(Excerpted from Local Einsteins: What to Know Before Buying or Selling a Home in Philadelphia Local Einsteins, May 15, 2014)
If you are looking to be in the ritziest, fanciest neighborhood in Greater Center City, then University City is not for you. Same if you are looking for a neighborhood that is located right in the heart of the main business district or within a couple blocks of the scores of spectacular restaurants around Rittenhouse Row or Midtown Village. Also the same if you want the most cars and parking at a premium. Or a higher price/square foot. Now a lot of buyers do want all this. Center City is crowded for a reason—because it is awesome and Center City Philly is one of the best places to live in the country (and in my opinion, the world).
But some people want to consider a neighborhood that offers the best of all worlds—a hip urban buzz, 10 minutes from all of the above, plus lots of green space, bigger yards, and lots of trees…and its share of restaurants, cafes, and shopping as well (not to mention world class Universities and Hospitals). This is University City.
I grew up in Society Hill and lived in Rittenhouse for many years, and my real estate office has always been on Rittenhouse Square. Six years ago I moved to University City. I now have a 10-minute drive home every evening, about the same as when I lived in Society Hill. I generally park right in front of my home (I rarely use my driveway or garage). And I feel like I have found an oasis; wide streets with mature trees, stop signs instead of lights on every block, neighbors hanging outside, and kids playing in the alley. I could not think of a nicer neighborhood, close to the city and sans any kind of staid suburban feel! And still so much to walk to and so much to do.
Like Center City, University City offers beautiful townhomes and condominiums. Unlike Center City, University City also offers twins and even some singles. So University City is the only neighborhood in Greater Center City to offer all sizes and types of houses, many with wonderful character and spacious yards.
What’s In a Name?
The names and boundaries of Philadelphia neighborhoods are not exact and often overlap. And then there are neighborhoods within neighborhoods. So I get lots of questions about University City as a neighborhood and the neighborhoods within University City. University City is a neighborhood within West Philadelphia. West Philly is a huge area, and if you live in University City, it is totally proper to say you are from West Philly. But not all of West Philly is University City. University City does not have definitive boundaries, but as a University City Realtor, the homes I represent are generally between 38th to 52nd; Market to Woodland (basically including the neighborhoods of Spruce Hill, Garden Court, Cedar Park, Squirrel Hill, and Walnut Hill) and 32nd to 40th, Powelton to Spring Garden (Powelton Village). Others might have slightly different boundaries, but only on the outskirts. The core is the same.
Most Philadelphians don’t even realize that University City comprises multiple neighborhoods, all with a different feel. And like much of Philly, the feel of each neighborhood can vary street to street, so walk and drive the neighborhoods, and of course, rely on your Realtor’s knowledge.
Not Just Townhomes Here
Greater Center City Philadelphia generally has one type of house—a town home (as well as flats, of course, typically condominiums). From Art Museum to Queen Village; Graduate to Fishtown, all of the house choices are generally fully attached. University City is the one neighborhood in Greater Center City where you have every option. Flats, townhomes, twins, and even singles.
This mixture of housing provides more option for the buyer plus adds to the eclectic feel of the neighborhood. The Garden Court tract developed by Clarence Siegel in the 1920’s is a great example. Siegel owned blocks and blocks of land, and he set about to build a unique urban neighborhood—not a development of only singles or tract housing, but an eclectic mix of homes such that homeowners of different means and wants could live together. Flats across the street from singles, backing onto several blocks of twins, and then townhomes. Some two-story and some three-story. Some built on alleys designed to accommodate the burgeoning new trend—the automobile. These alleys today hold strong as some of the most amazing neighborhood and family gathering places in the city—playing ball, riding bikes, regularly eating pizza and drinking beer with neighbors on typical summer evenings, alley parties—all with virtually no through traffic—like a deluxe urban cul-de-sac. Just wonderful.
The homes that are built on the alleys typically have smaller back yards, yet are set back further on the front, to allow for larger front yard areas. On the other hand, most of the other homes in University City may not have alley gathering places, but they offer some of the most generous outdoor spaces in Greater Center City. Many homes have front yards, lovely covered porches, and spacious rear yards—some quite deep. If a buyer is looking for substantial outdoor space, then University City should be a prime neighborhood to consider.
With respect to the homes themselves, the typical University City home is built in the late 19th through early 20th century. And then, there are sets of homes built in the decades since. As mentioned above, and unique to Greater Center City are the spacious singles, more similar to what you would see in the suburbs and some less areas of the City closer to Fairmount Park and the Wissahickon, such as East Falls, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill. These singles are still quite rare, and accordingly will sell at a premium.
Much more numerous, are the wonderful twins, spacious and with an extra exposure of windows and light compared to Center City’s ubiquitous townhomes. Of course, University City has many townhomes as well, both two and three stories, and typically more spacious (and with more outdoor space) than the corresponding Center City townhome.
Finally, University City has condominiums as well, though condos have never been a significant sector of the housing stock as it is in Center City. Until 2007, the only major condo building in University City was Garden Court Condominium—an Art Deco classic, with landscaped entry courtyards and koi ponds and grand, oversized apartments. It fell on hard times leading up to the mid-aughts, with broken elevators (6th floor walk-up!!), poor overall building maintenance, and skyrocketing condo fees just to keep up. Since that time, the Garden Court Condominium has enjoyed a renaissance, with vastly improved management, new elevator systems throughout, a new roof, beautiful new landscaping, and condo fees that are not unreasonable when judged on a per square foot basis.
Since 2007, University City has added 2 completely renovated high-end condominium conversions in prime locations (4200 Pine Condominium as well as 4300 Spruce), new construction (Pine West), as well as other smaller condo developments and conversions throughout the neighborhood. And currently in the works and with strong neighborhood support is a major high-end condominium and apartment project with ground level retail. To be located directly across the street from the beautiful and bustling Clark Park, on the southeast corner of 43rd & Baltimore, 4224 Baltimore, as it is currently named, will be the first Center City style condominium project in University City. Designed by a renowned architect and complete with a 24-hour doorman, desirable amenities, and a park-front location. 4224 Baltimore will be a major coup for University City, improving neighborhood amenities, safety, and property values.
Of course University City derives it names from the world-class universities within its borders—The University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and the University of the Sciences. Along with elite hospitals, including the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, these institutions are among the region’s largest employers, and of course many homeowners choose to live in University City to be close to their place of work.
That being said, when buyers tell me one of their most important criteria in a neighborhood is the schools, you can be sure they are not referring to Penn or Drexel. They want to know about the neighborhood school their kids will attend.
For many buyers, first and foremost, they want information on the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School (http://www.pennalexanderschool.org/). With perhaps the lengthiest name of any school in the history of education, it is no surprise that everyone simply calls this K through 8 the Penn Alexander School. In 1998, Penn, the School District of Philadelphia, and the teachers’ union announced the plan for a partnership school, an experiment where a neighborhood public school would partner with a prestigious Ivy League University to provide a unique public learning environment. The school building was new and modern (not typical in Philly, for sure), Penn subsidizes the school financially with an annual operating contribution of $1,300 per each student as well as helping to raise additional funds, and Penn enhances the school’s curriculum, programs, and education in various ways.
Penn Alexander has been an overwhelming success in public education. Its reputation is outstanding, and it has turned the Penn Alexander Catchment into a true destination for buyers coming from Center City, the suburbs, across the nation, and worldwide!! This has created, of course, a steep premium on University City Homes in the Penn Alexander Catchment. It has also created overwhelming demand at the school and some well publicized controversy on how best to deal with it.
A buyer’s first step is to understand the Penn Alexander Catchment boundaries. The boundaries are quite jagged, which even the least cynical among us will attribute to good old-fashioned gerrymandering. Back in 1998, who wouldn’t want to be included in the next great thing in public education? The boundary generally runs between 40th Street to the east; 46th or 47th to the west; Sansom to the north, and Chester to the south, though it juts further south around the Regent Street/Clark Park/ area, and there are a few other tricky boundaries as well. Even if you don’t have school age children, one must still understand the Penn Alexander Catchment boundaries when looking at homes, or the pricing/value equations will not make sense. Realtors that specialize in University City will know the boundaries cold. And you can find a map of the catchment at http://www.pennalexanderschool.org/sites/default/files/pas-map.gif.
The next issue is over-demand. Penn Alexander and its neighborhood catchment have been such a success that in some years the demand has exceeded the school’s physical capacity. And this issue is exacerbated since part of the school’s mission is a smaller class size and lower student/teacher ratio. Like most places, the general rule in Philly is that if you live in a catchment area, you can go to your neighborhood school. This has not always been a sure thing at Penn Alexander.
Demand became an issue at Penn Alexander years ago and parents had to wait in line for a few hours in the cold of January to make sure their kid got (what has been recently increased to) one of the 80 spots in the Kindergarten. A spot in Kindergarten was your ticket to admission through the 8th grade. No one ever seemed to know for sure if any kids did not get in and neighborhood rumors were rampant. Then the next year the line became a full day. Then overnight. Then a weekend. Planning for this mid-winter craziness became the fodder for neighborhood legend. (Even though it was never clear how many neighborhood children were not getting in).
Then came January 2013. With the registration deadline pushed back to a Tuesday for the MLK holiday, the first parent got in line on Friday morning, ready to camp out for four nights on the frigid January concrete. Some parents had tents, and then some built makeshift platforms for their tents, some had generators, campers…stop the insanity…and that is what the School District did – On the spot. The School District dispersed the line and immediately instituted a lottery. Needless to say, this abrupt, during-the-fact policy change did not sit well, and those in the front of the line, now subject to a lottery of chance, were understandably upset. The School District changed the rules after the game had started. On the other hand, those that missed the early line formation because they were at work or just not in the know, as well as those who simply could not stand in line for multiple days for a variety of reasons, now had a chance.
Accordingly, the current School District policy for the Penn Alexander Catchment is that admission is determined by a lottery. However now that the process was out in the open, a funny thing happened. Everyone who wanted a spot in that first year 2013 and for the upcoming Fall 2014 school year got a spot. The 2013 lottery was held and the 80 spots were filled and 10 kids were wait-listed. Ultimately, due to attrition (at least 10 of the 80 children ended up going elsewhere or moving from the neighborhood) all of the wait-listed children were offered spots.
And then in March of 2014, the School District announced that it had 74 applicants for 2014 (for 80 spots), so there would be no 2014 lottery. All neighborhood kids would have a spot in Kindergarten for 2014.
We never really knew how many kids really were denied spots previous to 2013 (at worst, virtually all children got spots each year). And all ultimately got spots in 2013 and 2014 once the system became more transparent. So it would be fair for one to ask if the whole issue has been overblown. Perhaps it was, but the perception was always there, and there always was, and still is the lack of a guaranteed spot for each Kindergarten child. So while most kids will certainly get in, and perhaps there will consistently be a place for all kids, the official School District policy is a lottery and there are no guarantees. So parents in the catchment should also apply to charter schools, magnet schools, other catchment schools, or private or parochial schools just in case. And the School District lottery policy is not just for Penn Alexander. As some of the other most popular catchment schools become more crowded, any year could bring a lottery in other neighborhoods as well.
One question I get most is “how has the lottery affected home prices in the catchment?” There is no definitive answer to this question. After all, for years there has been a perception that getting into Penn Alexander was no guarantee (see waiting in line above) and the catchment has remained white hot. And the switch to the lottery just occurred in January 2013 and then there was no need for a lottery in 2014. What I can say is this: the Penn Alexander catchment remains extremely popular with demand far exceeding supply. Prices in the catchment have continued to rise along with prices throughout all of University City as well as Greater Center City. That being said, I have clients who want a guaranteed schooling situation for their children. A chance of 95%+ is not enough. For some, this makes sense, and at this time, the Penn Alexander Catchment (or perhaps any of the City’s most popular catchments) may not be for them.
Penn Alexander gets the press, but University City offers other quality schools as well. The Samuel Powel School (K-4) serving Powelton Village is a small but very popular elementary school with high ratings. And the Henry C. Lea School (PreK-8) has just received a substantial grant, has ever improving parent involvement, and now receives financial assistance from Penn as well. Lea is becoming a solid alternative to potential overflow at Penn Alexander.
With Penn Alexander, Penn’s goal was to help the neighborhood. To have a positive impact on this gentrifying neighborhood, which of course strengthens the University. Penn is obviously in competition with the Cambridges, Princetons, and New Havens of the world for the top talent, and what better way to attract than to offer a most desirable neighborhood, minutes to the University and Center City, with spacious, gorgeous homes, lots of green space, and one of the best public schools. In my view, a true win-win. And as the Penn Alexander catchment neighborhood has improved, so have some of the surrounding neighborhoods and their schools.
If you are looking for a 4 or 5 bedroom for under $600,000 in one of the most popular school catchments in Greater Center City, you will have scant pickings in Meredith/McCall/Greenfield, but that is the Penn Alexander catchment’s wheelhouse. Be prepared. When something comes on the market, you and your Realtor need to be ready to jump. (To get a head start, please view the select Buyer Agreement of Sale forms found at Appendix 2).
A great site to find out the school catchment for any address in Philly is https://webapps.philasd.org/school_finder/. And a few sites for school ratings are http://www.greatschools.org/pennsylvania/philadelphia and http://greatphillyschools.org/.
The Feel of University City
The lifestyle in University City is what I cherish most. It is just a 10 to 12 minute ride to my office on Rittenhouse Square, just about the same as when I lived in Society Hill. Wider streets, lots of mature trees, stops signs instead of lights, the sounds of pedestrians talking and kids playing. But not a suburban feel at all. The key to University City is that it has all the trees and less traffic, but it has its own hip, relaxed style…Clark Park, Farmers market, great restaurants, coffee shops, gourmet shops, shopping, supermarkets, food co-op, academic institutions, historic homes, walkability, and access to public transportation.
Occasionally when someone hears I live in University City, they ask if I work for the University of Pennsylvania. The answer is that University City is a wonderful neighborhood for faculty and staff from Penn, Drexel, University of the Sciences, and HUP. But most of the residents are not tied to a particular institution. They are Center City professionals, long time neighborhood residents that work in and out of the neighborhood, of course docs, nurses, and university faculty as well, and others—not much different than other diverse neighborhoods throughout Greater Center City.
University City is among the nicest neighborhoods in Greater Center City. And that is reflected in its popularity among buyers. It offers a housing stock that you can’t find anywhere else in Greater Center City, mostly twins and some singles in addition to the more standard townhome (many with lovely green space and front porches). Some have parking and street parking is generally much easier than east of river. The homes tend to be grand and laden with late 19th/early 20th century character. University City is a very special place.
University City Resources
University City District— http://universitycity.org/
University City Review— http://ucreview.com/
West Philly Local— www.westphillylocal.com
Visit Philly.com— http://www.visitphilly.com/philadelphia-neighborhoods/university-city/
 I define Greater Center City as the Center City core (plus the adjacent neighborhoods to the north, south, and west). The immediate western neighbor is University City.
 Some (mostly long time) neighborhood residents resent Penn and its perceived bullying and deride these improvements as “Penntrification.” Some dislike the name University City for the same reasons. I believe this to be a very small and ever-shrinking minority view. While I find discussing the implications of gentrification and university expansion a fascinating topic (I have a degree in Urban Studies from Temple University after all), I will keep this article focused on University City and what a wonderful neighborhood it is.