Along the last stretch before Exit 338 on the westbound Schuylkill Expressway, the view overlooking Manayunk is unmistakable.
In the distance, rolling hills punctuate the skyline, outdone in stature and salience only by St. John the Baptist Church’s iconic 208-foot steeple. Amid blooming trees, Victorian houses and rowhouses dot the landscape, a mix of red, yellow, and white buildings.
For decades, this was the popular take on Manayunk, Philadelphia’s eclectic, historically blue-collar enclave beside the river — defined for generations first as a close-knit family community, and then as the city's trendiest district.
These days, however, Manayunk has competition. As other city neighborhoods and suburban villages have become increasingly revitalized, the benefits it once offered — walkability, mom-and-pop stores, and access to transportation — are becoming typical elsewhere. More and more, Manayunk has had to find other ways to entice new residents.
The result: Large, sprawling apartment and condo developments now accompany the venerable rowhouses. From the expressway, the quaint view has been overshadowed by taller, contemporary residential buildings. And at the bend of the river where Manayunk and Lower Merion seem to nearly intersect, a five-story parking garage rises beside the highway.
The new construction, builders and development advocates say, is both the product of — and is helping to spearhead — Manayunk’s second rebirth. (Its first came in the late 1980s.) For the first time, they say, the introduction of pricier, amenity-heavy apartments — such as Realen Properties' the Isle and O’Neill Properties’ Royal Athena just across the bridge — are attracting well-to-do older millennials and empty nesters to the Manayunk area, decades after such groups abandoned it amid a deluge of college students in the early 2000s.
Groups such as Manayunk Development Corp. are hoping that this influx of upscale residential units will continue to bring newer and less-college-focused tenants to Main Street — and, the group said, other stretches of undeveloped land, too. Between 2014 and 2018, the development corporation said, more than 3,000 new apartments were expected to come online within a one-mile radius of Manayunk. Within the neighborhood’s borders, specifically, anywhere between 600 to 1,000 new units are projected.
“We’ve worked very hard to have this not be just a college town anymore,” said Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corp. “We still see some of that, and we want that. But I want every demographic.”
“You can come to Manayunk and have a quasi-suburban, urban neighborhood,” she continued. “But a quarter-mile from your door or less, there’s a beautiful trail to walk along the river. You can enjoy shopping, sitting outside. … We’re seeing a change in who is coming here.”
The apartment boom hasn't been without opposition, however. Some local residents see all the new development as exacerbating problems that Manayunk has long faced.
With nearly 6,000 people inhabiting less than one square mile, members of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, the local residents organization, have argued, new development could worsen parking and traffic problems in an already-congested area. Even more, said Kevin Smith, the council's president, more rentals will lower “the neighborhood’s cohesiveness and sense of place.”
The divide between residents such as Smith and the development boosters highlights how the path to revitalization can be no easy feat for local communities. Yet unlike other neighborhoods in Philadelphia — for example, Brewerytown, which is undergoing widespread gentrification — Manayunk is a more affluent community (the median household income is $70,000) trying to carve out a new identity in an increasingly competitive region.
In some ways, Manayunk's latest tensions are a continuation of the renter-vs.-buyer divide that has been a familiar battle across the country for years. For longtime residents such as Smith, the key to Manayunk’s future rests with homeowners who will invest in the neighborhood’s schools and stores.
"The big apartment buildings are taking us in the wrong direction," said Smith, 59, a computer programmer and 22-year resident of Manayunk. "The average stay in an apartment is only [a few] years, which creates a different dynamic in the neighborhood than we're going for.
"It's going to be harder to make them part of any recovery that Manayunk will have," Smith said.
Developers find it hard, though, to ignore Manayunk's demographics. The northwest Philadelphia neighborhood has one of the lowest homeownership rates in the city: just 41 percent, according to 2014 Pew Charitable Trust figures, trailing only seven neighborhoods, including University City and Germantown.
Even so, Manayunk's home-sales market remains strong, data from consulting firm Econsult Solutions show. According to Econsult, houses in Manayunk sell for 73.8 percent more than the city average for properties of similar housing stock and age. At the end of 2016, the average home price there was $205,862, the data show, down 4.7 percent from the year before, yet up 21 percent from five years ago.
Still, part of the trend toward rentals is sheer population, observers say. The median age in Manayunk is 36, according to the local development corporation, with many residents living in single-family homes that were converted to rentals either during the economic downturn or before, when college students flooded the area.
All of which raises the question: Even if the residents' groups resist the new apartments, can they be stopped if it's what the demographic seems to demand?
"What's driving all of this apartment development is the large demographic of millennials who are choosing to rent rather than buy because they can afford a nicer lifestyle that way," said Dennis Maloomian, CEO of Realen Properties, which developed the Isle, a 156-unit apartment building set on Venice Island, a stretch of land behind Main Street between the Schuylkill Canal and the Schuylkill itself. Units are priced between $1,450 for a studio and $3,000 for a two-bedroom.
For Maloomian, like many other developers, building in Manayunk was no easy task. For nearly two decades, he fought to build the Isle, facing resistance from the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, which took the fight to Common Pleas Court. His project finally opened in December 2016, a significantly downsized and less-intricate architectural design than he originally proposed.
The latest battle between neighborhood advocates and developers is playing out over a proposal to convert the closed St. Mary of the Assumption Church into 100 apartments on the property's sprawling grounds. Residents had hoped for single-family homes atop the lot, not a larger number of apartments.
Though it is largely built out, Manayunk still has room to grow, said Lipton, from the neighborhood's development corporation. In March, PaperWorks Industries Inc. along Venice Island announced it was shuttering its operations, closing one of the nation's oldest paper mills. Lipton said she believes there's opportunity for more development along that site.
"My vision in my tenure is that we're going to see all of [Venice Island] developed," she said. "Recreationally, residentially, mixed use, it's going to happen."