Philadelphia Metropolis

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Running in Cycles

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In 1906, the entrepreneurial owner of Mercantile Studios at 41st and Haverford Avenue hit upon a scheme to make money on the streets of Philadelphia.  Armed with his camera, he would visit newly constructed blocks of rowhouses and photograph them.

Not the people.  Just the houses.

He had the equipment and lens needed to take in the entire block with a single shot. They were called "Real Views" and he would sell them as postcards to the residents of the block.

Rowhouses Use This.jpgThere was demand for his product. The new owners, many of them immigrants, would buy the postcard, circle their house and send it to relatives in the old country, writing, in effect: "I own this house. I have made it in America."

Home ownership, then and now, was a source of pride.

As historian Dennis Clark pointed out, rowhouses were Philadelphia's great strength in the

19th century. These "modest, economically accessible" dwellings allowed working class people the luxury of home ownership, which stabilized old neighborhoods and helped create new ones.

After consolidation in 1854, when Philadelphia gobbled up its surrounding townships, the new city had at a blank slate, in effect, for housing development - 130 square miles, compared to Manhattan's 22 square miles and Boston's four square miles.

Where other cities had to go vertical, we could go horizontal, usually replicating the simple grid used by William Penn to lay out Center City.

By the 1870's there were an average of 4,500 new rowhouses built each year, as the city spread out to the north, south and west. This mass housing development didn't come to a stop until the 1950's, when the Northeast was built.

What goes around comes around.

Today, the fact that we are a rowhouse city is a liability, certainly when it comes to renewing neighborhoods and doing modern residential development.

As a report issued last week pointed out, the city has 40,000 vacant lots - most of which once held rowhouses - and their presence is dragging down property values, neighborhood stability, and hopes for renewal. You can read the full report, done by Econsult for the Revelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corps. The Inquirer also did a story.

This is not a new problem. When a city loses its industrial base and 500,000 people - as Philadelphia did beginning the 1950's - you are going to end up with a lot of abandoned houses and empty factories that devolve into vacant lots.

Doing some curbside math, I would estimate those 40,000 vacant lots are the equivalent of 2,500 acres of empty land. The problem is - unlike in the 19th century - it is not a blank slate. The land is broken into lots that are usually 16-feet-wide-by-32-feet deep.

It presents a fundamental problem of development. A block of 32 rowhouses that is half-empty is also half full. There are residents in these blighted neighborhoods, living in houses they bought 40 years ago.

The Econsult report recommends that the city get aggressive in seizing ownership of these empty lots from owners who long ago disappeared and use a coordinated approach to encourage development in places where the for-profit or non-profit market can sustain it. The report recommends a goal of 680 vacant-lot transformations a year.

At that pace, my handy pocket calculator tells me it would take 58 years and eight months to fill in all 40,000 blanks.

I don't know if we can wait that long.

Once, I got into a casual conversation with a guy who did a lot of real estate development in other cities. I was lamenting that Philadelphia didn't have enough good land to do big developments.

"Philadelphia has a lot of great land!" the guy said. "It's just filled with lousy, old houses."

Looking at it that way, vacant lots aren't the problem; they are the beginning of the solution.

The recent success in developing the eastern side of lower North Philadelphia (above Girard Avenue, north to Temple University) was due in part to the fact that the neighborhood had deteriorated so completely, it was nearly a blank slate. It was primed for development.

It took about 50 years to get that way. The question is: Can we wait another 50 or more years until the last resident leaves a dying neighborhood to develop it?

Is there any place in town - currently blighted and stuck there - where you could relocate remaining residents and open up 50 acres? That would be room to build 800 new rowhouses, following the 16 x 32 footprint or half that number if you follow recent models of doing twins with driveways and backyards.

So, let us fill in the blanks in areas where the market will sustain new construction. But let's also look to the eastern North Philadelphia redevelopment as a model. Don't fill in the vacant lots in these neighborhoods, create more.

It's the best way to reverse the slow cycle of depopulation and decay.

 

-- TF

 

 

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