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How the smartphone explains Philly’s most profound urban design changes this decade

Gentrification, traffic congestion, and the retail apocalypse are all linked to our devices.

This artist's rendering shows an electric-powered Amazon delivery van speeding through a city street. In reality, delivery trucks are often mired in congestion.
This artist's rendering shows an electric-powered Amazon delivery van speeding through a city street. In reality, delivery trucks are often mired in congestion.Read moreRivian/Handout / MCT

If the Aughts were a decade of recovery, when Philadelphia emerged from a half-century slide and began growing its population again, this has been the decade of disruption. Blame it on Apple’s juice.

Although the iPhone came on the market in 2007, followed by the Android in 2009, their effects weren’t felt on the city’s urban form until the start of what we’ll probably end up calling the Teens. In a matter of a few years, this leisurely and livable city found itself wrestling with an array of unintended consequences, including gentrification, traffic congestion, a demolition free-for-all, and upheavals in its retail districts.

No doubt, many of these are the problems of success, shared by thriving cities around the United States. But the urban changes that Philadelphia experienced in the first years of the 21st century were gentler and more likely to enhance the city’s existing 20th-century form. The tech-induced trends from the last 10 years have challenged that physical form by radically reconfiguring the way we move through, and interact with, the city.

Much of this is well-documented. We know that once millennials (and their parents) got those smartphones in their hands, they promptly began moving into cities, buying fixer-uppers in working-class neighborhoods like Point Breeze and Fishtown, and transforming them into upscale enclaves. Facebook and Tinder made it easy for them to socialize, while app-driven services like Uber and Lyft, Peapod and Fresh Direct, ridesharing, and bikesharing allowed more people in greater Center City to ditch their personal cars (and more easily pay for their phones). While our devices aren’t responsible for all the disruptions of the last decade, the changes were often indirectly linked to tech. Here’s how the smartphone updated Philadelphia during the Teens.

Tech jobs fueled the demand for housing

Philadelphia’s construction boom predates the smartphone revolution, but the tech sector helped keep the economy, and therefore housing demand, humming. Tech created 8,000 new jobs since 2013, more than 10 percent of the total growth this decade. When the Teens started, Philadelphia was still recovering from the 2007 recession. In 2010, the city issued 1,276 residential building permits. This year, there were roughly double that number.

Philadelphia’s new zoning code, adopted in 2011, helped rev up much of that new construction (in concert with the tax abatement, of course). Thanks to the code changes, more apartment projects can now be built without a variance, eliminating a time-consuming trip to the Zoning Board. The new code also gave Philadelphia the McRowhouse, a suburban-sized rowhouse, by increasing the allowable base height of new homes from 35 to 38 feet. The average square footage is substantially higher, too. One of the less-heralded benefits of the post-2011 zoning era is city’s Atlas website, which makes it easy to track land-use changes.

Hello, gentrification

We were probably too gaga about the city’s recovery in the Aughts to worry about gentrification. Not any more. Even though Philadelphia doesn’t suffer from San Francisco-level housing shortages and continues to struggle with decline in some neighborhoods, gentrification is now part of our local vocabulary. It has already turned several formerly African American neighborhoods, like Graduate Hospital, almost completely white, and is spreading far beyond Center City, to places like Brewerytown, Kingsessing, and Germantown. The concern is that low-income residents, especially those who can’t afford cars, will be pushed to far-out neighborhoods that lack easy transit connections.

More traffic, less parking

The delivery economy and ridesharing apps are snarling Center City’s streets and dramatically slowing travel times on many SEPTA bus routes. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has mistakenly hopped into the wrong Uber or Lyft because so many of their cars are bunched up at the same curb. That congestion makes it harder for bus riders to get to work.

Fortunately, there is a growing variety of climate-friendly ways to get around town, from E-bikes to scooters to plain old human-powered bikes. Perhaps because of these alternatives, occupancy has plummeted at Center City parking garages, and those structures are now being targeted for redevelopment. Little Pete’s garage at 17th and Chancellor is being replaced by a hotel, while three neighborhood garages south of Rittenhouse Square have been repurposed — two for housing, one for a preschool.

While Philadelphians remain as obsessed as ever with parking, this decade saw the opening of the city’s first garage-less apartment tower, 1213 Walnut. By reducing the need for personal cars, the smartphone is enabling us to reallocate street space for people-focused uses, like the Grays Ferry Triangle plaza, which opened in 2013.

Architecture of technology defines more than the skyline

Nothing dramatizes this decade’s architectural changes as much as the new Comcast Technology Center, which is said to resemble a giant USB drive. One of the 10 tallest skyscrapers in the U.S., the building by Foster + Partners has become the prow of the downtown ship, directing Philadelphia’s business district westward. While it may not be Philadelphia’s best new design, it has welcomed the public into its soaring lobby, sky lounge, and transit concourse, demonstrating that the architecture of tech can participate in city life.

For the best works of tech architecture, look to the crystalline switchbacks of Weiss/Manfredi’s Singh Center for Nanotechnology (2013) at Penn, which made the cover of Architectural Record, and the parabolic arches of Temple University’s new Charles Library by Snøhetta. Its automated retrieval system allows you to order your books from a phone app, assuming, that is, you want to bother with a physical book. Forget tech architecture; these are among the best Philadelphia buildings of any kind this decade.

The most influential work of tech architecture this decade is easily the Apple store. Although the company opened its first location in Tysons Corner, Va., in 2001, the retailer didn’t emerge as a design icon until the Pennsylvania-based architect Peter Bohlin sketched the famous glass cube for Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue location in 2010. His design reinvented the computer store as a clubhouse for the digerati and pushed retail into a more interactive direction. Though modest by comparison, Philadelphia finally got an Apple store in 2010, designed by Bohlin’s firm, BCJ.

Fast casual eats retail’s lunch

As online shopping claimed more casualties among brick-and-mortar retailers, fast casual restaurants moved in. Entire blocks of Center City now feature repeating lineups of Sweetgreen, Honeygrow, Qdoba, Hip City Veg and the increasingly ubiquitous Wawa and Starbucks chains. While not food-related, hair salons and blow-dry bars are also proliferating, too. Can our downtowns remain democratic and demographic meeting places once they are no longer destinations to shop for physical objects? Luckily for Philadelphia, the Gallery, reborn as the Fashion District, is back to anchor East Market.

Fast casual takes over architecture, too

Designing apartment buildings has become a lot like assembling a salad. Lincoln Square and the Harper are two of the latest examples of assembly-line architecture.

West Philly comes into its own

There’s a reason that Comcast’s mast looks west, and Aramark’s headquarters is now housed in a former car factory on the Schuylkill waterfront. As meds, eds, and tech come to dominate Philadelphia’s economy, the areas around Penn and Drexel are becoming Philadelphia’s new downtown. If Schuylkill Yards realizes its ambitions, Center City may cease to be the center of Philadelphia.

Gig-economy architecture

The gig economy is changing our country in ways that have nothing to do with organization of cities, but it has been a major force in keeping our old office and residential buildings occupied. They’re now filled with co-working spaces like Kismet and short-stay apartments like Sonder and Roost, all of which can be booked from a phone. Philadelphia doesn’t yet have the kind of Airbnb village that exists in tourist cities like New Orleans and Lisbon, but the number of confused visitors seen dragging roller suitcases down our sidewalks suggests that could be in our future someday, with consequences for housing affordability.

Screens and architecture

City Council approved the East Market Street sign district in 2011, but it wasn’t until the Fashion District opened this year that Philadelphia’s new Great White Way came into its own. The street is lined with digital billboards that constantly flash advertisements in the hope of diverting us from our small phone screens.

Don’t underestimate the small screen, though. Instagram has become a major influencer that shapes how we look at, and design, buildings.

Architectural wins and losses

One of the first and most influential architectural projects of the decade was Erdy McHenry’s Schmidt’s development in Northern Liberties. Although it’s now on its third owner, it proved that developers could erect new buildings with old-school urban manners, such as coming to the street line and including ground-floor stores. With affordability becoming an increasing concern, the new trendsetter is ISA’s XS House, which squeezes seven apartments onto a two-car parking lot.

This boom decade has been devastating for old buildings, especially churches, and single-use retail rows (see Jewelers, Fabric, Antique). But there were some big saves, including the Divine Lorraine and Metropolitan Opera House, both on North Broad Street. Mayor Jim Kenney’s historic preservation task force produced a set of recommendations to protect the city’s patrimony. The next decade will determine whether the buildings that enabled Philadelphia’s comeback in the Aughts, will survive through the rest of the 21st century.