Through the last decade’s roller-coaster of recession and recovery, Philadelphia has managed to keep adding new housing at a steady pace — some 20,000 units since 2006. Old industrial buildings were turned into apartments. New rowhouses sprouted on empty lots. Philadelphia officially became a city of renters in 2017, when the apartment count surpassed the number of owner-occupied homes.
But all that new housing has spawned an unfortunate offshoot: self-storage facilities. These aren’t the clusters of free-standing pods that you see on suburban highways, but their urban equivalent, multistory structures that are themselves the size of apartment buildings. It’s no accident that these public attics are gravitating to neighborhoods where residential development is intense. People have too much stuff and too few closets.
The industry’s newfound fondness for Philadelphia became clear last fall when the zoning board approved a developer’s request to erect a self-storage facility a few steps from Broad and Spring Garden, just blocks north of City Hall. The location is a major Center City transit node, tailor-made for a high-rise residential or office building. The city was so floored by the zoning board’s ruling that it is suing to overturn the decision. The appeal is now in Commonwealth Court.
Although storage companies long ago colonized several nearby loft buildings, the Spring Garden proposal served as a wake-up call. Technically, new facilities have been prohibited in Center City since the new zoning code was adopted in 2011. At least half a dozen other cities, including Miami, Vancouver, Denver, Charleston, and New York, have taken similar steps to rein in self-storage operators.
Yet, over the last few years, several new storage places have quietly set up operations on the fringes of Center City, often in resurgent residential neighborhoods. All were built on land zoned for industrial development, a classification that still allows self-storage.
One of the most visible is the ExtraSpace storage facility on Washington Avenue, which spans half a block between 23rd and 24th Streets. About 18 months ago, the company opened a similar building on Leverington Avenue in Manayunk, an easy walk from the sprawling Venice Island apartment complexes, and just a short distance from another ExtraSpace location near the Ivy Ridge train station.
The company also operates a storage facility in Germantown’s Wayne Junction, a former industrial area now being transformed into a residential district. Meanwhile, another self-storage project is going up on North American Street, an industrial corridor bordered by the booming Fishtown and South Kensington neighborhoods.
What’s so bad about storage facilities? Philadelphians are no different from the rest of America; we have more possessions than we can possibly fit in our homes. As city apartments get smaller and more expensive, making room for everything is becoming a challenge. You could also argue that storage facilities serve an important social function by offering a cheap place for people to stash their belongings during major life transitions — divorce, college, evictions.
The problem with these communal closets is that they take up land that could be used more productively for real industry or housing. Since the city carved out North American Street, north of Oxford Street, as an industrial corridor, it has “evolved into a great community of makers,” said Richard Goloveyko, who produces ornamental metal products in a small manufacturing plant across the street from the new storage facility.
Goloveyko employs 20 people. The storage operation, at the intersection with Cecil B. Moore, will probably create, at most, two or three jobs.
Its presence also disrupts the street’s economic ecosystem. The land was purchased for $3 million, double what it sold for just three years ago. Although there are several other metal fabricators nearby, as well as a caterer, architectural salvage company, and meat processor, Goloveyko wonders how long his stretch of North American Street will remain welcoming and affordable for manufacturing. He moved to his building four years ago after his company’s previous location in Northern Liberties — also on North American Street — became too residential. “I would have preferred something else,” Goloveyko said. “I guess I have to get used to the idea of moving 10 blocks north every 10 years.”
Self-storage may cause even more harm to emerging shopping streets than it does in industrial zones. Storage facilities essentially occupy the same urban niche as parking garages. Visitors come and go infrequently, always by car. While the buildings sometimes include a small ground-floor office, they’re generally dead zones that interrupt the flow of pedestrian activity.
On Washington Avenue, the ExtraSpace storage building already seems out of place. The street, which has long been home to building supply stores and small industrial users, has been morphing into a boulevard of apartments. Since Lincoln Square was completed last year at Broad Street, four more residential projects have been proposed for the stretch between 16th and 24th Streets. But ExtraSpace’s long blank wall interferes with the avenue’s evolution into a walkable boulevard. Around the back, on Alter Street, its rear facade looms over a row of freshly built rowhouses.
The hulking storage facility probably never would have been built if not for the bitter gentrification debate that has divided the Point Breeze neighborhood. The city has long wanted to rezone Washington Avenue to encourage more residential and commercial uses, but Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has yet to introduce the enabling legislation, severely constraining new housing construction. All the new residential development is occurring on the north side, in the area overseen by the more development-friendly South of South Street Neighborhood Association.
In contrast, the Point Breeze Civic Association enthusiastically supported the ExtraSpace facility as a way to prevent housing from being built on the site, the group’s president, Theresa McCormick, told me. “We wanted it there. It creates jobs,” she insisted, even though industry data show that’s not the case.
Among American cities, Philadelphia ranks toward the bottom in the amount of available storage space — four square feet per person, according to Jeff Norman, a spokesman for ExtraSpace. Still, that’s more than New York, which offers 3.5 square feet per person. Land there is just too valuable to waste on housing surplus stuff.
The only consolation is that storage facilities are built cheaply enough that they can easily be torn down if market conditions change. There’s always hope that the ones in former loft buildings, like those on the east side of Washington Avenue, will be replaced by housing.
In the short-term, though, the demand for self-storage is only likely to grow as more apartments get built in Philadelphia. The issue is where to put them. There have to be better locations than vital, pedestrian-friendly industrial and commercial corridors like Washington Avenue, North American Street, and Spring Garden. How about encouraging apartment developers to include more storage closets in the basements of their buildings? Or, perhaps the self-storage buildings could be clustered near the city’s trash transfer station in Grays Ferry, making them a waystation on the inevitable journey to the dump?
Marie Kondo, the compulsive organizer and declutterer, would like that.