Philly’s Kensington Yet Again

BEHOLD THE TRANSFORMATION of a neighborhood before your very eyes. That’s what a walk around parts of Philadelphia’s Kensington is like. Whenever I visit, every two months or so, there’s new development, and it’s spreading fast.

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In 2008, when I bought a tiny row house (above right) in the area, it was bleak. Neighboring lots were vacant, nearby houses were falling down. Now, on my one-block block, there’s a new condo building on the corner, the weed-choked lot next door has been cleared for 17 new townhouses, and foundations for two more new townhouses have been poured directly across the street. My house has become the most rundown on the block, and I hope to address that come spring.

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Fan out to neighboring streets, and there are warehouse conversions everywhere (that’s Oxford Mills, above). In the 19th century, Kensington was a district of textile mills called Little England. Those that have survived are being converted to housing for an influx of mostly young people (some priced out, perhaps, of New York City).

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Frankford Avenue, which divides the neighborhood from further-along Fishtown, has been in the throes of commercial development for a few years now (La Colombe, a coffee roaster/cafe, and Fette Sau, a Korean barbecue restaurant, are two of the big-capital investments).

More recently, Front Street, along which runs the El, has become a desirable location for restaurants, too (Good Spoon Soupery, Front Street Cafe, above).

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The architecture of the new residential construction is not much to my liking, but for some reason this same look has taken hold all over north Philadelphia. Wherever there’s a vacant lot, Mondrian-esque low-rise buildings comprised of colored boxes seem to fly up.

Kensington is currently in the running for the grand prize in Curbed Philadelphia’s (pretty silly) annual best-neighborhood contest. Here’s how they describe Kensington’s advantages:

Kensington (7)—This North Philly neighborhood—which encompasses a series of sub-neighborhoods, including East, Lower, and West Kensington—is feeling the heat from Fishtown. As housing prices continue to rise in that hipster haven, more first-time home owners have looked to Kensington for more affordable options. And developers have noticed: Postgreen Homes has established plenty of their projects in the mostly industrial area, filling once-vacant lots with modern homes. Other signs of revitalization: The opening of New Liberty Distillery in the Crane Arts complex, the continued growth ofGreensgrow Farms on E. Cumberland St., and the annual Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby & Arts Festival.

The neighborhood still looks pretty bleak, as these photos taken on a gray Sunday after Christmas attest. The main pocket of greenery is Norris Park, a square of majestic trees. The surrounding streets are full of small row houses, used as workers’ housing 150 years ago, bearing ‘For Sale’ signs. Some have been renovated, perhaps well, perhaps in a slapdash way; others are being offered as-is.

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The double-wide beaut, above, on East Norris Street, has been converted to condos.

On a single block of Martha Street, I counted at least four houses for sale, at prices Brooklyn hasn’t seen for years, but a lot more than they would have asked a while back.

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#2031 Martha St., above, renovated, 229K

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#2061 Martha St., left, 159K; #2059, right, 339K

I’m not as confident a real-estate investor as I was a few years back when I started this blog. I’ve over-stretched, had to do more repairs and renovation than anticipated on all my properties, and rents are a bit soft.

But my experience as a landlord in Kensington has been good. It’s been relatively easy to rent my two units, and it’s getting easier. And I love being involved, in a small way, in something that’s so tangibly happening.

Related posts:

Ambling Around Kensington

Investing in Philly? Consider Kensington

Ambling Around Kensington

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I’M MORE BULLISH THAN EVER on Kensington, the Philadelphia neighborhood north of Center City where I bought a small row house for investment in 2007. Eight years ago, the area was full of crumbling, sagging buildings. Now it’s being spiffed up and built up everywhere, with new low-rise residential construction in formerly vacant lots, and the conversion of the area’s many disused textile mills and factories into rentals and condos.

In Philly this week, I wanted to see the area around Norris Square, above, a leafy park I remembered as sketchy several years ago, when small row houses near the park were going for well under 100K. They’re a bit more now (though still under 150K), but the area felt cleaned up and more friendly on a walking tour of the neighborhood with my son Max and his dog Roma.

We ambled up Hancock Street and down Front, under the elevated train, where industrial buildings are being renovated left and right for commercial and residential use. Here, in approximately this order, is what we saw.

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The carriage houses that carry tourists around Center City are stabled on Hancock. In the background, one of the many brick factory buildings that have been converted for residential use.

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This former feather company building is being developed after a community battle to save it from demolition.

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Admiring the newly painted signage on a Hancock Street building, we were invited in for a look. Federal Distilling is a vodka distillery, soon to open with a bar selling house-made products.

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The area’s row-house architecture is very similar to that of nearby Fishtown.

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Right around Norris Square, the houses are larger and more detailed. Must have been elegant in their day.

IMG_0016Circling around to Front Street, where a milk-bottle-shaped water tower sits atop an old dairy building.

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Something afoot here on Front in what looks like an old bank building.

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Oxford Mills is a mammoth rental building completed a couple of years ago in the shell of a former textile family. Public school teachers get a break on rent.

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On this block of Jefferson Street, a typical mix: some old row houses, a couple of modern interventions, and a former casket factory developed as apartments.

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The side of my property is visible, covered with ivy, in the photo above. The new construction across the street was a vacant lot two years ago. The grassy field has been sold to developers and will become 17 new townhouses. The brick building behind mine is one of the neighborhood’s earliest loft conversions.

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Lunch was here, in the shadow of the El, at the Good Spoon Soupery (they have salads and sandwiches, too) on the corner of Front and Master — a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

To see my previous reports about the area, go here and here.

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.

Playing Tourist in Philly

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The brand-new LeMeridien in Center City

TODAY BEGAN WITH COFFEE AND A CROISSANT at the Reading Terminal Market, an indoor foodie paradise the likes of which no city should be without (though I know of no other such place anywhere) — scores of stalls, from butchers and bakers to candlestick makers, literally. There are outposts of old-school Italian bakeries, Amish cheese makers, stalls selling Provençal linens and beeswax scented candles, handmade chocolates and unusual flowers — everything varied and fresh and reasonably priced.

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We stopped in to the Wood Turning Center in Old City, a unique gallery whose current exhibition, “Magical Realism,” features a major work, above, by Randall Rosenthal, my neighbor in Springs — one of Randy’s extraordinary, carved-from-one-piece sculptures. This one is a creative jumble of pads and notebooks, so realistically carved and handpainted you could well mistake it for the real thing.

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Then Nancy and I drove 30 miles south into Delaware’s Brandywine River Valley and spent the afternoon at Winterthur, above, the well-known 200-acre estate belonging to Henry Francis DuPont. His 175-room mansion is crammed with important American furniture and antiques. It’s more museum than historic home (H.F. removed bathrooms and kitchens to make more room for the display of objects). The interior of the house, which was built in the late 1800s and twice added on to before H.F.’s  death in 1969, is intentionally a pastiche of styles, with little architectural integrity of its  own. A fanatic collector, DuPont salvaged moldings and paneling and floorboards, even staircases, from various sources, composing some rooms in Federal style, others in Colonial fashion, and so on.

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For me, the highlights of our hour-long intro tour of just two of the seven floors were the rooms with wraparound scenic wallpaper — one with Chinese vernacular scenes of the 1700s, above — and the big blowsy flower arrangements, specifically required by H.F. in his will.

We took a tram tour of the grounds, which are gorgeous — all rolling hills and meadows with grazing sheep and ancient cherry trees and sycamores. As an arboretum, Winterthur is unsurpassed, but overall, the experience paled in comparison to yesterday’s exhilarating visit to Chanticleer.

Returning to Philly in the late afternoon, we drove up to Fishtown for a look around, and had a beer at Standard Tap (I’m not much of a beer drinker, but the beers at this place are all local and on draft). We had dinner, on my son Max’s recommendation, at Southwark in Queen Village, a civilized change from the noise and madness we encountered the night before at El Vez, Steve Starr’s gimmicky, wildly popular Mexican restaurant in Center City.

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We’re camped at Le Meridien, a sleek two-week-old hotel in a 10-story Georgian Revival building that has been done up by the Starwood chain in mod Eurostyle, top, above, and below. It’s fun walking into the lively lobby bar and reception area, where the building’s original carved decoration is set off by crisp 21st century furnishings, dramatic lighting, and abstract art. The hotel’s location couldn’t be more central — it’s right behind City Hall and next to the park with Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture.

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I’m looking forward to tomorrow: a visit to several small private gardens in the Mt. Airy section, where I’ve never been (participants in the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program), and a final stop at Greensgrow Farms in Kensington on the way back up 95, where I hope to find some out-of-the-ordinary annuals.

Philadelphia Garden Clean-Up

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YOU CAN TELL JUST BY LOOKING at this 20’x25′ backyard with its battered brick wall, which is attached to the rear unit of the double-trinity house I own in the Old Kensington section of Philadelphia, that the garden is a source of great pleasure for the person who lives there.

It wasn’t me who put in the colorful annuals or hung the wind chimes; it was a tenant who enjoys the garden to the fullest.

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This is how the garden looked when I bought the house in 2007:

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And here’s how it looked during clean-up:

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It took me just a couple of days to clean up this neglected disaster area shortly after I bought the building. Here’s what I did:

  • Pulled and bagged up weeds, which were three feet high and everywhere
  • Gathered and disposed of broken chairs and other garbage
  • Created a simple framework of planting beds, outlined in salvaged brick and terracotta tile, all found in the backyard, on three sides of a squarish patio
  • Laid down landscape fabric in the patio area to prevent the weeds from coming back
  • Ordered a load of pea gravel delivered. It was dumped on the sidewalk in front and then carted by wheelbarrow through the alley to the backyard (that was the largest expense, about $120)
  • Provided some planters with hostas and the French blue chairs
  • Brought in few bags of compost to get the beds started

A pink-flowering hibiscus tree in a far corner was the sole existing plant; the tenant filled in the beds with  marigolds and coleus. Voila! A garden at its most basic, but no less enjoyed for that.

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View looking down from top floor