by Michaelle Bond
Roxborough is attracting a flood of developers, renters, and home buyers
Roxborough is outpacing the city as a whole in percentage growth of residents and new housing units. The number of rental units in the 19128 zip code is growing the fastest.
Marlene Schleifer threaded her SUV through tight Roxborough streets — the ones that are supposed to fit two cars at a time but force games of chicken — and pointed out the new homes slotted into spaces like Tetris blocks.
A development tucked sideways to fit the space between rowhouses. A dozen new townhouses slid in behind a few older houses that will be demolished to make way for twins. About 180 apartments approved to replace tiny Mel’s Kitchen on Umbria Street and part of the hillside behind it. About 170 apartments going up on Ridge Avenue next to the Wawa. Six twins slated for a grassy lot behind a church. Twelve rental units proposed over there, 50 units here, at least 60 more here.
“I always say if there’s a postage stamp-size piece of property, someone’s putting twin homes on it,” said Schleifer, president of the Ridge Park Civic Association. “And that’s what’s happening.”
Roxborough is outpacing the city as a whole in percentage growth of residents and new housing units. The total number of owner-occupied units ticked up slightly between 2012 and 2019. But census estimates show the number of rental units in the 19128 zip code, which includes Roxborough, Upper Roxborough, and parts of Manayunk, increased roughly 19%. And developers are proposing more residential units all the time.
“We’re having apartments go up left and right,” Schleifer said. “The development is just so out of control at this point.”
Changes in zoning within the last 10 years have spurred much of the construction, and Philadelphia’s 2035 comprehensive plan envisions a more developed Roxborough. In some cases, a property’s side or rear lot is subdivided to fit more homes. In others, developers replace one- or two-story properties with apartment buildings of four or more stories.
“Just recently, we’ve seen brand new apartments being built on Ridge. It’s really kind of a new phenomenon,” said Brian Paule, a Roxborough Development Corp. board member and chief operating officer of the Galman Group, an apartment developer and owner that over the last 40 years has bought old buildings in Roxborough to renovate and operate. “What we see going on is just thrilling. It’s a great neighborhood, great location.”
And more people can afford Roxborough than more central parts of the city. Starting rents for two-bedroom apartments in the Galman Group’s seven Ridge Avenue buildings, for example, range from roughly $1,150 to $1,650.
Even as more attention spurs feelings of pride, some residents and neighborhood groups worry that the influx of more residents will strain resources such as local parks and add to the area’s traffic congestion.
The rezoning of portions of Ridge Avenue about seven years ago allowed for taller buildings and for residential units as long as the ground floor was nonresidential space. The idea was to build up commercial corridors with apartments above businesses. The change in the zoning “created a kind of explosion of growth,” said Kay Sykora, a member of the zoning committee of the Central Roxborough Civic Association and a resident of the area since 1973.
“The scale of what’s happening is kind of intimidating sometimes,” she said.
“We’re poised to build on what we’ve already been doing” and to cater to existing and new residents
The Roxborough Development Corp. focuses on the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor, the site of much of the neighborhood’s multifamily development, and is proud to see new businesses arriving, established businesses thriving, and new residents choosing the area, said Linda Dottor, the corporation’s operations manager. The corridor has the capacity for more residential and commercial development, she said.
A few years ago, the corporation, which works to attract businesses and hosts events, created a pocket park in the middle of the corridor.
“We’re poised to build on what we’ve already been doing” and to cater to existing and new residents, Dottor said.
Her organization has seen students from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and Temple University’s medical and dental schools coming to Roxborough to rent. Home buyers include those who grew up in the neighborhood and returned as adults.
Both renters and buyers interested in Roxborough are looking to live in the city but still have access to wide swaths of outdoor space for hiking, bike riding, and other activities, Dottor said. And they’re looking for larger indoor and outdoor spaces at home.
Those are some of the amenities that attracted Dave Huting, 58, who has lived in the Center City area since 1987 but fell for the Roxborough area while visiting a friend.
“A hummingbird landed on one of his plants in his garden about five feet from me, and I thought, ‘Wow, I need this,’” Huting said.
He is selling his townhouse in the Graduate Hospital area and in April will move into his newly built single-family house in Upper Roxborough. He’ll have more space for entertaining and a larger yard to plant a garden of his own. And he’ll pay less in monthly housing expenses, thanks to lower home prices in the area and a 10-year tax abatement on the development in the 7300 block of Ridge Avenue.
Huting works from home as an independent investment adviser, so he doesn’t have to worry about a commute. His driveway will make parking easier for clients after the pandemic ends.
He likes that a train station and Center City aren’t too far away and that he’ll be close to the shops, restaurants, and pubs on Ridge Avenue. Gorgas Park and Wissahickon Valley Park also are big draws that will allow him to mix urban living with the attractions of nature.
“I love the city of Philadelphia, and I wanted to stay within the city limits,” he said.
When Celeste Hardester moved to Roxborough in 1987, she was told the neighborhood was on the cusp of significant change, but she said she didn’t see much happen until more than a decade later.
The arrival of new people, including young families, has spurred enthusiasm in and for the community — much more than 15 or 20 years ago, said Hardester, president of the Central Roxborough Civic Association. Most engagement comes from homeowners, but renters, too, volunteer in the community. And renters who get involved then look for properties to buy, she said.
Roxborough hosts housing across the price spectrum, including stately older Victorian houses, more modest rowhouses and twins, single-family homes, and new and decades-old apartment complexes. A lot of the older buildings that were once filled with college students have become family homes, which Sykora, of the civic association, attributes to the construction of apartment buildings along Ridge Avenue and on Venice Island.
“In some ways [Roxborough] is a great neighborhood because it has such a diversity of housing stock,” said John Carpenter, a member of the zoning committee of the Central Roxborough Civic Association.
Through the decades, the neighborhood has become cleaner and more vibrant, said Carpenter, who moved to the neighborhood more than 30 years ago. A growing population and a new generation of young people will add to the vibrancy, he said, but existing residents want to make sure housing for established homeowners is protected and supported.
The civic association isn’t opposed to development, Carpenter said, but “having a stronger voice in shaping that development so it is complementary to the neighborhood and respectful of the quality of life of the neighborhood is important. And maybe it’s getting a little out of hand.”