Townhouse developer makes good in neglected Norristown

Veteran builder Sarah Peck, 58, stands in front of her Norristown townhouse development Arbor Mews July 8, 2015. The 24-unit development is more than half sold. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

Three years after the fact, Sarah Peck still expresses some surprise that Arbor Heights, her first venture into the long-neglected Norristown real estate market, was as successful as it turned out.

Built in 2011-12, the 12 townhouses at DeKalb and Elm Streets - a block shy of an area once known as Millionaires Row and a few blocks from the Montgomery County Courthouse - sold about as fast as they were completed, she said.

In a real estate market where average prices often struggle to get above $120,000, Arbor Heights' townhouses easily averaged $135,000, and the one resale since was $20,000 higher than that, she said.

The townhouses, stacked in two four-story buildings designed by BartonPartners of Norristown, were intended to fit the Victorian character of the Upper DeKalb Street neighborhood, said Peck, 58, who has a bachelor of arts degree in history from Yale University and a graduate degree in urban planning.

It was an effort that brought Peck and her firm, Progressive Housing Ventures of Malvern, a Willard G. "Bill" Rouse Award of Excellence from the Urban Land Institute's Philadelphia chapter - the only residential project in the region so honored.

Peck, with 30 years in the business, including a stint as a project manager for Toll Bros., was Professional Builder magazine's Builder of the Year in 1997, when she headed Rouse Chamberlin Homes in Exton.

These days, Peck is trying to repeat the success of Arbor Heights with Arbor Mews, a block up DeKalb Street at Basin Street.

Three buildings, each with eight townhouses, face DeKalb, Basin, and Green Streets in a U-shaped design.

Each townhouse has a private attached garage at the rear that is hidden from street view.

Prices range from $143,900 to $177,900. Twelve of the 24 are under agreement, Peck said.

"Five have recently settled with the homeowners already living there," she said.

Both projects have benefited from public funds that have made prices reasonable - although Peck is trying to reduce the subsidy she'll need to build Arbor Mews - as well as special financing from local lenders who waived private mortgage insurance and "made the total payment comparable to rent," she said.

The neighborhood along DeKalb Street toward the border with East Norriton Township is filled with classic late-19th- and early-20th-century structures, built by Norristown's industrialists, bankers, and other men of means.

Although nonprofit organizations had acquired some of the buildings and refurbished them for their offices, many of the large brick-and-stone residences had been allowed to decay, often to the point of no return.

Many had been vacant for as long as a decade, and a few operated as drug houses.

"There was no evidence of a real estate market here," Peck said. "There was no motivation to live in the neighborhood."

Before the borough recruited her for the project, "I knew little of Norristown," she said.

Hoping to begin reversing Norristown's decline, local authorities secured a grant from the county and the state to buy and demolish two of the worst properties in the 1000 block of DeKalb Street.

They then called Peck, who agreed to demolish the two blighted houses on either side of a century-old house that was able to be saved, and built Arbor Heights.

"The concept was new construction that emulated the old," she said.

The house at 1014 DeKalb St., between the two new buildings, was purchased, and the new owner renovated it as for-sale condos and built a large rear addition designed to blend with Arbor Heights.

"He is asking, and getting, $175,000 for those condos," Peck said.

Buyers of all three are young urban professionals as well as downsizing seniors, she said, but not that many families yet.

"About one-third are from within the borough, but the rest are from other parts of the area, attracted by new construction and the convenience of being within walking distance of three stations on SEPTA's Manayunk-Norristown line," Peck said.