Saturday, May 14, 2011

Terraforming a Neighborhood

I've never spent much time in Northern Liberties, and my loathsome anxiety towards hipsters aside, after an evening in this unexpectedly dynamic neighborhood, I have to wonder, why? It doesn't make conventional sense. Sure, it's moderately convenient to transportation, but how did this neighborhood bound by I-95, urban blight, and the Spring Garden canyon come to rival areas that directly border Center City?

It's clear that urban newbies, artists, and starter families seeking a hip city lifestyle and low rent drove the Northern Liberties craze. Sex and the City can be praised for putting cafes on our sidewalks, and abhorred for putting the obnoxious skanks in the chairs, but this trend was carried across the nation. What's unique about Philadelphia, and Northern Liberties, is that a neighborhood at arm's length from our core, was not completely paired with successful infill in between.

Similar unexpected phenomena occurred in Graduate Hospital, Passyunk Square, and Fishtown. While young couples bought starter homes in blighted neighborhoods, opened up boutiques, pubs, and coffee shops, South Broad Street, Spring Garden Avenue, and the Loft District remain desolate, littered with surface lots, and largely abandoned.

Northern Liberties is overflowing with art studios and massive loft apartments, successfully leased as far as Cecil B. Moore Avenue, while Callowhill, within spitting distance of City Hall, sits on a half dozen underutilized or completely vacant warehouses with million dollar views. Prohibition Tap Room on 13th Street gets a great neighborhood crowd. Cafe Lift is packed for brunch. But where is the competition? Why doesn't 13th Street look like 2nd Street in Northern Liberties or Passyunk Avenue?

A number of variables have caused the splotchy development. As much as I want to think we're on par with New York and Chicago, we're not. We enjoyed moderate success from the condo bubble. Unfortunately the Callowhill's close proximity to Center City is also its crutch. Property owners are willing to sit and wait for another wave of prosperity, and with no land usage tax, the Heid Building and Divine Lorraine are allowed to sit vacant. Instead of developing prime locations like Broad and Washington with affordable apartments that attract the kind of business we see in Graduate Hospital, they sit unused.

The pot addled Reading Viaduct vision may be gaining legitimate traction. While realistic funding is still a mystery, 6 ABC has given it mainstream publicity. As it is, the rusted carcass that weaves its way through a series of surface parking lots and Bubonic meadows in Callowhill's Loft District does little more than inspire dreamers. But as a park, could it attract the kind of money Callowhill needs to be the first class neighborhood it should be?

It's hard to rationalize spending money on a park that would require the kind of maintenance needed by an elevated park. Similar parks in other cities are too new to really see how well it works. And Callowhill isn't SoHo. Its warehouses and row homes are surrounded by parking lots and vacant land that could themselves make potential parks that require little upkeep beyond community interaction and a lawnmower. The Reading Viaduct is a structure, and the city has a difficult time maintaining the structures we need and the parks that have nothing below them but dirt and bodies. Can Callowhill generate enough tax revenue to maintain another potential money pit?

Demolishing it would cost more than $30 million. A decision needs to be made. Tear it down or find dedicated funding to convert and maintain the white elephant. I would love to see Philadelphia become home to such a unique innovation. In fact, if the Convention Center attracts additional development south of Vine Street, it could even become a destination attraction.

With mayoral attention on the project, however idealistic, a Reading Viaduct park will at least receive the research needed to validate its potential success, or confirm the ugly prospect that some urban artifacts just can't be reused. One way or another, the Reading Viaduct's campaign is helping attract attention to a neighborhood that should be far more successful than it is. With or without the Reading Viaduct, its presence is bringing people north of Callowhill. Maybe some of them will stick around and signal business owners to the neighborhood's potential.

If only Broad and Washington had an industrial relic to attract a debate to tackle its surface lots and suburban fast food joints. Oh wait, it does. And it would make a great farmer's market.


  1. The key factor that I think you miss in comparing Callowhill with other G-Ho, Passyunk Square, N. Liberties, etc. is one of scale. A young couple can buy and fix up a 2000 square foot rowhouse pretty easily. The same couple cannot buy and fix up the 50,000 square foot warehouse that are the predominant building type in Callowhill. These big buildings are far more expensive (even in their current states) and require far more capital to turn around than the rowhouses in other hoods.

    The other thing that scale impacts is the pace of development. Lots of individuals and small developers drove renaissances in G-Ho, NoLibs, etc. The scale of the projects in Callowhill demands bigger developers and bigger risks: one might take the risk of converting a rowhouse in a transitioning neighborhood, but it's a much greater risk for a big developer (also the most risk-averse) to convert a 100+ unit building in a touchy neighborhood.

    All that said, I think that the one thing that could accelerate the transition of Callowhill would be the Reading project. A significant investment in that project would get the conservative developers and speculators currently sitting on property to get going. The high line in New York spurred a number of large-scale projects that were indisputably linked to the park project. I think the same success could be emulated here.

  2. I totally agree with what your saying. Philadelphia had the middle class investment in neighborhoods like G-Ho and Northern Liberties and the high end investment in Center City, but unlike New York or Chicago, Philadelphia didn't have the kind of investment that filled in the gaps in places like Callowhill.

    Maybe we're just a few years behind in the trend. When the apartment building at 12th and Wood is complete, that will put a lot of people in that neighborhood.