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The Neighborhoods North Of Center City Promise A Fully Walkable Future

Philadelphia has long prided itself on the moniker “The City of Neighborhoods,” but it isn’t hard to imagine a point in the future when many of its most popular neighborhoods flow into one another in one long, walkable stretch of city.

MM Partners founder David Waxman

Along the Delaware River, Northern Liberties’ growth in the early part of this century fed Fishtown’s growth just to the north, to the point where commercial and residential development extend continuously between the two neighborhoods. The process is repeating itself farther up the Market-Frankford Line as Fishtown bleeds into Kensington, in the midst of its own development boom.

Several of Philadelphia’s most active neighborhoods for development sit on something of a straight line between the nexus of Northern Liberties and Fishtown and the eastern edge of Fairmount Park. From the burgeoning Spring Arts district and the North Broad Street corridor between Center City and Temple University to Francisville and Brewerytown, growth centers sit blocks apart from each other — but distinctly separate.

“Instead of just moving from south to north, why can’t we [develop] continuously east to west?” Red Rocks Group Managing Director Ethan Fellheimer asked.

Fellheimer, MMPartners founder David Waxman and Hunt Real Estate Capital Managing Director Harris Heller agree it is only a matter of time before all the above neighborhoods stitch themselves together into a continuous urban fabric. Many of those neighborhoods will be subjects of discussion on the Neighborhoods to Watch panel at Bisnow’s Philly Multifamily Summit at the Bellevue Hotel Oct. 2.

“In Boston, you can walk from any point of the city to the other, and everything is tied together,” Waxman said. “In Philly, many areas are different block-to-block.”

Northern Liberties is a case study in the different ways development can spread. A building boom in Old City in the late 1990s and early 2000s gave way to industrial redevelopment and greatly increased residential density in NoLibs, but the two neighborhoods were more connected by the MFL and arterial roads than pedestrian thoroughfares.

First American Title National Commercial Services Senior Vice President David Feldman, Hunt Real Estate Capital Managing Director Harris Heller and Wells Fargo Managing Director Mike Petrizzi

The area between Vine and Spring Garden streets includes long blocks with low-slung buildings and no storefronts and is heavily disrupted by a tangle of highway entrance and exit ramps. The effect is “a dead zone that just kills your desire to walk between Old City and NoLibs,” Waxman said — a stark contrast to Northern Liberties’ adjacent edges with Fishtown.

The stretch from Brewerytown to Fishtown has some physical barriers to continuous walkability, like the walled campus of Girard College (actually a K-12 school for low-income children) and block-long buildings on the south of the widest portion of Spring Garden Street, but none are as insurmountable as the gap between Old City and NoLibs.

The individual growth of each pocket of activity is enough to draw investors who "don't care exactly which neighborhood they're in," Waxman said. If it continues at that rate, the smoothness of NoLibs-to-Fishtown could be duplicated several times.

North Broad and Francisville may be the two most active neighborhoods for multifamily development in the city, Waxman said. Not far to the east lies Springs Arts, 2M SF of property owned by Arts & Crafts Group, which is plugging away at street-level retail below creative office space and rehabbed apartment buildings.

Post Brothers is in the midst of redeveloping the massive Quaker building into a mix of uses to the north of Spring Arts, while developers like Streamline Group and The Riverwards Group rapidly scale up density just north of Girard Avenue in South Kensington.

The gaps are small between each of the development nodes, and possible to close with incremental construction that doesn’t require massive gambles, Waxman and Heller said. That isn't so for many other neighborhoods in the city, even one that already draws significant developer interest.

Kensington is a larger neighborhood than any between Fishtown and Brewerytown, and contains a multitude of vacant lots in addition to some post-industrial development. While ground-up construction on those lots may prove more lucrative than smaller infill projects and redevelopments, land prices have skyrocketed — even as those lots are magnets for urban blight, Heller said.

The 76-unit multifamily building at 1217 Spring Garden St. in Philadelphia

A large-scale development would likely be required to liven up these dead blocks, and the blank canvas of Kensington does leave room for transformational projects, Waxman said, but those are difficult to pull together even in the heart of the city. The higher construction costs and longer delivery timelines make the risk of trying to activate a city block all by yourself even steeper were a recession to hit. 

Even though Kensington will remain full of construction sites for the foreseeable future, the potential for extending a walkable neighborhood to the far side of the area is hampered by the presence of what some consider the center of the opioid addiction crisis on the East Coast.

“Just immediately on the other side of Kensington Avenue, the crime rate just skyrockets," Heller said. "And I don’t know if that’s changing anytime soon. So I don’t know if development will happen on the other side of the El — I don’t know where the cutoff will be.” 

With small gaps between the likes of Francisville, North Broad and Spring Arts, developers can take smaller bets on townhouses or low-rise multifamily buildings with confidence. Knowing that activity is high enough to bet on more infill, such developers might be able to keep the ball rolling even during the next downturn, Waxman said.

Even if construction in that stretch of neighborhoods can't avoid the effects of a global slowdown, Harris agrees that a continuously walkable future for them is all but assured.

“If we continue on this pace, five years from now you’ll see these middle areas be much more evolved than they are now, with more people living in those areas," Heller said. "If things do change financially on a global level, it will be much slower.”

Come see Harris Heller, David Waxman and Ethan Fellheimer discuss the neighborhoods to watch all over Philadelphia at Bisnow's Philly Multifamily Summit at the Bellevue Oct. 2.