Philly’s Luxury Residence Buyers Want Some Suburban With Their Urban [Gallery]

Does the Toll Brothers City Living’s Naval Square development shout “city living” to you? It might not. The gated community that fortunately saved William Strickland’s landmark Naval Home on Grays Ferry Avenue seems more suburban than citified.

But it’s not just because of its gates. Even the ungated communities Toll Brothers City Living proposes in Philadelphia can seem less than fully urban. Take 2400 South, an in-progress development on a commercial thoroughfare with no commerce at all. Or how about the strictly residential project–at 410 S. Front–that is planned for the middle of Society Hill’s one real entertainment district?

Turns out, those who buy Toll Brothers City Living properties don’t necessarily want to live above a store.

“We would love to build mixed residential/commercial in this market,” says Brian Emmons, the vice president in charge of Toll’s City Living division, “but right now, [builders who do] can’t fill their retail. While everyone likes to live near commercial, the luxury demographic buyer chooses to live two to three blocks from it, not directly above it.”

Another thing Philadelphians don’t go for, Emmons says, is high-rise density of the kind Toll builds in New York. Emmons rattles off a list of high-rise condo projects that came on the market both before and after the housing bubble burst: the Murano, 10 Rittenhouse, Waterfront Square–all of which ran into trouble, bankruptcy, or both.

Of course, as a publicly traded company, Toll Brothers must answer to shareholders who expect steady and rising returns, another reason the company plays it safe rather than pushes the boundaries when it comes to urban luxury residential development. Construction costs in the city don’t help matters either, Emmons says: “In Philadelphia, it costs about $250-$300 a square foot to build [a place like Naval Square].” Meanwhile, luxury homes in the city sell for about $200 to $300 a square foot. You do the math. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

Toll Brothers didn’t get to be the nation’s largest luxury home builder by getting ahead of its customers. And if what its customers want is suburban-style living with an urban address, then it will give it to them.

Gallery of Naval Square by Laura Kicey.