Philly's Emerging Neighborhoods Are Reflecting Individual Developers' Visions
Philadelphia is so much more than Center City, and as the buzzing downtown’s growth spreads to surrounding neighborhoods, a pattern has been emerging among those on the upswing — single developers curating an area’s development.
Bart Blatstein’s Piazza project defined Northern Liberties’ revival in the previous decade, and Roland Kassis has overseen a dramatic transformation of Fishtown’s Frankford Avenue. For the next generation of neighborhoods on the rise, MM Partners founder David Waxman has helped steer Brewerytown upward, while Arts & Crafts Holdings General Partner Craig Grossman looks to do the same in Callowhill and Spring Arts.
North Broad Street has become a free-for-all of multifamily construction just north of Center City, but farther north, Uptown Entertainment and Development Corp. President Linda Richardson is fighting to preserve and enhance the cultural vibrancy of a strip that will surely feel upward pressure in the near future. In struggling Kensington, Shift Capital principal Jeff Kahn is looking to shepherd an organic revival.
All the while, the City of Philadelphia provides support that looks likely to be stretched thinner as Trump administration appointments and policies grow more influential in the next three years. Public investment in infrastructure, safety and clean streets creates the foundation for developers to provide new residences and businesses.
“We often need to be the first money in, so when the lights start to go on, that’s when you see private investment come in,” City of Philadelphia Director of Planning and Development Anne Fadullon said.
Soon after, the situation both requires and empowers developers to take powerful positions in neighborhoods: Rather than waiting for a neighborhood to receive more public funding or gentrify, they need to exert enough influence or control to foster directed growth.
“[We wanted to] control enough real estate to reach a critical mass,” Grossman said. “Not just the buildings, but between the buildings.”
Waxman did so in his 20s, buying several lots and empty industrial buildings in Germantown on the cheap with the goal of a patient, curated development plan that he could orchestrate to ensure the parts fit together.
“It came down to timing: Was I too early? And if I was too early, could I hold out?” Waxman said. “If it didn’t work out when I started, I could dust myself off and start again.”
Kahn, Waxman, Richardson and Grossman all are conscious of the potential for developers with multiple investments to alienate longtime residents with grand visions. Each has his or her own approach, but at Bisnow’s Philadelphia Emerging Markets event, all of them agreed on the importance of involving those residents in a neighborhood’s transformation.
“In the box business, we have to be highly sensitive to the community we’re serving,” Kahn said. “Because we’re not from the neighborhood originally, we need to be highly sensitive to our residents and our neighborhoods.”
Shift Capital’s Kensington Storefront Challenge is directly soliciting ideas from residents for how best to serve them with the retail it is putting in place along Kensington Avenue. Waxman took the opposite approach.
“Apple notoriously does not do testing with its consumers, because it contends that consumers don’t know what they want,” Waxman said. “We knew that if we just were conscientious with our development, and put smart businesses in our buildings, that it would ease the friction with the community.”
As the leader of a nonprofit, Richardson must be committed to serving the public good, whether through her main goal of reopening the historic Uptown Theater or through various community initiatives surrounding it. To make sure her limited resources (she is still looking for the funding to complete the theater’s restoration) are put to their best use, she is taking the direct approach favored by Kahn.
“We did surveys of the neighborhood at fairs and festivals and went door to door,” Richardson said. “Some of the issues [we heard] were that there needed to be employment, some recreation for young people, so we developed programs around those issues.”
Grossman has hewed closer to Waxman’s way of thinking in Arts & Crafts’ development of Callowhill.
“Much of what we do is somewhat instinctual,” he said.
But he also insists on the importance of hearing the voices of the artisans who occupy much of the space in his area. Arts & Crafts started a merchant’s guild in the area to that effect, and plans to use the open space between its buildings as showcases for local artists.
Much like the city’s initial investment opens the door for private developers to take the lead, a single developer’s success in building an area necessarily translates to that area growing beyond that developer’s control. Diverse private investment and development is the final chapter in a neighborhood’s maturation, and those initial investors need to embrace that diversity.
“Brewerytown is now blowing up on its own,” Waxman said. “It doesn’t need a shepherd anymore and we don’t want to be seen as an overlord controlling the area’s growth.”