One in a continuing series spotlighting the real estate market in this region's communities.
If you aren't into bustle, Upper Darby's 69th Street right before a holiday weekend isn't for you.
Not the 69th Street Transportation Center, where an estimated 100,000 travelers a week come in on the El to high-speed it to Norristown, trolley it to Media or Sharon Hill, or connect to one of nearly 20 bus routes that fan out to the suburbs.
Not the business district from Ludlow to Walnut, as parents drag children from clothing shops to shoe stores, rewarding them at fast-food places if complaining is minimal.
The sounds that truly define Upper Darby are the voices speaking scores of languages and dialects (an estimated 62 to 80), a mix of world cultures that leads Mayor Tom Micozzie to call the township "American pie."
Some years back, while crafting Christ Lutheran Community Church's "welcome" sign, recently retired Pastor David R. Shaheen called the school district to learn the most common languages spoken among its 12,000 students.
"Fourteen was the answer," he says. That's the number of welcomes on his sign.
Shaheen is executive director of the faith-based, nonprofit Upper Darby Community Outreach Corp. Among its programs is a language institute that offers English classes to adults throughout the day, so they can be fit into work schedules.
No matter their country of origin, these students "seem to be able to relate to each other as their English improves," Shaheen says, creating acceptance of cultural differences.
Joe McGettigan, owner of Carr Real Estate for 45 years and a lifelong resident, says Upper Darby, perhaps better known as the hometown of actress Tina Fey and rocker Todd Rundgren, has always been a magnet for immigrants.
"When I first started selling real estate, the big ethnic group was Greek," says McGettigan. In the 1970s, Irish- and Italian-Americans began moving in from West Philly.
Fey's brother, Peter, a writer and producer for QVC in West Chester, vividly recalls those days.
"Upper Darby was always a bit of a melting pot, although in my early days it was a predominantly Greek melting pot," he says. "I'd see little old ladies dressed all in black, engaged in rapid-fire discussions I could not understand. As time passed, there were kids from elsewhere, places like Vietnam and Lebanon."
Today, buyers are from so many places, McGettigan can't name them all.
Why? Public transit makes the township attractive to those who cannot afford a car or who need more than one, he says.
Plus, Upper Darby is as diverse in housing as it is in people. Neighborhoods near 69th Street are tightly packed with rowhouses and twins, but Drexel Hill and neighborhoods farther out are roomier, with more twins and singles.
What this means, says McGettigan, is that prices can range from as low as $25,000 to $1 million in the blink of an eye - going higher the farther you travel from the township's Philadelphia edge.
What's holding back housing here is the slow comeback of the job market, McGettigan says, even with interest rates so low and prices falling back from what he calls unsustainable levels.
"There are a lot of entry-level homes here, and what happens is that first-time buyers live in a house five to seven years and trade up to something larger," he says. But with high unemployment, entry-level houses are being bought by investors as rentals.
Fortunately, as Shaheen and McGettigan note, the township is being proactive, requiring landlords to obtain licenses and inspecting rental properties once a year.
In addition, according to township administrator Thomas Judge, Upper Darby offers HUD-financed income-based grants and loans to homeowners to improve their properties. So far, 4,000 have taken advantage of the program.
Property taxes are on the high side here, McGettigan says, with the Upper Darby School District taking the largest chunk. The township continues to bank on commercial development to ease the burden.
There are opportunities. Philadelphia-based developers Ken Weinstein and Stan Smith paid $1.1 million in 2009 for the 84,000-square-foot former Verizon Corp. building across the street from the Upper Darby municipal building. They rehabbed the structure for offices as 7200 Chestnut, and it is one-third leased, Weinstein says.
Micozzie points to recent gains on 69th Street, such as the opening of the township's second Burlington Coat Factory store and the scheduled arrival of the Swedish clothing retailer H&M's 28,000-square-foot store, as well as the opening last fall of a Delaware County Community College satellite campus in Barclay Plaza.
He says New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which has owned 510,000 square feet of 69th Street since 2005, remains committed to Upper Darby and finding tenants for vacancies such as the Turf Club, Sears, and, most recently, UA Theaters.
The township encourages small business, providing assistance in the most common languages to ease the process for entrepreneurs opening ethnic restaurants and stores that expand offerings on 69th Street and in other shopping areas.
"We're not like the state or federal government and can't offer financial incentives to developers," Micozzie says. "We can meet them face to face, offer them our cooperation, and make sure things get done that need to be done.
"We don't say we're off this week, and we'll see you next Tuesday."
Town By Town: Upper Darby, By the Numbers
Population: 82,795 (2010)
Median income: $52,461 (2008)
Area: 7.9 square miles
Homes for sale: 196
Settlements in the last three months: 54
Average days on market: 79
Median sale price (single-family homes): $100,000
Median sale price
(all homes): $77,500
Housing stock: 32,000 units, 28,000 built before 1960; 8,000 detached, 16,000 rowhouses and twins.
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau; City-Data.com; Realtor. com; Movoto.com
Town By Town:
Go to philly.com/fey for: A slideshow of Upper Darby scenes from the
past and present.
An essay by Peter Fey, QVC producer and brother of Tina, who writes of growing up in Upper Darby.
Contact Alan J. Heavens
at 215-854-2472, email@example.com, or @alheavens at Twitter.