“Stores, particularly mom-and-pop shops that I relied on for years, are now replaced by banks and drugstores and Starbucks,” said Candi Obrentz, a product designer and consultant who has lived in Turtle Bay since 1995 and runs her businesses from her one-bedroom apartment on East 49th Street, for which she pays $3,200 a month.
“It used to be that anything west of Third Avenue became the business side of Midtown,” Ms. Obrentz said. “Now, with so many bars and restaurants popping up, the rest is changing. People from out of the neighborhood take limos to have brunch on Second Avenue.”
But Turtle Bay still offers Midtown convenience at a relatively affordable price (heavy stress on the adverb). And while cold towers and cavernous chain stores numb other parts of the city, Turtle Bay continues to have a strong character, thanks to an active neighborhood association and its most prominent landmark, the United Nations.
The modernist riverfront complex, with its newly renovated buildings, sets the tone for the neighborhood, which is international even by Manhattan standards. In Turtle Bay, you can study Spanish at Instituto Cervantes, admire Asian art at the Japan Society and enjoy pickled herring in the cafe of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church. Foreign consular buildings with their mix of architectural styles help keep the streetscape human-scaled and visually perky.
Even the selection at the Ideal Cheese Shop on First Avenue and 52nd Street is a nod to neighborhood diversity. Michael Binetti, an owner of the 63-year-old specialty store, said he mainly sticks to European cheeses to suit the tastes of his many customers who work at the U.N. “It’s a good niche for us,” he said.
Mr. Binetti said he is benefiting from an influx of cheese-loving millennials to the neighborhood — the sunny side of development. As for the dark side, he said he does enough wholesale trade to ensure that his shop would stay afloat if the rent became unaffordable when his lease comes up for renewal in four years.
Keeping Turtle Bay small-scale and personable has been the mission of the Turtle Bay Association for 60 years. The organization was founded in 1957 to quash attempts to widen East 49th Street, and it has collaborated with other community groups to rezone side streets for low-rise housing and improve neighborhood parks. Lately it has succeeded in modifying the rezoning plan that will bring taller commercial towers to 78 blocks of Midtown East, including a stretch of Turtle Bay. An adjustment curtails building heights on Third Avenue from East 47th to East 52nd Streets.
Lee Frankel, a Turtle Bay Association member who has lived in the area since 1967, said she lost the view from her north-facing windows to development, but remains philosophical. “The neighborhood is responding to people’s wants and needs,” she noted, referring to the arrival of two popular restaurants on Second Avenue, the Smith and La Pecora Bianca, as well as the evaporation of antiques shops and grocery stores.
“It’s New York,” she said. “If you can’t stand change, you need to move somewhere else.”
What You’ll Find
Turtle Bay is dressed in brownstone, limestone, red brick, white brick, terra cotta, granite and acres of glass. Its buildings tell better stories than Scheherazade.
The palatial River House (1931), for instance, which sits on a bluff 40 feet above the East River between 52nd and 53rd Streets, is as famous for the celebrities the cooperative rejected (Joan Crawford, Gloria Vanderbilt) as for those who bought in (Henry Kissinger, Uma Thurman).
Turtle Bay Gardens is a cluster of 20 1860s townhouses on East 48th Street and East 49th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, whose backyards were united in the 1920s. Dorothy Thompson (a plaque describes her as “the intrepid girl reporter”) and Katharine Hepburn were former occupants; the composer Stephen Sondheim and the actress-turned-designer Mary-Kate Olsen currently live there.
A Tudor-style building at 225-227 East 49th Street, redesigned in 1929 for the violinist Efrem Zimbalist and his wife, the Metropolitan Opera soprano Alma Gluck, is now a rental property owned and occupied by Angela Paolini, whose father ran Louise Jr., a popular former neighborhood restaurant.
Ms. Paolini recalled getting misdirected mail for Keith Hernandez, when the former Mets player lived down the block at Sterling Plaza. Mr. Hernandez was enticed to live in the 1985 postmodern building at 255 East 49th Street by Fred Wilpon, who in addition to being the majority owner of the Mets was one of Sterling Plaza’s developers. Rosie O’Donnell bought the triplex penthouse there in July.
And in 2001, the audacious square black column called Trump World Tower, at 845 United Nations Plaza, rose more than 350 feet higher than the United Nations Secretariat Building across the avenue. “Trump wanted that building to be gold,” said Ms. Frankel of the Turtle Bay Association. “Can you imagine?”
Vincent Smith, a real estate agent with Halstead, said Turtle Bay’s status, prices and celebrity quotient have surged with three recent buildings: the Halcyon (2014), a 32-story condominium at 305 East 51st Street, developed on the site of a 2008 crane accident that killed seven people; 50 United Nations Plaza (2015), a 43-story luxury tower designed by Norman Foster; and the Sutton (2016), a 30-story Toll Brothers development at 959 First Avenue.
Residential buildings sprouting up to higher altitudes include a 64-story shimmering ribbon at 100 East 53rd Street (another Foster and Partners project); a 64-story glass-and-terra-cotta tower at 138 East 50th Street; and a 49-story shard at 131 East 47th Street. All three buildings are on the western side of the district, close to Midtown workplaces and Grand Central Terminal.
“Turtle Bay, for me, is a great crossroads,” Mr. Smith said. “You have all the office buildings coming up as part of the Midtown East development; a lot of people are looking there as an easy way to walk to work.”
What You’ll Pay
Despite a boost in its luxury market, Turtle Bay is considered one of Manhattan’s better buys. According to PropertyShark, between Jan. 1 and Dec. 6, 2017, the median sales price of homes was $893,700, a year-on-year decrease of 10 percent based on 396 transactions. Of 54 neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, the site ranked Turtle Bay 39th in median sales price. The most expensive was TriBeCa, at $4,683,950 million; the least expensive, Bedford-Stuyvesant, at $799,000.
As of Jan. 8, the real estate site StreetEasy calculated the median rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Turtle Bay at $3,200, based on 113 available listings and a map that extends the southern border to 42nd Street.
Two hundred listings in Turtle Bay were featured on Zillow as of Jan. 8. They ranged from a one-bedroom co-op on East 51st Street, priced at $315,500, to a four-bedroom duplex penthouse condo with a private swimming pool at 50 United Nations Plaza, priced at $56 million (a bargain compared to its original asking price of $70 million).
Turtle Bay is an enclave with its own surprising pockets. Beekman Place, a two-block stub between 49th and 50th Streets east of First Avenue, where Irving Berlin lived for more than 40 years (his home was sold to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg), has the scrubbed, hushed perfection of a movie set. Peter Detmold Park, a patch at 454 East 51st Street with a dog run, includes a bridge that juts over the F.D.R. and connects to a paved slice of riverside. Amster Yard is a courtyard and sculpture garden at 211 East 49th Street with original and reconstructed 19th-century buildings at the entrance of Instituto Cervantes. And Greenacre Park is a refuge at 217 East 51st Street with honey locust trees and a 25-foot waterfall.
Turtle Bay has no public schools; residents are zoned for elementary and middle schools near its borders and, like all New Yorkers, attend high school throughout the five boroughs.
P.S. 59, Beekman Hill International, at 233 East 56th Street, serves about 620 students in first through fifth grades. On 2016-17 state tests, 77 percent met standards in English versus 40 percent statewide; 80 percent met standards in math versus 45 percent statewide.
J.H.S. 104, Simon Baruch Junior High School, at 330 East 21st Street, serves more than 1,100 students in sixth through eighth grades. On state tests, 67 percent met standards in English versus 41 percent statewide; 68 percent met standards in math versus 33 percent statewide.
A nearby secondary school, the High School of Art and Design, at 245 East 56th Street, enrolls about 1,500 students in ninth through 12th grades. The average 2015-16 SAT scores, the last for which data was available, were 479 for critical reading and 464 for mathematics, compared with 494 and 508 statewide.
Grand Central Terminal, at 42nd Street and Park Avenue, provides access to the 4, 5, 6, 7 and S trains, as well as Metro-North Railroad. The 4, 6, E and M trains stop at the Lexington Avenue/51st Street M.T.A. station. Buses are available on the M15, M42, M50, M101, M102 and M103 lines.
Named for a cove that was later filled in, Turtle Bay has a history that is as disjointed as an exquisite corpse. (Whether the name was a homage to actual reptiles is dubious; it is more likely a corruption of the Dutch word “deutal,” or bent blade, referring to the inlet’s shape.) This little neighborhood has been a 17th-century rural seat, an 18th-century shipbuilding site, a 19th-century industrial center with stockyards, breweries and tenements, and a 20th-century gathering place for writers, musicians and artists.