Before you start thinking I’m crazy, and you’re saying, “Who the heck would commute from Philly?” consider that low housing prices make the City of Brotherly Love one of the leading homeownership markets in the country.<br /><br />Just 68 minutes by train, Philadelphia is less of a commute for some New Yorkers than those living in Long Island, Connecticut or parts of New Jersey.<br /><br />For freelancers, telecommuters, and corporate types who don’t have to be in New York every day, Philadelphia is a design-conscious homeowner’s dream. Maybe that’s why empty nesters and recent retirees are flocking to the city.<br /><br />You can get a townhouse for $325,000. You can live in a brand-new two-bedroom condominium a block from City Hall for $450,000. And you can live in a Ritz-Carlton residence with marble baths, a state-ofthe-art kitchen, and full use of the hotel’s amenities for just $555,000.<br /><br />Rents are an even better deal. A 1,200-square-foot loft will run you $1,000. A three-bedroom brick home in a neighborhood of artists costs $1,300 per month.<br /><br />”A resurgence in real estate and investment has turned Philadelphia into one of the most livable and affordable cities in the country,” says Mayor-elect Michael Nutter, who’ll take office in February. “There is incredible vibrancy on a cultural level and an economic level.”<br /><br />Not hindered by any mortgage crisis or housing slowdown, Philadelphia has grown leaps and bounds to become the third-largest downtown population in the country, behind New York and Chicago. After years of depression that decreased its downtown population, Center City Philadelphia grew its population by 28% to 90,000.<br /><br />”More than 40% of our downtown population walks to work,” says Paul Levy, president and founder of the Center City business improvement district, one of the groups responsible for the Philadelphia turnaround. “That’s more than any other city in the United States.”<br /><br /><br /><br />Getting from New York to Philadelphia<br /><br /><br />Taking Amtrak from Penn Station New York to 30th Street Station Philadelphia takes between one hour and eight minutes on the Acela high-speed train, and one hour and 26 minutes on a regular-speed train.<br /><br />One-way tickets start at $43 for a regular regional train and $81 on the Acela. A business-class upgrade costs $22 on the regional train and $61 on the Acela.<br /><br />A monthly pass for commuters costs $1,098, but that allows unlimited travel between the two cities on any train, excluding the Acela.<br /><br />When I did the trip after work one night, I couldn’t believe how fast it was. I hardly had time for a nap. On the taxi line outside 30th Street Station, a hipster student yelled into his cell phone how fast a ride it was.<br /><br />Philadelphia is also accessible via public transportation. You can take the PATH train to Newark and then take New Jersey Transit to Trenton. (Or, from Penn Station, take N.J.<br /><br />Transit directly to Trenton.) At Trenton, you can take SEPTA, Pennsylvania’s train system, into Philadelphia. This entire trip costs less than $17, but it can take up to three hours.<br /><br />If you drive, Philadelphia is 100 miles south of New York. It’s a straight shot on I-95. The drive takes approximately two hours.<br /><br /><br /><br />Old City: Loft Central<br /><br /><br />Just past Society Hill and a 10-minute cab ride to 30th Street Station, Old City is full of art galleries, loft buildings and furniture stores. At night, it turns into bar-hopping central where young adults wearing baseball hats and halter tops mingle at local breweries.<br /><br />Located directly underneath the Ben Franklin Bridge near the Delaware River, the area has historic charm and an industrial feel. You can live in a 1,300-square-foot loft for $1,800 per month right next to Betsy Ross’ home museum.<br /><br />On some stretches, you can’t walk 30 feet without seeing a “For Sale” or “For Rent” sign for a loft apartment. Miles & Generalis, the real estate agency and development group credited with building the local loft scene in the mid 1990s, has their office on North Third St. Their signs are all over the neighborhood.<br /><br />”Loft living in these neighborhoods are for people who are looking for something truly special,” says Alex Generalis, the firm’s owner and a world-renowned sculptor who did the button on New York’s Seventh Ave.<br /><br />If you’re looking to buy, Miles & Generalis has 2,000-square-foot reconstructed loft spaces with new appliances for $699,000. That’s just $350 per square foot, which was the price in SoHo in 1989. For furniture, go to Mode Moderne on North Third Street. They have a great selection at fair prices.<br /><br />(Fred Glick is an agent at Miles and Generalis!)<br /><br /><br /><br />Graduate Hospital: Up-and-Coming Fast Walk to Town<br /><br /><br />10-minute walk to Rittenhouse Square and the center of the city, the Graduate Hospital (G-Ho) area has a raw, almost haggard, edge to it. There are abandoned lots next to new construction townhouses next to simple rowhouses that lack the refined elegance and historic charm of Philadelphia’s more established neighborhoods.<br /><br />Popular with families looking for large living space close to Center City, the Graduate Hospital area has 2,300-square-foot three-bedroom homes available for $499,000.<br /><br />This traditional African-American neighborhood has recently seen young professionals move into the area. I saw seven homes for sale on one block. Old churches on every corner and 200-year-old small rowhouses on St. Albans Place give Graduate Hospital an out-of-the-way feel. Locals love the friendliness of the Harlem-like area. Basketball jerseys and new Nikes are prevalent here.<br /><br />”When I moved here, there were two people over 100 years old on this street,” says Bob Rein-hardt, a teacher who lives on St. Albans Place where “The Sixth Sense” was filmed. “These garden blocks were for middle-class people. Thankfully, they still are. But proximity to Center City means a wealthier class is coming.”<br /><br />Recently, developer Toll Brothers converted the nation’s first Naval Academy into an upscale gated community on the fringes of the Graduate Hospital area. Known as Naval Square, the development of replicated historic townhouses and apartments in the existing historic structures is drawing young families, local graduate students, and health care professionals. A one-bedroom in historic Biddle Hall costs $375,000.<br /><br /><br /><br />South Philly: Small Italian Villages<br /><br /><br />Parts of Queen Village around Catherine St. are as pretty as the West Village. Historic townhouses with backyards and driveways down small alleys have red, green and blue shutters, three-stepped stoops and brass door knockers.<br /><br />Three-floor townhomes known as “Trinities” have three small rooms, one on top of the other. In good condition, they can sell for $325,000. A 1,200-square-foot, 170-year-old home with a backyard garden is on the market for $409,000. The neighborhood has a slightly upscale bohemian feel, with coffee shops and cobblestone.<br /><br />In adjacent Bella Vista, residents hang on stoops and frequent the local Italian establishments. The famous Italian market is in Bella Vista. So are cheesesteak makers Pat’s and Geno’s. It’s slightly less green but with more of a neighborhood feel. A former U.S. ambassador to Rome grew up here. There’s a historic street dedicated to fabric.<br /><br />”The people in Queen Village are more opposed to change and a little older,” says Emily Clinton, who moved from New York after college for less expensive rents and a lower-key life. “Bella Vista rents are slightly less expensive as well.”<br /><br />A two-bedroom, two-floor rental in a Bella Vista townhouse can go for as low as $750. Yes, you read that right, $750. In Queen Village, large one-bedrooms will go for the same price.<br /><br />Debbie Zakhain, recently widowed at a young age, moved to Bella Vista from the suburbs.<br /><br />”I hated being away from the city,” she says. “And this neighborhood is Italian by history but gets more diverse every day. The Italian market has a Dominican section now.” Still, I smelled tomato sauce and baked bread on most corners.<br /><br /><br /><br />Northern Liberties: Cooler Than Thou<br /><br /><br />Think “cool and hip” when you think of Northern Liberties. Once a dilapidated area that was home to artists, horse stables and manufacturing plants, the neighborhood of Northern Liberties now houses a bowling alley-turned bar and condominium, modern rental lofts and a chic tapas restaurant called Bar Ferdinand.<br /><br />”I like to think of Northern Liberties as a cross between Williamsburg and the Meatpacking District,” says developer Bart Blatstein of Tower Investments, who is a pioneer in transforming Northern Liberties from an artist enclave to a more upscale environment. “Philadelphia, but especially Northern Liberties, might be the best housing bargain on the East Coast.”<br /><br />Blatstein became a controversial figure in Philadelphia when he began developing the 20-acre site of an old Schmitz brewery into 1,500 loft-like housing units. “Any change brings controversy,” says Blatstein, 53, whose company is putting $500 million into the Northern Liberties area. “We’re helping to transform a neighbor-hood. That’s never easy.”<br /><br />Northern Liberties is also home to high design and architecture showcasing some of Philadelphia’s most interesting new buildings. Gagan Lakhmna’s Creative Real Estate Innovations commissioned two buildings from New York architect Winka Dubbeldam, the architect of Tribeca’s V33 boutique condominium. One of them, American Lofts, is almost finished. The 11-story building will house 38 condos and two townhouses.<br /><br />”These buildings are world-class architecture,” says Lakhmna, who also developed Philadelphia’s all-glass 101 Walnut with spectacular river views. “This neighborhood is ready for that. I want my company to lead this push toward better design in this city.”<br /><br />The building will be ready for move-in come spring. Residences start at $368,000.<br /><br /><br /><br />Avenue of the Arts: Living in Culture<br /><br /><br />Broad St., once Philadelphia’s busiest thoroughfare, was renamed Avenue of the Arts in 1993 by then mayor and now Pennsylvania governor Ed Ren-dell. Since then, Avenue of the Arts added 4,000 theater seats and high-end retail. A residential resurgence followed as historic conversions have become as prevalent as Philadelphia Flyer jerseys on the street that the new mayor hopes becomes Philadelphia’s Fifth Ave.<br /><br />The Aria, from New York-based developers Urban Residential, is a conversion of a 33-story Art Deco office building constructed in the 1920s. It’s located one block off Avenue of the Arts.<br /><br />”This building has two dimensions,” says Christopher Martorella, CEO of Urban Residential, who is also developing the W Hotel in Philadelphia’s emerging Chinatown neighbor-hood. “The bottom portion offers great value for the first-time homebuyer or young professional and the upper portion gets you incredible luxury and views.”<br /><br />Apartments in the Aria are going for $420,000 for a one-bedroom and $975,000 for a large two bedroom with skyline views.<br /><br />Down the street, the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia is a 48-story building with views of City Hall and the adjacent Beaux Arts buildings. New York architect Gary Handel designed the building, which will stand next to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.<br /><br />According to Margaret Wilde, the project’s sales director for developer Craig Spencer, 40% to 50% of current sales come from empty nest-ers moving from the suburbs.<br /><br />”We added three-bedrooms to accommodate demand,” says Wilde, who says current prices start at $555,000 for a one-bedroom and $1.8 million for three bedrooms.<br /><br />Jan Talamo, who lived just outside Philadelphia in New Jersey, bought one of those three-bedroom units. Having just turned 50 with one kid in college and another in high school, Talamo felt the urge to get back to city life.<br /><br />”The suburbs are nice, but there’s nothing like living in town,” says Talamo. “The Ritten-house area was a little too stuffy for me and my wife. The Ritz is next to City Hall and it lets us be more maverick but not lose any quality. Plus, the rotunda at the hotel with the new restaurant will be an incredible place to entertain.”<br /><br />French-chef Eric Ripert of New York’s Le Bernardin will open up a restaurant in the hotel’s refurbished 140-foot rotunda lobby.<br /><br /><br /><br />Rittenhouse Square and Society Hill: Welcome to the Establishment<br /><br /><br />The two most established and oldest neighborhoods in town, Rittenhouse Square and Society Hill provide an upper East Side elegance. Yet in Philadelphia, both of these neighborhoods can be as bohemian as they are refined. Rittenhouse Square has many of the city’s top restaurants, bars, apartment buildings and townhouses. Small tree-lined side streets filled with four-story townhomes dominate the landscape. When I was there, a man with a twirled moustache wearing a tweed suit carved an apple with a silver pocket knife. A woman painted a canvas on an easel.<br /><br />While three years ago you could have snapped up a three-story townhouse for just north of $350,000, today you can get a one-story floor-through in a brownstone for that price. A three-bedroom, two-bath home with a garden costs around $549,000.<br /><br />At the top end of the market, a modern new townhouse with a garage, large windows and elevator goes for around $3.2 million. Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr, who also owns New York’s Buddakan and Morimoto, lives in one of these residences. Historic homes of the same size, like the ones built by signers of the Declaration of Independence, sell for $7.5 million.<br /><br />In Society Hill, home to the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall, 1,600-square-foot historic townhouses over 140 years old sell for $899,000. An even older two-bedroom townhouse is on the market for $725,000. One-bedroom apartments in a broken up townhouse sell for $350,000. One-bedroom ground-floor rentals in these homes go for around $1,500 a month.<br /><br />”This is historic living in one of the most prestigious and architecturally stunning neighborhoods in this country,” says Joanne Davidow, Philadelphia’s top broker with Prudential Fox Roach Realtors. “New York cannot match these prices.”<br /><br /><br /><br />West Philadelphia: The Biggest Turnaround<br /><br /><br />Twenty years ago, West Philadelphia was an academic slum. University of Pennsylvania students (including myself) were robbed at gunpoint on an almost nightly basis. The university had practically shut itself off from the community.<br /><br />Today, the University of Pennsylvania has embraced the surrounding area, bringing in private investment and public confidence – turning West Philadelphia into a shopping, dining and living extension of Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhoods.<br /><br />”We made an active decision not to do things to the neighborhood but to do things with the neighborhood,” says Anthony Sorrentino, UPenn’s executive director of public affairs. “We tore down fences to our fields, inviting the neighbor-hood to use our facilities.”<br /><br />The Domus, a three-month-old high-end rental building on the corner of Chestnut and 34th Sts., draws local health-care professionals affiliated with university hospitals, as well as graduate students who want proximity to the school. The building has an outdoor pool, a screening room, and more than a dozen computers and flat-screen televisions in its modern lobby. Rents start at $1,799 for a one-bedroom and $3,199 for twobedroom/two-bath units.<br /><br />The university recently purchased a 24-acre tract along the Schuykill River from the U.S. Postal Service for $50.6 million. It plans on turning the tract, formerly a shipping warehouse, into a public field, an office park and a residential hub.<br /><br />”You cannot teach urban studies and not successfully practice it,” says Sorrentino. “This will connect Center City to university grounds.”<br /><br /><br /><br />The Murano<br /><br /><br />Just a three-block walk to 30th Street Station, the Murano will add some flavor to the Philadelphia skyline. The 43-story, curved-glass building has 302<br /><br />residences with amenities that include parking, a full-service gym, a lap pool and a sun deck. Additionally, all of the residences have some outdoor space. Some apartments have 16-foot ceilings.<br /><br />The New York-based real estate firm Citi Habitats is marketing the project. They sold out the St. James, a high-end rental in Philadelphia’s Society Hill that attracted professional athletes and local celebrities.<br /><br />”Philadelphia has become a very competitive housing market,” says Matthew Van Damm, the Citi Habitats executive running the project. “They thought our long experience selling in those kinds of markets would help.”<br /><br />One-bedrooms in the building start at $450,000. Two-bedrooms go in the high $600,000s.<br /><br />”That’s half what you’ll pay in New York,” says Van Damm.