Town By Town: University City's selling points are many

Monday, August 26, 2013

By Alan J. Heavens, Inquirer Real Estate Writer

Link to original article. 

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

The third-floor bathroom is stripped of its fixtures. The services of a plumber and a carpenter have yet to be procured.

Yet Kait Yulman and Geoff Neimark - and 9-month-old Ezra, if he could talk - can't think of one reason yet to regret buying their first house in University City at the end of May.

Ezra will know what it was like when his mother was growing up in Powelton Village.

"My father spent four years on the kitchen, even building the cabinets," Yulman, a social worker, says of the twin her parents bought in 1972 and where they still live.

Neimark, a clinical psychiatrist reared in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, says University City's brownstones remind him of his own childhood.

He recalls growing up in a house on which work was always in progress, and thinking that renting "was easier."

"We moved here initially for the convenience, but we fell in love with the neighborhood," says Neimark, who studied at the University of Pennsylvania. "The houses here have lots of character, and we wanted lots of space and a big backyard.

"I live in a big house at a price I could never get in Brooklyn," he says.

University City is a special place, says Jeff Block, a Prudential Fox & Roach real estate agent, who lives here with his wife, Kristen Gleason, and son, Ari.

"The houses tend to be grand and laden with late-18th- and early-19th-century character," Block says. "Wider streets, mature trees and lots of them, the sounds of pedestrians talking and kids playing."

Joanna Kempner and husband Joseph Drury are Penn grads who bought their house last year. She is a professor at Rutgers New Brunswick, he at Villanova - working at home unless they have to teach.

"It is a long commute," she says of her job, "but we wanted to live in the city and in this neighborhood, where houses are affordable, where there are families, diversity, and a deep sense of community.

"There are great restaurants and the Clark Park Farmers' Market, lots of kids, and plenty of room," Kempner says, but she adds she would like "more resources put into improving the schools" for when her son, now 3, is ready.

Block says a big attraction for young families is Penn Alexander, which economist Kevin Gillen calls "arguably the best public school in the city."

Gillen notes, however, that the school's popularity has led to overenrollment - and that there's no longer guaranteed entry.

"A few years ago, house prices reflected the value of that guarantee," he says. "Now that the guarantee is uncertain, it should be no surprise for house prices to currently reflect that uncertainty."

Houses for sale here have asking prices of $109,000 to $915,000, much above what they were 15 years ago, data supplied by Block show.

The last 46 settlements brought sale prices within 95 percent of asking price.

"The market is balanced," says Mickey Pascarella, an agent with Keller Williams Center City. "There is a six-month supply for sale, which is about right."

It is, by real estate standards, "sort of normal," Pascarella says, the kind of pre-boom market agents have hoped for.

Noting that University City saw the largest price appreciation of any city neighborhood over the last 15 years, Gillen, of Penn's Fels Institute of Government, says: "It also experienced the largest post-bubble correction." The neighborhood "was especially helped by Penn's renewed attention to its own backyard."

Pascarella points to the financial incentives both Penn and Drexel University offer employees to buy in the neighborhood as "creating a block-by-block movement west in which houses were rehabbed."

Scott Buchanon, who rented in the neighborhood before buying his first house a year ago, notes that safety is measured in blocks, "and I know enough to be 'street smart' in some places."

Still, "my house is great," he says of his three-bedroom, 21/2-bath rowhouse that was renovated before he bought it. Convenience to transit and "the plethora of restaurant and cultural events" reinforced his decision to buy.

Before Penn began its assistance program, says developer Carl Dranoff, a Drexel grad and benefactor, just 13 percent of the university staff lived in the neighborhood.

"For comparable universities, it was 50 percent and more," says Dranoff, whom many a local lender rejected for financing to convert the former General Electric missile and spacecraft division building at 32d and Walnut Streets into luxury rentals known as the Left Bank.

"They said: 'Market-rate apartments in West Philadelphia? No way!' " says Dranoff, who obtained historic tax credits and financing from the AFL-CIO Building Investment Trust, which manages the union's pension funds. The 282-unit mixed-use project was finished in 2001.

Drexel is the catalyst for myriad changes along the northern edge of University City, notably Chestnut Square, a $97.6 million development between 32d and 33d Streets, creating a new gateway for both school and neighborhood.

Creation of the University City District provided security and maintenance that "led to significant improvements in the quality of life," Gillen says.

Home-price increases of the scope the neighborhood experienced "got it smacked hard by the AVI [Actual Value Initiative tax estimates] whacking stick," says Gillen, who experienced the fallout firsthand at a meeting in March.

"Never in my life have I ever seen that many angry, frothing liberals," he says, "so pissed off that they were wealthier than they ever expected to be."

By the Numbers

  • Population: 48,589 (2011)*.
  • Median income: $46,504 (2011).
  • Area: 2.4 square miles.
  • Homes for sale: 46.
  • Settlements in the last three months: 46.
  • Median days on market: 44.
  • Median sale price (single-family homes): $293,000.
  • Median sale price
  • (all homes): $293,000.
  • Housing stock: 19,027 residential units, including rentals; post-Civil War to early 1950s.
  • School district: Philadelphia.

    *Excluding students.

SOURCES: University City District; Jeff Block, Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors.