Boom times in Barnes' new neighborhood

This building that was once a grain tower on 20th Street now overlooks a parking area.
This building that was once a grain tower on 20th Street now overlooks a parking area. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 29, 2012

People say the Franklintown neighborhood is changing, but that's not true.

It's being transformed.

An area that's become chock-a-block with quality housing, good restaurants, stores, and attractions is going to get more, and soon, encouraged by the opening of the Barnes Foundation and its own surging momentum.

"We're getting ready for prime time, our prime time," said Mel Seligsohn, who lives in the stylish Tivoli townhouse complex. At the same time, "it's a little sad, losing control. You don't know what's going to happen."

In the last five years, the neighborhood has developed a restaurant row on Callowhill Street: Sabrina's Cafe sits by Doma Sushi, close to the King of Tandoor Indian Restaurant, near the Kite & Key - where 17 beers wait on tap and 48 more brands are in bottles. Across the street is the seemingly eternal Rose Tattoo.

Farther west on Callowhill, a Whole Foods Market draws a diverse crowd of shoppers, the emporium of a 14-block neighborhood that includes the Free Library, Community College of Philadelphia, and John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School.

There's talk that the Family Court building will become a hotel. Construction of a majestic Mormon temple, the first in Pennsylvania, is scheduled to start in July at 18th and Vine Streets.

Franklintown serves as a rectangular connector for the Logan Square and Spring Garden neighborhoods, running from 16th to 21st, and from the Vine Expressway to Hamilton Street, though some see Spring Garden Street as the northern border.

Predictions of the neighborhood's imminent success go back to the 1980s. But now it really seems to be happening.

The best way to get to Franklintown? Follow your ears - toward the loud, battering clatter of jackhammers and the shrill, beeping back-up signals of heavy trucks.

Near 20th and Callowhill, dump trucks collect tons of earth being displaced for the Granary, an apartment-and-retail complex scheduled to open in 2013. The project sits beside the real, fortresslike granary that looms over the block, a 1925 landmark built on the site of a Civil War grain elevator.

"Now is the time," said Jeff Katz, owner of Katz's Deli Kitchen on City Avenue, who on a recent weekday was strolling Hamilton, trading thoughts about the neighborhood's prospects with a friend, real estate consultant David Carroll.

"It feels like you're in the country a little bit. It's green," Carroll said. "Your proximity to 'real Center City,' if you've got the legs, is a couple of blocks."

Compared with the crowded heart of downtown, Franklintown offers greater space and cheaper prices, he said. The cluster of major art institutions - the Barnes, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Rodin Museum - accelerates the area's desirability.

But not everyone is excited about the big changes in this small space.

Joshua Rodrigo regularly visits his mother in local senior housing. He doesn't see new, upscale apartments and restaurants as all positive.

"Yuppies moving in. Property rates going up. Old, original families have to move out," said Rodrigo, who was walking his beagle, Snoopy, in Matthias Baldwin Park. "This has become a town of transients, not a town of Philadelphians."

Baldwin Park

Decades ago, plans called for the park to be bounded by a northward march of high-rise apartments, perches from which residents would gaze onto green lawns below.

The row of buildings never materialized. The park did.

The artist Athena Tacha created an amalgam of interlocking levels of plantings, trees, and footpaths, defined by the jutting stone plinths that are a sort of city Stonehenge. From the air, the park looks like a flowery, alien crop circle.

"We want to make this the Rittenhouse Square of Logan Square," said Seamus Kearney, a cofounder of Friends of the Park.

Last year the name was changed from Franklintown Park to Baldwin Park, to honor the man who created and led what was the nation's top locomotive-maker. The Baldwin works stood just east, covering eight blocks and employing more than 15,000.

The park is getting popular. At lunch on a recent Thursday, parents walked toddlers by the hand, and Community College students stretched out on benches. A woman practiced tai chi. A homeless man asked passersby for money. Two speed-walkers whisked by in sneakers.

A century ago, the area that's now the park was dominated by the North American Warehouse Co. To the north was ITE Circuit Breaker Co., a firm known for electrical innovation. Lit Bros. had a giant warehouse nearby.

The neighborhood held tool corporations, news agencies, storage firms, and trucking companies, set among lanes of classic brick rowhouses. The land occupied by Whole Foods once hosted the Quaker City Grocery Co. Just north stood the Preston Retreat, a specialty hospital for "indigent, married women of good character." Today that property supports the City View condominiums.

Two blocks away shimmers the Barnes, set on the site of the notorious Youth Study Center. It's expected to draw 200,000 visitors this year and 350,000 the next - roughly a hundred times the neighborhood population.

"Growth happens," said Kearney, who recently moved back to the area after 40 years in Boston. "We can't live in the '50s all the time."

Few original homes remain in Franklintown, especially compared with the wealth of stock just across Spring Garden Street. Instead there's high-rise housing such as One Franklin Town apartments, and lower-rise units like the Hamilton Townhouses.

During the last 12 years the median price of homes in Franklintown has more than doubled, from $156,250 in 2000 to $355,000 in 2012, according to Kevin Gillen, vice president and director of Econsult Corp., a Philadelphia-based economic-analysis firm. Housing prices peaked at $461,000 in 2007.

Because Franklintown is smaller than a census tract, hard data on its recent evolution are limited. But statistics show the population grew 48 percent between 2000 and 2012, from 2,151 to 3,192.

The neighborhood continues to be about 68 percent white. The number of African Americans dropped 14 percent during that period, while the Asian, Hispanic, and multiracial populations rose significantly.

"Everybody's coming," said JoAnne Mann, who has lived 68 of her 70 years on Carlton Street in an 1850s rowhouse. "We love all this revitalization. But we get mad when we can't find a parking space."

A legacy of industry

What's next for Franklintown? Maybe this:

Slicing through the neighborhood is a railroad cut, a legacy of Philadelphia industry. It's part of what's called the City Branch, an unused, submerged track that runs from Broad to 27th. It opens to the sky as it travels beside Callowhill as a giant, below-street-level passageway, then becomes an enclosed tunnel as it moves west to 22d.

In the late 1800s, the rails carried materials to Baldwin Locomotive and other firms in the area. Today, part of the property has gone back to nature, a forest of wild trees and grasses. Farther west, it's a parking lot.

Some want to make it something other than scrub and pavement: a park.

"Before I went down there, I thought, 'This could be a little bit creepy,' " said Leah Murphy, a board member of VIADUCTgreene, formed two years ago to consider uses for the land. "But the space was so broad. There's no traffic. There's no noise. It's like an urban oasis."

VIADUCTgreene says it's important to consider the City Branch as part of the continuous, three-mile route that runs under The Inquirer building and up and onto the old Reading Viaduct in the Loft District. A separate group is working to turn the eastern section into an overhead park, similar to New York's hugely popular High Line.

Developer Bart Blatstein has big plans for the land in between: a casino, entertainment, and retail complex on Callowhill between Broad and 17th, with the Inquirer building becoming a hotel.

For Franklintown, the cut could be a project that turns the neighborhood from hot to on fire.

"It's a neglected resource - and it's become a subject of conversation," said Seligsohn, the Tivoli resident. "We're in a period of great change, and positive change. . . . On the other hand, I have a sense of loss. That's what happens in these transitional neighborhoods."


Contact Jeff Gammage

at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

Graphics editor John Duchneskie contributed to this article.

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