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As North Philly continues to gentrify, City Council rezones to promote single-family homes

Multi-family housing near Temple University has flourished for years. Last month, Council took steps to crack down on it, unanimously approving an ordinance that would create more single-family housing districts.

Located along 1325 N. 15th St., this rental unit developed by Blackstone Development is a product of the multi-family boom that came from Temple students in the Cecil B. Moore neighborhood.
Located along 1325 N. 15th St., this rental unit developed by Blackstone Development is a product of the multi-family boom that came from Temple students in the Cecil B. Moore neighborhood.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

The boom box perched on a stool along the 1600 block of Cecil B. Moore Avenue simply wouldn't work.

It crackled with static, skipped and faded, then grew louder as a recording of Gladys Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia" struggled to blare from its aging speakers. Down the street, a dozen people on the corner seemed to pay the noise no mind, distracted by mid-morning conversation and drinks from the nearby corner store.

For a moment on a recent Wednesday on this historic North Philadelphia block, time seemed almost frozen. Under green signs featuring images of the fiery civil-rights leader Cecil B. Moore, the avenue that bears his name was listless. For nearly a minute, the repetitive music of the broken boom box drifted until finally a store owner appeared. She pounded on it until the melodies smoothed, straightened up knickknacks for sale outside, and then went back to her shop.

On this overcast morning, business, as it is on many days, was slow.

Just a block and a half away, however, at chain restaurants such as Subway and Pizza Hut brimming with hungry college students, that wasn't quite the case.

Perhaps nowhere in Philadelphia right now is gentrification more apparent than on the stretch of Cecil B. Moore Avenue from North Broad to 22nd Street. As Temple University's profile and enrollment have risen, private residential and commercial developers have been making a slow but steady march down this business corridor and through the neighborhood that abuts it to the west.

The result is an astonishing blend of old and new throughout this traditionally low-income area. Blighted and overgrown vacant lots now sit directly across the street from taller, modern apartments designed with Temple students in mind. In some stretches, students wearing red shirts emblazoned with the phrase "We the T" stroll by, heading to and from campus, while banners touting available student housing hang on buildings. Meanwhile, longtime residents rest on their stoops, watching their surroundings change.

At first, it would seem this neighborhood — referred to as Cecil B. Moore by some, Lower North by others, and even TempleTown (that one is controversial) — is one of Philadelphia's latest to experience rapid change. And while many residents and business owners have welcomed some of the revitalization in a community that for decades experienced severe disinvestment and population loss, others have begun to worry about the downsides gentrification might bring.

Last month, City Council unanimously passed legislation aimed at slowing the pace of that change. At the recommendation of the City Planning Commission, the ordinance introduced by Council President Darrell Clarke  decreases the density of certain areas bounded by North Broad Street and Girard, Ridge and Cecil B. Moore Avenues in an effort to preserve more single-family housing here. Effective immediately, the ordinance shifts swaths of land from commercial-mixed use and multi-family designation to variations that focus more on residential single-family.

In some ways, the legislation is aimed at correcting the record to reflect what currently exists on the ground, said David Fecteau, a city planner. In others, it seeks to ensure that future residential projects are single-family — unless a developer receives a zoning variance.

"It has a lot to do with the stability of our neighborhoods," Fecteau said. "We've had so much change in the last 50 years. And while change is inevitable in a city, we want to keep a hold on some level of stability … to make sure these are places that people want to move and raise families."

"It's a way to give our homeowners assurances that their investment is going to be safe for a good number of years," he said.

The revitalization around Temple University is distinct from that of other parts of the city. Sections such as Point Breeze and Brewerytown have seen an increase in more affluent populations as people of all ages have moved in to capitalize on quickly increasing property values. Meanwhile, new development in the Cecil B. Moore neighborhood has catered almost entirely to students, most of whom stay for only a few years, then move out.

According to the city's Lower North District Plan, adopted in 2014, nearly 7,000 students were estimated to live in privately owned off-campus housing.

For long-standing neighborhood residents, some say, that's meant an uptick in expensive multi-family units that have brought extra cars, occasional noise, and more expensive commercial shops along Cecil B. Moore Avenue. And even while they say they generally like students there — some parts of the area appear to now be safer, residents say — the newcomers are mostly temporary, and aren't around long enough to care about seeing the neighborhood change.

"It's not bad what they're doing," said Jamal Townsend, a 36-year-old barber. "The area is definitely more beautiful. But people living here might start to feel like they're being pushed out."

Sentiments like Townsend's are part of the reason the Planning Commission pushed for the ordinance. City Council has worked since 2014, Fecteau said, to pass a series of similar bills throughout South and North Philadelphia to change zoning laws to favor more single-family residential development.

The response among residents has been mixed, he said: "Some say, 'Thank you, but you're too late because development has already happened.' For other homeowners, some say, 'Now I'm not going to be able to sell my house to a developer for a lot of money.' "

As this part of the city has grown increasingly attractive, property values have increased. In 2016, the median price of a home here was $166,250, up 12.3 percent from the year before and 51 percent from 2011, when the median price was $110,000, according to city Office of Property Assessment data analyzed by Kevin Gillen, a senior research fellow at Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. Still, the number of sales throughout the last three decades was relatively low. In 2016, there were 48, up from 44 in 2011.

Some believe that is partly because developers are choosing to build new. According to the Lower North District Plan, in 2014 the city estimated that almost one-third of its vacant land was located within the district — defined as everything from South Kensington to Brewerytown, Strawberry Mansion to Norris Square. Maps show a large concentration of that is located in the areas of Cecil B. Moore and Sharswood, to the west.

It's attracted developers like Rahil Raza, of Raza Properties, and Michael Petrikowsky, of Blackstone Development. Both have developed multifamily housing separately in the Cecil B. Moore area and have concerns that the zoning ordinance could have a chilling effect on all development in the neighborhood.

"Getting a variance is difficult, using an attorney is a difficult thing," said Raza. "It's going to make smaller developers very intimidated."

The ordinance is one reason driving him from the area, said Petrikowsky, whose 64-unit rental property along 15th Street has been a success (prices are as high as $1,600 for a two-bedroom).

"We're not going back to single-family," he said. "We have to focus on large ones to keep going."