What New Apartment Projects Tell Us About the State of Center City

Is the boom back?

The last time there was much excitement about real estate development in Center City was in the good old days of 2008, when the shiny new Comcast Center was opening up, swanky condos were being advertised, and nobody thought about Greece except when devouring baklava. But thanks to a recent spate of real estate activity in town, there are signs not only that better days could be returning, but that post-meltdown Center City might be taking on a decidedly different character.

In the fall, Chicago developer John Buck Co. announced plans to build a 34-story apartment building at 21st and Chestnut—the city’s first official high-rise construction since the Comcast building opened in June 2008. That news came on the heels of several other apartment projects that have been announced or gotten under way in recent months, including the conversion into apartments of the old AAA building at 21st and Market, a new 14-story building at 1900 Arch Street, the renovation of the Robert Morris Building at 17th and Arch, and the rehabbing of 1201 Chestnut Street.

Ron Caplan, whose PMC Property is behind several of the projects, credits­ the boomlet to the increasing liveliness of Center City and its surrounding­ neighborhoods, which added nearly 17,000 residents between 2000 and 2010. “Center City right now is really feeding off of itself, and I only see that increasing in the future,” he says. That is, more residents leads to more restaurants and retail, which leads to more workers who need places to live, which leads to more residents, which leads to even more restaurants and retail, which leads to more residents.

The current city building wave differs from the last one, which came in the Bush years, in one significant way: Back then, many of the projects were condos aimed at empty nesters moving into town from the ’burbs. The new projects, in contrast, are rental units largely geared toward young professionals. “Center City, in our view, is the most attractive place to live in the region,” says Caplan, who clearly has a reason to be boosterish. But the reappearance of cranes around town might just be evidence that he’s right.