Contrarian: Wanted: Grays and Gays

Forget family-friendly. If the city really wants to succeed, we’ve got to court Grandpa and “confirmed bachelors”

Mayor Street spoke at a news conference recently welcoming a development team that’s building a new 500-plus-unit community along the Delaware in Tacony, of all places.

This is a pretty big deal in a city where new home construction was just about dead five years ago. There are now more than 9,000 houses, condos and apartments either planned or being built in Philadelphia. That’s like adding four entire Swarthmores to the tax base. Suddenly, all the big suburban developers — Toll Brothers, Hovnanian, Westrum — have come a-courtin’ in the big city, and Mayor Street is singing the song of that frisky cowgirl in Oklahoma! — the one who just can’t say no.

But before the Mayor gives the city’s flower to yet another out-of-town suitor, we might want to take a good look at why they’re all making flirty eyes at neighborhoods they wouldn’t have visited under armed escort a decade ago. A lot of these developers are just sad sacks on the rebound. After years of romancing in the suburbs, the builders have been jilted for producing — what else? — –unwanted children.

It’s been called “vasectomy zoning.” Suburbs all over the country are trying to put a lid on taxes and traffic by making it tougher to build homes for people with kids. Sixties-era cul-de-sacs that once crawled with street urchins are now deserted emptied nests, lorded over by cranky seniors who, having educated their own offspring at the expense of local school districts, are hell-bent on keeping the next generation out.

All these little Levittowns have figured out that two kids under one roof eat through a lot more in school expenditures than their folks’ tax bills will ever cover. Since they can’t prevent families from buying existing homes, township officials have resorted to throwing roadblocks in front of new family-friendly construction. If they can’t buy out a development site in the name of “preserving open space,” if they can’t find someone to build an office park there, then their last gambit is to bring in the hottest new housing concept around, the age-restricted, over-55 community.

Retirees are the perfect neighbors. They have no kids. They don’t use the roads much. They never need the police. They pay their taxes from behind their security gates and then they die. What’s not to love?

So many over-55 developments have popped up on Route 1 in Chester County that the stretch south of Chadds Ford has been dubbed “The Golden (Age) Mile.” In Haverford, as many as three-quarters of the  nearly 300 new homes and condominiums going up on the former state hospital grounds could be set aside for the Geritol Generation. Out in Cherry Hill, where some hope the old racetrack site will, at last, provide the township with a real downtown, the first stage of construction is an “active adult” community of 608 condominiums sprawled across about two dozen four-story buildings. Then they’ll build retail. Then some offices. And then they’ll build townhouses for families. Eventually.
With opportunities shutting down in the ’burbs, private home developers have returned to Philadelphia in a big way for the first time in 40 years. This is part of a tradition in city/suburb relations. Everything the suburbs don’t want ends up in the city: poor people, homeless people, strip clubs, drug corners, and now — children. Demography, after all, is destiny. Children under 18 currently make up around one-quarter of Philadelphia’s population, which is almost exactly the national average. But U.S. Census profiles of strong, fiscally healthy cities like Seattle and San Francisco show a vastly smaller share of children — just 15 percent. At the other end of the urban distress scale, in basket-case burgs like Detroit and Cleveland, about 30 percent of the population is under 18. The pattern is pretty clear. Philadelphia could probably cut the wage tax in half if 150,000 kids would just go live somewhere else.

Fantasies aside, the city’s got to get smarter about what kind of taxpayers these developers are inviting into town. For once, instead of living with the suburbs’ leavings, Philadelphia needs to steal a page from their playbook and get into the child-free housing game.

The slogan? “Go Gray, Go Gay.”

After all, most of Center City’s success in recent years can be chalked up to its natural appeal to monied empty nesters and gays. Both groups are kid-free MVTs — most valuable taxpayers — and now that the homebuilding action has moved to the neighborhoods, city officials should make sure these new developments are loaded with gray and gay appeal. Out of the 3,000 new townhouses and apartments planned for the Delaware River around Tacony, at least a third of them ought to be age-restricted. It should be easy to find a thousand folks who want to spend their sunset years watching sunrises over Jersey.

But too many city policies and practices lack the focus required to snag these low-maintenance, high-revenue taxpayers. That’s got to change. For instance, why can’t Philadelphia promote itself as a destination for people priced out of the high-rent gayborhoods in Manhattan and D.C.? Clean sidewalks are nice, but I’ll bet the Center City District would do a lot more for downtown real estate values if it sent a dozen of its best-looking street sweepers up to New York every weekend and had them hand out property listings on Christopher Street.