A town steeped in history with lovely riverfront vistas

Folks wait for the Riverline light rail at Burlington Towne Centre station in Burlington City, NJ on Jan. 3, 2013. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer

One in a weekly series spotlighting the towns and neighborhoods in our region.

Admittedly, early January, with the thermometer hovering just above freezing, may not be the best time for a lengthy walking tour of Burlington City.

Standing with your back to the Delaware River, however, looking at the landscape along the Riverbank from the Burlington-Bristol Bridge to the south and then north toward Curtin Marina, what you see is house after historic house, each with an unobstructed view of the water and the Pennsylvania shoreline.

The trip is worth it.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, some of the cottages and grand houses along the Riverbank - one attributed to Frank Furness, designed for Civil War Gen. E. Burd Grubb - were built for Philadelphia's well-to-do seeking a refreshing breeze upstream, just a block or two west of the civility offered by Burlington City's stores and restaurants.

"You should come back in the summer," says Don Vasquez, an agent with Weichert Realtors who moved from the Princeton area 10 years ago to one of the many older houses on Union Street in what is known as the Yorkshire neighborhood, which dates to 1793.

A lot of visitor traffic is brought in by the booming antiques trade, with businesses such as the Burlington Antiques Emporium on High Street offering 14,000 square feet of inventory.

On this frigid January day, though, outdoor activity is limited to passengers on the River Line light rail at the Burlington Towne Centre station in the middle of Broad Street, a few patrons at the post office, a trio of tourists in St. Mary's churchyard, and a woman holding on to two friendly, eager dogs on Wood Street.

If you haven't picked up on it yet, Burlington City - founded in 1677, when this was called West Jersey, five years before English Philadelphia had its start - is swimming in history.

There are enough historic-site plaques here to keep a foundry on a 24-hour shift. The city has New Jersey's oldest library (1758), fire company under the same name (1795), Episcopal church (1703), and pharmacy in continuous operation (1731).

History may be Burlington City's greatest asset, but these days, when the typical buyer is looking for a quick move into a four-bedroom house in a development, older real estate isn't selling, Vasquez says:

"The market isn't popping."

At the start of the real estate downturn in 2006-07, Vasquez says, prices here dropped 40 percent and "are worth 50 percent to 60 percent of what they were, even though the market is showing improvement."

The northern portion of Burlington County, and this city with it, was a favorite of developers from the mid-1990s on, after Interstate 295 was completed, opening the door to buyers looking for affordability that could not be matched above the Burlington-Mercer County border.

Then the bubble burst.

A lot of the beautiful old historic houses "went out of vogue when prices dropped," he says, making Burlington City, with sales averaging $150,000, a bargain.

Shunning the old in favor of the new is not a phenomenon limited to Burlington City, however. Many historic houses in Philadelphia are spending months on the market and selling well below asking price, agents there say.

"Buyers in today's marketplace seem to be more concerned with having updated and sizable bathrooms, kitchens, and closet space - something that, just by nature, the older historic homes lack," says Prudential Fox & Roach's Mark Wade, who sells in Center City.

"It is not that historic doesn't sell - they do, but need the necessary ingredients to make the home user-friendly," Wade says.

Not only is historic not the mainstream flavor of the month, but huge price drops also squeezed Burlington City homeowners who bought high in the boom years into short sales, in which lenders accept less than is owed on the mortgages.

In July, for example, Mark McIntosh, 44, closed a short sale on a 3,200-square-foot, 200-year-old house for $120,000, attracted as much by the plaster and lath as the opportunity to fish two blocks away.

"I can go for catfish anytime for as long as I want," says McIntosh, who commutes to his job in Medford Lakes.

He looked for an older house for two years, he says, attracted by nine-foot ceilings and the "depth of a rowhouse." That probably makes him rare among today's buyers, he adds, yet "the house was in move-in condition, with minor cosmetic work that I can handle."

Real estate's downturn was reflected on the commercial side, too.

Many of the storefronts on High Street from Broad Street to the Riverbank were in foreclosure over the last few years. Even when there were people interested in renting, the interminable legal snags involved in the process shut them out.

For instance, Vasquez says, his daughter, a lawyer, could not find space to rent. But in the last two months, "for rent" signs have begun to appear, he says - signaling "revitalization" downtown.

Not every house in Burlington City is old. Off Washington Avenue, D'Anastasio Corp. of Pennsauken has completed the first seven of 38 three- and four-story townhouses called Washington Square, offering two and three bedrooms, 2½ baths, front and rear balconies, and deluxe kitchen designs. Originally listed for $250,000, they are now priced about $200,000.

Several developments have been proposed in recent months as builders hoping to acquire large tracts of buildable land at rock-bottom prices begin to stir, real estate agents say.

Proximity to I-295, the New Jersey Turnpike, and Route 130, as well as the River Line for New York- and Philadelphia-area commuters, figures into the development equation.

Rental projects, including one for 50 to 100 units as low- and moderate-income housing near Route 130, also have been proposed.

McIntosh is high on Burlington City, adding that finding the house he wanted there was "pure luck."

"I love these kinds of houses," he says. "Just because a house is 200 years old, it doesn't have to be heated with coal."


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow @alheavens at Twitter.


Burlington City By the Numbers

Population: 9,920 (2010).

Median income: $48,084 (2009).

Size: 3.78 square miles.

Homes for sale: 91.

Settlements in last three months: 11.

Average days on market: 130.

Median sale price (single-family homes): $114,000.

Median sale price (all homes): $114,000.

Housing stock: 4,223 units (2009), dating from the 18th century to 2000s.

School district: Burlington City.

SOURCES: U.S. Census; City-data.com; Trulia.com, Zillow.com, Movoto.com


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