A New Neighborhood on the Drawing Board.
The East Callowhill section of Philadelphia is on track for a rebirth. Located north of the Center City Business District, and nestled between a major roadway and two cross city arterial routes, it is one of the last remaining swaths of raw developable land in the City.
Investor Mark Rubin of Willow Management Corporation is selling his family-owned portfolio of aged industrial and office buildings stretching from Second Street to the east, Ninth Street to the west, Callowhill Street to the south, and Spring Garden Street to the north. This is a prime assemblage of eight developable sites that have never before been offered. Rubin hopes to see the area take advantage of the recent zoning changes allowing for high-rise mixed use development.
Development trends have traditionally reached farther and farther out from the Central Business District. But in this case, here lies an opportunity to fill in. Tucked within two of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods (Old City and Northern Liberties), this is a natural location for a potential new neighborhood to take shape.
And it’s within the realm of possibility — Philadelphia has become a virtual boom-town with a record 2,506 new residential units completed in 2016. Greater Center City is the fastest growing residential area in Philadelphia and population has increased by 19% to almost 190,000. Production has heavily skewed towards apartments – a reflection of not only rising demand, but also a shift in preference for the flexibility that renting offers. The streets in and around the CBD are full of young people, and, increasingly, retirees who would normally opt to go off to Florida or Arizona are choosing to stay, buying significant units here in town. The appeal of downtown living remains very strong — people want to live close to where they work and play.
Back in its heyday, the East Callowhill section of the city was a bustling manufacturing district with a mix of warehouses and employee housing. It seems we have come full circle.
The Tip of the Iceberg
The area surrounding East Callowhill is experiencing a significant uptick in development. Yards Brewing Company and Target will soon occupy over 100,000 SF of space in the nearby Spring Arts District — a growing neighborhood of artists, millennials, loft office space and apartments; construction of the Viaduct Rail Park is underway and, upon completion, will offer a 4.2 mile elevated park (similar to New York’s High Line) connecting communities from river to river; the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has extended their reach beyond the waterfront, launching creative beautification projects that stretch into the neighborhoods making them safer, better lit, and more inviting for pedestrians. On any given weekend more and more people can be seen walking and biking to waterfront amenities.
Another exciting project in the discussion phase is the Spring Garden Street Greenway (SGSG) project which proposes to transform the 2.2 mile center concrete median running the length of Spring Garden Street with a paved, landscaped bike path that will connect Philadelphia’s two riverfronts with the growing regional trails network.
The growth potential of this neighborhood will be further supported by the revival of discussions to reopen the Franklin Square PATCO station at 6th and Race Streets. The Delaware River Port Authority is prioritizing a program to reopen the speed line station, which closed in 1979. The project would cost an estimated $28 million and would be funded with assistance from the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The station would serve an estimated 1,300 riders daily. Over a half-million dollars has been earmarked to start the design process.
For Rubin, the impetus to sell took root in 2015 when the City Planning Commission began a study of East Callowhill to discern what would encourage development in an area that had been long overlooked for rehabilitation.
When the City suggested rezoning to CMX3 – commercial mixed use, medium density, with manipulation of bonuses to bring out the best developers – Rubin commissioned the architecture firm of Cecil Baker + Partners to develop an innovative design to demonstrate the potential for what could be built. According to Cecil Baker, “we saw it as a great opportunity to relink the city and create new growth. Here you could truly do a significant project, a game changer, a flagship product for the City of Philadelphia.”
Rubin and Baker worked with the planning commission and became part of the rezoning process. The idea to inject more density and activity to make Callowhill an attractive gateway to the City sparked some concerns from the neighboring communities. Understandably, they were worried about anything large looming over them to the South and apprehensive about additional density that could negatively impact their neighborhoods.
The design team’s approach was to join the neighborhoods with a kind of energy that would be beneficial to all in a planned and thoughtful way. The tall buildings would go on the south side of Callowhill getting up high above the Vine Street Expressway but remaining low on the north side, gently weaving into the neighborhoods without casting a shadow over them.
“We saw it as a great opportunity to relink the city and create new growth. Here you could truly do a significant project, a game changer, a flagship product for the City of Philadelphia.”Cecil Baker
— Enjoy Boutique Shopping and Dining in Old City
— Stop in the Proposed Yards Brewery for a Pint
— Get Brunch or take a Boxing Class in Northern Liberties
— See a Show at Festival Pier on the Delaware Waterfront
— To Punch Line Comedy Club & The Filmore concert venue in Fishtown via Market Frankford El Eastbound
— To Historic Sites in Old City, the Future Fashion Outlets of Philadelphia and East Market Developments as well as Dilworth Park or City Hall via Market Frankford El Line Westbound
— Access the future Spring Garden Greenway (less than 1 minute)
— Arrive at Art Museum and Kelly Drive Bike Trails
— Grab an Open Hammock at Spruce Street Harbor Park
— Arrive at Workplace in the CBD
— Halfway to Navy Yard and Sports Complex via I-95 South
— Over the Ben Franklin Bridge and into New Jersey via I-676E
— To 30th Street Station via Vine Street Expresssway I-676W
— Get in Big Box Shopping at Ikea, Target & Home Depot via Columbus Boulevard
Under the proposed zoning change, any projects built in the area must include ground floor retail to enliven the street. The height bonuses offered are tied directly to public improvements, such as pedestrian passageways, green space and storm water removal (normally the province of the city).
Baker’s firm teamed up with leaders in landscape architecture and urban design at Studio Bryan Hanes. The result was a design that incorporates innovative storm water management, public open space, public art, mixed income housing, green space, and retail as public amenities.
Their design proposes dual residential towers — 24 and 27 stories facing north/south, slightly askew from each other to maximize views across the city. In order to deliver unobstructed views, the design would come above the bed of the Vine Street Expressway with no taller buildings to the north or south. The result will be panoramic views as far as the eye can see. The amenity level – with pools and gardens – sits between the two buildings. Baker’s design team came up with a clever storm water management system that would draw water from heavy storms into a large rain garden and public park (instead of dumping it back into the water channel beneath the site).
The project cleared the civic, design and zoning review processes last year and all that is needed is the building permit to make it “shovel ready.” Now it’s a matter of finding the right developer to bring it to fruition. A future owner is not limited to these plans but the approved plans demonstrate the potential for what can be developed on these sites.
Philly’s Next New Neighborhood
Callow East will soon come alive with activity as it experiences Philadelphia’s next wave of development. A recent rezoning change from I-2 (Industrial) to CMX-3 (Community Commercial and Residential Mixed Use) has opened this area up to residential, commercial, and office development. The five central-most sites of this offering fall within the new CMX-3 zone. Furthermore, a small slice of land on the south side of the CMX-3 zoning district, facing Interstate 76, known as the East Callowhill Overlay (ECO), encourages height through bonuses that benefit the public. The bonus height allowances provide for development as high as 300 feet – or approximately 30 stories. Three of the portfolio’s sites fall within this region. Willow Management Corporation has proceeded in obtaining all the necessary approvals (short of building/construction permits) for development on the site fronting 4th and Callowhill below.
The Face of Change
Since the offering, dubbed “Callow East”, has become active, exposure has been massive — over 2,000 emails were sent and opened — and interest has been robust.
Inquiries have come in from across the globe: China, Germany, Canada, and even Uzbekistan; every state in the nation has been tagged in the analytic results of visits to the project website. Regionally, New York has shown the greatest interest.
This strong level of interest clearly demonstrates just how rare it is to find a large swath of raw land in a busy city center. Here lies the opportunity for a developer to build on the energy of the surrounding communities to create a new neighborhood with its own unique identity. In five to 10 years expect a dramatic paradigm shift for East Callowhill, one that has the potential to become a spectacular visual landmark and an important gateway to the City.
MICHAEL BARMASH, Senior Vice President, Commercial Division
Michael’s experience is in the sale of office, industrial, and retail buildings, hotel sites, ground for residential development, piers for waterfront development, and land sales for urban residential development.
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