Brooklynites fleeing high rents settle in the beachy Rockaways

For decades, the Rockaways has been hyped to the hilt for its distinct summer scene, which has consistently appealed to throngs of sun-loving day trippers craving a bit of beachside revelry along the area’s 5½-mile boardwalk. Now the southwest Queens ’hood is seeing a surge in folks who call the Rockaways home year-round, thanks in part to a dedicated ferry, a robust surfing scene and a renaissance in food and the arts.

The surf culture was a huge draw for Marc Cefalu, 42, a project manager and fabricator who works in Park Slope. It was Brooklyn’s ever-surging rents, however, that helped sway his decision to leave Bed-Stuy last March after living there for more than 15 years. “Over time, the rents have gone up astronomically,” he says. “I figured I’m already halfway to the Rockaways, why don’t I just move there?”

Mark Cefalu in the Far Rockaways.
Mark CefaluZandy Mangold

These days, Cefalu has his sights firmly set on purchasing his own Rockaway crib, and in the meantime, pays $1,150/month — about what he paid in Bed-Stuy — for a cozy one-bedroom bungalow with a patio and outdoor space in Rockaway Park. While the commute to work is longer, and the winter season can be challenging for beach-town neophytes, Cefalu is satisfied with the change. “I live less than a five-minute walk from the beach,” he adds.

Others have mirrored Cefalu’s lead and traded in city abodes to call Rockaway home full-time.

For accomplished pastry chef Tracy Obolsky, the laid-back, edgy charisma of the Rockaways became the optimal urban outpost for two of her passions: baking and surfing.

Formerly a Fort Greene denizen for nearly two decades, Obolsky, 36, and her husband left the bustling borough in 2014 and relocated to the Rockaway’s Arverne — in the middle of nine neighborhoods that comprise the peninsula.

Easy access to the sandy playgrounds and the bliss of surfing at daybreak ahead of a grueling workday in downtown Manhattan was enough to get Obolsky mulling the transition from Brooklyn to the beach. Yet it was the palpable sense of another Rockaways resurgence not felt since before 2012’s Superstorm Sandy that sparked something more profound: the opportunity to open her own business in the seaside community she’s loved and visited since childhood.

Now, Obolsky rides her bike or skateboards the 25 blocks on the boardwalk to start her day at Rockaway Beach Bakery, the popular coffee and pastry noshery she opened on Rockaway Beach Boulevard. “We just celebrated our 2-year anniversary,” Obolsky beams.

Pastry chef Tracy Obolsky left Fort Greene to live, surf and open her own bakery in the Rockaways.
Pastry chef Tracy Obolsky left Fort Greene to live, surf and open her own bakery in the Rockaways.Zandy Mangold

According to longtime area real estate agent Robin Shapiro, there’s been a steady uptick in investors chomping at the bit to buy at the beach, and she doesn’t expect the demand to stall anytime soon. Though seasonal rentals have consistently been big business, it’s new condos and weekend-home retreats that are being swooped up in record time and often in all-cash deals. “If properties are priced right, they’ll sell in two seconds,” Shapiro says.

Two of Shapiro’s favorite properties currently on the market include a two-bedroom bungalow on Beach 25th Street in Far Rockaway for $259,000, and a four-bedroom house on 129th Street in Belle Harbor for $599,000, which includes a private backyard and two parking spaces.

Beach bunnies at Rockaway.
Beach bunnies at Rockaway.Gabriella Bass

Brokers also credit the scenic NYC Ferry route to Manhattan, with an increased 15 roundtrips to Wall Street’s Pier 11 daily starting May 20, to the ever-escalating interest in the peninsula. “For the same price as the subway, you can get to paradise in less than an hour with a drink in hand or your bike on board,” says Nicholas Compagnone, a Douglas Elliman agent. “The property value in Rockaway has nearly doubled, and it’s only continuing to grow.”

A one-bedroom in a new development that would have asked around $215,000 a few years ago, Compagnone adds, is now going for $350,400.

To meet growing interest, several high-end projects have cropped up, including the 86-unit condo created by The Marcal Group at 147 Beach 116th St. Mere steps from the sand, the complex features a roof deck with ocean views, a fitness center and parking. A three-bedroom apartment is asking $1.07 million, while a one-bedroom is priced at $399,000.

New condos and rentals — like a proposed project at 130 Beach 120th St. — are popping up along the beach.
New condos and rentals — like a proposed project at 130 Beach 120th St. — are popping up along the beach.Douglas Elliman

The 126 luxury rentals at the Tides, a two-year-old apartment building at 190 Beach 69th St. are currently at 99 percent occupied (studios from $2,000, three bedrooms from $3,115). A second apartment building nearby at 6804 Tides Road is currently under construction at The Tides and set to open in the spring of 2020 with 93 units. According to Gerry Romski, senior project executive and general counsel for the complex, there’s already a wait list of more than 300 prospective renters.

And Compagnone is marketing a development site right on the water at 130 Beach 120th St., zoned for 50 condos, for $4.5 million.

The Tides, a 2-year-old rental with units from $2,000/month, has a waiting list.
The Tides, a 2-year-old rental with units from $2,000/month, has a waiting list.Arverne by the Sea, LLC

For Romski, escaping the frenetic pace of the city is a no-brainer. “We have the same ocean as the Hamptons, but a better beach with surfing and a fabulous boardwalk that permits biking,” says Romski, who lives in Westchester but works in the Rockaways daily.

He is quick to add there’s a brand new 45,000-square-foot YMCA nearby, along with new restaurants, cafes, shops and more. For those that might want to test out living in the area before committing to a lease or mortgage, plenty of rooms are available for nightly stays, including at The High Tide, a hip compound of nine rooms on Rockaway Beach Boulevard (from $120/night). The spring of 2020 will bring the grand opening of the Rockaway Hotel, a six-story, 61-room boutique hotel from IGC Hospitality Group just two blocks from the ferry stop.

For those on the fence about a Rockaway relocation, it’s not all surfing and sand: the peninsula is becoming one to watch for fresh art and cultural happenings, too. Take nearby Fort Tilden, which serves as the hub for the Rockaway Theater Company and Rockaway Artists Alliance, the group behind last year’s lauded summer-specific MoMA PS1 installation.

Sam and Elsa Fleischner, with toddler Lucien split their time between Brooklyn and Rockaway.
Sam and Elsa Fleischner, with toddler Lucien split their time between Brooklyn and Rockaway.Zandy Mangold

This June, outdoor film screenings will kick off at Jacob Riis Park as a subtle ramp up to the Rockaway Film Festival in September. The festival was launched last year by Rockaway dwellers including festival founder and part-time resident Sam Fleischner, who, along with his wife Elsa and preschooler Lucien, splits time between an apartment in Brooklyn’s Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and a verdant plot of land in Rockaway Beach where they keep a greenhouse, vegetable gardens and a tiny grove of apple and peach trees, replete with a tree swing and fire pit.

For Fleischner, the opportunity to spotlight classic, lost and obscure films in the Rockaways was too good to pass up. “Our goal is to set up a space where we can show films throughout the year,” he adds.

Newcomers are “buying into what the promise of Rockaway is all about,” says Mark Healey, editor of local paper The Wave. Residents, he adds, display spirited resilience in the face of small challenges like long commutes and the chilly off-season — and bigger ones, too. “When Hurricane Sandy hit, there was so much destruction, and so many people lost their homes and businesses,” Healey says. “ It was really devastating, but the response to it was the kind of seed that created this reality that we’re in now. From darkness came light.”

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