A new elementary school in University City has created a real estate frenzy.
The corner of 43rd and Baltimore on a bright Saturday morning in West Philly looks like an idyllic place to raise kids. Parents push expensive strollers through the farmers market, children run around slurping water ice in their soccer T-shirts and parents split orange juice with their toddlers as they read the paper at the Green Line Cafe.
University City has long been a destination for young families, many of whom are associated with Penn and the other neighborhood universities, and the past few years in particular have produced a bounty of breeders. But for these broods, not all of West Philly is equal.
Seven years ago Penn/Sadie Alexander, a public K-8 school at 43rd and Locust--the product of a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and the School District of Philadelphia--opened its doors. Though the school isn't independent from the district, its funds and strategies are backed by one of the world's leading institutions of higher learning. Penn/Sadie Alexander promised a marked improvement from most of the city's public schools, and as a result it's become one of the most sought-after places to enroll your kid.
But in order for a child to be enrolled in the high-demand school, they need to live within the catchment area--the boundary lines that define what neighborhood, exactly, the school serves. For Penn Alexander those lines are tight: 40th Street to the east, Sansom Street to the north, parts of 46th and 47th streets to the west and a series of jagged cuts on the south that snake through the area. Most of the area surrounding Clark Park, for example, is in the catchment, but the space between Woodland and Chester on Melville Street isn't.
Arthur Bye is a co-owner of Urban and Bye Realtors, a company that specializes in University City properties. "Clients call us up and say they want to see only houses in the catchment," he says. "We could have a place that's 50 feet away, but if it's not within the boundaries, they don't want to see it."
Pat Warner, a local parent who's lived in the neighborhood 18 years, says, "We say we're eight houses away." She pauses and continues, "It's more like 12. We counted."
Concern regarding those distances isn't just about education. Houses in the catchment demand a much higher price. "There is certainly a premium," says Bye. "It varies, but homes sell for anywhere between $25,000 and $50,000 more."
"We bought our first home, which is in the catchment, eight years ago for $100,000," says Frank, a property owner/manager who now lives outside the city and doesn't want his real name used in this article. "When the school opened, we watched our house go up to $150,000, then $200,000. Now it's worth $400,000. With home prices rising, our rental price is higher. I'm aware that there aren't many people in the city who could afford to rent our house."
Bye, though, disagrees. "I haven't noticed much increase in rents. The people who rent from us aren't the ones sending their kids to the school." He says he rents mostly to college students.
The equation seems rosy at first--open a good school and you raise property values while helping the neighborhood kids get a quality education.
But Frank expresses reservations. "When we first bought our house eight years ago, there were three or four African-American families on the block," he says. "Now there are none. I can only imagine what happened to people who've been in the neighborhood 30, 40 years. I saw what was going down," he explains. "I couldn't fight it‚ and it helped me [financially], but I wasn't too happy."
"People have more money," says Warner. "It's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it's different. And it certainly seems less diverse."
The biggest change Warner sees? The little kids on her block have been replaced by teenagers and childless families, while blocks within the catchment are bursting with babies. "We went to one of my daughter's friend's parties. There were 100 kids there under 15. It was astonishing," says Warner. "It was swarming with kids."
Alli Katz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is PW's multimedia editor.
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