20. Living Downtown

With about 88,000 people (expected to reach 100,000 by the next census), Central Philadelphia has the nation’s third largest concentration of downtown residents. They are walkers: to shops, restaurants, theaters, and museums. They have traded suburban homes and two- and three-car garages for busy sidewalks, leafY parks, and neighborhood cafes.

This is the old urbanism, characterized by density, diversity, and amenities. It doesn’t get the same degree of scrutiny from contemporary critics as the new urbanist developments that dot suburbia, but it offers unparalleled lessons for both new and old places.

Tenminute walk

Central Philadelphia consists of Center City, the two square miles between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, plus adjoining neighborhoods to the north and south-about four square miles in all. Its fastest growing neighborhoods are Old City and nearby Northern Liberties. Everywhere, vacant lots and surface parking are being converted to residential uses despite the slowing market.

Center City-which encompasses the central business district, elegant Rittenhouse Square, and Society Hill, perhaps America’s most successful historic preservation project-is unusual among big-city downtowns because of the extent to which single-family houses are integrated with retail and office space. Palatial homes and ordinary brick row houses rub shoulders with glittering skyscrapers and ground-Boor shops.

The secret of central Philadelphia’s livability is the 10-minute walk, the distance most people are willing to journey on foot. Hundreds of maps throughout Center City show pedestrians where they are and how long it takes to walk to various attractions. A gold circle indicates places reachable in 10 minutes. From the convention center, 10 minutes would get you to Chinatown or the National Constitution Center. It’s a bit farther from city hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is only five minutes away.

It’s because of all this walking, and the resulting crowded sidewalks, that central Philadelphia feels safe day and night. Although comprising only two percent of the city’s total area, Center City accounts for over a third of its total employment. It generates some 40 percent of the city’s total tax revenues. The ease of walking to work is part of the draw. One in four residents takes advantage of it.

Face to face

Residential Center City is remarkable for its density, about 40 units to the acre, most of it in low rises, with a sprinkling of apartment towers. East of the Avenue of the Arts, a hundred or so leafY blocks of compact, mainly three-story brick row houses, front leafY, granite-paved streets. The houses facing across these cobbled ways are rarely more than 14 feet apart. No parking is allowed on the narrow streets, although permit parking is allowed elsewhere. Car ownership is low and the local nonprofit car-share operation is booming.

Proximity produces more than the proverbial eyes on the street. These quiet blocks reward residents with abundant face-to-face encounters. Everyone knows everyone else’s children and dogs, and neighbors regularly meet for coffee shop discourse.

Reflecting national trends, Center City household size continues to decline, as population grows. In Old City (where Betsy Ross is supposed to have made her Bag) , new construction exists alongside remodeled warehouses, art galleries, restaurants, and the Arden Theatre, the city’s thriving regional theater. The Market-Frankford subway provides quick access to city hall, the office district, and the Penn and Drexel campuses in University City. Sidewalks and streets are jammed with pedestrians when galleries open in the evening for “First Fridays.”

Most central Philadelphians rent, but house and apartment ownership is growing. It’s still possible for 25-year-olds to buy good houses in South Philadelphia for as little as $250,000 to $350,000. Everyone seems to have heard of Philadelphians who commute by train to jobs in Midtown Manhattan. Others commute by car to suburban jobs.

A for effort

America’s trend toward later marriages and later childbearing has contributed to central Philadelphia’s population growth. Now the focus is on keeping the 30-plus group in the city, reversing the 50-year tendency of young families to move to the suburbs and their well-regarded schools.

Still, although many city schools have indeed gone downhill in the last half-century, Philadelphia has some oEthe best public schools in the region. The winners include the performing arts high school and a charter school that focuses on architecture. Part of the public school improvement can be traced to strong parent organizations, such as the voluntary one supporting Society Hill’s McCall School.

But schools are less of a factor than in the past. Better management of the city’s public schools has improved their performance greatly. Further, the number of households with no school-age children is growing (the figure nationally is two-thirds of all households) . About half of central Philadelphia’s households consist of one person, while the number of 50-plus households that choose to live downtown is on the rise.

Joiners

Thousands of people in central Philadelphia serve on nonprofit boards and committees that foster citywide entities like the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which among other things produces North America’s grandest Bower show. Another nonprofit group promotes the Avenue of the Arts, and yet another has created more than 2,000 murals in and beyond central Philadelphia.

Other nonprofits focus on neighborhood projects like the transformation of a vacant lot into one of the city’s most attractive and useful pocket parks. It’s named for the architect Louis Kahn, who lived nearby. Young Involved Philadelphians, an under-30 group, organizes meetings on locally important subjects, including how to get elected to office and options for the homeless. At least one independent coffee shop provides space for forums on various public issues.

Preservation benefits from this civic spirit. The city’s early wealth is obvious from its surviving examples of 18th and 19th century architecture, including the 150-year-old Academy of Music, the nation’s oldest and arguably most glamorous opera house. Today, various watchdog groups fight to save small, old buildings from overly large, traffic-inducing new ones.

Some of the historic preservation success is a result of the city’s chronic financial troubles. City hall, the nation’s largest municipal building, gorgeous in its recently cleaned splendor, would have been destroyed 50 years ago save for the fact that the city didn’t have the money to demolish it.

Meanwhile, there are notable successes, even some surprisingly good mergers of old and new. For instance, the Pennsylvania Convention Center makes splendid use of the head house and train shed of the ornate Reading Terminal. Where passengers once boarded trains to Chicago, today 5,000 visitors gather for receptions.

In spite of itself

For the most part, the recent successes have come about despite city government, not because of it. The last two mayors generally sacrificed municipal planning for the dubious prospects of quick development deals. Collaboration between the city government, the regional transit agency, and private developers is weak, at best.

One sad consequence of weak planning is the slow and unsteady redevelopment of the Delaware waterfront. Approvals for five apartment towers were granted three years ago without requiring public access to the riverside. Both of the two new casinos planned for the city will be built on the riverfront, but a new state law prohibits local land-use regulation for casino sites.

There’s hope in the appointment last fall of Janice Woodcock as executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. She exhibits a determination that has long been missing from the department.

Other local strengths include a decades-old network of community organizations that is charged with reviewing all development proposals, as well as applications for liquor licenses. This neighborhood review adds a measure of local protection even if it is not particularly comprehensive.

Finally, planning in Philadelphia benefits from the insightful commentary of Inga Saffron, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s regular architecture and planning critic.

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