Friday, February 27, 2015

Collingswood: All Manner of Diversity

Collingswood downtown shot from corner of Collings and Haddon with Knights Bistro in foreground.  TOWN BY TOWN, a new Sunday business column that sends me regionwide to look at real estate and life in towns and neighborhoods. The Collingswood Farmers Market on Saturday is one of the biggest and most diverse in South Jersey and gives a really good picture of the community and its people, so we start there. Collingswood Farmers Market Collings and Irwin Avenues (along the Patco line), shoot downtown shot from corner of Collings and Haddon with Knights Bistro in foreground and 420 Taylor Avenue with for sale sign in it.  ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Collingswood downtown shot from corner of Collings and Haddon with Knights Bistro in foreground. TOWN BY TOWN, a new Sunday business column that sends me regionwide to look at real estate and life in towns and neighborhoods. The Collingswood Farmers Market on Saturday is one of the biggest and most diverse in South Jersey and gives a really good picture of the community and its people, so we start there. Collingswood Farmers Market Collings and Irwin Avenues (along the Patco line), shoot downtown shot from corner of Collings and Haddon with Knights Bistro in foreground and 420 Taylor Avenue with for sale sign in it. ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Collingswood downtown shot from corner of Collings and Haddon with Knights Bistro in foreground.  TOWN BY TOWN, a new Sunday business column that sends me regionwide to look at real estate and life in towns and neighborhoods. The Collingswood Farmers Market on Saturday is one of the biggest and most diverse in South Jersey and gives a really good picture of the community and its people, so we start there. Collingswood Farmers Market Collings and Irwin Avenues (along the Patco line), shoot downtown shot from corner of Collings and Haddon with Knights Bistro in foreground and 420 Taylor Avenue with for sale sign in it.  ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer ) Gallery: Collingswood: All Manner of Diversity

To understand why people buy houses in Collingswood, spend some time on a Saturday morning at the farmers' market.

"It's so much a part of life here, probably more than I realize," said Morgan Robinson, a market sponsor and owner of Frugal Resale, a thrift boutique on Haddon Avenue, where sales and donations benefit a different charity each month.

She and husband Eric moved here 10 years ago from Philadelphia and bought an 1892 Queen Anne-style house that had been converted to apartments. Eric "put on a helmet, and, voila," it was a single-family home again for the Robinsons and their two sons.

Though the farmers' market draws vendors and hundreds of customers from South Jersey and beyond from 8 a.m. to noon, May to the weekend before Thanksgiving, it is a premier Collingswood social event, with "dogs and strollers" adding a certain joie de vivre to the mix, Robinson said.

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Launched in 1999 as a project of the Proud Neighbors of Collingswood, the market stretches from Collings Avenue to Irvin Avenue, just west of the PATCO station.

That station and the High-Speed Line it serves - trains run around the clock from Lindenwold to 16th and Locust Streets in Center City - is among this town's major drawing cards to home-buyers, especially for couples with jobs on opposite banks of the Delaware.

"It was a strategic choice," said artist Jacob Feige, who bought here in July. Feige teaches at Richard Stockton College in Galloway and his wife works in Center City, so reliable transportation, as well as proximity to Philadelphia and price, was key.

"We lived in New York and then Philadelphia, so this is not exciting in the same way," said Feige, 33, who is trying to balance work, a toddler, and rehabbing a 110-year-old-plus "below-average" house.

"But there is a trade-off with other amenities - schools and a yard - when you start a family," he added.

Even in an economy still unkind to small businesses and real estate, Haddon Avenue and surrounding streets are lined with an ever-growing number of restaurants and specialty stores that continue to draw people downtown.

"Everyone thinks that all of this [revitalization] happened overnight," said Joe DiBartolemeo, who has owned Collingswood Hardware for 12 years. "It took a long time."

Reed Orem is quite familiar with the intricacies of the economy. In 1999, he moved to Collingswood from South Philadelphia with his wife and son (now there are two boys) and joined Main Street Realty on Haddon Avenue.

"Real estate suffered, and that made it tough," said Orem, who in May opened Dig This on Haddon Avenue, focusing on mid-20th-century furniture styles.

 

On the rebound

Both the type of housing in Collingswood and the nation's economic malaise influenced his business model, Orem said: "The furniture of the 1950s and '60s is built to the scale of rowhouses and twins, and prices 20 percent to 30 percent below fair market make it worthwhile to travel the distance."

Paul Ciervo, a broker at Main Street Realty (owned by his brother, Pat), believes that the borough's housing market has finally reached bottom, and that prices have appreciated about 11/2 percent this year "depending on the property," but are primarily under $200,000.

Newcomers to Collingswood are diverse economically and professionally, Ciervo said, with many singles and newly married couples opting for the older fixer-uppers that abound.

DiBartolemeo, who's lived here most of his life, has seen "a younger crowd buying older homes," and so he has focused his business on "personal service," doing home repairs, restoring and repairing old windows, and "changing lots of locks as new owners take over."

Older houses attract "a certain type of person, and a lot of work comes with these homes," said Lynda Jones, a Collingswood resident and agent with Weichert Realtors in Moorestown.

There is great diversity in price here - "twin or rowhouses, very affordable, up to $450,000," Jones said, noting a "bit of a spike" in rentals in recent years because of the real estate downturn.

 

Amenities

People buy here for a host of reasons. Robinson, Orem, and Feige mentioned the local public schools. Robinson said they found the borough accepting of their mixed-race children.

She and Orem also said more gay and lesbian singles and couples were buying there.

Collingswood is not without controversy, with many citing as a big one the battle between borough officials and residents over completion of the Lumber Yard condo project at Haddon and Collings Avenues.

Yet newcomers and natives alike seem to share a genuine affection for the community.

Maryann Warne, who with her husband owns the Foster Warne Funeral Home, grew up here and played field hockey, basketball, and lacrosse at Collingswood High.

Though she doesn't live there now, her mother and sister still do. About 40 percent of the nearly 14,000 residents were born in the borough.

"The downtown has changed, of course, but I don't think Collingswood really has," Warne said. The high school still fields top-flight teams. The local recreation program starts boys and girls in sports early and feeds them into the school program.

"It still feels like home," she said.

 


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

Alan J. Heavens Inquirer Real Estate Columnist