Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Town By Town: Fishtown: Hot, hip, affordable alternative to Center City

When it comes to squishy boundaries, Fishtown's are among the squishiest.

The neighborhood: Frankford Avenue looking north above Girard Avenue in Fishtown. Construction is a familiar sight.
The neighborhood: Frankford Avenue looking north above Girard Avenue in Fishtown. Construction is a familiar sight.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

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

When it comes to squishy boundaries, Fishtown's are among the squishiest.

The 19125 zip code of which this Philadelphia neighborhood is a part "encompasses several different civic associations for whom boundary questions can be an issue," says Chris Somers, broker/owner of Re/Max Access in Northern Liberties, who sells and invests in Fishtown.

No matter where the neighborhood begins or ends, however, it is "an extremely vibrant, hot real estate market, with new construction and renovated properties in high demand but with extremely low inventory," Somers says.

There is a strong buyer pool in the $300,000-to-$500,000 range, "especially for single-family construction," he says, "much of that 2,200 to 3,000 square feet."

Current active listings range from $150,000 to almost $600,000.

"Millennials like the idea of new," Somers says of the pool of prospective buyers, mostly first-timers now renting in Old City, Northern Liberties, and other Center City neighborhoods where average sale prices have escalated to where Fishtown is in the affordable category.

Eric W. Fox - who in 2006-08 cut his teeth as a builder in Fishtown, turning a former popcorn factory into Memphis Flats, a loft condo project - says new construction in the neighborhood costs $150,000 less than it would in Northern Liberties.

"Someone who sells a house in Northern Liberties and buys one in Fishtown can pocket the equity" while not relinquishing any square footage or amenities, says Fox, who moved from the Graduate Hospital area and is raising a family in Fishtown.

"Not much of an introduction is needed for Fishtown" these days, Fox says. But it hasn't always been that way.

A working-class river ward since shad fishing was a big industry, there wasn't much interest in Fishtown among "gentrifiers" until the end of the 1990s.

Twenty years ago, when the city's median price was $61,000 - it was $117,500 in 2015's first quarter - you could buy a three-bedroom/one-bath rowhouse for $30,000 in Fishtown, or pick up a shell for $8,000.

Based on 66 sales since the start of this year, the median price here is $209,000, says Kevin Gillen, chief economist at Meyers Research and senior research fellow at Drexel's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation.

The highest median price reached in the last 15 years was $210,000 in 2013, Gillen says, based on data from the city Recorder of Deeds Office going back to 2000, when the median price was $40,000. Fishtown never looked back, even in the depths of the housing downturn that began in the third quarter of 2007.

During the housing bust, annual sales never fell below 170 in Fishtown. They peaked at 391 in 2002, before the housing boom hit its stride, Gillen's data show.

"Fishtown is Philadelphia's poster boy for revitalization of a formerly working-class neighborhood by educated and creative-class millennials," Gillen says. "It combines proximity to Center City with the walkable, diverse mixed-use environment of repurposed older buildings that provides the 'urban authenticity' sought by this generation, along with a significantly lower cost of living that puts renting or owning there within reach."

Fishtown "is literally growing in front of our eyes," says Halley Yankanich, 24, who with her boyfriend, Anthony Pell, 25, just moved from an Old City apartment to a new condo they bought in the neighborhood.

"There are always people walking the sidewalks, great restaurants opening, fun bars - everything we had hoped for," Yankanich says. "Our condo building is sold out, and all of our neighbors are energetic young adults.

There aren't many condos being built in Fishtown, Somers says, because buyer preference has been for new single-family houses. Fox is thinking there might be a need for more duplexes and triplexes.

"There has been an escalation in price points in the last six months, and that makes me think that there is an underserved market - a void in the $320,000-to-$325,000 area that needs to be filled," says Fox, who renovated older rowhouses before shifting to new singles.

James Maransky does build condos here. His 35-unit Icehouse development is now in its third phase after selling out the first two, even during the depths of the real estate downturn.

"We have seven out of the 13 units in Phase 3 under agreement, and we are very early on in construction," Maransky says, adding that "most are coming without agents, which is a very positive sign."

"The overall Fishtown market is really maturing and filling in," he says. "It is a great destination for young buyers, [who] appreciate the value of what they are getting."

Change hasn't come without pain, though, and many longtime residents fear they will be priced out of a place where several generations of their families have lived and worked.

The restaurant/retail boom has created parking issues, too, and the Fishtown Neighbors Association is perpetually in high gear dealing with zoning issues arising from rapid development.

"While many people are split on whether such change is good or bad, change is inevitable," Gillen says.

"We can try to fight neighborhood change," he adds," or we can choose to channel and refine such change into actual progress."

Fishtown By the Numbers

Population: 31,694 (estimate).

Median household income: $37,371.

Area: 1.59 square miles.

Settlements in the last three months: 66.

Homes for sale: 125.

Average days on market: 69.

Median sale price: $209,000.

Housing stock: From 19th- century rowhouses to new single-family construction.

School district: Philadelphia.

SOURCES:; Kevin Gillen, Meyers Research/Lindy Institute, Drexel University; Chris Somers, Re/Max Access, Northern Liberties

215-854-2472 @alheavens