Inga Saffron on Philadelphia’s Revival and Why Amazon Might Be Good For the City
Inga Saffron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, has spent almost thirty years in that charming, irascible city. She’s seen it evolve from a struggling city, with a rich and deep history, to a newly prosperous one, worried about a whole new set of problems. In recent years, the city has experienced the first bursts of real growth in many decades. Recently I talked to Saffron about Philadelphia’s renaissance, the prospect of Amazon’s arrival, and the challenge of affordable and public housing.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
IS: Inga Saffron
What are the issues that Philly shares with the country, and what are the more specific issues that the city is grappling with?
Affordability and gentrification have been dominating the conversation here. And that’s a new thing for us. Just 20 years ago, Philadelphia seemed to be in free-fall. It was losing population and jobs, and you would hear people say things like, “Philly is the next Detroit.” That was when Detroit was really at rock bottom. Now, we’ve made an almost 180-degree turn. The city is growing. The housing market is booming. We’re building thousands of new houses a year. Comcast is just finishing up its second tower, which will be among the top-ten tallest in the country. The city has seen a lot of successes lately. Yet when people talk about gentrification, I feel like they’re jumping the gun. Yes, we’ve seen incredible price rises in a few central neighborhoods, but we’re not New York or San Francisco. Philadelphia still has neighborhoods where property values are declining, the reverse of gentrification. Those neighborhoods are struggling to hold on. Philadelphia’s poverty rate remains stubbornly high. I worry that all the focus on gentrification distracts us from the problems of the “middle neighborhoods,” the ones neither succeeding nor failing. The fact is, Philadelphia still has a lot of cheap housing.
And you still have a lot of open land, I’d guess.
We have something like 40,000 vacant lots.
So you could conceivably densify the city without displacing anyone?
Absolutely. We have a lot of parts of the city where we could easily add population, and it would be a great thing. As empty lots in the city’s core neighborhoods get filled in, we’re starting to see developers move into more outlying areas. Those places could use some investment, but it makes residents there very nervous. Rents are starting to rise beyond what long-time residents can afford. That’s hard on low-wage workers who don’t own their homes. Like a lot of cities, we’re also seeing seeing old, locally-owned retailers being pushed out by chains that can pay higher rents. We have a huge preservation crisis here. Philadelphia has so much intact fabric from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. We have thousands of beautiful, old buildings, but our protections for them are weak. Every month there’s another gorgeous stone church that’s torn down. We’re faced with a terrible situation on our Jeweler’s Row, the oldest jewelry district in America. The Toll Brothers have come in; they want to tear down five buildings and put up a very generic glass skyscraper. It will completely change the dynamic and ecosystem of this neighborhood, a neighborhood where people actually make things.
Because the city was shrinking for such a long time, and because the idea of growth is so new, there is a feeling people that change is happening too fast here. Maybe New York or San Francisco have experienced this, but it’s a shock to the system to old Philadelphians. And even not-so-old Philadelphians.
So the city has been gaining population?
Yes. We’ve had a decade of modest, but steady population growth. Still I doubt that we’ve added a hundred thousand people. Even though that’s not as many as some other cities, you really see and feel it, especially when you’re downtown. The sidewalks are jammed with people. I’ve lived here for thirty years and it’s never been like this. Just crossing the street, at certain intersections, is challenging. As a city, we’re trying to adapt to this new feeling of successful. How do we manage growth? Which buildings should we be saving and which can go? Which neighborhoods can handle more density? How do we preserve affordable housing? Our low costs have been one of the city’s big selling points. How do we handle parking and bike lanes and make smart transit decisions? And then there’s the design part. Much of the new architecture—which is replacing buildings made of stone and brick —is extremely generic and poorly designed.
Philadelphia has always been a walkable city. What do those newer buildings do on the street level?
Over the past decade, developers in Philadelphia have generally gotten smarter about urban design. We’re seeing more apartment buildings with activity and transparency on the ground floor. Developers are making more of an effort to camouflage the parking; some have even figured out they don’t need to include it, especially in neighborhoods with good transit. Even when the aesthetics are not all that good, developers have come to understand that good urbanism is good for their bottom line. As a rule, the more affluent the neighborhood, the better the urbanism.
Who’s the current mayor of Philadelphia?
His name is Jim Kenney. He was an at-large city councilman, who beat out a wide field of candidates when he ran for mayor. The son of a fireman, he comes from a Irish-Italian neighborhood where the kids all went to the local Catholic school and the boys followed their fathers into the electricians or carpenters or plumbers union. The remarkable thing about Kenney is how much he has grown beyond that. During the election, he put together an amazing coalition of white working class Philadelphians, African-Americans, Latinos, progressives and wonky millennials. That kind of coalition isn’t easy to please or to hold together. He’s put more focus on poverty and equity than the former mayor, Michael Nutter, and has made funding for pre-K and improved rec centers his signature policy initiatives.
Does he have an urban design agenda?
Oh, no, no. His planning vision is very pro-developer. It’s essentially: any building is a good building. In that way, he is no different than the last three mayors.
That’s a bit of a shift from Nutter, who certainly did a lot of great planning work around water and infrastructure.
Kenney has continued most of Nutter’s planning initiatives. The planning department is still slowly re-doing the zoning map of the city. But I would say that much of it is being done on autopilot. I don’t get that same sense of ownership and commitment to getting planning right. Kenney has been completely AWOL on the Toll Brothers tower, for instance, and on a couple of really awful projects along the Schuylkill waterfront. He formed a task force to “study” the preservation crisis, stocked with a lot of developers and gave them an 18-month time-frame. Nutter was pretty much the same, but at least he had an architect as his deputy mayor and planning director, Alan Greenberger. Alan was attuned to the way cities and buildings looked, how they functioned urbanistically, and would intervene to improve the design of high-profile projects. Now we have someone, Anne Fadullon, who comes from a more of development background. Her focus is more on affordable housing, so the emphasis has shifted there, and a lot less interested in the details of how things look. It’s all about quantity, not quality.
Does Philadelphia have an existing stock of public housing?
We do. We have a Housing Authority. Like a lot of cities, we demolished all of our high-rise public housing in the 1990s and early 2000s. We blew up 22 towers. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that these high-rises were inhumane by design, that their very form was responsible for crime and poverty. During the Clinton Administration, the Hope VI program was created to de-densify those projects. Fast forward, twenty years and now we’re wringing our hands we don’t have enough affordable housing units, especially for the very poor. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, how the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Philadelphia followed the Hope VI script perfectly. We blew up all of these housing towers and replaced them with low-rise housing, which looked more like the typical Philadelphia row house. In many ways, it was a huge improvement. You could see the blight radiating out from those housing towers. Now that the city has gotten rid of them, the surrounding neighborhoods have rebounded dramatically. The housing that was built in its place is far more livable and better kept. But there was a price. We lost a significant part of our supply of public housing.
In sheer numbers?
Yes. And now, in hindsight, I don’t think I’m the only one who wonders: Did we make a terrible mistake in eliminating all of those units? Those towers weren’t nice. In New York, where a lot of people live in high rises, the shift in scale wasn’t so extreme, but here in Philadelphia, where most people live in row houses, to have three forty-story towers next door, sitting in an island, the classic towers in the park, they were out of place. Still, the net result was a loss of public housing units.
Recently Amazon announced the twenty finalists for its second North American headquarters. Philadelphia, low and behold, made the vaunted “round of 20.” What are your feelings about that?
I was one of the first journalists in Philadelphia to write a pro-Amazon column, making the case for why the city is the perfect spot for the company. But like everyone else, I am conflicted. Sure, Amazon is the evil empire, but they could be our evil empire! Typically, the way I would parse it is this: Philadelphia has grown; we’ve added population; we’re building like crazy. But we still have, as we like to remind everybody, the highest poverty rate of the ten biggest cities in the U.S. We need to create jobs. So, if Amazon came, it would create a lot of jobs.
My town, New Orleans, failed to make the list. I was relieved, because Amazon would have exploded the already stressed rental market and resulted in the mass exodus of poor and working class residents, which in turn would have decimated the unique local culture here.
Let me parse this a little more. Because a lot of people here are going nuts already about how the arrival of Amazon will drive out poor people and cause rents to skyrocket. And they point to Seattle and San Francisco. Here’s the key difference: Both San Francisco and Seattle are geographically constrained cities. Philadelphia is a big, flat sprawling place. And we’re not just talking about the city, but the suburbs as well. If Amazon came, with 50,000 people, keep in mind, they would not all arrive on day one. They would probably be phased in over the course of ten years. That’s 5,000 people a year, plus all the ancillary jobs. We have 40,000 vacant lots. We once had a population of 2.2 million, We have empty housing out the wazoo. Is it in the center of the city? Is it in posh neighborhoods? No. But there is plenty of space to absorb 5,000 people a year. The other thing to remember is that not all the Amazonians would live in the city. We have good transit connections to the Main Line, to the New Jersey suburbs. People would be distributed over a metropolitan area of 5.5 million. Remember, too, that Philadelphia is way bigger than Seattle or San Francisco or Boston. We’re a city of 1.5 million. We can absorb 50,000 people. I think it’s wrong to assume that that level of growth would have the same impact on every city. I’ve been telling people: we have way more capacity to absorb growth.
You also have a harbor, rail connections, and easy access to interstate highways.
Right. This is a different geographical condition than Seattle, San Francisco, Boston. The proposed Amazon sites in Philadelphia are vast brownfields that are going to be developed with corporate offices in any case. Of course, now having said all of that, if Amazon does choose Philadelphia, I am confident that I will hate their architecture. I will hate how they big-foot all over us from a planning standpoint, which I’m sure they will.
Oh, they will. And I do think that it will result in poor and working class people getting pushed out. I think Amazon’s arrival tends to be really good for people who already own property, and not so good for people who rent.
Right. But one of the things about Philadelphia is, we have a high rate of home ownership, even among poor people. It’s still well over 50 percent homeowners. But even though a lot of poor people own their homes, many have trouble keeping them up. That’s a big issue now. We have this other problem what they call “tangled title.” It’s where people have casually passed their houses down to relatives, without properly transferring ownership. That makes them extremely vulnerable and also keeps them from taking advantages of city programs to help them stay in their homes, like one that provides grants for “basic systems repair.” The city is trying to ramp up the effort to help people clear their titles. These repair grants are really crucial. So many people run the risk of becoming homeless because, when the roof goes bad, they can’t afford to fix it. Recently I wrote a column where I said, “The most affordable house is the one you’re already in.” So whether Amazon comes or not, let’s use our programs and resources to keep people in their houses.
Featured image, via the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank.