Small stuff makes Philly better, a bit at a time

Architect Brian Phillips at The Nine in Fishtown, a development where the pace of work is scaled to the market. Three houses already have been sold.
Architect Brian Phillips at The Nine in Fishtown, a development where the pace of work is scaled to the market. Three houses already have been sold.
Posted: January 07, 2011

Architecture tends to follow the money, and right now there isn't much green stuff to be pursued. But just because banks aren't lending and governments aren't spending doesn't mean we should assume urban design is dead.

Welcome to the year of small - small parks, small houses, small improvements, small plans, but not necessarily small thinking.

Only a short while ago, there wasn't a big city in America that didn't salivate at the prospect of building a downtown sports arena, an attention-getting museum, or a clutch of vertiginous condo towers, preferably by brand-name architects. That's done.

While the lousy economy has forced cities to lower their sights, it has provided clarity about what really matters. The smart places are investing their limited disposable income in low-cost, high-impact projects that improve the quality of life for people who actually live in them.

Philadelphia's Race Street pier park, set to open in April, is perfectly tuned to the times, as is New York's experiment with appropriating stretches of Broadway for pop-up parks. The rowhouse boomlets taking place in certain Philadelphia neighborhoods, such as Fishtown and the area south of Graduate Hospital, also belong in the category of incremental improvements that make urban life better. And these infill projects remind us that progress continues even in hard times.

One of the nice things about the new, do-it-yourself-style projects is the quick payoff. When the Nutter administration painted bike lanes on Pine and Spruce Streets in 2009, it not only provided a crosstown link between the city's two waterfronts and their no-frills recreation paths, it also established the outlines of a major bicycle network. The cost of that instant amenity was little more than the price of paint.

Philadelphia was never the boldest of places during the boom years. A city of distinct neighborhoods with a rough-edged authenticity, Philadelphia doesn't do glitzy well. The small stuff suits its spirit better.

Mayor Nutter's just-released Green2015 plan, which calls for converting 500 acres of vacant lots and asphalt schoolyards into an archipelago of green parks, plays to Philadelphia's strengths. Its proposals are cheap to execute and super local. Every neighborhood gets to customize its own acre.

Developed by PennPraxis, a nonprofit consulting group at the University of Pennsylvania, Green2015 cleverly braids together several policy objectives, such as fighting childhood obesity and controlling the runoff from big storms, with the goal of adding 500 acres of new parkland to the city system in the next five years.

In the plan, PennPraxis gets deep into the nitty-gritty about where the parks should be located and how the city might leverage other people's money to pay for them. What the plan does not discuss, though, is how Philadelphia's design professionals, who have been particularly hard hit by the real estate bust, might be harnessed for this effort.

How easy it would be to launch a competition - a small one, naturally - to identify a dozen young designers and assign each one a park. Green2015 makes the case that peppering Philadelphia with small parks is an investment in the future of the city's neighborhoods. Employing up-and-coming designers is similarly an investment in the future, in support of the city's creative economy.

It's people like those designers who will buy many of the new rowhouses that are popping up around the city, and who will use the bike lanes to get around, take their kids to places such as Race Street pier and Schuylkill Banks park - and eventually form businesses that will employ people. Incremental gains come from incremental improvements.

How can there be so much rowhouse construction when bankrupt developers are frantically auctioning off unsold condo units?

It sounds counterintuitive, but travel around Fishtown, East Kensington, Temple University, or the former Graduate Hospital, and it seems as if new houses are being plugged into every block. Despite the city's 11.5 percent unemployment rate, there is still a contingent of people who need housing and are casting their lot with the city.

Realtors call these modest infill projects onesies and twosies. Like pop-up parks, rowhouses can be built incrementally, a couple at a time, making them a relatively low-risk enterprise for developers, who can sell them as they go. At larger projects, such as Brown Hill Development's The Nine in Fishtown, the pace of work is scaled to the market. So while the first three houses there have been sold, the developer is just starting to frame out the next trio.

Condo towers, in contrast, have to be built all at once, and then the developer has to hunt down a hundred or more buyers. Most developers can't even get financing until they've secured advance commitments for 70 percent of their units. The days of building on spec, with other people's money, are over.

With rowhouses, the main challenge is finding land in the right place at the right price. But once a developer locates a site, Philadelphia remains a relatively strong market, according to tallies provided by the Planning Commission. The number of residential building permits issued in Philadelphia in 2010 - 1,276 - nearly doubled over the previous year.

It's always hard to tell how many of those permits turn into real buildings. But the figures for sales of new homes suggest that construction is holding steady. In 2010, Realtors sold 294 brand-new houses (as distinct from sales of existing homes or dorm units). That's down about 25 percent from the boom-era high of 386 in 2005, but in line with annual averages for the years that followed.

After the rapid-fire boom decade, the slowdown is giving Philadelphia a chance to catch its breath and think about what kind of city it wants to be. It's a good time for prioritizing goals and putting together master plans, like the one for the central Delaware waterfront, which is due in April.

Since I-95 is about to be rebuilt as part of a scheduled overhaul, this is also the city's last chance to get serious about finding ways to minimize the highway's impact on the Delaware waterfront. No money is required now, just the will to grapple with that monster problem.

After all, Philadelphia is eventually going to have to start thinking big again.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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