Philadelphia’s New Boom

The city is changing dramatically, with new buildings, revitalized neighborhoods and inviting public spaces emerging all at once. Here’s an inside look at what’s behind this New Boom — and a preview of what our revitalized city will be.

Trend #8: The Changing Neighborhoods

What recession? As Center City roars back, the neighborhoods near it do, too. Here, a detailed look at how each section is faring, and the places where buyers are going gaga.
Marathon Farm in Brewerytown. R. Kennedy for GPTMC

Marathon Farm in Brewerytown. R. Kennedy for GPTMC

Select Neighborhood Stats

*Price and transaction data derived from HomExpert Market Report, a product of the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach Research Division. Demographic information from the Census Bureau’s 2009–2013 American Community Survey.

From Hot Now to Hot Next

Hot Now: Point Breeze …

Why: This neighborhood continues to grow into its own — a direct shot to Rittenhouse and a growing restaurant and bar scene add to the appeal. The realtors say: “With so many rehabs and new construction projects, this area is rapidly exploding. There is still a lot of stock available for fixer-uppers. What I saw last year selling for $100,000 is selling for $200,000 this year,” says local realtor Mike McCann. Of note: Easy access to the subway and a changing Washington Avenue.

… Hot Next: Grays Ferry

Why: Just west of Point Breeze, Grays Ferry is ripe with investment opportunities. The location near the river, Grad Hospital, Rittenhouse and University City is a bonus. The realtors say: “Point Breeze still has a lot of room to grow and a lot of land to be improved upon. Grays Ferry is bound to follow in its footsteps,” says Karrie Gavin, of Elfant Wissahickon. Of note: Prime locations next to the expanding Schuylkill River Trail, which will be bolstered by developments from Penn and CHOP.

• • •
Hot Now: Fairmount …

Why: With character-laden houses and an elementary school that’s on the upswing, Fairmount continues to attract buyers. The realtors say: “This neighborhood has a great location and is a very desirable place to live. There’s lots of development happening of all types,” says McCann. Of note: The upcoming Reading Viaduct project, Pizzeria Vetri (and many other great restaurants), Mi Casita (the region’s first Spanish-immersion preschool), plus a quick shot to Fairmount Park and I-76.

… Hot Next: Brewerytown

Why: As the areas near Fairmount continue to change (see the upcoming Rodin Square apartment project that will have a mega Whole Foods) and housing prices rise, those wanting an old-school neighborhood with lower price points are migrating north. The realtors say: “Brewerytown is great for the first-time home buyer and young couples who are willing to put in some sweat equity,” says McCann. Of note: Aggressive residential developments from MM Partners.

• • •
Hot Now: East Passyunk …

Why: EP is all about quality eats, bars and shopping. There are Center City workers, artsy types, stroller-pushing parents, and Nonna sweeping her stoop. The realtors say: “This is white-hot because it’s an established area that still feels diverse and young, with a real sense of community. New construction is already around that $500,000 price point,” says McCann. Of note: Restaurants, bars and indie retail galore, plus easy access to the Broad Street line.

… Hot Next: Pennsport

Why: Pennsport — situated between EP, Queen Village and the river — continues to feed off those solid neighborhoods. There are new construction and rehab projects, but it still maintains that know-your-neighbor feeling. The realtors say: “Pennsport has no choice but to get hot. It’s a great way to be close to the action at a reasonable price point,” says Gavin. Of note: Burgeoning restaurant scene, great parks, and a soon-to-be-improved Delaware waterfront.

• • •
Hot Now: Fishtown …

Why: Fishtown is our Williamsburg — where all the most trendsetting, rule-breaking stores, bars and restaurants are opening. And with all of that comes the creative class. The realtors say: “Clients are moving to Fishtown from places like Bella Vista because of all the life there. It’s still reasonably priced but on its way up fast,” says McCann. Of note: Young, artsy residents and first-time home buyers mix it up with neighborhood lifers, adding to the authentic feel. Great shopping, drinking and eating.

… Hot Next: Kensington

Why: Fishtown is actually a pocket neighborhood within Kensington, and as the amenities on Frankford and Girard avenues grow, patient first-time home buyers are finding major deals a bit further afield. The realtors say: “We are seeing a real trickle-down situation because Fishtown has increased so rapidly,” says McCann. Of note: Large spaces ripe for renovations, artist cooperatives, and popular community events like the Kinetic Sculpture Derby and Trenton Avenue Arts Festival.

What’s in a Name?

As our neighborhoods rapidly change, so do their identities. What does that say about us? By Liz Spikol

I have a confession to make: Though I was born and raised in Philadelphia and have lived here for most of my adult life, there are at least five neighborhoods in this town that I had never heard of until I reached my 30s. It’s a shameful thing, but if someone had put a gun to my head 10 years ago and said, “Tell me about Yorktown!,” I would have assumed I was being drilled on my knowledge of the American Revolution. I would have been equally clueless on the subjects of Hawthorne and Whitman (I always thought those were famous authors) and Stanton and Newbold. And up until about a year ago, I certainly would have blanked if asked about 2015’s second-hottest neighborhood in the entire United States, Dickinson Narrows.

That’s right: According to online real estate portal and brokerage Redfin, potential home buyers looking for neighborhoods that offer the most bang for the buck should run to Dickinson Narrows. Redfin puts it ahead of Northern Liberties, Girard Estates, Fairmount and Kensington — all of which I’d heard of by the time I reached high school, thank you very much. What we at Philly Mag learned by covering the Dickinson Narrows bombshell online is this: There are people who live in Dickinson Narrows — which is somewhere in South Philly — who don’t even know where Dickinson Narrows is.

Neighborhood names and boundaries are tricky business in Philadelphia. Residents get quite agitated when they’re not categorized properly, but people who live next door to each other can (and often do) disagree about what ’hood they occupy. Why? Because where you live in this city really says something about you. When I lived in Cedar Park, I could say I lived in West Philly, or in University City, or in Southwest Philly. Each of those statements came with a different connotation, and I admit to identifying myself differently according to my interlocutor. If I was talking to an activist, for example, who was suspicious of my journalistic motives, saying I lived in West Philly generally relaxed that activist. But if an older relative was worried about my safety late at night, I’d say, “Oh for heaven’s sake, I live in University City,” as if to say, “Please, Amy Gutmann isn’t going to let me get murdered.” When I was doing social work and was met with skepticism by clients from lower-income backgrounds, saying I lived in “Southwest Philly” put them at ease. It’s the kind of shape-shifting we all do in different areas of our lives: Sometimes I blow-dry my hair to look more polished and grown-up; other times I cultivate bedhead and smear my eyeliner. In New York, everyone knows what “uptown” and “downtown” mean, but you can’t live in both at the same time. In Philly, you can.

There’s no official list of neighborhood boundaries in Philadelphia because of the city’s inherent contradiction: It’s an old city that ceaselessly evolves. It’s a place that was mapped out hundreds of years ago but is being shaken up by rapid change. So as Point Breeze (a name minted, it seems, in the 19th century) morphs into Newbold (a coinage of neighborhood real estate developers around 2007), who gets to decide? It’s not always clear.

Sometimes we look to local community groups for direction. There are civic associations, which can be organized by census tract, police district or block-party preference. Take Passyunk, for example. I used to edit a real estate website that had a competition in which people could vote for the best Philadelphia neighborhood. I didn’t pick the contenders myself; I simply put out a request and then matched up all the submissions in a bracket-style voting contest. Of course, in the end the final bracket was … Passyunk Square vs. East Passyunk Crossing, two neighborhood groups that are basically in the same neighborhood, although they oversee parts of different zip codes. I thought people were going to come after me with pitchforks. How dare we feature two places that are, according to many Philadelphians, the same neighborhood? How can they be facing off against each other when they actually are just across the street? Luckily, the groups decided to take the competition in good fun and made a deal: The runner-up would bring vittles to the first-place finisher’s next meeting — which morphed into a (one) neighborhood party with food courtesy of local restaurants.

Sometimes a neighborhood name makes people angry — to the point of printing up bumper stickers. When the University of Pennsylvania pushed “University City,” stickers began popping up: “University City is a marketing scheme.” But I recently saw an online comment in response to those stickers. It said “‘University City is a marketing scheme’ is a marketing scheme.” The meta-gentrification shark had officially been jumped.

Realtors also get into the boxing ring, by being seriously flexible with boundaries. It shocks me to see homes listed as being in Northern Liberties when they’re clearly in Kensington — which is itself an especially bedeviling neighborhood. Let’s just look at the never-never land Kenzos live in for a moment.

According to many maps and books, Kensington is bounded by groups of blocks that clearly encompass other neighborhoods. I once wrote about a development in Kensington, as opposed to “South Kensington,” and was upbraided by phone and email. There are likewise people who advocate specifically for Olde Kensington, or East Kensington. So you see, it’s not enough to say “Kensington.” In fact, that’s just a starting point. Because, dear God, Fishtown has to get in there, too.

Not long ago, I was describing some very happy days I had living in Bella Vista back in the ’90s, and a listener told me I’d actually been living in Hawthorne. What? How could this be? I’d never heard of that name till this year. Further research has led me to believe I was living close to Hawthorne, but not in Hawthorne — which shouldn’t matter anyway, as my experience of the neighborhood was the same. And yet I was quite attached to my memory of Bella Vista as Bella Vista. Don’t take that away from me!

Do you know where you live? Are you sure? You might live in the hottest neighborhood in Philadelphia, actually. I think it’s called Waterson Court. Let me know if you find it.

A Q&A With Jared Brey

The PlanPhilly reporter on why zoning really matters. Interview by James Jennings

Photo by Juliana Rausch

Photo by Juliana Rausch

How has the zoning code recently changed?
City Council adopted a new zoning code in 2012. Now it’s shorter and there are new rules requiring developers to meet with community groups when they’re seeking an exception to the code. The on-going work is updating the zoning maps for every neighborhood in the city.

What is “councilmanic prerogative”?
When a district Council member introduces a bill that affects only his or her district, the other 16 Council members routinely agree not to interfere. This essentially means that a district Council member has the only decision that matters. Theoretically, this new forward-looking zoning map would mean there would be no need to rezone properties one at a time in City Council. In reality, developers are always going to want to do something beyond what’s allowed. As long as that’s the case, and until we get a Council full of people who are fond of debating proposals on their merits, councilmanic prerogative is still going to be impactful.

What is an “overlay”?
It’s a specially carved-out area with its own rules about building size and property uses. There’s an overlay on Germantown Avenue, for example, that specifically prohibits beauty parlors, cell-phone stores, dollar stores, and certain other types of businesses.

Explain the significance of “floor area ratio” and what it means to builders.
Say you have a bottle of whiskey. You can pour it into a few wide and shallow bowls, or you can pour it into a tower of shot glasses, but you won’t get any more whiskey. That’s more or less how floor area ratio works. If you have a 1,000-square-foot property with a floor area ratio of five, you can build a five-story building that covers the whole lot, or a 10-story building that covers half of the lot. You can also earn bonuses — extra whiskey — for including elements that serve a public interest, like low-income housing units or energy-saving solar panels.

The terms “corrective rezoning” and “spot zoning” were thrown around a lot in the recent debates over the Hudson Hotel proposal. What are those?
“Corrective rezoning” usually refers to a change that brings a property’s zoning classification into line with the wider neighborhood plan. “Spot zoning” usually means that a property is being rezoned to benefit a certain project, and in a way that doesn’t jibe with the plan for the surrounding area. People usually get pissed about the latter.

Behind the Boom: The Neighborhoods

The Southern Crusaders: Ori Feibush and John Longacre

You can’t talk neighborhood turnarounds in this city without talking about Point Breeze and Newbold. Between developers Feibush and Longacre, the southside makeover has meant hundreds of residential projects, plus a handful of coffee-shop hangs and neighborhood-making pubs. Longacre recently purchased an out-of-business theater and will announce plans for a mixed-use project later this month. The fruits of the two men’s independent labors have blossomed into one remarkable transformation, ripe with new business, new energy and, yes, new buyers in the once-decrepit area.

The Frankford Phenom: Roland Kassis

You know those Frankford Avenue warehouses that make Fishtown so cool? Kassis pretty much owns them all. He spends his time luring in the types of businesses (and rejecting some) that build a community: restaurants, coffee shops, yoga studios, gyms. Next up: two apartment complexes and, eventually, a hotel.

The Northern Block-Builders: Aaron Smith, Jacob Roller and David Waxman

This founding team of MM Partners are the main players and planners right now in Brewerytown — Fairmount’s fast-changing northwestern neighbor. The trio is leading the charge — and having a significant impact — by conceiving, rehabbing, building and leasing modern residential units like apartments, townhomes and condos, some with private parking and most with a cool industrial, loft-y feel. Plus, they recognize that any great neighborhood needs more stuff and so are building out spaces for retail and restaurants (such as neighborhood social hub Rybrew, the sandwich/beer shop mash-up). They’re literally building up the newly hot ’hood, one project at a time, and there’s no sign of slowing down — they have plans to invest another $60 million in mixed-use projects over the next couple of years, including the ambitious Girard27, a development at, yes, 27th and Girard that will have 68 apartments, 10 townhomes and 15,000 square feet of retail space.