It’s a lot more lucrative than, say a family who is struggling to make it … and then they have three four five six mouths to feed,” he says.
Labour says Artù Viale will have wide-ranging effects in Belmont. He’s already seen students moving farther and farther into the neighborhood, and in his opinion, a new, student-only building will heat up the competition among landlords and management companies.
“It’s going to bring up the caliber of units that you see in this neighborhood,” he says.
Student demand for housing is a big draw for developers, but Belmont’s low property values also catalyze new investment. For Zanzuri, the Bronx as a whole represents the last expanse of “untouched territory” in the city—meaning it’s the last place where cheap land is available. Real estate website Trulia places the price per square foot of property in Belmont at $123. The average price per square foot in Morningside Heights, the neighborhood around Columbia University in Manhattan, is $974. The city-wide average is $1,409. For developers looking to buy up land and build, neighborhoods like Belmont are a gold mine.
“We are at a point where properties are too high to develop, and if you find something today, you’re lucky,” says Zanzuri. “Go to places like Brooklyn, go to places like Queens, let’s not even talk about Manhattan, your buildable price shoots up to $350 to $800 [per square foot]. It’s impossible to deal with this. Development is going to continue for one main reason: because people have no other place affordably to buy something.”
The changes go beyond just housing. In addition to the new apartments, the project will create 7,500 square feet of new retail space. Considering the development’s emphasis on luxe student living, it doesn’t seem like the kind of place that will house another Italian fish market or cheese shop. Stores like Starbucks and Chipotle, which have already opened locations not far from Belmont, seem more likely, and Zanzuri reports that AB Capstone has already seen interest from a national chain restaurant.
He stresses that the company will keep the unique character of the neighborhood in mind when choosing the businesses that will open on the first floor, but chains, like the students they serve, are a hard financial opportunity to pass up. “We’re hoping it will be national tenants,” he says.
As a part of his role in preserving and promoting the family-run businesses in Belmont, Marino is keeping a close watch on how Artù Viale will change the local business climate. He first heard from AB Capstone about a month after demolition started, and although he views the project as “without a doubt” a positive thing for the neighborhood, he’s expressed concern over the kind of commercial tenants the project will attract, especially after speaking with Zanzuri.
“He talked about a McDonald’s,” Marino recalls. “You know, ‘oh, I’ll get a lot of students with a McDonald’s.’ You know, they can go up the block and get McDonald’s … that’s not for here.”
For Roger Panetta, a professor of Urban Studies at Fordham, Artù Viale marks a clear turning point in the character of the neighborhood. He argues that the development is closely linked with Fordham’s need to grow—a need that all universities in the city, most notably NYU and Columbia, have also grappled with. “If they don’t grow, they’ll die. That’s their logic,” he says. “I think it creates a tremendous compulsion to expand and to move out.”
In Panetta’s view, that need to grow turns urban universities into catalysts for gentrification in their surrounding communities, and Belmont is no exception. In his view, Artù Viale is symptomatic of the demographic shifts seen in gentrifying neighborhoods. “I don’t believe that’s going to be the only resident housing project. I think people are probably testing it,” he says. “They’re dipping their toe in the gentrification water.”
The effects of universities on urban neighborhoods look just like gentrification. Geographers and sociologists have been studying gentrification since at least the 1960s, when the term was first coined. British geographer Chris Hamnett, in his 1991 article “The Blind Men and the Elephant: The Explanation of Gentrification,” highlights the two symptoms of a gentrifying neighborhood: a change in the people who live there, and a change in the type of housing available.
Broadly speaking, gentrification occurs when a new, wealthier group of residents moves into a lower-income community. As the wealthier people move in, landlords upgrade and renovate their buildings in order to attract these new residents and their greater spending power. The cost of living in the area rises, and low-income residents are priced out.
Belmont differs from this classic gentrification scenario because students, the main group responsible for changes in the neighborhood’s housing stock, are not permanent residents. Most move into Belmont for only a year or two and then leave when they graduate. Yet student transience does not blunt the effects of gentrification. Although individual students may come and go frequently, the continued presence of the university ensures a steady supply of them from year to year.
Urban universities wield a great deal of influence on the neighborhoods that surround them, and their purchasing and building power has received quite a bit of attention in recent years. Just a few miles from Belmont lies Columbia’s new Manhattanville campus, which is currently under construction in West Harlem. After winning a lawsuit in 2010, the university employed eminent domain to oust the last remaining business owners on the property where it intended to build.
The local community and a vocal group of Columbia students were outraged: The Columbia Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification maintains that the new campus will lead to “3,293 people gentrified out of Harlem” in addition to the “291 residents directly evicted.” Despite the protests, however, the expansion has moved forward. In a few years, an area that once was home to large storage warehouses and a few apartments will be transformed into an entirely new campus for one of the country’s premier educational institutions.
Columbia’s expansion represents an obvious change in the physical landscape and demographics of a neighborhood, but the effects of a university’s presence are not always so clear-cut. Even when a university is not buying up real estate, its presence alone has subtle yet powerful effects. Near Drexel University in Philadelphia, student movement off campus has led real-estate speculators to buy up the surrounding neighborhood’s Victorian homes and convert them into apartments. John Marchese, writing in Politico in 2014, concludes that the neighborhood “has become a ghetto of sorts, too: a student one.”
The growing student market there has also sparked speculation in the adjacent, and much poorer, neighborhood of Mantua. Marchese quotes the owner of a local construction company, who says that investors “spend $80 or $90 thousand for a shell in Mantua” to convert the gutted building “into student housing.” Drexel President John Fry lamented to the Hidden City Philadelphia blog that “I have thousands of [students] living in neighborhoods and I would rather have more of them living on my campus.” Once landlords and developers discover the student market, they begin to tailor the housing stock of the neighborhood toward students, and effectively exclude families and other non-student residents. “I know what transient housing does to these neighborhoods,” Fry says. “By nature it just destroys the fabric of neighborhoods.”
The effects of universities on urban neighborhoods look just like gentrification.
If the history and expansion of other universities are any indication, the mom-and-pop stores that have defined Belmont for the past century face a dark future: the gentrification of their neighborhood. Drexel’s situation closely replicates Fordham’s—a private university located in a working class neighborhood with a sizable number of students living off campus. Like Belmont, Drexel’s neighborhood changed as local property owners and developers revamped their properties for students. Columbia’s historic relationship with Morningside Heights, the neighborhood around its main campus, provides another vision of what could possibly come to pass in Belmont.
Panetta was an undergraduate student at Columbia in the early 1960s and returned as a graduate student in the late ‘60s, just as Morningside Heights was beginning to gentrify. He recalls the neighborhood as diverse, with a mixed population of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos—“much more diverse than it is now,” he says. “Most of the businesses were sort of lower middle class, there were no high-end restaurants; the restaurants all tended to be very ethnic.” Like any cash-strapped college student, Panetta was often on the hunt for low-cost dining options, and his search brought him to many of the local minority-owned restaurants.
He describes the eateries as “first-class dives.” He recalls one where “you would go in and you would order by number and you ate standing… he’d say ‘G14’ and the guy would hand you a plate with an omelette or something. But it was cheap, and so students on tight budgets, and most of us city people, we were very comfortable navigating that neighborhood.”
Like Belmont, Morningside Heights was a thriving ethnic enclave, although many cultures were represented there. Along Amsterdam Avenue, Puerto Rican diners shared a block with Japanese eateries. A Hungarian restaurant stood across from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the pastry shop is still in business today. “Every one of those restaurants had a little story,” says Panetta. “It was very fascinating, and people thought of it almost as slightly exotic.”
But by the late 1960s, the cultural stew of Morningside Heights was already becoming diluted. Panetta points out that when Columbia began to take over buildings to the south of its main campus, the rise in the number of students led to major changes in the surrounding area. “Slowly the stores got more upscale,” he says. “And then the eateries began to change, and frequently they moved into more generic kinds of things that undergraduates want to eat,” such as chain restaurants.
The Columbia Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification points to the gentrification of Morningside Heights in its criticism of the new Manhattanville campus. They say the university has been “largely responsible for the transformation of Morningside Heights from a racially and economically diverse neighborhood to an affluent white one.” According to the SCEG assessment, Columbia has taken over “more than 6,000 units of privately held housing” since 1968 and converted them to office space and student and faculty housing. The SCEG report concludes that many residents felt they were “being squeezed out of their own communities.”
The result has been a neighborhood with far less diversity and a much greater student and faculty presence. Stroll down Broadway in the 110s today, and you’ll find only scattered traces of the neighborhood’s ethnic heritage. Apart from the Hungarian Pastry Shop and a few other businesses, the area doesn’t look all that much different from the bland offices and storefronts of Midtown.
Panetta sees the beginnings of similar changes in Belmont. Artù Viale signals that developers have noticed Fordham’s growth and student migration off campus, and with landlords already cashing in on the trend, there’s little reason to expect things to slow down. The signs of change are already popping up everywhere.
For two years I lived in an apartment that was once occupied by the Gonzalez family, whose mail still arrived in my mailbox long after they left. I admit that I was overjoyed when a new Starbucks opened at Fordham Plaza, a few blocks from Arthur Avenue, and I’ve been a frequent customer there. Since then, a Chipotle has opened in the same building.
It’s hardly a stretch to imagine a scenario where developers market more and more buildings to students, rents go up, families move out, and with fewer core customers nearby, Full Moon Pizza becomes a Domino’s and DeLillo turns into a Dairy Queen. Then suddenly Arthur Avenue is no longer New York’s authentic Little Italy, the city’s last outpost of old world culture. It may become just another street in a city where nothing, no matter how many people love it, lasts forever.