Four Areas of Center City in Desperate Need of a Developer’s Touch

Nowadays, development in Philadelphia seems to be focused heavily on neighborhoods and districts surrounding Center City. But it’s not as though Center City is finished. Here we present four areas of Center City that are in desperate need of the right developer’s touch. These spots have issues due to a variety of reasons: slumlords, environmental problems, lack of interest, you name it.

Season City: Bounded by the Convention Center and Vine Street Expressway between North Marvine and North Juniper Streets

Aerial from Google.

You don’t even know where this is, do you? Season City is a name I made up for this small patch of Center City that everyone forgot about. I call it Season City because Summer Street, Spring Street, and Winter Court all manage to run through this small, ~500′ x ~1100′ wasteland. This area is replete with beat-up buildings, halfway houses, garages, and a whole bunch of surface parking lots owned by notorious slumlords. Season City is also haunted by a bunch of semi-legal billboards. It is a new neighborhood, recently separated from the rest of the city by the Convention Center expansion.

Picturesque Clarion Street in Season City. William Penn looks down in shame.

This place has lots of potential. Close to transit, convenient to the Convention Center, Reading Terminal Market, Hahnemann Hospital, and Chinatown. Right next to 676. The biggest drawback? The only thing you can see when looking south is the gigantic rear wall of the Convention Center. Some consider this area a part of Chinatown, others consider it part of the Loft District. The newest piece of construction is a nameless, faceless apartment building at the corner of Camac and Spring streets. The many surface lots are used by Convention Center visitors, making it the first part of Philadelphia seen by many suburbanites. Yay.

The Season City Skyline. Just ignore the skyscrapers in the background.

Though it appears deserted, plenty of stuff is going on here every day. There’s one of the last surviving African-American Schoolhouses (now being used as an architect’s office), the Mid-Century Modern Big Brothers Big Sisters HQ, the Chinese Gospel Church (using a building from the 1850s) and Philadelphia’s Scientology Headquarters (still waiting for that move to the huge building they own on Chestnut East). Three hotels call this place home: the Travelodge, the Hampton Inn, and the Four Points Sheraton.

All this neighborhood needs to pop is the elimination of all those surface lots, a bunch of lowrise infill construction, and some attractive retail lining Race, 12th, and 13th Streets here. Do it!

Skyline Gap: Southwest Logan Square/East of Schuylkill/JFK Blvd West/Market West

Aerial by Google.

This largely undeveloped area stretches along the east side of the Schuylkill between Market and Cherry streets, with an extra outcropping reaching east along JFK Boulevard. Filled with surface parking, busy streets, and a total lack of pedestrian appeal, this little area of the city fails to ever make itself better and it’s got no damn excuse. Here you have excellent access to multiple modes of transit and a short walk to the Schuylkill River Trail. The ‘hood even has a supermarket and (future) liquor store, something many other more developed neighborhoods lack! So what went wrong?

While Market West is just a mess, John F. Kennedy Boulevard west of 20th Street is the biggest disgrace. For many visitors to the city, this is the first part of Philadelphia they see when walking out of the front door of 30th Street Station. What’s there to greet them after crossing the bridge? Four straight blocks of nothingness. Even the buildings that abut the street just put up blank walls. Commerce Square becomes a block-long blank wall with storefront-like windows along the sidewalk between 20th and 21st; the Murano’s faceless parking garage greets you on the next block; and the PECO Building’s block-long rear section after 23rd Street has a bunch of “No Trespassing” signs on it. Throw in a block-long surface parking lot 20 feet below the 2200 block and you’ve summed up the entire south side of the Boulevard here. The north side just has train tracks moving Regional Rail trains to and fro.

Just across the bridge from 30th Street Station. Welcome to Philadelphia!

Say you find yourself halfway down this long section of seemingly abandoned boulevard. There’s nowhere to go! The Boulevard elevates toward the bridge here, so its well above the numbered streets. The other streets like this have stairways down to the numbered streets, but on JFK, there aren’t any. Again, great way to greet our city’s visitors!

South from 23rd and Arch.

Twenty-third Street between Market and Cherry is no picnic either. Starting north of Market, the first block has a huge surface parking lot on one side and another blank wall of the PECO Building on the other. After passing through the dark, 200-foot tunnel created by JFK Blvd and the Regional Rail overpass, one finds another, even larger, surface parking lot with a huge faceless parking lot across the street. The surface lot continues all the way to Cherry Street, with a car wash and an ivy-covered garage with absentee owners sporting flags advertising a housing development that was never built. The newly re-faced Pilling Building at the northeast corner of 23rd and Arch is the only useful piece of built environment along this stretch.

North from 23rd and Arch.

Though this area seems neglected, its hasn’t been forgotten. Numerous proposals and master plans to revitalized this area have been coming down the pike since the 1930s. Louis Kahn’s “South Triangle” Redevelopment Plan, the Century 21 Urban Complex, Philadelphia River City, there’s a whole bunch of ’em. Now that development along the Schuylkill River Trail has been exploding, the time to jump on this little neighborhood has finally come.

Franklin Square West: Bounded by Arch, Vine, Seventh, and Ninth Streets

Aerial by Google.

This area one of the largest and most shameful expanses of mal-development to be found in the city, surface lots as far as the eye can see. Like the others, this spot has no damn excuse for its level of misery. Just west of Independence National Historical Park, easy access to highways and bridges, extremely close to multiple transit points. Chinatown on one side and Franklin Square on the other. There isn’t much holding this area back.

Looking north from the 700 Block of Arch.

The Center City Commuter Connection tunnel was run under this district almost 30 years ago. To save some dough, this section of the tunnel was built by opening a huge gash through the neighborhood that was later covered back over with surface lots when it was complete with the assumption that development would take their place. The tunnel was even buried deeper here than anywhere else in order not to disturb the future buildings that would cover this land.

Nonetheless, all these years later, all we have is four blocks of surface lots. One block to the east of the tunnel, even more empty lots are to be found. So many that the about-to-be-abandoned Roundhouse is visible from Arch Street. As in Season City, many of these surface lots are used by visitors to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Again, a crappy area is often the first part of the city experienced by outsiders.

This area is so blank right now that ANY kind of development would be appropriate. Residential? Commercial? Institutional? Anything will work. Maybe this area should get some KOZ status going. That’s what’s helping the Navy Yard and the University City Science Center. I’m not the only one who has identified this spot. The Philadelphia 2035 plan has made some recommendations that should be beat into the head of every developer within 100 miles.

The only improvements slated for this area right now are right next to each other, on the southern border of the district: A re-facade of a 60-year-old parking garage and the nine-story Project H.O.M.E. building to be constructed on the vacant lot immediately to the garage’s west. Let’s hope this stuff will help.

East Chestnut: Chestnut Street between Eighth and 12th Streets, minus the 900 Block

Aerial from Google.

All the other neighborhoods identified on this list are along on of the edges of Center City. This one, however, is right smack-dab in the middle, where there should be an excellent urban environment. Instead, crap. Beat-up, underused buildings. Vacant storefronts. This part of Chestnut Street was once one of the premiere shopping districts in America. While the 900 and 1300 blocks are doing fine and despite numerous attempts to bring it back to life (the Chestnut Street Transitway being in the most epic of fails), the 800-1200 blocks of Chestnut Street just can’t get it going. Or can they? All the pieces are there. Excellent multi-modal transit access, plenty of large storefront spaces. The floors above many of the storefronts are unused. So what’s the problem? The worst of this stretch can be found along the 1000 and 1100 blocks.

The 1000 block. At least there are trees!

The 1000 block consists of Jefferson Hospital’s Gibbon Building on the south side and a bunch of derelict buildings (besides Victory I and II) on the north side . The Gibbon Building once had storefronts that ran all the way down the block, but they’ve were re-purposed one-by-one, leaving only the corners. Rumor has it that a conversion back to retail was supposed to take place as part of the deal to build the mega-gigantic parking garage on the 900 block, but it never happened.

The north side of the block has the abandoned Society Hill Furniture building (permits have been pulled for a residential conversion); a parking garage whose retail spot has been empty for more than 20 years; the remains of the Mercantile Library (renovation plans announced 1.5 years ago); and a couple of slumlord-owned buildings at the northeast corner of 11th and Chestnut, one of which is slated to soon hold a futuristic Taco Bell location. The only life on this block comes from Victory I/II and an old office building being used by Jefferson.

Western portion of the 1100 block.

The 1100 block consists of a 1940s parking garage with constantly rotating retail (though the Airs Appliances has been there for decades) and the PGW office. Some facade work is currently being done on this garage, probably because pieces of it have fallen on people. Across the street, numerous empty storefronts supporting empty buildings pollute the block, especially on the western side. Some are even mid-20th-century conversions of historic 19th-century buildings.

Though I’ve made out East Chestnut to be completely forlorn, there are signs of new life. Cella Luxuria, Milkboy, Hiro Ramen, and Spice 28 have been major recent upgrades to this stretch and several of the buildings are already being converted to apartments. Philly Cupcake also helps. Those of us who remember what 13th Street looked like as recent as 10 years ago know that it only takes a few really good spots to boost an entire row of stores. Nonetheless, there’s plenty of improvement to be had. The renewal of East Chestnut could also end up forcing improvement on Market East. All this spot needs is the right developer to come along and make it happen. Its all here for the taking! Get on it!

Don’t forget the cruddy 800 block!


Franklin Plaza Area by the 676, 15th Street, and the Ben Franklin Parkway

Looking south from 16th and Vine.

This area’s not all that bad but it seems to be on a downward slide. GlaxoSmithKline’s headquarters moved to the Navy Yard, leaving two big office buildings behind. Though one is slated to become a charter school, the larger building is now deserted. The Philadelphia Gateway Center continues to fail 25 years after first proposed, and the only residences to be found in this little ‘hood are on the single block of South Mole Street and some homes near 17th and Race. There’s almost no retail to be found, not even vacant retail spaces. Also, plenty of surface parking lots. Developers, get on this spot before it completely sinks.

Behind Market East: The 700-1100 Blocks of Filbert Street

Looking east on Filbert from Eighth.

You think Market East sucks? How about the long stretch of Filbert Street behind it? At recently as 40 years ago, this stretch was a bustling community with both residences and businesses. Now look at it. Pretty much deserted, and for very little reason. Close to transit, the Gallery, the Federal Complex, Chinatown…pretty much everything is accessible from this part of the city, yet it still sits looking like crap.