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.