In a city growing as quickly as Philadelphia is these days, it's no easy task for developers to find sprawling lots of vacant land that can be developed in attractive neighborhoods.
Yet local developer Dan Neducsin has been sitting on one for decades.
While developers have been snatching up the last pieces of buildable land in neighborhoods stretching from South Philadelphia to Fishtown in recent years, few beyond Neducsin have paid much attention to Manayunk.
With the cost of building in core urban areas mounting, and with affordability concerns rising, Philadelphia's formerly "it" neighborhood, located just eight miles outside Center City, is back in the spotlight. In particular, developers in the last few years have rushed to build luxury apartments in the tiny enclave — so much so that 3,000 units are expected to be delivered within a one-mile radius of Manayunk between 2014 and 2018.
But what has been lacking in Manayunk, some say, is an influx of new housing to meet the demand of wealthier residents who have arrived in the last decade as the neighborhood has tried to shed its image as a post-college hub.
That's exactly what a pair of developers intend to bring to Neducsin's land.
After sitting vacant for more than a decade, 1 Leverington Ave. — between Green Lane and Leverington Avenue, and between the Manayunk Canal and the Schuylkill — is finally seeing some activity. Greg Hill of locally based D3 Developers and Concordia Group of Bethesda, Md., are partnering once again to transform the former industrial site into 70 high-end townhouses, each starting at $599,000. For now, Neducsin, the developer credited with reviving Manayunk in the 1990s, remains the owner of the land.
The plan for the sleek homes — which Neducsin said would include roof decks and underground parking garages — is quite the change for the nearly 400,000-square-foot parcel, which for more than a decade has sat overgrown and unkempt as a fierce legal battle between Neducsin and residents flared over the land's fate. It's also quite the change for Manayunk, a neighborhood that for decades has been defined by the aging, pre-1940s rowhouses that dot its hilly streets.
Manayunk "is going to be the next Brooklyn," said Neducsin, when talking about the vision for the site. "They are running out of spaces in the city [to build] — yet this is not the suburbs, and that is why people like living here. Because it's in the city."
"In Center City, this would be a $2 million unit," he continued, speaking about the homes planned. "They are going to see this [development] and come out here."
Still, there is a long way to go before shovels are in the ground. The developers have had initial meetings with the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, but both a formal Registered Community Organization meeting and a presentation in front of the city's Civic Design Review board are still needed. Plus, the land is zoned for smaller-scale commercial space on the ground floor and residential up top, meaning that D3 Developers and Concordia will need a change in zoning to accommodate the 70 townhouses.
Even so, the developers have reason for optimism. According to the Lower Northwest District Plan published in 2014, part of the Philadelphia2035 project, the land surrounding 1 Leverington Ave. was recommended to be rezoned to a more residential area. And initial meetings with the Manayunk Neighborhood Council were generally positive, both sides say, a reversal from years ago when a lengthy legal battle stalled Neducsin's initial plans to build 280 condominium units on the site.
Kevin Smith, president of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, said the group generally supports the latest plan, despite having lingering concerns about residential building on the site — one that he said could be prone to flooding by the two bodies of water that surround it. (To combat that, Hill, of D3 Developers, said they plan to raise the grade of the site and install early flood warning systems.)
"In the biggest picture, it is still our belief that residential is inappropriate down by the river," Smith said. "… But our approach now is obviously development.
"The development is positive, and it seems like the community would support it with adequate flood evacuation plans."
It wasn't always this way for Smith and his Manayunk Neighborhood Council. Nearly a decade ago, Neducsin — who has owned 1 Leverington Ave. for decades — proposed to develop 280 dense condominium units, which would stand nearly 90 feet tall, and require hundreds of parking places.
Immediately, residents pushed back.
"It would have been huge; it would have changed the face of Manayunk," Smith said. "… There was no hardship and no justification for the variance" that Neducsin was granted at the time.
Saying that the proposed condo complex was too dense, too tall, and too vulnerable to flooding, Manayunk's residents fought back, appealing Neducsin's zoning approval to Philadelphia's Zoning Board of Adjustment, the Common Pleas Court, and the Commonwealth Court. For years, the case wound its way through the court system, as multiple appeals and remands ensued. In the end, Neducsin never built his project.
For years after, Neducsin's land remained bedraggled, as brush and trees grew over. And the only building left at 1 Leverington Ave. — which formerly housed two prominent restaurants, Arroyo Grille and then Carmella's — fell victim to trespassers, graffiti, fires, and trash.
But a few years ago, Neducsin said, his thoughts about the site changed.
"I feel that it's the wrong time to build 280 units and the right time to do this," Neducsin said. "We have a huge advantage over kind of anything — to me, it's one of the best sites in the city. You're on the river, you have the [Manayunk] towpath right there, and Main Street right there."
"You can see the influx of people coming [to Manayunk], and it's a higher income group," Neducsin said.
Indeed, in recent years, Manayunk has grown wealthier as its population has increased, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Between 2011 and 2015, the neighborhood's population surged nearly 29 percent, and its median household income jumped 27 percent, to $70,556.
Yet median home sale prices have not increased quite the same way that they have in other city neighborhoods in recent years. In the third quarter of 2017, the median price of a home in Manayunk was $234,500 — less than the median price of $253,000 a decade before, according to data from Drexel economist Kevin Gillen. While Neducsin recently sold a newly constructed property for more than $900,000 on the 4500 block of Silverwood Street, it's unclear how much demand there may be for 70 properties priced at more than $599,000.
The developers and Neducsin say the site has a lot of perks working in its favor. With river and canal views, the roof decks on the four-story homes will be in high demand, Hill predicted. Developers plan to create landscaped green space on the land closest to Green Lane. And, Hill said, architecturally, they are planning for a "contemporary design that's respectful of [Manayunk's] industrial past."
"When doing townhouse work, it's challenging to find sites that really provide a sense of community — mostly, it ends up being just infill sites in the city," Hill said. "I think the intriguing aspect of Venice Island is that it's an isolated parcel of land on the waterfront, with just a great opportunity to create a sense of place."