Investing in Philly? Consider Kensington

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FROM TIME TO TIME, people ask me where to invest in Philadelphia real estate. (Sometimes they ask me where to invest in Brooklyn, and I say: “Philadelphia!”)

IMG_2603But within Philly, I say Kensington, particularly the southern section sometimes known as South Kensington, Old Kensington, or even Olde Kensington, a neighborhood just above played-out Northern Liberties (that was the place to invest 10 years ago) and west of hipper-than-ever Fishtown, recent darling of New York Times reporters. I own a two-unit building in South Kensington — two back-to-back trinity houses, left, built in the 1840s as housing for workers in the area’s massive carpet and textile mills. (My house is the one on the right in the photo, with the peeling cornice; there’s a three-story unit in front and another in the rear, reachable via the alley between my building and the one next door.)

Many of the weavers and textile workers immigrated from England in the mid-19th century, when the area was known as “Little England.” When I bought the house in 2007 for $137,000, the surrounding blocks were really dilapidated — some of the houses, like the ones in the group below, were literally sagging. They’ve since been renovated, and their rooflines are more or less parallel to the horizon.

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There were — and still are — vacant lots and hulking mill buildings all over the nabe, like the two below, both within a block of my building. It all looked ripe for adaptive reuse, especially large-scale residential conversion, but not much was happening.

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The building above, on 2nd Street and Cecil B. Moore, still looks undeveloped.

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At Palethorp and Cecil B. Moore, above, this old industrial building appears inhabited.

That was only six years ago, and now it’s happening in a big, big way. Around the corner from my building, Oxford Mills, below, is well on its way to becoming 141 rental lofts, with an innovative program of reduced rents for public-school teachers, and amenities such as gym, lounge, etc.; and a mixed-use mega-development called Soko Lofts is on its way. There are many other projects of the same ilk: you can find posts about some of the activity here on Curbed Philly.

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Across the street from my little building, where once was a vacant lot, a new residential building, below, is going up. It’s of a type often seen in Philadelphia but never in New York. It’s too low-density, I suppose — only four stories high, with box windows and terraces and modernistic use of color. I don’t love the look — these buildings seem insubstantial to me, used to brick and brownstone as I am — but I do find it exciting that the neighborhood is roaring with development.

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That’s the 1840s St. Michael’s church in the background, above, the view of which, along with some sunlight, we are sadly about to lose.

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The building above, on Second Street, is typical of new Philly architectural design.

South Kensington’s main artery is Frankford Avenue, shared with Fishtown and  quickly becoming lined with bars and restaurants, including a couple of high-profile ones owned by celebrity restauranteur Steve Starr (Fette Sau, an upscale BBQ place, and Frankford Hall, a beer garden) and the new Philadelphia-based La Colombe coffee roasting complex, distillery and cafe.  Each time I visit, there’s more.

It’s spreading, it’s growing, it’s crazy affordable compared to New York City. And it’s a short bike ride to Center City, whose skyline is visible from most parts of the neighborhood.

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Priced out of Bushwick, Brooklynites? Think Kensington.

Fishtown Jumping

Photo: Alexis Olsen

THERE’S NO SHORTAGE OF CORNER BARS in Fishtown, a historically working-class Philadelphia neighborhood that has been steadily mutating, these past few years, into a more upscale one (so what else is new?)

Some of those drinking establishments are decades-old dive bars. The recently renovated Fishtown Tavern, above, straddles the line between what was, offering $2 drafts to keep longtime locals coming in, and what is and will be, with ambitious bar food like warm dates stuffed with goat cheese and portabello mushroom sandwiches.

Fishtown (the name comes from its history as the shad fishing center of the Delaware) is characterized by:

  • tiny 19th century row houses

  • electric trollies

  • abandoned industrial buildings on a massive scale

  • new construction in a hyper-modern style (similar to that in the Northern Liberties area, a few blocks to the south and a little farther along the gentrification arc)

  • a growing population of ex-Brooklynites, including my son Max.

On Sunday afternoon, he and I took a walk, and soon I was getting a tour of the latest developments — especially the rapidly changing Frankford Avenue corridor, a diagonal artery of mostly industrial buildings and old storefronts being adapted as we speak for use as restaurants, music venues and, of course, bars. Here’s some of what moved me to take my iPhone out of my pocket as we walked along:

Loco Pez, a new taqueria (with amazing-looking salads and $1.75 tacos) in one of many buildings with rounded or oddly angled corners

Scrumptious detail on a corner building

Little Baby’s, a new ice cream store on Frankford Avenue offering unusual flavors like Earl Grey Sriracha, next door to the also-new Pizza Brain

One of many fish-themed gates by Robert Phillips, a metal artist whose workshop was in Fishtown. He died last month at age 50.

El Bar, so named for its location under the elevated railway that runs along Front Street. It may look at first glance like an old-school dive bar, but don’t be fooled. It’s hip.

The plants on the Juliet balcony are a hint that someone lives above these commercial garages on Frankford

Above, a high-end, limited-edition motorcycle shop is coming in next to a hair salon called Parlour

A fine converted carriage house

As-yet-unrealized potential in a building next to a music venue called Barbary

Restauranteur Steve Starr’s Frankford Hall, above, an indoor/outdoor beer garden that opened a couple of years ago, has been a major turning point in the development of Frankford Avenue. A Korean barbeque spot is coming in next door.