Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Is Old City Lost?

With NREA's East Market steadily demolishing the Snellenberg stump for its exciting mixed use project, and the Gallery at Market East booting tenants for its upcoming renovation, urbania is rolling towards Old City for a 7-10 split.

But what about Old City? At the height of the building boom, riding the coattails of Sex and the City, this neighborhood was the "it" place to live, work, and be seen. Once Philadelphia's "downtown," Old City was ripe with the walkups, warehouses, and refined urban grit that defined the American City.

With our collective attention transitioning its fix towards neighborhoods like Midtown Village, Market East, and University City; Old City is starting to feel like a has-been. It's Sex and the City, and Philadelphia is busy binge-watching Friends on Netflix.

Please, stop. We're done. Friends is on Netflix. We want to know how to get Monica's apartment on a caterer's salary, not splurge on a pair of Manolos for a night Bleu Martini. McGlinchey's and flannel are back. 
"So it's a show about three hookers and their mom?" -Brian Griffin, on Sex and the City.

Despite the fact that Old City was once the hub of Philadelphia's commerce and industry, it is now one of those neighborhoods on the fringe of our city's core. And like many of those neighborhoods - Society Hill, Fitler Square, Logan Square - it comes with its own built-in identity crisis.

While Midtown Village and Market East are focused on enhancing the "downtown" experience with mixed used projects, some of the largest since Liberty Place redefined our skyline, Old City seems stuck in the 90s. Or at best, it's focused on competing as if it were plunked down in Northern Liberties or Passyunk Square.

Unlike Society Hill, or at least unlike what Society Hill has become, Old City has never been a next-door-neighbor neighborhood. It is the city's last vestige of our oldest urbanism. It was mixed use 300 years before mixed use was cool.

This isn't Center City thinking.
But with several row-homes under construction on the 200 blocks of Arch and Race, Old City's rigid desire to embrace a quaintness it never had may soon come back to bite it in the ass. When is the last time a single-family row-home was built in Old City? Aside from Elfreth's Alley, the Betsy Ross House may be its last notable example. 

Investing in residential land in a neighborhood that is primarily condo may be both a wise and poor investment. If Center City continues to grow and develop at its current pace, Old City will truly become Philadelphia's East Village equivalent. These row-homes will surely escalate in value, but will anyone be willing to pay the price for a home built in 2015 a decade from now, especially when they could get an historic mansion in Society Hill for the same price? 

Old City is a dense neighborhood, but their rigid stance against added density and love of parking is going to be a thorn when its residents are forced to face the fact that they live in a very urban neighborhood. While developers are just kowtowing to the neighborhood's demands, those demands aren't thinking of the neighborhood's future. A future where these now-sleek row-homes are subdivided into apartments with useless curb-cut sidewalks facing gerrymandered studios.

We're a big city. New row-homes belong above Vine and below South. In Center City, we need to be looking up.

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