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ANALSYIS: The Sansom apartments brings large scale development without the parking to Center City

On the 1600 block of Sansom Street, Pearl Properties is currently constructing an 8-story, 104 apartment building dubbed  "The Sansom."  It’s exciting news anytime a new mid- or high-rise construction project comes to town.  But the kicker in this project is the amount of parking the new development provides for future residents: 0. 

Low numbers like these don’t come that often with large scale residential projects in Philly.  And for good reason – it’s the law; the City’s current zoning code mandates 3 parking spaces for every 10 residential units of multi-family development projects like The Sansom (in certain overlay districts this requirement may not apply).
  
One of the problems with mandating so much parking in an urban environment is its cost, something developers incur and then pass off to potential buyers and renters. This drives up housing costs and prices out middle and lower income residents.  In high demand areas such as Center City, this means the richest among us are the only ones who can pay the additional price for parking.  Most of us simply can’t take on that burden.    

This is a problem.  Americans want to live in walkable places, but only a fraction can come up with the cash to do so.  According to a new study, the people fortunate enough to live in neighborhoods like Center City tend to also be the wealthiest among us. 

If the goal of Philly is to continue revitalizing our urban core, it does us no good if these areas become enclaves of the rich, banishing the rest of us to less walkable, less transit accessible parts of town.  Quite simply, we need more affordable housing in our walkable areas like Center City, and fast.      

One way to go about doing this is to develop like ‘The Sansom’ and forget the parking.  Poster child Portland, Oregon provides an example.  In that city, nearly two-thirds of their recent residential projects are being built without any parking spaces.  Thanks to years of investments in a robust public transit system and the City’s push to build without parking, a substantial increase in density and vitality in Portland’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods has been achieved.

It’s also led to cheaper unit costs in residential developments.  As one developer put it in a recent report, in Portland adding a parking spot to a unit is the difference between a $750/month apartment and a $1,250/month apartment.

In Philly, The Sansom is still relatively expensive due to its prime Rittenhouse location, starting at $1,895 for a one-bedroom apartment.  But other projects in less central neighborhoods like Graduate Hospital and Passyunk would likely see the most benefit from relaxing multi-family housing parking requirements.  While we can’t have it all and three spots for 10 units seems progressive enough, for now, making it even easier for developers to build without parking in the future would be a plus.  Or ensuring neighborhood groups and the ZBA don’t make developers jump through hoops to build no parking developments should be a goal.  Whether it be the City as a whole or a renter on his/her own, we can’t afford to do otherwise.

WriterGreg Meckstroth

For Bettie Page Clothing, East Coast expansion starts at 16th and Walnut

Come this September, Center City’s shopping scene is going retro with the opening of Bettie Page Clothing at 1605 Walnut Street.  The traditionally west coast boutique has seen incredible growth since opening its first store in Las Vegas five years ago, opening numerous additional stores in places like San Francisco, San Diego and, coming this fall, Philadelphia.

Based in Vegas, the boutique, backed by publicly traded Tatyana Designs, Inc. specializes in designs inspired by the 50s and the iconic pin-up queen Bettie Page.  Launched in 2007, the company has grown dramatically since, posting $8 million in revenue in 2011, with sales up 55 percent for the first five months in 2012.

Beyond the U.S., the Bettie Page Clothing brand has started to go global, with boutiques in 57 countries around the world selling its products. According to Jan Glaser, co-owner of Bettie Page Clothing, the line is very popular in Australia, Europe and Canada. 

The company has been looking to expand their global reach with an eye on the East Coast as its next venture.  With plenty of world class cities to pick from, the owners ultimately thought Philly was the clear choice for their first East Coast store.  “The residents are fashion conscious and urbane, with Philadelphia boasting a huge number of art museums, music venues, top flight restaurants and a merging of cultures from around the world,” comments Jan Glaser – co-owner of Bettie Page Clothing.

Lead designer Tatyana Khomyakova, shares this sentiment: "I think that my designs fit the 'Big city lifestyle.'  Ladies in Philadelphia like to dress up and be seen as feminine but with a definite sense of confidence. I try to portray that strength of femininity in the Bettie Page boutiques.”

Glaser and Khomyakova apparently mean what they espouse – Bettie Page has signed a 10-year lease at their new Walnut Street digs, signifying they are committed to making it work in Philly. 

The new Bettie Page store will be open in September, something Glaser in particular is looking forward to.  “This location has a special meaning for me,” he explains.  “I was born in Philadelphia and have always had a great fondness for this city.”             

Source: Jan Glaser, Co-owner of Bettie Page Clothing; Tatyana Khomyakova, Tatyana Designs, Inc.
Writer: Greg Meckstroth

Behind the scenes of Philly’s first left-hand, buffered bike lane, coming soon to Walnut Street

Biking along Walnut Street is about to get a heck of a lot easier thanks to a new left hand, buffered bike lane that will soon appear on Walnut Street from 22nd Street to 63rd Street.  As it stands today, Walnut Street already has a right, curb side bike lane that serves parts of Center City and the biker-oriented communities of UPenn and Drexel.  But thanks to the efforts of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, The Streets Department and the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, the bike lane is getting a serious upgrade, just in time for the beginning of school.

The main crux of the improvement is found in its one-of-a-kind status:  the bike lane is the city's first buffered bike lane next to a parking lane, as opposed to Spruce and Pine and 10th and 13th, which are next to the curb line.  This will greatly affect students and other bikers who already utilize Walnut Street for their biking needs.  According to Nicholas Mirra of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, users should immediately notice the differences. 

“It will eliminate conflicts with buses and traffic turning right on the Walnut Street Bridge to the Schuylkill Expressway,” he says. “It will also make the left turn from the 22nd Street bike lane easier for bicyclists. It should also slightly reduce conflicts with car doors since the bike lane will be next to the passenger side of cars.”   

While this leaves plenty for bike enthusiasts to be excited about, auto users, too, should be at ease over the planned improvements.  According to Mirra, the lane is being installed without the removal of a travel lane or parking. Space was made by simply narrowing the existing parking and travel lanes. 

Getting this improvement implemented was a relatively routine process and a refreshing example of cooperation at its finest. 

“The Streets Department and the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities have been considering moving the bike lanes from the right side of the street to the left side of the street as part of the routine resurfacing of Walnut Street [which is currently underway],” says Mirra. “The Coalition met with them and proposed that there was enough road space to expand the bike lane.” 

In January, armed with this knowledge, the Streets Department approached PennDOT to incorporate the improvement into the resurfacing project, and they obliged.  Nine months later, this September, the bike lane will be open and ready for public use. 
 
While there are no anticipated existing bike lane improvements slated for 2012, Mirra hopes similar enhancements will be made in the years to come as other road resurfacing contracts are announced.

Source: Nicholas Mirra, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia
WriterGreg Meckstroth

Center City’s effort to increase visibility and access of regional transit nears completion

Branding your city, whether through logos, trademarks or historical importance, helps convey a place’s cultural values, but is also essential in competing for desirable tourism and investment dollars.  When communicating this brand, the details matter, right down to the signage systems employed at neighborhood levels.  Philadelphia already has high quality, unified walking and vehicular wayfinding signage systems that were long ago established.  More recently, the Central Philadelphia Transportation Management Association (CPTMA), in partnership with regional transit service providers, set to increase visibility of and access to Philly’s multi-modal, regional transit system as well, and visually link it to the City’s existing wayfinding systems. 

CPTMA’s goal was simple: create a single brand of Philly’s transit systems by highlighting and unifying access to underground transit in Center City.  The ‘highlighting’ part has come in the form of visually intriguing, green back-lit “lollipop” signs that mark entrances to Philly’s 3.5 mile underground concourse system that links together the subway, trolley lines and regional rail.  The ‘unifying’ part has come in the form of the “lollipop” signs, but also information at the surface as to which train lines users can access at each stop; information about the Walk! Philadelphia and Direction Philadelphia sign systems that can be followed by pedestrians and cars; and below the surface, maps of the 3.5 mile underground concourse as well as attractions found above ground around each stop.  By the end of September, after years of implementation efforts, the signage system will officially be complete.

Selling the brand wasn’t always easy, according to Paul Levy, President and CEO of Center City District (CCD).  When CCD originally approached SEPTA and PATCO about creating a unified signage system to be shared by the two transit authorities, all parties were on board.  But, as Levy describes, neither party wanted to erase their individual identity.  Through a series of negotiations and back and forth conversations, the transit authorities and CCD eventually reached a compromise to retain each transit providers brand, but on unified physical signs.  Thus the green “lollipop” and associated directional signage came to be.  All parties: pleased; a unified brand: defined.    

Today, with nearly 90 percent of signs installed, Levy owes a great deal of thanks to a number of property owners and their “willingness to share the cost of installing the system adjacent to their buildings,” likely because they understood the benefit of the unified system.  And he hopes more potential partners will come on board in the future.  “We’ve shared the system with Temple, Drexel, Penn and the University City District and have encouraged them to extend it.” 

Source: Paul Levy, President and CEO of Center City District
WriterGreg Meckstroth

LightPlay at Broad & South: Public art makes Center City gateway at new Dranoff residential project

The City’s latest One Percent for Fine Arts project was recently unveiled, this time featured on Carl Dranoff’s latest new construction project at Broad and South Streets.  LightPlay, created by artists Mags Harries and Lajos Heder’s, will adorn the Southstar Lofts – an 80-unit residential building with ground floor retail that promises to become a significant gateway to Center City for travelers from the south.      
 
While LightPlay was announced as the winner of the competitive process a while back – earlier this year the fixture was chosen through a selection process conducted by the One Percent for Fine Arts Program of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority from well over a hundred applicants nationwide – renderings were recently unveiled and the piece’s function has come into light.     
 
According to the artists, they wanted to complement the theatrical events and art schools in the neighborhood, all while creating a dramatic lighting effect through the use of vertical prism sheets.  “Working with light and shadow insures that the piece will be constantly changing, surprising and remain fresh,” explains Lajos Heder.  “The orientation of the Broad Street Facade facing directly west makes it remain in full shadow until mid-day and then in full sun in the afternoon.”
 
According to Dranoff, his team was looking for an art installation piece that hit home -- exactly what Heder and Harries delivered.  “The Avenue of the Arts is one of Philadelphia’s liveliest, most flourishing neighborhoods, and we were looking for a work of art that would showcase the streets’ vibrancy, and compliment the aesthetics of Southstar Lofts,” explains Dranoff, “and the installation created by Mags Harries and Lajos Heder exceeded our expectations and has captured the energy that radiates from the thriving mix of entertainment, dining and living offered on South Broad Street.”
 
The artists did not forget about one of the installations' main purposes: acting as a gateway to Center City.  To incorporate this function, they utilized the nearby subway stop and featured it in the design.  “The sidewalk in that area is very lively, lots of students passing by, people coming in and out of the SEPTA station. We wanted to make the arrival at the station and walking along the sidewalk more memorable.”  According to the artists, there will be a glazed canopy over the subway entrance using the same light refracting prism sheets that are being used on the building, protecting from the rain and creating a bright light event for passengers emerging from the subway.
 
Once complete, developers of the Southstar Lofts are promising improved urban vitality and more eyes on the street.  The artists behind LightPlay firmly believe their work will have transformative effects as well and “enhance the urban environment and make better places for community activity.”  With lofty ambitions in front of them, Dranoff and company look to break ground in October, with an expected completion date of late 2013, although that has not been officially confirmed. 

Source: Carl Dranoff, Lajos Heder
Writer: Greg Meckstroth

ANALYSIS: Along Schuylkill, improving quality of life means delivering on the details

Much has been said about major infrastructural changes recently undertaken around the Schuylkill River, University City, and surrounding environs.  Recent projects such as the new Grays Ferry Crescent Park, the Porch at 30th Street, continued trail connections along the Schuylkill Banks, and the Walnut Street Bridge Enhancement have made dramatic improvements, in very big ways, towards better physically and emotionally connecting Center City to its westerly neighbors.  The Atlantic Cities has taken notice, recently praising the Philly for its efforts at the Porch, taking space previously promised to automobiles and turning it over to pedestrians. 

With major projects funded, the City is now hammering out the details along the river to improve aesthetics and overall quality of life.  A recent example comes to us from the Schuylkill River Development Corporation (SRDC) and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, who plan to landscape the west side embankment of the Schuylkill River along I-76 between Chestnut and Market Streets.

Improving quality of life is the name of the game for this development.  “The traffic on I-76 produces an audible and visual intrusion on Schuylkill Banks. This is especially true in the area of Market Street. The hope is that this would alleviate some of the noise and partially hide the traffic,” explains Lane Fike, Director of Capital Programs with SRDC.  “The area from Market to Chestnut has a concrete slab that offers an opportunity to install planters and screening.”

The group’s plan goes beyond screenings and plantings though, and includes sustainability and beautification measures such as green roofs and green wall features, planters with native trees, shrubs and meadow grasses and walls for climbing vines.  SRDC hopes these improvements will create a more pleasant vista and experience from the Schuylkill Banks across the river while creating a new habitat for migratory birds and other urban wildlife.     

While not as glamorous as the recent major moves, and likely not worthy of the Atlantic Cities’ attention, this smaller ticket item, and others like it, stand to have a big impact for the people who actually use the river corridor on a daily basis: residents.     

On a broader scale, small moves like this mean a lot, especially when you take a step back and look at how public spaces represent the city they reside in.  Finessing the details not only shows a desire to improve quality of life, but implementing excellence to the last detail shows the value system of a city, something Philadelphians should be proud that our civic leaders are rightfully expressing along the Schuylkill River.

A start date for the project has yet to be determined, but state funding is already lined up and Pennoni Associates is already developing schemes and putting together designs to meet expectations.  Once underway, construction should take about 3 months to complete. 

According to Fike, expect similar, smaller scaled improvements along the river in months and years to come.  “If the project proves to be successful, other areas along I-76 could be considered for treatment. However, because of varied existing conditions, treatments other than planters and screening may have to be investigated.” 

Source: Lane Fike, Schuylkill River Developmet Corporation
Writer: Greg Meckstroth

Philly hotels seeing record occupancy numbers in 2012

The Philadelphia hospitality sector is having a big year – a really, really big year.  During the first six months of 2012, Center City hotels reveled in a state of 75% occupancy – the highest clip of any year dating back to 2000 when data became available.  And with new hotels opening up seemingly every few months, additional arrivals in the pipeline and record daily rates being met, outside investors are taking a second look at the City of Brotherly Love, something local boosters welcome with open arms. 

A number of factors are contributing to Philly’s record numbers, all of which seem to have serendipitously come together at once.  “Philadelphia is an overnight sensation,” explains Meryl Levitz, president & CEO, Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC), who believes a lot of public and private investment in the leisure and hospitality market are finally paying off.  “People began believing in hospitality as they saw its effects. Now we have partnerships with universities, law firms and other corporations who see it as an advantage to promote Philadelphia to their audiences.”

Since then, Philadelphia has been reaping the benefits, seeing record visitation (38 million domestic visitors in 2011), increased marketing efforts nationally and internationally, and better restaurants, museums, attractions and activity. 

The cause-and-effect relationship at work here is simple, explains Levitz.  “With more attractions, more marketing and more conventions comes more hotels -- and they bring national advertising and national reservation systems. The same holds true with airlines.  Virgin America and Alaska Airlines are the latest to start bringing business into PHL.” 

To keep with momentum, Center City hotels have, at once, all seemed to improve themselves as well.  Notable examples of this include the landmark Latham Hotel which reopened after a total renovation of all 139 guestrooms and lobby, the rebranding of the Crowne Plaza into the Sonesta Hotel Philadelphia, and the Sheraton Society Hill Hotel’s full overhaul, all completed within the past few months.

What does this all mean in terms of economic development for Center City and the region?  According to Levitz, there are billions of answers to this question.  “In 2011, the Greater Philadelphia tourism industry generated $9.34 billion in economic impact, an increase of 7.5% from 2010,” adds Levitz “this equates to visitors generating an economic impact of $26 million a day.”   Plus, all of this spending supports 86,498 jobs, with a total paycheck of $2.85 billion.  

That’s big numbers for Philly and GPTMC, who hopes to keep the hospitality market humming.  Levitz believes to do so is imperative for a higher quality of life in Philly.  “The success of the hospitality market touches so many aspects of life that residents care about—culture, transportation, dining.  It boosts the intangibles, like the city’s image, and optimism about the future.”

With the addition of the boutique Hotel Monaco Philadelphia in October and Home2 Suites Philadelphia next year, it seems the future has never looked better.   

Source: Meryl Levitz, GPTMC
Writer: Greg Meckstroth

ANALYSIS: Philly leads in some areas of infrastructure improvement, falters in others

At 21st and Bainbridge in Graduate Hospital, a sinkhole now sits where a water main break occurred over two weeks ago, revealing an impressive array of underground utility layers, yet representing unfortunate issues with Philly’s aging water pipes.  Adding insult to injury, four more water main breaks have since occurred across Philly, leaving many to wonder just how serious the City’s aging infrastructure problems are. 

When disruptions like this occur, they act as a wakeup call to the importance of sound water utilities in our day-to-day lives.  And on a broader scale, they showcase the need for collective investment in our city’s infrastructure to ensure high quality of life for residents and competitiveness in a modern economy.  In this regard, Philly leads the way on a number of fronts yet falters in others. 
 
It Happens: Water Mains Break
 
Wondering why water main’s break to begin with?  Blame the hot temperatures, says Joanne Dahme, Philadelphia Water Department's (PWD) general manager of public affairs.  “For larger pipes, such as transmission mains, it’s the warmer water temperatures inside the pipe that causes the pipe materials to expand. Couple this with higher water usage in the summer and we see additional stress on the pipe,” she explains.  This summer’s particularly hot weather is the likely culprit for the additional stress on the mains. 
 
But main breaks in Philly can also be explained by the infrastructure’s age: being one of America’s oldest and earliest developed cities, the condition and efficiency of its infrastructure requires constant attention and maintenance.  According to Dahme, the average age of water lines in Philly is 67 years old, with typical life expectancies of 100-120 years.  Some pipes in and around Center City date back to as early as 1824.  The age factor, coupled with the sheer amount of water mains in the City (over 6,000 miles of water, sewer, and stormwater pipes mains exist in Philadelphia proper) and you’re going to see water mains break.  It’s science.
 
Something needs to be done
 
For years now Philly has recognized the need to upgrade its aging utilities for a number of reasons beyond the recent wave of water main breaks.  On a national scale, as populations continues to urbanize, water utilities have been faced with new environmental, demographic, and financial challenges.  As these trends accelerate, at stake are safe and affordable water supplies; proper storm and wastewater treatment; flood protection; and clean rivers and streams.  From a stormwater mitigation perspective, Philadelphia already has done quite a lot.   
  
A Local Example has Become National Model for Improving Infrastructure

In recent history, the Philadelphia region was at a major crossroads: in sight of degraded waterways and under very real budget constraints to do much about it, the City then faced potentially budget-crippling mandates from state and federal governments to upgrade and improve its old sewer systems.  Enter the Green City, Clean Waters initiative, Philadelphia's 25-year plan to protect and enhance watersheds by managing stormwater with green infrastructure.

Instead of building its way out of the problem through the construction of costly underground infrastructure and utilities, through the Green City, Clean Waters initiative, the City used the mandate as an opportunity to plan for and implement innovative ‘green’ techniques on a citywide scale.  The way the City saw it, greening strategies invests public monies in a much smarter way and stands to benefit residents through increased open space, all the while meeting ecological restoration mandates. 
 
Through a fleet of watershed planning initiatives, natural habitat restoration, greening out those pesky grayfields, and the largest Green Stormwater Infrastructure Program this country has seen, Philly has been fighting the good fight for a more sustainable future, saving billions in the process.
 
To date, all of the planning has turned into tangible results: over 200 improvements have been implemented across the City, ranging from stormwater tree trenches, porous paving projects, green roofs, wetlands, rain gardens, and a host of other green improvements.  All of these tools do two things: meets federal mandates through reducing runoff volume and filter pollutants before entering the combined sewers and helps solve the city’s aging infrastructure by reducing strain on the system.    

Nationally, Green City, Clean Waters has been lauded for its vision and action-oriented progress.  The fight has become a national model for how cities can use these policies to combat budget and environmental constraints.  Locally, it is a reminder that investing in infrastructure is a must but that it doesn’t have to break the bank and can be completed in smart, innovative ways.

Similar Thinking Needed on Water Mains

PWD has recently started using a new technology for leak detection on its larger system pipes, and plans on expanding this program in the future.  This joins extensive leak detection and quality protection measures already in place to ensure a high level of service while minimizing the amount of main breaks. 

And despite the recent outbreak, Dahme suggests that PWD’s efforts are working.  “In the past year (July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012), Philadelphia experienced its third lowest number of main breaks,” she notes.  On top of this, Dahme says the city is well below the national average for main breaks.  “There are roughly 240 breaks per 1,000 miles of water main pipe in the city.  The national average from the American Water Works Association is 270 water main breaks per 1,000 miles of pipe.” 

But as the sinkhole at 21st and Bainbridge continues to fester, it acts as a reminder that we must collectively invest in our public utilities now, or risk pushing more expensive fixes onto future generations of Philadelphians.  Considering that current demographic trends point towards the City adding population over the coming years, causing increased strain on water mains- the time to invest is now.  Dahme believes that to do otherwise could be catastrophic to the budget, ratepayers, and the City’s ability to properly function in a modern economy. “The more infrastructure dollars we have - through rates or federal grants - the more we can positively impact our future.” 

Source: Joanne Dahme, Philadelphia Water Department
Writer: Greg Meckstroth

The Arch Apartments: One heck of a renovation story

Market West is best known for its skyline defining office buildings such as the Comcast Center, the Mellon Center, and Three Logan Square.  Bustling by day with the 9-5 crowd, the area is also known to empty out by night as restaurants close up and office workers leave for home.  But flush new construction, high-end condos and apartments and even a relatively new Trader Joes, the area is quickly redefining itself as a 24-hour urban neighborhood. 

As of late, adaptive re-use projects have hit their stride, converting old office or hotel uses into residential apartments.  Developed by 806 Capital and Federal Capital PartnersThe Arch, located at 1701 Arch Street, is the latest, and perhaps most impressive, renovation story Market West is telling.  Formerly known as the Robert Morris Building, the historic, beautifully ornate, gothic building is a true showstopper. 

Built in 1914 by the hotelier Rutherford Jennings, the building was later used for housing and academic purposes by the Philadelphia College of Bible.  Eventually, the structure was used to hold offices until 2007, when 806 Capital bought it, emptied it out, and planned to convert it into a hotel.  But when the recession went south, so too did 806 Capital's plans for a hotel.  Once Federal Capital Partners stepped in, a new vision was born, bearing the fruit of an apartment re-use story being told today.    

The 111 new apartments that now encompass the structure will enjoy all the grandeur of an historic building: refurbished domed ceilings, marble staircases, and terrazzo floors.  The units themselves range from$1,349 to a loftier $2,900, likely for one of the two-bedroom penthouses that have unparalleled views of Center City. 

If pre-leasing is any indication, it appears the market continues to be strong in Market West: according to Christy Metz, Director of Sales & Marketing for Scully Company, which is leasing the apartments. The Arch, she says, is now 70 percent leased and construction is ongoing.

"It’s exciting that this hot new property is leasing up as faster than we have apartments for people to move into, so we’re confident that the building will be sold out before the construction is complete," Metz says.

This success could be a result of targeting a wide audience and offering a fairly large price range in the apartments.

“Residents are from every walk of life and age range," Metz says. A grad student may be a neighbor of empty nesters, a leading corporate executive or even a small family. Tenants are not only attracted to the charm of the original details and modern amenities at The Arch but also the convenience and location.”

The first residents have already moved in, and more will be moving in soon, signifying the end to The Arch's renovation story.  But on a larger scale, The Arch is just one of many integral parts of Market West's transformation and rejuvenation story, much of which has yet to be told.   

Source: Christy Metz, Scully Company; Lorraine Gimblett, The Arch PR representative
Writer: Greg Meckstroth

Jobs follow households: Bentley, Fiberlink come to Center City for young, educated tech workers

The term ‘sprawl’ typically conjures up images of McMansions in the middle of cornfields, bumper-to-bumper highway congestion, or big-box retailers dotting the landscape.  Often left out of this picture are office uses that have followed residents out to their suburban and exurban homesteads, at the expense of central business districts (CBD).  In Philadelphia, for example, the highly walkable, transit-served, amenity rich CBD has seen its regional office share decline from 41% in 1993 to 28% in 2011.  The State of Center City, 2012 report outlines numerous reasons for this decline, most prominently citing the City’s outdated tax structure as the culprit, and recommends comprehensive tax reform to remediate the issue.
 
This has been a cause for concern for Philly boosters and urban enthusiasts alike.  As Center City continues to grow in popularity as a place to live and play, jobs continue leaving for greener pastures, GlaxoSmithKline vacating its CBD digs for the Navy Yard being a recent example.  This trend has left many unanswered questions regarding the future of Center City:  is Center City becoming a bedroom community, how will this affect public transportation use, and what will an increase in reverse-commuting do to our road systems?   
 
While some have been hitting the ‘future of Center City’ panic button rather hard, more recently, there has been increased cause for optimism.  Two notable tech/software firms, Bentley Systems’ and Fiberlink, have announced plans to relocate their operations to Center City, both citing a desire to be nearer to the younger, well-educated Center City residents who value the live-work setting.    
 
These two firms are clearly onto something, following what their workers already want: according to Center City District reports, between 2000 and 2009, Philly added over 16,000 people ages 25 to 34, with a college degree or more, to Center City or nearby ‘hoods.  In fact, Center City boasts the third highest downtown resident population of any United States city, sitting only behind New York’s and Chicago’s CBD’s.  
 
As antiquated and rigid as the State of Center City report suggests Philly’s tax structure is, a driving force here is simply the ‘jobs follows households’ phenomenon that was popularized by the decentralization of residents and jobs following World War II and something that now seems to be reversing.  The more Philly can attract and retain those wanting to live in Center City and its environs, the more jobs that cater to them will follow.  So while the tax structure likely needs restructuring, so too does the region’s focus on the importance of migration and attracting urbanites to continue populating Philly’s core.      

Writer: Greg Meckstroth

New Benjamin Franklin Parkway Action Plan aims to improve pedestrian experience, connectivity

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is one of Philadelphia’s most famous and beloved stretches of street.  And for good reason: aside from its name, which reminds us of one of Philly’s most admired citizens and America’s most important founders, the boulevard connects some of the most important arts and cultural institutions in the City.  
 
In an attempt to elevate its pedestrian experience and neighborhood amenities with its already high cultural offerings, the Philadelphia Department of Parks & Recreation, in conjunction with Penn Praxis and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, is putting together an Action Plan to improve the Parkway's overall appeal.  
 
Between July 23-31, community meetings will be held to discuss improvements, programs, and projects that the public would like to see along the Parkway.  “Since we are just starting the planning process, we are very open to being informed by the process and by the public,” explained Patrick Morgan, Chief of Staff to Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mike DiBerardinis.  But with that said, Morgan notes than the Action Plan is being directed by a few guiding principles, placing emphasis on actionable items and projects that can be attained within the next few years.
 
And with Parks and Rec and Penn Praxis fueling this effort, expect real, tangible results to come from the process. “The great thing about this planning effort is that ideas that are generated out of it have a structure and core groups of leaders to help actually make them happen,” explains Morgan.    
 
According to Morgan, the Parks and Recreation Department has already been working on humanizing the pedestrian experience along the Parkway.  Improvements thus far have included better pedestrian crossings, new bike lanes, and new street trees.  Amenities, such as pop-up playspaces, new concessions, and bike rentals, have also recently been added.  And right smack-dab in the middle of the Parkway, Logan Square’s beautiful new Sister Cities Park offers a great model for what can be attained along the rest of the street. The Action Plan aims to compliment these successes, and take the Parkway’s pedestrian experience to new heights.  
 
The Action Plan will help bring definition to the Parkway’s main function, something that has been in a constant state of flux. Created in 1917, the Parkway is the City’s most prominent example of the City Beautiful Movement, an early 1900s urban planning idea that aimed to introduce open spaces, boulevards, and greenery into American cities, places seen as dingy, dirty, and crowded at the time.  The Parkway was originally modeled after the Champs d’Elysees but has instead become the center of some of Philly’s most important arts and cultural institutions.
 
This contrast explains why the Parkway has struggled to define itself.  Is it an open space first, an against-the-grain thoroughfare meant to get from Point A to B, a tourist mecca for art lovers, an active urban Parkway?  Pedestrian and connectivity improvements are a must in any urban environment; this is a given.  And its great the Action Plan aims to improve these features.  But what is the Parkway’s central function, and how flexible is it going to be to achieve that end?  This needs to be the first question answered during the Plan’s community outreach process so that any improvement or programmable amenity that is implemented goes towards an overarching purpose in defining the Parkway’s future.
 
To attend one of these meetings and make your opinions heard, RSVP to [email protected].  All meetings run from 6:30-8:30, with registration beginning at 6:00.  The first meeting was already held on Monday, July 23 at the Francisville Recreation Center.  But don’t fret, three additional meeting will be held over the next week.  For questions on the locations, contact Penn Project for Civic Engagement at 215-898-1112.       

Source: Mike DiBerardinis, Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation
Writer: Greg Meckstroth

ANALYSIS: Center City residential market prospers, but at what price?

There is no doubt that Center City is going through growing pains again as it looks to add well over 1,000 residential units in high-rise towers over the short term.  Much of these have thus far been in new construction buildings in the Market West sub-neighborhood of Center City.  But more recently, rehabs have become economically viable, resulting in 2040 Market Street and 1616 Walnut Street being transformed from Class B and C office space into high-end apartments.  

And who doesn’t appreciate a great re-use – it is certainly more economically, physically, and environmentally sustainable than tearing down an old structure and simply starting over.  But as more and more high-end residential uses flood Center City, often replacing older office uses in its wake, is diversity being squashed to make way for an increasingly homogenous neighborhood that only caters to high-end users?

Most of what is happening is simple economics: in a mixed-use urban environment, some uses become especially successful and land values and rents go up.  As demand increases, competition increases and values continue to rise.  As this continues unfettered, the most successful use dominates the market and homogeneity wins out.  

While there is no immediate cause for concern, it seems Philly is showing definitive signs of this phenomena occurring.  Judging by the low rental vacancies (hovering around 4%), its clear Center City is a popular place to live.  Unfortunately, the office market has not followed suit, leading to relatively high vacancies in Class B and C office space.  As demonstrated at 2040 Market and 1616 Walnut, successful residential uses are taking over older, lower rent offices, leaving only Class A space.  Left unabated, this trend could hinder use diversity, leaving only high-end users with the ability to succeed.
 
And on a long-term scale, this would be bad news for Center City and Philly as a whole.  Thriving urban centers require diversity to inject vitality and sustain itself.  Whether you’re talking about diverse users, uses, or building ages, diversity is the keystone in unlocking vital urban neighborhoods and ensuring they have sustainable futures for generations to come.  For now, all rehabilitation projects are more than welcome.  But Philly needs to keep an eye on economic diversity and reinforce this principle so that when times and desires change, the City is able to easily adapt and not get stuck with eggs in the wrong basket.  
  
Writer: Greg Meckstroth

ThinkBike Workshop enlists Dutch experts to reimagine bicycling around Temple University

There's been a steady and significant increase in the number of cyclists in Philadelphia, which has been ranked first among the 10 largest American cities for bicycle commuters, according to The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey.
 
The area around Temple University lags behind other neighborhoods. Last week, Temple hosted ThinkBike, a cycling workshop in collaboration with the Dutch Cycling Embassy, which promotes innovation worldwide.
 
The Royal Netherlands Embassy, in cooperation with Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, Temple University, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Philadelphia Streets Department and the Dutch Cycling Embassy held the two-day ThinkBike Workshops last week.
 
At the closing session, Bradley Flamm, PhD, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning at Temple  University, said, "There's a lot of potential to increase safety, comfort and convenience for the people of this city." At Temple, only 8% of students, faculty and staff regularly cycle to and from campus. the majority now drive alone. 
 
The ThinkBike team picked key routes: Broad Street, 12th and 13th Streets, Berks, Spring Garden and Fairmount Avenue, making recommendations based on street width and international precedent. One suggestion was to create a bike lane on the other side of parked cars, adjacent to the sidewalk. This setup is now in place in Holland, and it changes the dynamic considerably, allowing cyclists to traverse streets without fear of being sideswiped or flipping over car doors that open unexpectedly. The team looked into landscaping that would add green space between the bike lane and parked cars.
 
North 13th Street was viewed as a major opportunity for north-south commuters, given the huge amount of vehicular traffic already on Broad Street. An estimated 32,000 vehicles travel on the city's main north-south arterial daily. The team's suggestion was to create a two-way bike lane system. Another suggestion that would dramaticlly alter the cityscape is to cordon off an entire lane around City Hall for bikes only, and extend lanes on 15th, 16th, and create a two way cycle track on JFK Boulevard.
 
If undertaken as a pilot program, no new legislation would need to be enacted to make the cyclist friendly changes, according to the team. ThinkBike Workshops move on to Washington, DC, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Source: Bradley Flamm, Temple University
Writer: Sue Spolan

City still encouraging homeowners to apply for proposed Homestead Exemption tax break

The City of Philadelphia's Actual Value Initiative (AVI) might be on hold until next fiscal year, but it is still banking on real estate tax relief in the form of proposed Homestead Exemption legislation. Homeowners must apply by July 31, 2012, and the only requirement for acceptance into the program is that the you must own your home and live in it. It's actually a very simple process. On July 1, says Marisa Waxman, Office of Property Assessment, Philadelphia homeowners will receive a pre-printed application, so there's no need to take action until then.

"It's a tax relief program that already exists in every other county in the Commonwealth," says Waxman, who points out that other efforts both statewide and nationwide are often far more complicated.

Age, income and length of homeownership do not figure into eligibility. Here's how it works: you will pay taxes on the value of your home minus $30,000.  For example, if a home is assessed at a value of $100,000 and there is a $30,000 Homestead Exemption,  a homeowner would only pay taxes based on $70,000 compared with the actual value of $100,000.

"The City is currently undertaking a reassessment which will value properties at their market value. For residential properties, the comparable sales method is utilized in most cases. For commercial properties, the income/expense method is utilized in most," explains Waxman. 

It does not matter if your home is worth $1 million or $80,000. You still get that flat $30,000 discount. Waxman says the greatest benefit will be for those with lower value homes. "It's the simplest program on the planet once we get it up and running."

The homestead real estate tax exclusion will be available for properties located within the City of Philadelphia when legislation is passed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and a City of Philadelphia ordinance also has to go into effect. But city officials are encouraging residents to apply now, as it can help reduce the taxable assessed value used for calculation of a tax bill by a proposed $30,000. 
 
Even if part of a primary residence is used as a home office or a rental property, a property owner may still be eligible to benefit from the Homestead Exemption for the percentage of the property that functions as the primary residence. 
Following approval, there's no need to reapply unless the deed to the home changes.

Applications received after the deadline for this year will be considered for tax year 2014. Those who are approved in this initial round will be notified in the fall of 2012, pending passage of AVI.

Source: Marisa Waxman, Office of Property Assessment, City of Philadelphia
Writer: Sue Spolan

BICYCLE COALITION: Check out who's in front of the pack for the I Bike PHL Challenge

Editor's note: This is presented as a content partnership with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

If you're friends with Frank Martin, you best be in good shape. Martin is the top Philadelphia-area rider and ranks 7th nationally in the National Bike Challenge, a free program that runs through August with the goal of uniting 50,000 people to bike 10 million miles.
 
The local manifestation of the national effort, the I Bike PHL Challenge, includes nearly 900 riders. Nearly 600 of them logged 93,067 miles in May. Temple University ranks 15th among participating teams. While Philadelphia currently ranks 73rd among metro areas, Pennsylvania ranks 7th among states, behind Vermont, Wisconsin, Nebraska, District of Columbia, Iowa, and Colorado.

Two segments of The Circuit, the region's 250-mile plus network of trails that recently has been buoyed by a powerhouse coalition of supporters and funders, are opening this month. On Monday, the Gray's Ferry Crescent Trail was officially dedicated, including a transformation of the Schuylkill Riverfront and added green space for Gray's Ferry. 
 
On June 21, the first TIGER-funded trail project -- the mile-long Schuylkill River Trail at Bartram's Garden, will also get an official ribbon cutting.

In the Netherlands, cycling accounts for 27 percent of all trips and 59 percent of all city trips, thanks to abundant cycle paths and segregated cycle facilities. Next week is an opportunity to learn from Dutch bicycle transportation experts. Sponsored by the Mayor's Office of Transportation, the Dutch Embassy, the Bicycle Coalition and Temple's School of Architecture, the ThinkBike Workshop will be held June 18-19 at the Temple University Architecture Building (2000 N. 13th St., Philadelphia).
 
The opening session showcases innovative ideas used in the Netherlands that improve safety and support high cycling rates. The closing session features two design teams led by Dutch experts that will present Dutch methods that can be applied to areas surrounding Temple's main campus and City Hall.
 
Limited openings are available for the design teams. Interested persons should call Aaron Ritz at 215-686-9000 or email him here.
 
The Department of Parks and Recreation has begun the much-anticipated striping of 10 miles of path along Kelly Drive, MLK Drive and Schuylkill River Park Trail on Schuylkill Banks -- among the busiest bike paths in the region.
 
Parks and Rec's efforts will include traffic control signs in areas where the trail meets parking areas.

THE BICYCLE COALITION OF GREATER PHILADELPHIA has been making the region a better place to ride a bike through advocacy, education, and outreach since 1972. The nonprofit, membership organization's programs include Bike Philly, the Bicycle Ambassadors, Safe Routes Philly, the Complete the Schuylkill River Trail campaign, and Neighborhood Bike Works (now an independent organization). Follow the Bicycle Coalition on FacebookTwitter, and on their blog.

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