One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in the region's communities.

The year was 1992; the place, Northern Liberties.

The median price of a house, mostly the two- and three-story brick row variety, was $26,600.

A northward trek from Old City was underway - artists first, then restaurants and other businesses looking for space and cheap rents. There was some building of what one neighborhood activist called "homes of the future" - listed at $200,000 in a city in which the median price was struggling to top $60,000.

Developer Jim Maransky, who has made his mark in nearby Fishtown, lived in the 900 block of North Fourth Street.

"It was a five-bedroom row, and it was beautiful," says Maransky, who is about to start building his first project in Northern Liberties, a single-family house for a client. "The landlord wanted to sell it to us for $90,000."

That was then. The house Maransky rented trades now for about $600,000, and the neighborhood's median price in first quarter 2014 was more than 13 times greater - $349,500, or nearly 17 percent above what it was in first quarter 2013, according to Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach Realtors' HomExpert Report.

What's more, that first-quarter median price, up from $300,000 in 2013, encompassed 51 sales for the zip code that also includes South Kensington and Fishtown, 19123. Local real estate agents and developers say adding those to the total isn't a drag on Northern Liberties' median price because they, too, are seeing higher prices.

Economist Kevin Gillen isn't surprised, since the pattern of recent neighborhood revitalization has been one of outward expansion from Center City.

In the case of the river wards, "the progression has been along the northeast extension of the Market-Frankford El from Northern Liberties to Fishtown to Port Richmond and even South Kensington," says Gillen, senior research consultant at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government.

As each neighborhood has revitalized, Gillen says, it also has gotten more expensive, "so the newest households move on to the next neighborhood that is slightly farther away from Center City but still has access to it via the train."

Growth has not been consistent, especially after the housing bubble burst in mid-2007, says Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association.

In 2009, he says, "there were one or two months in which there were no [association] zoning committee meetings, the first time that happened in 20 years," Ruben says.

Though that situation passed quickly, "not a lot was being proposed and not a lot was being developed," he says - projects approved before the bubble burst were completed on a smaller scale or were taken over by lenders.

With the downturn came a major price correction, since "during the boom, Northern Liberties was the city's fastest-growing neighborhood" and price increases, especially for the condos that sprung up like mushrooms, responded in kind, Ruben says.

Condo development has "gone away" since the boom, as financing dried up, Ruben says, so what's happening in Northern Liberties now and causing considerable concern is an explosion of single-family rental housing being sold to investors.

There is still for-sale development - such as Eric Fox's 4 on 6 on the 900 block of North Sixth Street - but not on the scale of the early 2000s, says Chris Somers of Re/Max Access, who is on the neighborhood association's board.

Adam Lisausky, who built and sold Green Street Commons on Bodine Street, has another project on the 900 block of New Market Street coming up, says Somers, who bought his first home at Second and Poplar Streets in 2006 with his wife, Stephanie, also a Realtor.

"Inventory is low, and it is a seller's market," says Somers. "There is a wide range of properties available - older, brand-new and high-end."

With the focus on single-family rental and the absence of condo financing, "a lot of developers are losing opportunities on some key corners," he says.

About 100 to 200 single-family rentals have been built or are ready to go, agents and developers say. Maransky believes many investors will sell these "quality properties."

In the popular $300,000- to-$500,000 range, there aren't many single-family homes for sale, "but a lot of condos," Somers says.

Mickey Pascarella, of Keller Williams Realty Center City, says more than half the transactions in Northern Liberties in the last six months were condos.

Though there are some empty nesters in the buyers' pool, most are young urban professionals who, Gillen says, discovered the benefits of transit as gasoline hit $4 a gallon, and who, Pascarella says, have been "priced out of traditional neighborhoods."

"It is still a little raw to come in from a 4,000-square-foot home in the suburbs and live here," Pascarella says.

Developer Bart Blatstein still gets high praise from many for his years of investment here, often in the face of opposition.

"People argue about his Piazza at Schmidts, but it is the hub of the neighborhood," Maransky says.

Ruben cites the 2.1-acre Liberty Lands Park as a lesser-known "jewel" that serves as a "village square."

The dog park across the street has 600 members.

"Considering there are only 2,500 households in Northern Liberties, that's a lot of dogs," he says.

 Northern Liberties By the Numbers

Population: 6,000 (estimate).

Median income: $54,982 (2011).

Area: 0.672 square miles.

Settlements in the last three months: 52.

Homes for sale: 32.

Median days on market: 107.

Median price (all homes): $349,500.

Housing stock: 19th- and early 20th-century brick rowhouses to 21st-century steel-and-glass condos.

School district: Philadelphia.

SOURCES: Matt Ruben, Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association; City-Data.com; Chris Somers, Re/Max Access; Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach Realtors HomExpert Report

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