One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in this region's communities.
Urban village or cool neighborhood?
Both aptly describe East Falls, an ever-evolving slice of Philadelphia that climbs from the banks of the Schuylkill to Wissahickon Avenue.
"East Falls is tiny, but it has a wide range of people and housing, from mansions on winding streets to tight rowhouse communities," developer Tim McDonald says.
McDonald will soon be part of that mix. He and his brothers have partnered with David Grasso to build Ridge Flats, a 146-unit project that will combine passive-energy technology with modular construction on the former Rivage site at Kelly Drive and Calumet Street.
These days, there's so much going on here that it's hard to know where to begin, yet Kelly Drive at Midvale is appropriate.
That's where the East Falls Development Corp. has been working with retail enterprises to put a more welcoming and attractive face on the business district along Ridge Avenue.
Whether it's new signs at Johnny Manana's on Ridge or the 50-space parking lot between North and South Ferry Streets under Roosevelt Boulevard, the goal is "cohesiveness," says Stacy Simon, liaison to East Falls' business community.
"There is a lot of change and growth these days," Simon says, "a strong revitalization period" marked by cooperation with business owners.
Not only commercial revitalization, but residential as well, says executive director Gina Snyder, noting that, since 2002, $270 million has been invested by private and public sources in real estate and infrastructure development of East Falls.
The residential real estate market, which benefited for years from buyers and renters looking for Center City proximity without Center City prices, is on the mend again.
"It had been a bit flat for the last two years, but the market really took off beginning in January, says Connie Gillespie, an agent with Elfant Wissahickon Realtors, who has sold houses here since 1985 - the same year she and her family moved to East Falls from Center City.
Prices have not returned to boom levels, "but they are stable, and maybe even going up," says Gillespie. Properly priced houses are selling quickly, and though there is still more demand than supply, she says, "I'd rather have that than a glut."
The median price is $245,000. Rowhouses and twins go for $200,000 to $300,000, detached houses for low $400,000s to mid-$500,000s, she says.
Buyers tend to be younger professionals, singles, and couples drawn by access to the expressway, Route 1, and two SEPTA stations (East Falls on the Manayunk-Norristown line, and Queen Lane on the Chestnut Hill West line).
The rental market here is dominated by students from neighborhood schools such as Philadelphia University, Eastern University, and the Drexel School of Medicine at the former MCP Hospital/Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, as well as Temple and Penn.
Dobson Mills on Ridge Avenue at Scotts Lane has 300 luxury apartments, Gillespie says. Sherman Mills, along Scotts between Ridge Avenue and the expressway, has apartments plus commercial space and artists' studios.
East Falls has little buildable land left, but there has been a lot of infill - from townhouses on Haywood Street off Indian Queen Lane built in the 1990s (priced in the mid- to upper $200,000s) to two under construction (listed at $459,000) on Stanton Street near Skidoo Street.
Then there's Hilltop at Falls Ridge at West School House Lane and Ridge Avenue, where developer John Westrum is building townhouses starting at $239,000. Seven sold in the last three months, priced at $289,000 to $336,900, according to Realtor.com.
"We are up 100 percent in 2013 over 2012 sales," says Westrum, "and 250 percent over 2011 sales."
He had sold 19 of the original 30 homes he built at Hilltop before the market collapsed in late 2007, but had trouble selling the five $725,000 units he needed to move to raise the money to build more - even after reducing their prices to the mid-$500,000s.
Ultimately, in September 2008, the remaining 11 homes were sold at auction, with the high-end ones going for the lower $500,000s and the rest in the upper $200,000s to upper $300,000s.
Though East Falls always has had much to recommend it, Gillespie credits the development corporation with "branding" the neighborhood and keeping things moving forward.
Developer Ken Weinstein says the 50-space parking lot the corporation created under the Route 1 bridge helped him decide to buy and rehab the old public bathhouse on South Ferry Street as the Trolley Car Cafe. (He also owns the Trolley Car Diner in Mount Airy.)
"We probably would not have saved the building and opened the cafe if it wasn't across the street from the recreation path and did not have 50 parking spaces across the street," Weinstein says.
"Many people come by bike and walking, but some still use the old-fashioned method of driving to get to us," he says.
East Falls is well-situated, only 10 minutes from Center City, Weinstein says, "but it has not yet reached its potential.
"It is just a matter of time before more business owners and residents discover this wonderful community."
Town By Town: East Falls, By the Numbers
Population: 14,372 (2010).
Area: 1.46 square miles.
Homes for sale: 97.
Settlements in the last three months: 42.
Median days on market: 92.
Median sale price (single-family): $245,000.
Median sale price
(all homes): $245,000.
Housing stock: From the mid-19th century to 2013.
School district: Philadelphia.
Realtor.com; Prudentila Fox & Roach HomExpert Report.
Town By Town: >Inquirer.com
See more pictures of the neighborhood at www.inquirer.com/eastfalls
Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @alheavens.