In the ’60s, a group of Black civil rights leaders persuaded Philadelphia officials to let them plan a federal urban renewal project just north of Girard Avenue. Rather than add another low-income project to the city’s stock of public housing, they created a middle-class enclave, a suburb-in-the-city for a community that had long been denied access to the real suburbs.

Although the homes were essentially modern versions of the traditional rowhouse, they came with lawns and driveways, and were arranged around a network of cul-de-sacs, just like the all-white subdivisions that were going up around the region back then. Perhaps in a sly reference to the tide-turning Revolutionary War battle, the organizers called the neighborhood Yorktown.

“People thought the neighborhood wouldn’t last because it was African American,” recalled Renee Drayton, who still lives in the house on Patrick Henry Place that her mother bought new for $11,500 in 1964.

Yorktown not only survived, it thrived. Some of the city’s most influential Black leaders settled there, including former Mayor John F. Street and the late Councilmember Augusta Clark. The cul-de-sacs were perfect for cookouts, yet City Hall was just four stops away on the Broad Street subway.

Based on Yorktown’s success, the city began planning a second, low-density project, on the south side of Girard. By the time the West Poplar development was finished in the late ’90s, Philadelphia had 450,000 fewer residents than it did when Yorktown opened. Planners expected the city’s population to keep shrinking, so they made West Poplar even more suburban, with sprawling lawns and clusters of free-standing, single-family homes.

Instead, the city started gaining population.

Even before the asphalt in those West Poplar cul-de-sacs was dry, Center City had reversed its long decline and was springing back to life with new apartments and rowhouses. Development soon expanded beyond the core, following the path of SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line up from Old City to Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Kensington. Philadelphia has since gained back more than 100,000 people. Even during this long pandemic, the demand for housing in the city never slowed.

Now, two decades after Philadelphia’s brief experiment with suburban-style housing, the construction frenzy has reached Yorktown and West Poplar, creating a reckoning over competing visions of density. The debate, which is also taking place in neighborhoods as varied as Society Hill and Germantown, goes to the heart of what kind of city Philadelphia should be. The outcome will impact a variety of issues, from the viability of its transit system to the affordability of its housing.

Yorktown residents like Drayton, who runs the area’s community development corporation, believe their historic neighborhood cannot survive the tsunami of development heading its way. For years, her group has been fighting to keep investors from buying up Yorktown houses and carving them into apartments, mainly for Temple students. Those apartment conversions have not only reduced the proportion of owner-occupied homes; they have sent house prices soaring.

And while that might be good for some residents, it has driven up property taxes for everyone. “Mine went from $1,600 to $2,500” over two years, Patricia Crosby, the head of the Yorktown Community Association, told me. “I feel like they’re going to tax us out.”

This spring, after several large apartment projects were proposed for sites on Broad Street and Girard Avenue, Drayton and Cosby turned to their local representative, Council President Darrell L. Clarke, for help. Clarke, a longtime critic of density, responded with two powerful actions. In the days before Council broke for its summer recess, he pushed through a bill designed to severely limit future construction on the eastern portion of Girard Avenue, one of the city’s traditional commercial corridors. The bill, which caps the height of new buildings at three stories, passed, 17-0, thanks to the practice of councilmanic prerogative.

Clarke also intervened to get the zoning board to revoke the permits for a 166-unit apartment building on the site of a stand-alone Rite Aid at 12th and Girard, a legacy of Yorktown’s suburban vision. The four-story structure, which was being developed by Ori Feibush’s OCF Realty, was allowed under the city’s zoning code and had already received approvals. But Clarke argued that it was out of character with the neighborhood. He took the unusual step of testifying personally against the project, telling the zoning board chairman — former Councilmember Frank DiCiccio — that Yorktown “was clearly intended to be a low-density neighborhood.”

Feibush’s permits were struck down. Because the Rite Aid had already been demolished, the site will remain a rubble-strewn lot while Feibush appeals the zoning board’s decision.

Yorktown’s desire to protect its heritage is certainly understandable. The neighborhood, which the Preservation Alliance had listed on the National Historic Register in 2012, is both a gracious, walkable community and a testament to Philadelphia’s struggle to address its long history of housing discrimination. Even though Yorktown homes now sell in the $300,000 range, it remains one of the more affordable neighborhoods in central Philadelphia.

Yet it is possible that Clarke’s measures could do the area more harm than good.

By making it harder to build on Girard Avenue, Clarke’s zoning bill could end up pushing developers into Yorktown proper. Just as water finds its level, so does development. Yorktown’s National Register status does nothing to protect it against demolitions. Only the creation of a local historic district can do that.

There are other reasons that dense development should be directed to Girard Avenue. Located midway between Center City and Temple University, Girard is one of a series of wide boulevards woven into the tight warp of Philadelphia’s grid. Unlike most city streets, which are sized for modest rowhouses, Girard has the heft to accommodate taller buildings. Indeed, smaller structures tend to look puny and forlorn in relation to the vast expanse of asphalt. Taller buildings are also better able to accommodate retail on the ground floor.

Even by the standards of the city’s other commercial corridors, Girard is a big street. It’s wider than Philadelphia’s great central boulevard, Broad Street, and wide enough for a trolley to run down the middle. While that service has been temporarily replaced by buses while SEPTA redesigns its trolley system, Route 15 remains as a crucial connector between the city’s two subway lines. If you believe, as I do, that transit-oriented development is one the best tools we have to fight climate change, then it makes sense for Girard Avenue to evolve into a dense, apartment-lined boulevard.

Vincent Reina, an associate professor specializing in housing issues at Penn’s Weitzman School of Design, said he worries that Clarke’s zoning bill will result in a “cascade” of similar restrictions that will limit housing construction around Philadelphia, pushing up prices and making it harder to find affordable places to live. “Traditionally, neighborhoods with more power and privilege have downzoned like this. Now we’re seeing the same thing” in less affluent communities, he observed.

Daniel Trubman, a volunteer for the pro-development group 5th Square, agrees. “From an equity standpoint, limiting development is totally counterproductive,” he argued. The group, which has long championed fewer zoning restrictions, is circulating an online petition urging Mayor Jim Kenney to veto Clarke’s Girard Avenue bill. So far, 750 people have signed, but City Hall insiders tell me that veto is unlikely.

It’s not clear whether Clarke intended for his bill to put the brakes on all new development along Girard Avenue, or whether he is using it as a starting point for discussions with developers to improve their projects.

That’s what happened in West Poplar when the Post Bros. proposed turning a former Strawbridge & Clothier warehouse into high-end apartments. After extensive negotiations with the neighborhood community group, Post agreed to hire local residents to work on the project. The company provided training courses in basic construction skills, setting residents up for careers. Other developers have incorporated reduced-rate units in their apartment buildings. Some are even helping low-income residents to renovate their homes and avoid displacement.

Given the way the zoning board handled Feibush’s project at 12th and Girard, it seems he stands a good chance of winning his appeal. Feibush said he never received an explanation for the board’s decision to revoke his permit for an allowable use.

Instead of continuing to oppose the project, Clarke should help Yorktown negotiate a better design. One reason the community objected to the four-story building is that there were no retail spaces along Girard Avenue, just a blank wall. That’s because the zoning — a vestige of Yorktown’s founding — prohibited retail. For Feibush to fit retail into the building, it would have to be five or six stories tall. It may sound counterintuitive, but a bigger building would be a better building for Yorktown.

“Somebody needs to point out the benefits of having density along Girard Avenue,” argued Jay McCalla, a government affairs consultant who is a veteran of several city administrations and has occasionally worked with Yorktown residents.

Despite the height limits Clarke imposed on Girard Avenue, there is already a six-story building going up at 10th Street, and Drayton said Wawa may rent the ground floor. “I hope that’s the case,” she told me. The site, once home to the Althea Gibson tennis center, almost became a gas station in 2017. But that project was stopped after Clarke had the zoning density increased to ban such uses. Maybe density on Girard Avenue isn’t so bad, after all.