Manufacturing Philadelphia Tech Jobs: A New “Factory” to Rise on American Street
[Updated Jan. 27, 5:30 p.m. to indicate that a vote has yet to take place.]
South Kensington (or Old Kensington, to some) has historically been part of the city’s industrial heart, but lately developers responding to the residential boom in neighboring Northern Liberties and Fishtown have been giving those old industrial buildings heart transplants such as the one the current home of Spencer Industries on Mascher Street is about to get.
The city, it appears, hasn’t abandoned the notion that South Kensington can still be home to industry completely, though. American Street, an extra-wide north-south thoroughfare between Second and Third streets that still has a freight railroad line running down its middle (long abandoned, alas), is still mostly zoned industrial, and there’s still a Keystone Opportunity Zone designation intended to lure job-creating businesses running the length of the street in Kensington.
Yet most of these industrial-zoned lots remain vacant, like the one Streamline Solutions, a local development firm that specializes in residential projects, purchased on the east side of American Street, extending from Jefferson Street almost all the way to Oxford Street. Surrounding the lot are mostly residential structures, including a row of houses on the block’s Oxford Street side that clearly predate its I-2 zoning.
This would seem to be a great place to build new residences. But the lot’s zoned industrial, which means a variance would be required to build any residential structure.
Which led Streamline co-CEO Sean Frankel to propose a novel solution to the problem: Build townhomes on the back half of the lot and a “factory” of a different sort on the front.
“I spoke with our architects, and they said it was zoned for industrial and manufacturing,” he said. “I asked them if there was anything else we could do on the site.”
And that’s when Frankel had his epiphany: “I said, ‘We’re going to manufacture tech jobs.'”
The jobs will be “manufactured” through a novel arrangement. The five-story building that will rise at 1525 N. American Street will contain two floors of work space for tech entrepreneurs on the first floor and in its basement. “It will have 15,o00 square feet of tech space that we will give away to any city resident who wants to launch a startup,” Frankel said.
On top of that, Streamline will offer 40 scholarships a year to youth in South Kensington and North Philadelphia “to let them into the building and see what they can do if they let their minds explore,” he continued. The idea, said his business partner and co-CEO Sean Skellinger, is to put ideas in their heads: “Our goal is to open the eyes and ears of underprivileged children and show them that they aren’t stuck in an underprivileged neighborhood. If they are exposed to young entrepreneurs, they will realize they can chase their dreams as well. If they spend time among these entrepreneurs, it might inspire them.”
“In the past, we’ve been telling our best and brightest, ‘Go to New York. Go to California. Go to Austin.’ All the blood and treasure we’ve been spending to educate them, and they’re heading elsewhere,” said Frankel, of the need for creating Philadelphia tech jobs. “We need to keep them in the city.”
Frankel, who was born, raised and educated in Philadelphia, sees this project as a way to give back to the city that gave him so much.
And okay, there’s a little self-interest in it: “If we’re going to be able to continue to build housing, we need people to be able to afford our homes,” he said. “The average manufacturing job pays $12 to $15 an hour. The average tech job pays $82,000 a year. We don’t need to be creating 20th-century wages; we need to be creating 21st-century salaries.”
And the beauty of this scheme is that Streamline will be relying on those already earning those 21st-century salaries to finance the whole deal. “The reality is that the rental income will offset the free space below,” Skellinger explained. “We’re getting no grants or subsidies to build this. We created a strategy that works for us as developers” and for the community and the city as a source of new jobs.
The Techadelphia building, designed by Harman Deutsch Architecture, even pays homage to American Street’s industrial past and the city’s hopes for its future. Although it’s all new construction, it has the appearance of a new building rising inside the shell of a former factory. “We’re trying to retain the industrial look so that it blends in with the city’s goals for North American Street,” Skellinger said. Ultimately, he hopes that some of the startups hatched in Techadelphia will strike out on their own in the neighborhood and contribute to a high-tech “industrial” renaissance on American Street.
The community’s response to the project has been uniformly positive, and the developers met several times with local residents to solicit opinions and feedback. In fact, Frankel said, the architects came up with the abandoned-factory idea as a creative response to community feedback on other aspects of the project. “You typically have to meet with the community only one time,” Frankel said. “We met with them six to eight times.” “If you’re meeting with a neighborhood association, and you expect to build in the neighborhood for years to come, you need to take the neighbors’ feedback,” Skellinger added.
“This building reflects adjustments made in response to community concerns.” Specifically, the residents wanted the townhomes on the east side of the lot, facing narrow Philip Street, to be shorter; in exchange for the reduced height, the developers and architects made the American Street building a little taller and gave it its abandoned-factory dress. “We don’t want to hide the fact that up American Street, there are buildings that look similar to this,” Frankel said.
The residents who showed up at the South Kensington Community Partners zoning meeting in December certainly liked what they saw. A vote on the variance request has yet to take place. The developers will make their case to the Zoning Board of Adjustment next month. If the variance is granted, Streamline expects to start work on Techadelphia this summer and complete the project in a year and a half to two years.