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Adaptive Reuse Gives Developers The Inside Track On Neighborhood Approval

The adaptive reuse of older buildings has been a reliably popular form of new development in Philadelphia for years, and not just among developers.

1217 Spring Garden St. in Philadelphia

As in many coastal markets, longtime residents of Philly neighborhoods can be difficult to please, which can add time and cost to a project. But working within existing structures rather than tearing down and building new can endear a developer to a neighborhood, reducing friction in the permitting process.

“Reuse is generally favored by the neighborhood, especially if the building in question has cultural significance of some kind,” JBCI Engineers principal Jess Clifford said at Bisnow’s Philly Adaptive Reuse and Repositioning webinar in late November. “The architectural style will fit a neighborhood better than any new construction could fit there, and you might get pushback trying to tear something down that people want to see brought back to life.”

Though some intricate redevelopments could be considered less cost-effective than tearing down and building new, a faster neighborhood approval process can make some of that money back by shortening a project’s lead time, JL Architects founding principal John Lister said.

With its rich industrial history, Philadelphia has provided developers with a deep supply of the most coveted type of property to redevelop into a new use: multistory factories. In neighborhoods like Spring Garden and Kensington, turning a hulking, vacant building into something that brings back vibrancy while acknowledging the area’s past can do more than ease a community’s acceptance of a project.

“There’s pure beauty in preserving these properties, especially when there’s a critical mass of them in the neighborhood where we’re working; that’s irreplaceable,” Arts & Crafts Holdings general partner Craig Grossman said. “Preserving that, shining a light on those buildings and the neighborhood, there’s real value in doing that. And there’s a strong market of potential tenants out there that’s looking for this type of product.”

As with all developments taking place in residential neighborhoods, an adaptive reuse project benefits when the community is brought to the table earlier in the planning process, panelists agreed. In addition to the likelihood that earlier involvement will result in a less contentious process, speaking directly to residents adds a level of understanding beyond what census tract and location-based data, no matter how granular, can provide.

Clockwise from top left: Shift Capital's Tony Ewing, JBCI Engineers' Jess Clifford, Bisnow's Brian Kinslow, JL Architects' John Lister and Arts & Crafts Developers' Craig Grossman

Such understanding can reveal surprising benefits, as Shift Capital principal Tony Ewing found out when his company consulted local registered community organizations on what to do with the Beury Building on North Broad Street, locally popular for the infamous graffiti high up on its walls. Shift was considering different ways to build a multifamily project with a commercial ground floor when the possibility of a hotel arose from conversations with representatives from the RCOs.

“It still is somewhat progressive to think about a hotel in that particular section [of the city], but the neighborhood reacted so positively that we signed a letter of intent with Marriott to build a Courtyard hotel,” Ewing said. “That was before the pandemic, and since that hit the hotel industry, things have stalled a bit, but that choice was a direct reaction to the community’s response and what it said it would support.”

The nature of the conversation between a developer and a neighborhood may have been changed forever as part of the explosion of awareness regarding systemic racism that began with the protests of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in late May. For impact-focused developers like Shift, it only added urgency to a well-known issue.

“If nothing else, it has shined a light on the need for us to keep doing what we’re doing,” Ewing said. “I’d say intentionality is [the word for] how we’re looking at our jobs at Shift, to make sure what we’re doing is impactful. [The pandemic] has made it harder for sure, but we’re now talking about these issues more readily and more freely and have expanded our common vocabulary to talk more about equity and impact.”