How transportation shaped Philadelphia and its buildings

Matt Bevilacqua Issue 6, News 0 Comments

The building would loom imposingly on its corner even under ordinary circumstances. But 1500 Locust, a 45-story apartment building one block west of Broad Street, dominates the landscape for an additional reason: Between the Irish bar on its ground floor and the 612 residential units above are eight stories of a parking deck, its concrete skeleton exposed for all to see.

“Isn’t it awful?” says Inga Saffron, architecture critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They put the residential on top of garages. You won’t see that today.”

Built in 1972, 1500 Locust typifies the kind of relationship developers had with cars in the middle of the last century. In order to assure a one-to-one ratio of apartments to parking spaces, builders went to great lengths to accommodate off-street storage for private cars. Sometimes, this meant garages on the first floor or underground. But in dense, ever-taller Center City, it often meant parking decks rising dozens or even hundreds of feet in the air.

Saffron, who’s been at her job since 1999, says those days are behind us.

“This is a big change in the last 20 years,” she says. “Even in apartment buildings with garages, the human part of the building comes to the ground.”

The ways people get around a city determine what that city looks like. As transportation preferences evolved in Philadelphia — first from horses to mass transit, then from mass transit to cars — so too did the city’s layout and the design of its buildings. You can reasonably date a structure, and determine the popular transportation options of the time, based on its appearance.

Now, as Philly undergoes the kind of development boom it hasn’t seen in decades, its appearance is changing once again. Hopeful urban-policy types will tell you that the city is, slowly, nearing the end of its love affair with the car. If that’s the case, what will its buildings look like in the future?

According to Ken Finkel, a professor of American studies at Temple University and a frequent contributor to the PhillyHistory blog, the first transportation-related architectural shakeup came in the late 1800s, with the onset of the streetcar. It would lead to the incredible spread of that most quintessentially Philadelphian housing type: the rowhome.

“It was a desirable thing to make Philadelphia a plane — a vast, flat surface, as flat as they could make it,” Finkel says, speaking of developers who took advantage of the era’s rising population thanks to a surplus of industrial jobs. Cheap labor allowed them to expand the urban grid to create block after block of tidy, two- or three-story rowhomes. The streetcar, meanwhile, made sure new homeowners could get to these houses, which were rising farther and farther from Center City. Indeed, Philadelphia would build some 300 miles of rowhomes in a matter of 40 years, according to Finkel’s calculation.

“The solution of the rowhouse really became, in the last two decades of the 19th century, a piece of the industrial puzzle,” Finkel says. These were modest, dignified homes affordable to working people. Their simple, easily replicable design would amaze attendees at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, at a time when homeownership rates in Philly far outpaced those of other U.S. cities.

“Isn’t it awful? They put the residential on top of garages. You won’t see that today.”

Another consequence of the streetcar — and, a little later, commuter rail — was that it allowed well-to-do people to move farther from the urban core, leading to the development of leafy, suburbanish neighborhoods like Germantown, Chestnut Hill, or parts of West Philly. Rather than endless rowhomes, these areas would also see the erection of taller, more ornate twin or quadruple houses.

Generally, though, the city’s ever-expanding grid led to rowhomes that were more compact and affordable than their pre-Civil War counterparts. Compare, say, South Philly to older rowhome neighborhoods in Center City. The latter date to the colonial era, when horses and buggies limited people’s movement and, therefore, the horizontal expansion of the city.

“It was more like a mansion in scale that happened to be in a rowhouse form,” Finkel says of the earlier version of the rowhome. “It could never have survived at that scale in an industrial city.”

A vast urban grid, though, proved amenable to cars when they started to appear en masse in the early 1900s. In the years following World War II, new Philly rowhomes often came complete with an off-street parking spot. Sometimes the parking would go in the back, which led to the creation of shared driveways, or “drive aisles,” that would become quasi-public spaces for residents of the Near Northeast, deep South Philly and elsewhere. In more recent decades, however, garages have been increasingly placed in the front of rowhomes, not only diminishing the walkability of their given block but also taking away curbside parking spots that anyone could use.

Even today, many pre-fab rowhomes in gentrifying neighborhoods like Fishtown have front-facing garages. Many others are set back from the street, allowing cars to park in a mini-driveway and, often enough, block the sidewalk. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and especially not now.

Parking was actually enshrined in Philadelphia law until very recently. For more than 40 years, the city’s zoning code required every new building to have a minimum number of parking spaces.

That all changed in 2012, when former mayor Michael Nutter signed a zoning overhaul that was some five years in the making. The new code removed parking minimums for commercial properties and residences with fewer than four units, clearing the way for developers to market to a growing number of Philadelphians who either don’t drive at all or who at least don’t prioritize a guaranteed parking spot over walking, biking, or access to transit. Opposition to the changes was fierce: City Council President Darrell Clarke managed to restore parking minimums in certain parts of his North Philly district, and last year Councilmember Jannie Blackwell proposed a bill to double minimums for mid- and high-rise residences.

Of course, removing or reducing parking requirements doesn’t mean that you can’t build parking. Many developers would rather go without it; designing for parking costs money and can be a logistical headache. But they might feel pressure from existing residents who are afraid of losing their parking spots to newcomers. (Neighborhood opposition killed a proposed 18-unit building at 23rd and South streets, in part because it only had five off-street spaces.) Developers may also feel reluctant to part with the appeal of guaranteed parking to prospective tenants.

“An awful lot of new rowhouse construction still has garages,” says Saffron, of the Inquirer. Still, she’s noticed that garages are no longer an ubiquitous sight on new buildings. “There has been a dramatic change in the sensibility of developers,” she says. “If they can figure out an easy way to put the parking in the back or in some other locations, they will do that.”

Some rowhome projects have reverted to the drive-aisle model, creating the kind of back-alley driveways that became common in the postwar years. Larger apartment buildings might only offer a fraction of the parking that used to be expected of them, but will tout their accessibility to SEPTA instead. Others will go out of their way to accommodate additional forms of transportation, like bikes.

“One small, small change is when an apartment house gets built, there’s almost always a bike room where you can store your bikes,” Saffron says. “Every newish high-rise or even mid-rise building that I’ve been to has made that concession.”

Buildings will earn LEED points if they have bike parking, and we can probably credit this for a few recent cyclist-friendly developments. For instance, the stainless-steel bike racks outside the Cheesecake Factory building at 15th and Chestnut streets. Or the new mixed-use Whole Foods building in Spring Garden, which has a bike storage room visible from 22nd Street. Before Indego bike share launched last year, Dranoff Properties offered a mini-bike share service between its buildings.

Designing for parking costs money and can be a logistical headache.

Some developers can afford to be even more explicit about their preference for bikes and transit over cars.

“Every single project we look at, we try to make sure we’re not too far away from public transportation because we almost never have as much parking as other developers,” says Chad Ludeman, president of the local architecture and development firm Postgreen Homes. “It’s kind of the norm: Everyone wants to have one-to-one parking on every project, but most of our projects have no parking.”

Postgreen does most of its work in Fishtown and the gentrifying parts of Kensington. Ludeman describes its target clientele as people who skew younger and who probably don’t aim for a two-cars-per-household lifestyle. One of the reasons the firm works where it does, he says, is the area’s proximity to the Market-Frankford el and various bus lines. He describes doing away with parking minimums as “one of the best things about the new zoning code.”

Without having to worry too much about garages, Postgreen can turn its attention to other kinds of transportation. Many of its buildings have indoor bike parking, or at least sheltered bike parking. The aim for future rental projects is to have a two-to-one ratio of bike parking, situated in either the lobby or the basement of the buildings, to units.

“Our intent is to have these lounges, almost, where there’d be maybe a couple of couches, a bike repair station, pumps, maybe a little stereo system or something,” Ludeman says. “It’s not going to be the nicest area in the building, certainly, but it could be a place where you and a couple of people could hang out when you work on your bike.”

Not everyone will be as accommodating to cyclists, and we’re a long way from bike lounges as an expected feature in every apartment building. Car parking, meanwhile, remains a tempting draw for developers. Bart Blatstein’s Lincoln Square project, now under construction at Broad and Washington, will have 322 residential units, ground-floor retail — and more than 420 parking spaces, according to a notice posted at the site.

But the fact that developers in Philly feel the need to design for bikes and transit users, as much or even more so than they do for cars, is a sign that things are changing. New rowhomes in the city may have certain suburban characteristics — stainless-steel kitchens, open-floor plans, roof decks — but increasingly, garages and driveways are not part of the equation.

“When I started doing this job in 1999 and I would write a negative piece about a parking garage, even my friends would come up to me and say, ‘Where are we going to park?’” Saffron says. “People thought I was a nutcase. I never thought we’d be where we are today.” ◆

Photo by Juliana Laury

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