CNU XV Blog, Part 6: Girard Trolley tour

MLewyn's picture

This afternoon, we went on a tour of Girard Avenue, which, for the first time in decades, has trolley rather than bus service. Like much of Philadelphia north of Center City, this street (just two miles north of Market Street in Center City) had fallen into an advanced state of disrepair in the 2nd half of the 20th century. However, Girard Avenue is now benefitting from numerous mixed use projects.

We began at the west end of Girard, on 32nd St in the Brewerytown area. In the first decades of the 20th century, Brewerytown, as the name indicates, was the site of numerous breweries. But Prohibition caused the breweries to shut down, which in turn caused Brewerytown to become a wasteland surrounded by slums.

Into this wasteland came an intrepid developer who has built Brewerytown Square, a townhouse project. Brewerytown is not a typical New Urban project: the developer's goal was to combine "suburban style" with urban density and mixed use. The project will, when built out, have 595 units on 16 acres, or 37 dwelling units per acre. The mixed use isn't there yet; right now there is only one restaurant and one minimarket within a 0.3 mile walk, and a few more within an 0.5 mile walk. But after the project is built out, a supermarket and other amenities will (according to the developer) eventually come to the area. The ultimate vision is that density will create pedestrian friendliness: after the rooftops come, the shops will be built around them.

What's "suburban" about this development? The only truly suburban element is the parking; every unit will have at least one parking space, an amenity normal in suburbia but less normal this close to Center City (where even in affluent census tracts, the majority of households don't own cars). However, the parking will be in back of the townhouses, thus allowing people to walk to their homes without trudging through ugly parking lots.

A pseudo-suburban element is the design: the development will consist of "stacked townhouses" which are taller and wider than the traditional Philadelphia townhouse: wider to accommodate parking, taller to accommodate more density (a top unit and a separately owned bottom unit, instead of just one two-floor dwelling unit). The benefit of this design is that it allows for both more density AND more parking, thus accommodating drivers while creating the density necessary to justify placing shops within walking distance. The main disadvantage of this design is that it requires lots of stairs, thus reducing accessibility for wheelchair users.

Then we took the trolley east on Girard Avenue, towards lower street numbers. Just east of Brewerytown on 25th St. is Girard College, which is isolated from the street by a stone wall. The stone wall, I would imagine, makes walking on Girard less pleasant. However, it was not instituted as an anti-urban feature. Instead, it was built in 1829, when the surrounding area was still agricultural. My guess is that the wall was designed not to protect the college against wandering pedestrians but to protect it from wandering cows.

As we headed further east towards Broad Street (also known as 14th), we saw numerous rowhouses- some in bad shape, but most (especially between 20th and 25th Sts., in the Fairmount neighborhood) in good shape. One of the advantages of the rowhouse form is that it lends itself to painting: though most rowhouses are basically red or brown, some have beautifully painted doors, etc. As we headed into the teens, the neighborhood got poorer: the blocks between about 20th Street and 14th Street seem low-income but by no means deserted. Just south of Girard around 13th Street lies new subsidized housing. A few years ago, I remember reading that these projects were "suburban" and thus evidence that even in older cities, municipal officials bowed before the public desire for sprawl. This claim, however, is an overstatement. The houses are not rowhouses, but are not single-family houses on half-acre lots without sidewalks either. Rather, most of the houses seemed to be two-family (or small single-family) houses on small lots: a form which may seem suburban in North Philadelphia, but which is typical of urban Buffalo or Cleveland.

East of Broad Street, Girard deteriorates for a few blocks. The blocks between 8th and 13th Street are dominated by parking lots in front of buildings; they looked more like Phillips Highway in Jacksonville than like a neighborhood two miles from Center City, and (like Phillips Highway) looked pretty unappealing. However, the city official traveling with us reassured us that these blank spots in the urban fabric would soon be replaced by actual buildings.

But at Girard's eastern edge, the neighborhood improves again. At the intersection of 6th and Girard, the city has created a "bump out"- a piece of sidewalk extending out from the rest of the sidewalk, thus reducing the length of pedestrians' intersection crossing. This traffic calming technique both calms traffic AND discourages jaywalking, by telling pedestrians they can cross the street more rapidly if they cross at the intersection.

We finished our tour at 2nd and Girard, in a zip code that had experienced a 556% house price appreciation in the last 10 years, and a 65% increase in the last three years alone. (By contrast, prices in the five Center City zip codes have increased by between 188 and 395% in the past ten years, in stable Northwest Philadelphia by between 73 and 213%, and in middle-class but nontrendy Northeast Philadelphia by 77 to 112% depending on zip code). We saw the Liberties Walk development, named after the Northern Liberties neighborhood. Northern Liberties is another industrial area on the rise (though unlike Brewerytown, Northern Liberties had experienced limited gentrification in the 1980s).

Like Brewerytown Square, Liberties Walk is a mixed-use development two miles from Center City.

The developer of Liberties Walk chose a very different path from the developer of Brewerytown, in three ways. First, Liberties Walk has modern architecture, with lots of bright colors. The developer's goal was to create an "edgy" image that would appeal to young commuters searching for an urban experience; by contrast, Brewerytown (perhaps because it is near a more dilipidated neighborhood) chose a design that would look familiar to ex-suburbanites. Liberties Walk screams to the would-be resident: "This is a hip, cool urban experience." Brewerytown screams "This is a suburb just two miles from Center City, a few blocks from the Zoo, and a few blocks from the highway too!"

Second, Liberties Walk is all-rental. The developers believe that the neighborhood will not hit its peak value until every unit is built and the neighborhood has been functioning for a few years. When that happens, the developers will convert the units to condos and then sell them.

Third, Liberties Walk already has mixed use. The developer built retail space next to the rental units, and has evidently been able to find tenants.


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