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