Town By Town: Francisville in the thick of a boom
One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in the region's communities.
Christopher J. Ryan is not one to say, "I told you so."
Still, more than two decades ago, Ryan - an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach who has been selling real estate and investing in the Art Museum and Fairmount neighborhoods for the last 40 years - really did predict that long-neglected Francisville, located just to the north of them, would rise again.
He was right, and in a bigger way than even he could have predicted. The Francisville boom has not resulted in the neglect of Fairmount, he says, "where people are still buying rowhouses for $300,000, tearing them down, and starting over."
"Why it took so long is a mystery," Ryan says.
For the last three to five years, the 28-block area - bounded, according to the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp., by Broad Street and Corinthian Avenue, and Fairmount and Girard Avenues - has seen prices more than double, vacant houses bought and rehabbed for sale, construction on scores of empty lots, and a business renaissance within an easy walk of the Broad Street Subway.
But the resurgence of this place William Penn set aside three centuries ago for his vineyards has not come without considerable pain for longtime residents, who weathered more than 50 years of economic decline and city government neglect.
Although the boom is pushing up the values of their houses, they fear the resulting rise in property taxes will price them out of Francisville. As ReMax Access broker Chris Somers notes, "Even though the asset increases, liquidity does not," and neither does the ability to pay additional property taxes.
Who is buying here?
"The guy who would love to live in Old City but can't spend $675,000 for a condo or buy a three-bedroom/two-bath townhouse in Queen Village for $530,000," says Mickey Pascarella of Keller Williams Center City, who is listing a Francisville rehab with those specs for $130,000.
Its proximity to Center City via subway and bus also makes Francisville more accessible than other similarly resurgent, yet more established, neighborhoods, such as Northern Liberties and Fishtown, Pascarella says.
Francisville's revival is natural and intentional.
Natural, economist Kevin Gillen of the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government explains, because "the story of Philadelphia's regeneration is really the story of the outward expansion of revitalization from Center City to its adjacent neighborhoods."
In the 1990s, Gillen says, it was Rittenhouse and Washington Squares; by the late '90s, all of Center City, University City, Graduate Hospital, and Northern Liberties; and, in the boom years that followed, Fishtown, Queen Village, and Fairmount.
The housing downturn disrupted the process but didn't end it, he says.
"The current resurgence in Francisville is not due to anything especially unique to Francisville," Gillen says. "It is just positioned as the next neighborhood domino to fall."
Intentional is thanks to the efforts of Penelope Giles and the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp.
She readily acknowledges that trying to bring economic diversity to a long-neglected area "is not without its challenges."
"No one is being displaced as we embrace development and revitalization," says Giles, who grew up in Francisville.
The goal "is to establish an economically diverse neighborhood because a rising tide floats," she says, adding: "You have to remember that the Francisville neighborhood has suffered for the last 40 to 50 years from economic segregation."
Giles believes what is happening in Francisville will be sustainable because "we stuck it out, opened our doors, and said, 'Come on in, and we will figure out a way to get it done.' "
By demonstrating to city and state governments the right way to undo the economic segregation, the tax structure that helps contribute to neighborhood stagnation will be undone, Giles says.
Developer Jon Weiss of Equinox Construction & Management is partnering with Postgreen and ISA Architects in the 31-unit for-sale and rental Folsom Powerhouse, in the 1700 block of Folsom Street just north of Fairmount Avenue.
Three Philadelphia Housing Authority rowhouses stand in the middle of the site, Weiss says, "and we designed our project around them because we do not want to displace those residents."
His project is one of the most "sustainable in the city," he says, and is attracting buyers in their 20s and 30s for condos starting at $285,000 and townhouses at $415,000. Rentals will be $1,100 for one bedroom, $1,550 for two bedrooms.
Gene Zilberman of Trinity Realty Partners is building Poplar Square Condominiums at 16th and Poplar Streets. He says his $250,000 to $300,000 units are attracting first-time buyers - as is the gated parking area behind them.
"This is one of the last [emerging neighborhoods] with vacant lots," says Zilberman, who owns another lot adjacent to the site and expects to build there in the future.
"We've finished four units, and three of them have been sold," he says.
As Francisville reemerges, Gillen says, he expects to see "a lot of improvements along North Broad from Vine to Cecil B. Moore Avenue."
As Center City expands northward and Temple University continues southward, he says, "Francisville's revitalization will not only benefit from this but also even help facilitate it."
Francisville By the Numbers
Population: 9,613 (2010 estimate)
Median income: $47,300 (2009)
Area: 0.23 square miles
Homes for sale: 82
Settlements in the last three months: 204*
Median days on market: 75*
Median price (all homes): $325,000*
Housing stock: 19th-century rowhouses, new townhouses, condos, and rental units.
School district: Philadelphia
*19130 zip code
SOURCES: City-Data.com; Movoto.com; Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach HomExpert Report