Coming Soon To A Neighborhood Near You

How six big shifts in population and wealth are going to change your life. Plus: Our local real estate price report, with predictions for 40 places whose names will go up in lights


IT’S NOT A story you hear every day. Before settling here last year, 49-year-old Gail Solomon had never even been to Philadelphia. But after hearing it was a town on the move, she and husband Michael, a professor, traded in a 6,000-square-foot house on six acres in Alabama for a luxe condo at Dockside on Columbus Boulevard. “We love the energy of the city, the restaurants, the shopping,” she says. “It’s all right here.”

They may have leapt in with both feet, but it looks like the Solomons made the right gamble. Spurred by a pair of 10-year tax abatements passed in 1997 and 2000 to encourage residential rehabs and new construction, Center City has blossomed from after-hours ghost town into cosmopolitan hub, a heady mélange of ritzy new lofts and condos, fab new restaurants, and a resurgent arts scene. Downtown population has been growing by an average of about 2,000 people a year for the past five years, single-family homes have appreciated a whopping 279 percent over the past 10 — second only to University City — and income levels are skyrocketing. The 2005 median figure for Society Hill, for example, was $75,307 — more than $26,000 over the next highest area of Center City.

Taken together, these factors are whipping up a perfect wave that will swamp Center City over the next decade: empty nesters (like the Solomons, whose youngest daughter just went off to college) downsizing in space but upsizing in convenience by returning to urban centers like Philly that still offer relatively robust bang for the real estate buck. Another force to reckon with: the strong influx of Gen Y singles — the kids of the boomers — who are marrying later and want to enjoy a city lifestyle before settling down. Finally, there’s the group condo czar Allan Domb calls the “triangle market,” the rich boomers and retirees who have upgraded from two homes to three, rotating through a nexus of Center City, the Shore and Florida.

That’s not to say there aren’t still a few rough patches to get through. The condo market has been shaky of late — many of the projects announced in recent years have been tabled or abandoned as out-of-control costs for steel, concrete and labor (due in part to an explosion in construction in China and India) boost prices for existing space in town. Still, Center City is “in a more competitive position than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” says Richard Voith, an economist at Econsult, a Market Street firm that counsels developers and municipalities on growth issues. “And things will probably continue along at a reasonable pace — unless public policy does something that’s not really acceptable.”

Translation: If the city’s politicos continue with the plan to phase down the city wage tax and don’t act stupid, we’ll be okay, and Center City will continue to boom. You’ll be eating at restaurants that are even more specialized (Korean-Southwestern fusion, for example) as the city’s food scene gets a new look and new praise from the national food press. There will be a spillover of the gallery effect from Old City into downtown (Sotheby’s, anyone?) as all that new money pouring in goes shopping for art and antiques. Finally, watch for new-but-looks-old amenities — gaslights, brick sidewalks, fountains — to pop up on Chestnut and Walnut as Philly’s new Gilded Age takes off.