Features: The Condo Revolution!

Suburban empty nesters willing to pay $1 million and more for the romance of urban life are driving a luxury condo boom that’s about to turn our rowhouse town into the Upper East Side. What’s our cut on the deal? Maybe the world-class city we say we’ve always wanted

 Bob Britton didn’t have Center City on his radar screen, even though he works at 4 Penn Center as a partner at the law firm Post & Schell. Even though he and his wife, Marsha, have season tickets to the Walnut Street Theatre. The reason: He lived in Center City once, in an apartment at 17th and Pine, and it wasn’t so charming. One day, in the fall of 1971, he came home to find his door gone; thieves had taken it off on their way in to ransack his place. Shortly afterward, he got married, and he and Marsha moved to Lafayette Hill.

But about five years ago, when the youngest of their three sons was in college, they began thinking about leaving their Georgian colonial. It was getting to be a pain to keep up, in the normal way that all pleasing suburban houses are secretly a pain. “We realized that sooner or later, we had to get out of the house,” Bob recalls. By last year, they were getting serious about moving, but Center City wasn’t on their wish list “until one weekend a friend said maybe I shouldn’t rule it out.” He and Marsha (he’s 60, she’s 56) started looking at condos, and in doing so, “We saw a lot of people out at night, walking around. Philadelphia really has changed. It’s significantly safer — and I think that’s because there’s a lot more going on. It’s not New York yet, but it’s closer to Boston, which always was a couple steps ahead of us. Philadelphia has ratcheted up.”

Within a week, they put down a deposit at the Chelsea. Bob remembers the 1920s limestone-block building at 1515 Locust as “grade-C office space,” but it’s being gutted and transformed into 15 luxury condos. Bob is coy about the cost; he will only say their new 2,320-square-foot, three-bedroom unit is “a couple hundred thousand more” than the sale price of their 4,000-square-foot house in Lafayette Hill. They were hoping to move in by the end of September. At which point his daily commute will become a seven-minute walk.

Many empty nesters speak reverentially of “walking to work” as a big reason to move to the city. Is commuting that bad? Isn’t that why cell phones were invented? Carl Dranoff, who’s 57 himself, put his finger on the underlying motivation. “Time is becoming more and more important,” he says. “The sand is flowing through the hourglass.”

They want to add time to their days. They also want to shed unnecessary possessions and unwanted responsibilities. “You’re talking to a person who wants nothing on her plate,” says Linda Hirshorn. At 64, she was sick and tired of her home, a stately 7,500-square-foot brick mansion in Chestnut Hill. “My ex-husband was a history major, and he did nothing around the house,” she jokes. She simplified and simplified until she could fit her belongings into 1,100 square feet, then in May moved to a two-bedroom condo at CityView, a recent conversion at 20th and Hamilton. She loves her new view: “From the 25th floor, North Philadelphia looks like Europe.” As with many empty nesters, the high percentage of young people in Center City is very much a part of the attraction: “It makes you feel younger,” Hirshorn says.

So does making a change — any change — in your early 60s. Last fall, Sheryl and Allen Bar sold their four-bedroom colonial in Villanova, which they built on a cul-de-sac in 1976. They’d raised three girls, and after 29 years they were ready to try something new. So they moved to Old City. “It’s very rejuvenating,” says Sheryl. “I’ve always believed people should shake up their lives at various points.”