The fast-paced growth of Philadelphia's lower Spring Garden neighborhood quickened Wednesday, with the official groundbreaking of a massive, $160 million luxury apartment complex.

The project promises to further transform an area that 20 years ago was a dead zone, and that 20 years from now may be unrecognizable.

"It's overused in real estate," said Brady Nolan, one of the developers, "but every great project must have three things: location, location, and Whole Foods."

A big Whole Foods - twice the size of the current market nearby - will anchor the building, just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Also included are a CVS drugstore and a branch of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

The 14-story Rodin Square will sit northwest of the Rodin Museum, close to the Barnes and green ball fields, an easy walk to a Callowhill Street that in recent years has developed a restaurant row - Sabrina's Cafe, the King of Tandoor Indian Restaurant, Doma, the Kite & Key, and the Rose Tattoo.

The Free Library and Philadelphia Art Museum are steps away.

"I love the neighborhood," said Bob Wexler, a city employee who has lived in the area since 1986, when it was largely undeveloped, unknown, and ignored. "I love it because you can walk to Center City - and all the rest nearby."

Edward Wallace, a retired electrician who moved to the Parkway House in October, said he eats breakfast at Sabrina's in the morning and watches the sun set over the Art Museum at night.

It can seem as if the neighborhood is under constant construction, he said, though as a former tradesman he is not bothered by the noise. "It's like a ballet out there with all the machines," he said.

Wallace and others said the growth has made parking hard to find. And for years people have worried that rising property values could push out older, less wealthy residents.

That hasn't slowed development.

The Granary, an apartment-and-retail complex that hosts Pizzeria Vetri and Gyu-Katu Japanese BBQ, opened a year ago. The Center City District recently celebrated the renovation of Sister Cities Park, set at Logan Square in front of the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul.

A majestic Mormon temple, the first in Pennsylvania, is rising at 18th and Vine Streets, and across the street plans are underway to develop the Family Court building into a luxury hotel.

On Wednesday, two firms, Dalian Development and International Financial Co., officially began work on Rodin Square, to include 293 luxury apartments, underground parking for a 55,000-square-foot Whole Foods, and a parking garage for residents.

Other amenities will include a dog-washing room.

It will cover almost three acres on the site of the old Best Western Hotel. That building was being torn down on Wednesday even as the groundbreaking took place.

"If you went to heaven and asked God for the best site, here it is," said Neal Rodin, chairman of International Financial Co., the project's retail owner. "The apartments will feed off the retail, and the retail will feed off the apartments."

On every street in the neighborhood, it seems, young mothers push babies in strollers and people walk dogs. Students hang at nearby Philadelphia Community College. Developer Bart Blatstein hopes to build a Callowhill casino and retail complex, with the old Inquirer building on Broad Street becoming a hotel.

It's a metamorphosis for what once was an industrial area, home to trucking companies, tool corporations and storage businesses. Blocks and blocks were covered by Baldwin Locomotive Works, the nation's top train-maker.

Today, at 19th and Hamilton, stands Matthias Baldwin Park, a green space composed of interlocking levels of plants, trees, and jutting stone plinths.

The Barnes has risen on the site of what was the hulking, notorious Youth Study Center.

"Look around," said Nolan, vice president of Dalian Development, the project's residence owner. "It's a no-brainer, from our point of view."

Thomas Jefferson University Hospital is leasing 12,000 square feet to put doctors in the same place as apartment dwellers, an effort to bring Jefferson to city neighborhoods.

"I'm an obstetrician, so I'm usually there at the delivery, not the creation," said Stephen Klasko, the hospital system's president, evoking laughter from 60 people at the groundbreaking. "Between CVS, Whole Foods and Jefferson, there's going to be some darned healthy people here."

Construction is expected to take two years.

"It's great for the neighborhood. It's great for the parkway," Rodin said. "It's just going to pull the whole neighborhood together."