ThinkFest Recap: The Gentrification Train “Has Not Left Station” — Yet

From left: Inga Saffron, Jay McCalla, Beth McConnell and Calvin Gladney on "The Gentrification Wars: Can Philly Have Urbanism and Equality" at ThinkFest.

From left: Inga Saffron, Jay McCalla, Beth McConnell and Calvin Gladney on “The Gentrification Wars: Can Philly Have Urbanism and Equality” at ThinkFest.

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Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Inga Saffron has written about the city’s changing skyline for 16 years. Today, she says, “you cannot write about the changing city of Philadelphia, without writing about gentrification.”

Saffron Friday moderated a ThinkFest panel centered on a question that is being asked with greater and greater urgency as Philadelphia’s redevelopment accelerates: “Can Philly have urbanism and equity?”

Joining Saffron were Jay McCalla, a former city official and Citified columnist; Beth McConnell, policy director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations; and Calvin Gladney, managing partner at Mosaic Urban Partners.

They disagreed on plenty, but there seemed to be consensus that it was still possible for Philadelphia to have urbanist amenities and equitable neighborhoods.

Near the end of the discussion, McConnell said: “the train has not left the station yet in Philadelphia.” She cited the gentrification battleground of Point Breeze, and said there was still enough vacant property and tax delinquent parcels in the neighborhood to build a solid supply of affordable housing. The city has a chance, she said, to “create mixed income neighborhoods of opportunity — and I really hope the next mayor makes that a priority.”

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The Death of Gentrification Guilt

Le Bok Fin

Opening night patrons at Le Bok Fin. | Photo credit: Michelle Gustafson

A few months ago, developer Lindsey Scannapieco paid $1.75 million for a 340,000-square-foot property in South Philadelphia right around the corner from my apartment. For 75 years, the building had been the Edward W. Bok Technical High School, until officials closed it and 23 other public schools in 2013 amid major financial cutbacks. Scannapieco and her team immediately got to work transforming the rooftop of the eight-story building into a pop-up French restaurant. They installed a kitchen and two open-air bars. They drew up a menu: $6 “Paris” hot dogs, $8 baguettes, $12 charcuterie plates. Where the school’s flag once flew, they raised their own. And exactly one month later, Le Bok Fin was open. Read more »

Philly’s Hottest New Bar Becomes Gentrification Battleground

The view from Le Bok Fin. | Photo by Michelle Gustafson

The view from Le Bok Fin. | Photo by Michelle Gustafson

For weeks, there has been a fierce debate on social media about Le Bok Fin. It’s a pop-up restaurant that serves French cuisine, offers a stunning, panoramic view of Philadelphia, and has been called “the hottest bar” in the city. What’s so controversial about that? Well, it’s on the rooftop of what was once Bok Technical High School, a vocational school that was closed in 2013 amid major financial cutbacks.

On one side of the debate are people who argue that the project is tone-deaf, that the school never should have closed, and that it should be repurposed with long-term residents — not craft beer-drinking hipsters — in mind. On the other side are those who say that the revitalization of a blighted building is something to be celebrated, and that the larger issues of poverty, affordable housing and education funding should be addressed by the public sector, not individual developers.

And somewhere in between are people who acknowledge that Le Bok Fin is a good thing, but call for empathy for residents who bristle at seeing scads of young white people eating croissants and $6 “Paris” hot dogs in the same place where children of color learned trades just two years ago.

Much of the discussion about Le Bok Fin, though, has taken place in private Facebook groups. On Thursday, critics of the pop-up restaurant took it much more public when they launched a guerrilla campaign on Yelp, posting highly critical comments about Le Bok Fin right alongside five-star reviews posted by fans. Taken together, they mirror the ever-escalating debate over gentrification that is happening all over the city. Read more »

The Battle for the Soul of Washington Avenue

IMG_0802crop copy

Washington Avenue. | Photo by Stacey Emenecker.

Washington Avenue is not a Market Street or a Broad Street or even a Baltimore Avenue. The New York Times has never recommended, as it did with Passyunk Avenue, that tourists spend a sunny weekend there to check out the cafés and twee boutiques. Art lovers don’t flock there on First Fridays to sip white wine and buy clay conversation pieces, like they do on Second Street. Suburban teenagers don’t gravitate there, as they have for decades to South Street, for tattoos and piercings and pizza.

And yet, Washington Avenue is just as quintessentially Philadelphian — just as instantly recognizable — as any of those places. Read more »

Slowing Gentrification By Building Up


According to a recent story in Governing, the city of Miami might have found an interesting deterrent against gentrification: Height restrictions on development. Not the creation of regulations, but the absence of them.

Miami doesn’t control building heights as strictly as most major cities, and the result has been a residential tower building boom in recent years. Out of the 64 buildings that are 400 feet or taller in the city, 53 have been erected since 2000. And according to the story, there’s been virtually no gentrification spillover into the the residential areas bordering the business district — named Brickell — where most of the tall buildings have been raised. Areas like Little Havana and Overtown — two minority-majority, middle-class neighborhoods — have not witnessed the kind of displacement that’s familiar to, say, parts of Point Breeze in Philly. As Governing reports:

According to the real estate site Zillow, median home values in both neighborhoods are about half of what they are citywide and about one-third of Brickell’s. While both areas have some new condos, they are still predominately historic and low-slung. Most important, people there have stayed put. Both Little Havana and Overtown remain 95 percent non-Anglo, with median incomes below $24,000.

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“Newbold” or Just “South Philly”? How Race Shapes Our Definition of Neighborhoods

St. Alban's Street | Google maps.

Is this Graduate Hospital? Southwest Center City? South Philly?  | Google maps.

Back in 2013, this magazine named the community southwest of Center City the “hottest neighborhood” in Philly. We called it Graduate Hospital—rather than Southcentral or South Philly, the monikers frequently used by longtime residents. It’s a common phenomenon. Newbies bark names like University City, Midtown Village and Newbold; old heads still use West Philadelphia, Gayborhood, and Point Breeze. And it’s not just neighborhood names that are fluid. So too are neighborhood boundaries, aside from obvious cutoffs (i.e. bridges, rivers, highways).

Now there’s a fascinating new study out of Harvard University that suggests the biggest driver of our wildly different perceptions about neighborhood identity is race.

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SEPTA Key: Will Students Ride For “Free”?

Septa regional rail train

SEPTA Key—the transit agency’s next-gen fare payment system—is still in its pilot stage, two years after the transition away from tokens and cash was supposed to begin. Now, all SEPTA is saying is that it’s rollout is “expected” in 2015. Let’s hope we have electronic fares before the Pope.

But the long delays haven’t deterred speculation about the program. Over at Sic Transit Philadelphia, there’s a thought-provoking post about the looming changeover from tokens to plastic cards (or in self-explanatory jargon, the “New Payment Technology”). And the story brings good news. Michael Noda reports that SEPTA officials are open to granting more reduced fares within the new system, including to groups like university students, who might be able to ride on the cheap using their student IDs. Read more »

Insane Surge in Philadelphia Gentrification


Rendering of the new Point Breeze development reNewbold.| Rendering credit: LPMG Companies.

[Update: Corrected to show that San Diego’s gentrification rate slightly outpaces Philadelphia’s.]

If you listen to enough old codgers complain about the rise of gentrification in our city, you’d think the names Templetown and Ori Feibush are two of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. We know that gentrification is a real phenomenon in Philadelphia and other cities, and that people are perturbed by it. But it’s also been a force for decades. The salient question is: how much has the rate of Philadelphia gentrification actually increased?

Well, a new quantitative analysis by Governing magazine attempts to measure the recent uptick. The study looked at low income census tracts in the nation’s 50 biggest cities since 1990, and found that, nationwide, the pace of gentrification of low income urban neighborhoods has more than doubled.

But here’s the real news. Over the same period, the pace of gentrification in Philadelphia’s low income census tracts increased by a staggering factor of 1,800 percent. That’s correct. According to this study, Philly’s gentrification rate is 18 times what it was in the 1990s. Just one city tops Philly’s rate: San Diego (with a 2,015 percent increase).  Read more »

Zillow Confirms That Starbucks Fuels Your Morning–and Gentrification



Have you had your coffee this morning? If not, here’s a bit of information from a recent study conducted by Zillow that will certainly open your eyes:

A home that is now near a Starbucks would have sold, on average, for $137,000. A home that is not near a Starbucks would have sold, on average, for $102,000.

 Fast-forward 17 years to 2014. That average American home has now appreciated 65%, to $168,000. But the Starbucks-adjacent property has far outpaced that, appreciating 96% to $269,000.
That’s quite remarkable, but is it really just Starbucks or is it simply something Zillow calls the “coffee shop effect”? The report also compared the home values adjacent to both Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts within the first five years of the store opening.

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