It’s Time to Bring Philadelphia County Back From the Dead


Two weeks ago, a group of civic-minded Washington Square West residents touched off a firestorm when they tossed a proposal to create a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) out for their neighbors to consider. The opposition to this idea was so vehement that the members of the Washington Square West Civic Association board who were the prime movers behind it withdrew it from consideration at the June board meeting.

A similar proposal in the Callowhill neighborhood went down to defeat in a mail ballot, as called for by the state law that authorizes such districts.

NIDs are nothing new in Philadelphia. To date, however, all of those in existence are business improvement districts (BIDs) that cover only commercial areas. The reason businesses accept them is the same reason some residents want them: They provide extra services City Hall cannot — things like sidewalk cleaning, pedestrian-scaled street lighting, and extra security patrols. The reasons residents reject them: The districts pay for these services by levying assessments on property owners — and those who don’t pay can have liens placed on their property by the districts. Yet the districts are governed by boards that may or may not be directly accountable to those who pay those assessments. In other words, taxation without representation.

Like suburban homeowners’ associations, these BIDs and NIDs function as quasi-governments. While they may not impose the sorts of regulations the homeowners’ groups do, they do provide services like those a municipality would, yet they are only tenuously accountable to the businesses and residents they serve.

So why not turn them into actual municipalities?

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Luxury Apartments Reclaim Manayunk Brownfield

manayunk canal

The Station at Manayunk takes advantage of the neighborhood’s proximity to the canal, train tracks and the bridge. Photo by Liz Spikol.

In case you missed this, “transit-oriented development” (TOD) has become the hottest thing since the Commuter Tunnel on SEPTA’s Regional Rail network. Vacant land next to stations has sprouted apartments, and abandoned factories have been turned into offices, in a number of suburbs throughout the region.

So it was only a matter of time before the trend crossed the city line into Philly itself. We took you on a tour of one such project, Paseo Verde at Temple University station, a few weeks back. Now a second, more luxurious development has opened in Manayunk, right next to Ivy Ridge station on the Manayunk/Norristown line.

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Dana Spain and Partner Launch New Development in Port Richmond

port-richmond-openerNow that South Kensington bids fair to become an annex of Northern Liberties and Fishtown has been hipstered beyond recognition, where’s a young gentrifier with more taste than money going to go now?

How about the next neighborhood upriver from Fishtown?

One of the first new construction projects in years in Port Richmond stalled when the housing market bubble burst in 2008, and it’s now being revived in a new and improved form, bringing well-laid-out, extra-wide townhomes to an attractive but modest block close to Allegheny Square Park and the Richmond branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

The six-unit development at 2989-99 Livingston St., which will complete the planned 12-unit project, is the first for McSpain Properties, a development firm formed by two veterans, Dana Spain and Sean McGovern. McGovern has been active in developing housing around the Temple University campus, while Spain has rehabbed commercial properties and designed private residences for individual clients. “McSpain Properties allows Sean and I to meld his skills of budgeting and onsite construction management with my design and finishing talents,” Spain said.

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SEPTA 50: A Prehistory of our Much Beloved/Maligned Transit Agency

This year marks SEPTA’s golden anniversary, and this month, the agency will formally celebrate a half-century of keeping Philly moving. It’s done a pretty good job of it, too — but it’s done so in a characteristically Philadelphia fashion, which is to say, with barely enough to get by.

I’ve said in this space that we have an amazing mass transit system here. What may be even more amazing, however, is that we have one at all.

Last year, the American Public Transportation Association honored SEPTA as the Outstanding Large Transit System of 2012. When I tell people SEPTA deserved that award, I usually get puzzled looks at best and “There, there” pats on the head at worst. Some of these people, however, understand when I explain that the agency won the award for keeping this sprawling network running using only duct tape and baling wire.

The good news is that with a steady, guaranteed funding stream in hand, SEPTA can finally put away the duct tape and baling wire and break out the hammers, saws and shovels in order to restore the system to good physical health. But SEPTA was actually following ancient Philly practice with the patchwork jobs.

SEPTA, you see, was created to keep metropolitan Philadelphia’s transit systems from completely falling to pieces. Established to bring the subways, commuter railroads, and bus systems back up to snuff, it spent much of the first half of its life scrambling to make sure they ran at all.

Even before its creation, SEPTA’s predecessors were doing the same thing: scrambling to make sure the buses and trains ran while not quite keeping up with the physical plant needs. It’s a Philly tradition that stretches all the way back to…

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How Green Is My Parking Garage?

The Lift at Juniper Street

A few weeks back, we were poking around the parking garage of a building whose architect pointed with pride to how few of the spaces in it were occupied.

The Philadelphia zoning code adopted in 2012 dramatically reduced the parking-space-to-dwelling-unit requirements for multi-unit developments.

Millennials are driving less, and they own fewer cars relative to the generations that preceded them.

So we’re not sure whether it’s the bandwagon effect or fear that led to the announcement than landed in our inbox earlier this week.

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The Lincoln Will Rise Again

lincoln-buildingWe have good news from last night’s Washington Square West Civic Association meeting: work on reconstructing the severely damaged Lincoln Apartments on Locust Street at Camac is set to begin within the next few months.

A member of the Washington Square West Civic Association said, and Councilman Mark Squilla (D-1st District) confirmed to us, that the building changed hands at a sheriff’s sale a little more than a month ago and that the new owner, David Perelman’s Pelican Properties, has announced its intention to rebuild the partially collapsed structure.

Squilla explained that efforts to restore the building were in limbo for about a year while two feuding New York investor groups argued over who owned how much of the building and what they were entitled to out of a sale. The Philadelphia sheriff’s sale settled the question for them.

According to Squilla, Perelman will meet with the WSWCA next week to discuss reconstruction plans.


SEPTA’s 24-Hour Weekend Subway Service Pilot Will Start June 15th

SEPTA-signs-market-frankford-line (1)

Sources at SEPTA inform us that the transit agency will launch its previously announced pilot program to operate the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines all night on Friday and Saturday nights in the overnight hours (12:30 to 5 a.m.) of Sunday, June 15th. From then through September, instead of Night Owl buses, riders can catch a train home from a night of revelry in town — something riders and Center City boosters have been clamoring for over the last few years.

Here’s how the overnight service will work:

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Inside the Greenest Building In Town

paseo verde

Image of Paseo Verde apartment house via Paseo Verde website.

Imagine an apartment where the thermostat can tell you when you’re using too much energy. How about an apartment building where bikes outnumber cars in its (mostly empty) parking garage?

We’re sure there’s nothing quite like that anywhere else in Philadelphia.

In fact, there’s nothing like Paseo Verde anywhere else in the country: It’s the first mixed-use, mixed-income residential-commercial structure to earn the new LEED-ND Platinum certification.

The “ND” stands for “Neighborhood Development,” and Paseo Verde is large enough to qualify as a neighborhood unto itself. Last week, the Urban Land Institute Philadelphia chapter offered its members a chance to take a look around the neighborhood, and we went along for the trip.

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6 Ways Philly Really Is a World-Class City

“After walking about it for an hour or two, I felt I would have given the world for a crooked street,” Charles Dickens wrote of his visit to Philadelphia in 1842 in his book American Notes.

He just didn’t walk far enough — all he had to do was cross what was then the city line into Southwark or Northern Liberties and he would have found some.

Dickens may not have been terribly impressed by Philadelphia, or the rest of America for that matter, but other Europeans who have followed in his footsteps have had different reactions. Perhaps it’s because they may recognize a little bit of home in this city’s streetscapes and customs. In fact, there are some who say this is the most European of all American cities.

While there are plenty of Philadelphians who have never strayed far from the place of their birth, those who have — many of whom decided they liked the place enough to stick around — have taken it international in a big way. They probably helped Philly achieve that high “International Outreach” score the researchers at the IESE Business School at the University of Navarra in Spain gave this city on their way to ranking it as the 11th-smartest city in the world and second-smartest in the U.S. behind New York in its Cities in Motion Index. But — perhaps unbeknownst to you — we’ve had a bit of the global in us all along. Here are some of the ways in which Philly has a touch of the world about it:

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Neighbors Says Yes to Apartments in Historic Trans Atlantic Warehouse

photo of trans atlantic warehouse

A 1955 photo of the Trans Atlantic Company warehouse at Fourth and Fairmount. Via

Members of the Zoning Committee of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, who met on May 19th, liked the tweaks that developer Greg Hill made to his proposed development at 420-42 Fairmount Avenue and 613-31 N. 5th Street. But many would rather there be a parking space for every dwelling in the 25 town homes and 41 (down from 48) apartments.

“Nobody has just one car any more; they all have two cars,” said one neighbor at the meeting. “When this [project] happens, and it’s gonna be overrun with cars, there’s no plan for dealing with them and it’ll destroy the character of the community.”

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