Roxborough: Familiar but getting newer

Focus on Roxborough. The Bell Tower will become townhouses and one bedroom apartments at Manayunk & Monastery. ( Charles Fox / Staff Photographer )

One in a continuing series spotlighting the real estate market in this region's communities.

An overcast winter's day was a perfect time for a "flatlander" to revisit Roxborough.

Flatlanders are those not born and bred here.

My last official visit with intent to write was in May 1993, when this slice of Northwest Philadelphia along Wissahickon Creek had 13,000 people and houses sold for $85,000.

Today, there are more than twice as many people, and the median price for a single-family house is $222,000. At the 2006 peak of the real estate boom, the median price was $226,000, according to the University of Pennsylvania's Neighborhood Information System.

Prices "only declined because houses sold more slowly," says Louise Fischer, of Prudential Fox & Roach, who moved to Roxborough in 1997 and became a Realtor in 2002.

Even in 2009's down days, developer Andy Thomas was able to build nine houses, sell eight for $600,000 each, and rent the last.

"It was slow, but we did it," says Thomas, who is involved in a number of residential projects in Roxborough and Manayunk.

That developers are drawn to Roxborough is nothing new. Before World War II, this was a neighborhood of large single-family homes, many of which pop into view between short stretches of rowhouses along the side streets.

Then Henry Avenue was expanded, and the small brick homes that climb the hillsides between Henry and Ridge Avenue in Upper Roxborough began springing up, joined by large apartment and condo developments in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

Lately, the focus - both residential and commercial - has been on central Roxborough, says Bernard Guet, executive director of the Roxborough Economic Development Corp. His latest coup is the city's third Foodery, in a building owned by the corporation that briefly housed an indoor farmers' market in the 1990s.

"Developers are looking for areas of the city that can be financially viable," says Guet, who oversaw the recent additions of a Wawa and a CVS and is working on a Planet Fitness. "I look at Roxborough and Manayunk as a village of 40,000 people who wish to be able to shop where they live."

Neighbors "do not want big developments," he says. Each new project requires much negotiation and give-and-take.

Although much in central Roxborough remains familiar - the streetcar named Bob's Diner on Ridge Avenue remains spry at age 70 - much is new and getting newer.

Another fixture on Ridge, Stanley's True Value Hardware, founded in 1961, is completing an addition next door that will triple its retail space to 12,000 square feet, to accommodate contractors.

And there's Andy Thomas' Bell Tower on Manayunk Avenue between Monastery Avenue and Martin Street. The long-abandoned Old Dutch (Fourth Reformed) Church will be four large condos - the first sale is pending at $529,000.

"Buyers are agreeing to the base price, but adding $100,000 or more for upgrades," much like the buyers of Center City high-rise condos, he says.

Thomas, who expects to finish the Bell Tower in a year, sold the church's rectory as a single last year.

The biggest task, and the one that caused the most delay and work for Thomas, was an underground parking area - a response to concerns about parking: "We had to dig the footings by hand."

All through Roxborough, there's a lot of rehabbing and evidence of new infill construction - a few units here, a few there.

And, in some cases, more than just a few new: A 32-townhouse development called Kingsley Court, on the site of the closed Ivy Ridge nursing home on Ridge Avenue near Walnut Lane, is awaiting final approvals.

Marie Gordon, of Prudential Fox & Roach in Wayne, is handling sales for developer Stephen Goldner, her first foray into selling real estate in the city. There have been two agreements for the pre-construction price of $334,500, she says.

"I get the sense that Roxborough's convenience to public transit and the Expressway are what is selling the townhouses and the neighborhood generally," says Gordon.

"It is a self-contained neighborhood, and a quick shot into Manayunk," she adds, noting - as Guet does - that the press Manayunk gets has led people to discover Roxborough.

Buyers are younger professionals, 25 to 40, looking for that convenience and a relatively crime-free city neighborhood, long Roxborough's attraction, Fischer says.

Sometimes, change is not welcome here. Neighborhood groups battled unsuccessfully to prevent December's demolition of the 1880s Bunting House at Ridge and Roxborough Avenues. (The owners have not disclosed plans for the site's reuse.)

"I think that was a wake-up call, especially for newcomers who share the pride and neighborhood values with longtime residents," says Kay Sykora, director of the Schuylkill Project, who came to Roxborough in 1973. "If you don't get these issues in front of them, it is easier for developers to come in and do what they want."

Developers' interest is welcome, of course, Sykora says, "but what the neighborhood is saying is that it wants things done in a more reasoned way."

 


Roxborough, by the Numbers

Population: 29,000 (2011)

Median income: $45,480 (2009)

Size: 7.59 square miles

Homes for sale: 170

Settlements in the last three months: 42

Average days on market: 121

Median sale price (single-family houses): $222,000

Median sale price (all homes): $217,500

Housing stock: 8,764 units (2007); median year built, 1954

School district: Philadelphia

SOURCES: City-data.com; U.S. Census Bureau; NIS Philadelphia; Zillow.com; Trulia.com; Long & Foster Real Estate


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

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