Converting classic charm in Center City

Realtor Joanne Davidow stands in front of the old facade of the Van Pelt Mews development project. (TRACIE VAN AUKEN/ For the Daily News)

Realtor Joanne Davidow makes her way up the gypsum-caked stairs of one of the three townhouses being sculpted from historic carriage houses in the 2100 block of Sansom Street.

The day is a warm and humid one, but the veteran agent's enthusiasm for the interior reworking of the 19th-century building is not affected by the weather.

"Look at the detail in those windows," said Davidow, vice president, sales manager, of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach, as she looked at something one is more likely to find in a church than in a carriage house that had been converted to office use.

A work in progress, these rehabs are just three pieces of an 11-unit townhouse project on Van Pelt Street between Sansom and Walnut that is bringing prices from $950,000 to $2.3 million, she said.

Seven have been sold. Davidow's role, besides selling the townhouses (all but one have a garage) with agent Jeffrey Block, was to christen the project Van Pelt Mews.

The developer, Andrew Kamins of Conservatory Group USA, has been involved in a number of residential projects since its Toronto-based parent first ventured into the Philadelphia market in 2007.

"We've converted 50 or 60 units to condo since then, mainly around Washington and Rittenhouse Squares," said Kamins, "but this is our first new construction."

The "velocity of sales" the project experienced was no surprise, Kamins said, and "indicative of the very clear and compelling trend to return to vibrant downtown living."

Cecil Baker & Partners of Philadelphia, which specializes in adaptive reuse of older buildings, designed the project.

"The key for us was the existing homes across Van Pelt Street," Cecil Baker said. "I've always loved their setback and their Mediterranean look - a unique bit of Philadelphia.

"We didn't want to create all sharp elbows, but to make it very simple so those houses could breathe," Baker said. "We wanted to create an elegant background for these homes."

The 40,000-square-foot site, comprising four separate lots, "leapt out at me as far as the potential was concerned when I came across them," Kamins said.

On the site in the 2100 block of Walnut Street were a surface parking lot and a one-story furniture store, dating from the 1950s, that was razed because it was determined to have no historic significance.

The carriage houses-turned-offices on Sansom Street "are being returned to their original purpose," Kamins said. Two of the three have three bedrooms and two bathrooms; the middle unit has three bedrooms-plus. There is garage access from Sansom Street to a rear driveway and parking.

All the homes will be individually owned and come with a 10-year tax abatement.

The townhouses, which will be completed in the fall, range in size from 2,500 to 5,200 square feet, he said, "with most 3,400."

Initially, plans called for 12 townhouses, Davidow said, but "two buyers who knew one another purchased three lots and will each have houses a half-lot wider than the other new units."

Said Kamins: "As you know well, there has been a trend among empty-nesters to have larger homes by consolidating units" in high-rise condo buildings.

This is just the townhouse example.

Van Pelt Mews was "a collaboration," Kamins said, involving his group, Baker, and the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which had to sign off on the project before the developer broke ground.

According to commission-meeting minutes, some neighbors and officials thought retail on the first level and condos on the upper floors would have been a more appropriate use of the property.

Even though the zoning designation allows mixed-use, Kamins said he thought residential development was most appropriate.

Van Pelt Mews "is an interesting example of urban in-fill," he said, "maintaining the intimacy and scale of a classic Philadelphia street and addressing and solving historic redevelopment on Sansom Street."