As Kensington condos rise, a cabinetmaker cashes out
"For every story of the cabinetmaker selling his business for condos, there are dozens of folks who are looking to keep their business in Philadelphia."
In the summertime, when the smell of lacquer coming off freshly painted cabinets hung more heavily in the air, Victor Rossi started hearing from his Kensington neighbors.
City officials would come out to see the cabinetmaker in his brick warehouse on North Howard Street, responding to complaints about delivery trucks clogging the narrow block, the drone of power tools, and the acrid smell of varnish.
"It just became clear this wasn't an industrial neighborhood anymore," Rossi said. "The environment wasn't as welcoming. You have people move in from the suburbs, where you're smelling flowers and trees, and you start to smell what industry smells like. You don't know. You think someone's breaking EPA regulations."
Rossi, whose father started Rossi Bros. Cabinet Makers in 1956, sold his shop this summer because he thought he'd overstayed his welcome in the now-residential neighborhood. He also got a very good offer from a buyer looking to turn the warehouse into condos.
Eighty years ago, Kensington had upward of 800 manufacturers, mostly textile factories, along with companies making carpets, glass, and hosiery. Factories started closing by the 1940s and have continued to shutter in the decades since.
Now, as the residential boom that hit Northern Liberties and Fishtown pushes north, the few remaining vestiges of those manufacturers, like Rossi, struggle to justify staying put. Two years ago, the building that houses Penn Scale Co. was sold, forcing the company to move. Quaker Jobbing, a carpet, rug, and upholstery company, also closed recently.
Development isn't fully to blame. Many of the older, family-owned businesses are becoming less relevant. Rossi's clientele shrunk as kitchen cabinetry became more standardized and interest in antique furniture reproductions waned. At its peak in 1830, the city had 1,170 businesses described as cabinetmakers or chair makers, according to Carlie Berlin, a private antiques dealer in New York City. Now, there are fewer than 60 people who do that work in Philadelphia, according to federal figures.
"Eventually there will be no industry in Kensington — except for restaurants and coffee shops," Rossi said. "I mean real, industrial, large-scale, hands-on, making things. They're all going to go."
It's a forecast that neighborhood groups and some developers are trying to prevent. Kensington is still home to dozens of manufacturers, along with breweries, and an increasing number of "light industrial" spaces, such as studios for builders and artists. The neighborhood was recently rezoned with an emphasis on maintaining industry.
"It is a growing trend we're seeing, manufacturers leaving," said Kaelyn Anderson, economic development director at the New Kensington Community Development Corp. "And it's something we've been doing advocacy work around to try and prevent. This was 'the Workshop of the World,' and we want to preserve that."
On West Berks Street in South Kensington, Sam Oteri has a stack of offers from buyers eyeing his silk-screen printing factory, Photo Process Screen Manufacturing
"They say they could put 25 apartments in here," Oteri said from the factory floor, surrounded by bottles of neon paints and old printing machines that his father created when starting the business in 1945.
Oteri's property taxes have spiked in the last few years, he said, and business is slower because of the popularity of digital advertising. At 78, he hasn't really tapped into online sales.
"We've been paying taxes here since 1960, yet across the street, brand-new people don't have to pay taxes for 10 years," he said. "To me, that makes me feel like they're pushing me out."
Oteri, who wrestles with whether to sell or pass the company on to his son, goes into the office every day with his wife, Kay. The couple met playing pickup baseball in Columbus Square when they were 10 years old. "Whatever he does, it's up to him," she said. "But I'd rather be coming in here than being at home."
A few blocks away, North American Street is dotted with empty lots and vacant warehouses, and about to undergo a $10 million improvement project with resurfaced streets and bike lanes. A 21,000-square-foot warehouse will be the newest Philadelphia location of NextFab, which gives working space and tools to various builders and artisans.
Scott Lash moved his architecture and design company, Provenance Cos., to the corridor a few years ago after getting priced out of Northern Liberties. Lash isn't just setting up shop in Kensington, he's become part of its redesign. His repurposed wood, lighting, and architectural elements are featured in restaurants up and down Frankford Avenue.
"We saw an opportunity to move up here where there's some space, and we liked the energy of the neighborhood," he said. "It's going to be a pretty big transformation."
In North Kensington, Shift Capital cofounder Brian Murray is hoping to build a commercial and industrial corridor on a stretch struggling with drug use, homelessness, and unemployment.
Shift operates MaKen studios, which rents space to manufacturers and artists. Tenants include Little Baby's ice cream makers, woodworkers, a company specializing in men's pocket squares, and a woman with a boudoir photography studio. The studio space is often filled to capacity.
"This is on one of the toughest blocks in Kensington," Murray said. "And I just think it goes to show, for every story of the cabinetmaker selling his business for condos, there are dozens of folks who are looking to keep their business in Philadelphia. I think the question is, as the city develops and North Kensington goes in the direction of South Kensington, will these buildings also feel the pressure to switch to residential?"
For Rossi, who decided to move his cabinet business to Wissinoming, the transition has been a challenge.
When he bought the building, a former yarn and dye factory, he considered it nearly work-ready. Now he's entangled in a dispute with the city over whether the property is zoned industrial, meaning he could build cabinets there, or commercial, meaning he could only repair them.
As Rossi awaits the outcome, some customers have pulled their orders. He's hired an attorney. Meanwhile he's fixing up the building on his largely residential block. He's also introducing himself to the neighbors.
"I'm on the corner," he said. "The streets are wider, and people seem nice. People seem OK that I'm here."