Philadelphia’s New Boom

The city is changing dramatically, with new buildings, revitalized neighborhoods and inviting public spaces emerging all at once. Here’s an inside look at what’s behind this New Boom — and a preview of what our revitalized city will be.

A view of Center City from Penn Medicine’s Center for Advanced Cellular Therapeutics, taken on a February morning at sunrise. Photograph by Chris Sembrot

A view of Center City from Penn Medicine’s Center for Advanced Cellular Therapeutics, taken on a February morning at sunrise. Photograph by Chris Sembrot

Were you here in 1987? (Actually: Were you even born?) If you were, maybe you remember the thrill of One Liberty Place rising in the sky — an honest-to-God Philadelphia skyscraper at last, looking down on Billy Penn’s hat. How about the early ’60s, when Society Hill emerged from a hardscrabble neighborhood and Penn Center gave a new sleekness to downtown?

We find ourselves in one of those moments again — a period when our physical surroundings are changing quickly and drastically around us. What’s different this time is the breadth of the change, with new buildings and revitalized neighborhoods and inviting public spaces emerging all at once all across the city. We’re calling it the New Boom, and on the following pages we give you an inside look at the eight trends that are fundamentally reshaping Philadelphia — and a sneak preview of the revitalized city we’ll live in for the next half century.

Edited by Ashley Primis

Trend #1: The Public-Space Revival

From repurposed rail lines to new plazas, it’s Philly’s turn for an extreme backyard makeover. By Nicole Scott
Sister Cities Park near Logan Square, a well-received Center City District project. Photograph by Chris Sembrot

Sister Cities Park near Logan Square, a well-received Center City District project. Photograph by Chris Sembrot

Who would have thought a plain old boring boardwalk — one that’s only 2,000 feet long, hovers over the brownish Schuylkill, and gives a great view of, um, I-76 — could have caused so much excitement?

Take one step on it, and you’ll get it, too — the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, which debuted last fall, is pretty special. For decades, many public city spaces were left to age. But in the past few years, there’s been a serious push to revive them, with civic-oriented nonprofits — Center City District, University City District and others — leading the charge. These groups can accomplish goals with little government interference (although with some public money). They know that to keep our population growing and happy, our parks, squares and circles need to be more appealing, and that civic development spurs private development.

The dogged Paul Levy and his CCD have been in the forefront, moving the Parkway closer to a true Champs-Élysées, creating the sweet Sister Cities Park and constructing City Hall’s Dilworth Park, to name a few projects.

But that’s just the beginning. We’ll continue to see a focus on our rivers; the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has plans to revive piers every half mile (like South Philly’s Pier 68, which will encourage fishing), and for a new waterfront trail that will lead into an all-new Penn’s Landing. (At $250 million and with plans to cap I-95, this is a bit of a longer-term vision.) The Schuylkill River Trail will continue southward, connecting the boardwalk to new developments from CHOP and Penn, and will extend to Bartram’s Garden via a repurposed railroad bridge. Near North Broad, the Reading Viaduct project, slotted to break ground this year, will transform an overgrown span of elevated railroad tracks into a High Line-like public park. If City Hall can agree on anything, Love Park will be redesigned, and the trolley terminal at 40th Street in West Philly will become an exciting transportation hub, business corridor and park.

And this isn’t just dig-and-dash. As the DRWC’s Spruce Street Harbor Park proved, consistent, quality programming (chef-y food, craft beer, music, pop-ups) is an integral element of each plan and will keep our newly verdant spaces from becoming all that was wrong with the old ones.


A Q&A With Bryan Hanes

The landscape architect behind the Reading Viaduct and more of Philly’s public spaces. Interview by Holly Otterbein
Courtesy of Bryan Hanes; halkin|mason Photography

Courtesy of Bryan Hanes; halkin|mason Photography

What’s driving the sudden revival of public spaces in Philly?
It has to do with the resurgence of the city as a great place to live and work. All of a sudden we saw an influx of young people moving back into the city, particularly the young creative class. As long as they’re here, there’s going to be a demand and a desire for new public spaces.

How have our spaces changed over time?
William Penn’s five original squares were a way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. They were about promenading and showing off your wealth. Now we’re interacting with public spaces in different ways. Look at Clark Park in West Philly. It was a big, empty space with a bunch of big, beautiful trees, and we filled it with gravel, tables and chairs. That liberated people and made them able to use the space in any way they wanted. It’s more open to interpretation.

Is there a public space in Philly you’d like to completely redo?
We have our hands on it: the Reading Viaduct. One of the things we noticed right off the bat in the Callowhill and Chinatown neighborhoods is not only is there no public space, but people are living in converted industrial buildings. They don’t have a front stoop or a backyard to hang out in. So we’re excited about what a new green space would mean not only for the city, but also for that neighborhood.

What’s your design philosophy?
If a public space can contribute economically to the city, that’s great. If we can contribute to a better ecology, that’s huge. But probably more than anything, we’re looking for ways to engage people and to create social environments … like a living room where people can come together.


Behind the Boom: Public Spaces

The Hot Ticket: David Fierabend

The principal of Groundswell Design is the talent behind the buzziest landscape and design projects you saw this year, from pop-ups (Spruce Street Harbor Park) to permanent work (FringeArts; Independence Beer Garden). Now everybody wants the Fierabend magic; upcoming projects include Chinatown’s Pearl Street and a “sea garden” at CHOP’s Karabots Pediatric Care Center … just for starters.

The Sultan of Center City: Paul Levy

If there’s a face — or a voice — of the public-space revolution in Philadelphia, it belongs to Levy. As president and CEO of the Center City District, he’s been turning dead space into civic gems since 1991. His latest (and his greatest) hits? Sister Cities and Dilworth parks … though his forthcoming Reading Viaduct project is shaping up to be a game-changer, too.

The Riverfront Revolutionary: Tom Corcoran

Race Street’s and Morgan’s piers, Washington Avenue Green, Spruce Street Harbor Park … there’s no shortage of reasons to hang out near the water ever since the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, helmed by Corcoran, started rolling out its cool, user-friendly transformations on the once-irrelevant six-mile stretch. Philadelphians are enamored. Hey, developers? Are you listening?

The Money Man: Shawn McCaney

Behind nearly every quality public-space project in the city is the William Penn Foundation (and its money). That’s largely thanks to McCaney, the foundation’s program director for creative communities. A powerful behind-the-scenes cheerleader with a background in urban design, he’s on an idealistic mission to spread the public-space love into all Philly neighborhoods. And did we mention the piles of cash?

>> Click for Trend #2: West Philly Rising

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  • birdadoo

    I thought there was a lot of interesting information to take away from the article and the way it was laid out was very easy to navigate. I agree that the “boom” is real and have been particularly excited about the focus on public spaces. We as a city have made great strides in the past decade rethinking our parks, parklets, beer gardens, etc. and it’s worth it. Keep going Philly! One thing I thought was a huge oversight is that you had zero mention of the Northwest neighborhoods. Germantown is seeing huge changes and renovations and winning a lion’s share of community grants. Germantown is breaking ground this week on a million plus dollars renovation to Vernon Park (the epicenter of the neighborhood), Maplewood Mall by the end of 2015 is also undergoing a millions of dollars restoration, Waldorf School is moving their campus into a newly restored turn of the century Frank Furness designed church at Wayne and Harvey Avenues this June. Wayne Junction is wrapping up a massive restoration making it a gorgeous transportation hub for present and future residents. Germantown United CDC also raised $30,000 through a community online fundraiser to procure a commercial corridor manager. And since you mentioned in the first couple paragraphs the importance of remaining concerned of the state of our public schools, two Germantown schools, Kelly and Lingelbach, are both in the midst of notable efforts, Kelly School raising over 20,000 dollars for creating a modern playground and green space and Lingelbach (known recently for being featured in the NY Times for it’s shameful yearly budget) is getting massive support from Black Thought of The Roots with his organization GrassROOTS. All of this is quite relative to a lot of the content of this article and information that I think both longtime and newer residents of Philadelphia would find interesting and appreciate. Here are some links for those that want to find more information on all the things I mentioned above.
    http://germantownunitedcdc.org/wp/what-we-do/
    http://lovinglearning.org/blog/philly-waldorf-moves-to-germantown/
    http://friendsofvernonpark.org/
    http://hiddencityphila.org/2013/06/maplewood-mall-makeover-coming-soon-to-germantown/
    http://kellygreenproject.com/
    http://215mag.com/grassroots-community-foundation-hosts-town-hall-on-health-in-conjunction-with-5th-annual-lets-move-it-philly-hip-hop-party-fundraiser/

  • crateish

    But how do you get a decent job here? We moved into Center City, and the only professional jobs I can get are a hour’s drive away. Probably going to move back to the ‘burbs.

    • NDJ

      That is a great question and will need to be addressed if the city’s growth is to be sustained.

      • Westmont NJ

        Great point. As someone’s who moved from NYC to Philly, I am very concerned with the lack of jobs, especially in Philadelphia. My hope is that with the increased population of young professionals living in the newly constructed apartments, that companies we start to move back into the city from Wayne, Conshohocken, Valley Forge etc. This should be the number one concern for City Hall, and I expect to see a big change in the Tax Policy, including tax breaks, to stimulate this growth. We’re the last city, behind DC, Boston and NYC in the North East to grow it’s economy and truly establish a growing urban population.

        • Justin B

          Right. Philadelphia has turned a critical corner in that it is now a place people WANT to be, young and old. The critical priorities now need to be: (1) appropriate policies to retain and attract companies (and preferably landing another Fortune 100 company or 2 like the Dupont spinoff Chemours [will be]) and (2) improving the schools. Policies

  • birdadoo

    what kind of job are you looking for?

    • I’ll take anything you’ve got to offer if it would enable me to move back to the magic that’s Philadelpia…

      • birdadoo

        what is your area of knowledge, passion, expertise, expected income, do you have dependents? desired rent/mortgage? so many factors…

        • I’m a retired book publishing executive–14 of the happiest years of my life were spent in Philadelphia–I ache to return. I know writing, a lot about both trade and academic publishing: marketing and editing, but I wouldn’t be overly fussy about what the work was as long as it put my feet back on the streets of the city I love. I can dream, can’t I? (And I do…I do.)

          • yougotit

            google: elsevier

  • Justin B

    What a terrific synthesis of all the changes taking place here!

  • Rand

    We have a great gem that has been so overlooked, poorly funded and maintained and not improved in many years…. Fairmount Park! The time is ripe to augment Memorial Hall ( PTM) on the concourse across from it with perhaps a new Natural History Museum & Eco Learning Center like( San Francisco’s). Septa should seriously look to expanding a trolley line extension INTO the park to connect the Zoo, PTM, Mann Center, Shofuso and gardens The Horticultural Center / Gardens also could become a bigger tourist desination with a collaboration with Longwood Gardens type planning and facilities! After all we are the horticultural center of the US and should be capitalizing on it much more than just the 2 week Flower Show! I would even go so far as proposing a mid size ( Tivoli Gardens ) type amusement park for children in Fairmount Park .
    And how about truly twisting the Calder Foundations arm to support a Calder Museum either on the parkway or in Fairmount Park to display his large sculptures? All these new and existing desinations could generate sorely needed revenue for the Park maintenance and preservation. Even a new restaurant with a great unique architectural design ( design completion ) within the park with outdoor dining, etc would be a good start! We have to start thinking out of the box to propel this city!

    • kclo3

      I have serious doubts whether municipal agencies themselves will truly be able to join in the boom anytime soon; Parks & Rec, Streets, SEPTA have not received anywhere the level of funding to expand current services, and the future outlook isn’t any better. As much as private and citizen-led initiatives have advanced, the city must also consider its public assets.

  • Mark Neil Silber

    As a Philadelphian this extravaganza (what else can I call it ??!) of activity, construction, upgrading and booming markets is exhilarating. My grandmother would say “Oy! I’m kvelling!!!”

  • I hope those of you who live in Philadelphia realize how lucky you are. Those of us who had to move away (and would bar-be-cue our dear old grandmama to be able to move back!) are consumed with unending envy. Appreciate what a treasure-house of history and beauty you live in.

    • George Lee

      The only thing New York beats Philly is QUANTITY and having big egos. I wouldn’t trade Philly for Manhattan.

    • Sunny J. Min-X

      I love it here!!! It’s definitely growing in a great direction. :)

  • TRITONE2

    60th will be the next kool place…

  • George Lee

    Let’s laugh at the idiotic Delaware County suburbanites who think their crappy towns are better than Philly. Enjoy your boring lifeless hellholes while Philadelphians live the most exciting city in the U.S. for now and the future. Same with the folks who ditched Philly for NYC, DC, etc. Sooner or later they’ll realize they made a bad decision.

  • G. Moore

    What alien from Mars or City Hall idiot gave Philly Mag the location of Port Richmond? North Philadelphia is located from Broad to Front Streets; Lehigh to Erie Avenues, NOT Port Richmond. Port Richmond spans from Frankford Avenue to the Delaware River; Lehigh Avenue to Castor Avenue. Homes range in price from about $80,000 to $300,000. And listen up, folks – the joint is jumping and if anyone is smart they’d quickly jump, too – and buy now before prices in East Port Richmond start soaring. Me? I’m hanging on tight to my lovely brick row.

    • G. Simo

      Totally agree! The article’s credibility is in serious question if the writers are unable to accurately identify Port Richmond’s boundaries. Invest in Richmond Street! All we need is a Sabrina’s/Green Eggs on that road to spruce it up.