By Mary Mazzoni and Stephanie Mullen
A cleaning and greening initiative has swept Philadelphia including the small, historic neighborhood of Francisville.
Vacant lots there are disappearing at a surprisingly fast rate thanks in part to Penelope Giles, founder of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp. (FNDC).
In 2008, Giles decided to assemble a team of five to 10 people – called the “clean and green” team – to help square away the vacant lots that would soon become Ogden Park. The park, located at 20th and Ogden streets, was once made up of 10 separately fenced lots filled with overgrown grass, trash and debris.
“We removed around 3,000 bags of trash from the neighborhood,” Giles said.
The now beautiful park not only made the neighborhood look more attractive to its residents, but also others – including developers. Since then, new homes have been built and sold quickly, and renovation projects have begun on many existing structures.
“Renovations have been intense in the past couple of years,” said Julie Welker, a realtor who has sold properties in Francisville for nearly 30 years.
“The properties have no problem selling,” Welker said. This is a stark contrast to many other neighborhoods with properties for sale.
To city planners, it is not surprising that more green space translates to greater market value.
“A study was done that showed there was a remarkable increase in property values when you were near a greened vacant lot versus a vacant lot that was just sitting there,” said David Fecteau, a city planner assigned to the Francisville area in citing the Philadelphia 2035 comprehensive plan.
Francisville’s real estate market is currently on the rise, especially on the blocks surrounding Ogden Park. There is a property for sale at 822 N. 21st St. – a mere two blocks from the green space – that is currently valued at nearly $950,000. Another property for sale in the neighborhood that is approximately seven blocks from the park at 727 N. Uber St. is valued at $429,000.
A study conducted by Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate finance at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the school’s Institute for Urban Research, found that by planting at least five trees, the green investment can increase the surrounding property values by 15 percent. Her findings also state that when a vacant lot is turned into a garden, property values rise by more than 30 percent.
The findings proved true in Francisville, with the real estate market changing very rapidly as the number of pocket parks increase.
"It definitely makes the neighborhood look nicer," said George Butler, a 59-year resident of Francisville, who said he is helping with another green space at 19th and Poplar streets.
This greening is even increasing the value of oddly shaped land parcels in Francisville that were once considered untouchable by many developers – as they can be difficult and often expensive to build on, said Beth Miller, executive director of the Community Design Collaborative. Wachter agreed.
"As neighborhood values increase these lots become desirable,” said Wachter, who said that community gardens are the best way for neighborhood groups to stabilize vacant lots and increase property values.
Giles said she is pleased that greening efforts have made such a positive impact in the neighborhood.
“We focused on cleaning and greening the neighborhood, and now Francisville is a hot spot,” said Giles, a lifelong resident of the historic neighborhood.
The park was cleaned up in 2008 and expanded in 2009 – which coincides with the increased number of zoning permits that were applied for in the same time period.
“It looks like we’ve seen a pretty sharp uptick in use and zoning variances from 2008 to 2010,” said Fecteau. “We also saw a spike last year.”
That’s no surprise since there are currently a number of projects underway in Francisville. What is surprising is that new housing units remain fairly economically diverse, city planners said.
A 44-unit affordable housing development was just finished earlier this month on the 1500 block of Poplar Street, and high-priced condominiums are being built right down the street. Some units in Francisville are available for as little as $100,000, while some sell for almost $1 million.
“Francisville is a good model for a mixture of housing types and a mixture of income levels coexisting in the same neighborhood,” said Richard Redding, director of community planning at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
In keeping with the neighborhood’s green image, an eco-friendly housing development is also planned for the corner of 16th Street and Ridge Avenue, although the start of construction has been delayed.
“There are different submarkets available in the Francisville area—expensive, less expensive, stronger market, weaker market,” Redding said.
Giles said she hopes to spur development by creating a pocket park in every section of the neighborhood, and she is already well on her way – with parks established at Brown and Uber streets and the Francisville Playground at 19th and Wylie streets. She hopes to establish a pocket park on the once-bustling Ridge Avenue corridor this season.
“I want a balanced amount of green space,” Giles said.