BOOM TOWN: At Front and Oxford, D3 Development partners Greg Hill (right) and Gabe Canuso are building a hub for education professionals to live and work, bringing 114 new residential units to South Kensington.
George Hill moved to South Kensington 41 years ago — back when factories in the busy industrial neighborhood ran 24 hours a day — and he stayed long enough to watch them shut down, one by one. Now, at age 72, he has a front-row seat to the area’s resurgence. His rowhouse on sleepy Stiles Street, along with the few other houses remaining on his side of the block, is about to be surrounded by a new, square-block-large development of rental apartments, storefronts and live/work spaces. For Hill, it’s a lot to take in.
“What they’re building is a horseshoe around where I live,” he says with trepidation. “I’m a Vietnam veteran, and it reminds me of when the Viet Cong used to gather around us in a horseshoe formation.”
Flashbacks aside, Hill is about to see his quiet, post-industrial neigh-borhood undergo a radical physical, cultural and demographic transformation, much like the change that Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments wrought in Northern Liberties with the Piazza, just across Girard Avenue to the south. At least 800 new apartments and rowhouses, and more than 60,000 square feet of retail and office space, are planned or already under construction on the wedge of blocks between Germantown Avenue and Front Street, from Oxford to Girard — less than one-fifth of a square mile. After the construction dust settles, life in South Kensington will look very different.
“In the last few years we’ve seen more projects coming in and larger developments. There’s been a number of projects mimicking the Piazza,” says South Kensington Community Partners zoning co-chairperson Ariel Vazquez. “I don’t think the development is going to slow down anytime soon.”
In addition to the 247-unit Liberty Square that, if it wins zoning approval in November, will take over Hill’s block with one- and two-bedroom apartments targeting young professionals (aka Piazza overflow), there’s an even larger Piazza-like project on the way: the $70 million, 311-unit Soko Lofts, approved this year for Second and Thompson, one block north. A couple blocks east of that, a factory rehab called Oxford Mills brings 114 more units (with a different twist: rent discounts for teachers, and commercial space devoted to education nonprofits). Tajdeed, a 45-unit affordable-housing project that relied on eminent domain to clear the way, is going before the zoning board in November. And then, there are any number of smaller developments, strings of 10, 20 or 50 rowhouses, that would, in a more moderate market, be considered high-impact projects.
Vazquez says developers hoping young people will follow the trail of gentrification northward aren’t wrong. Vazquez rented in Northern Liberties for several years — but, when it came to buying a home, he moved to South Kensington.
He says he was drawn by affordable prices, but also by the vibe of the area, the mix of renters and homeowners. “People want to live in an area that still feels like a neighborhood,” he says. “What I’ve seen, when I used to live in Northern Liberties, was people would stay for five years and then move away. It was difficult to set down roots in an area that I thought was kind of transitory. Here, we have more home ownership.” But with the number of rental properties coming in, he worries about preserving that sense of community.
SKCP has been trying to temper the glut of new apartments by asking developers to include commercial and other mixed-use spaces in their plans.
Michael Petri of Blackstone Development, behind Liberty Square, allocated ground-floor commercial, he says, primarily “to appease the neighbors and [City] Planning Commission.” He’s not sure what the demand will be for those spaces: Filling large commercial spaces has appeared to be a challenge at the Piazza as well. Petri says he’s most-ly banking on demand for residential units from young professionals, with similar pricing to Northern Liberties. “We’ll just offer a bigger and better [apartment].”
Some neighborhood watchers are skeptical.
“There’s a lot of development going on, but they’re all market rate. I mean, I can’t afford those,” says Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Arab-American Community Development Corporation, which is headquartered in the area and is collaborating with Conifer Realty to build Tajdeed, just northwest of Liberty Square at Second and Oxford streets.
“We are basically, I think, the last chance of keeping some affordable units in South Kensington,” says Kreidie, who himself lives in Northern Liberties — where, he points out, there was no long-term plan for maintaining affordable housing.
Tajdeed includes 37 three- and four-bedroom units, targeting families and priced under $1,000 per month. That’s an anomaly. The majority of apartments in both Liberty Square and Soko Lofts are one-bedroom; each also has a smaller number of two-bedroom and live-work spaces. At Oxford Mills, one-bedroom apartments are expected to rent for $1,300 per month before teacher discounts.
“That’s problematic,” says Kreidie. “We need to have a nice mix. I want to see young [adults] here, but I also want to see families. So I think we have to get more larger units.” Moreover, with so many rental units coming online at once, the question remains: Will there be demand to fill them? He is optimistic, but adds, “What’s going to happen when [those newcomers] have kids? Let’s get the schools worked on, because otherwise they won’t stay.”
Over at Front and Oxford, D3 Development is trying to do just that. They’re also offering one- and two-bedroom units in their Oxford Mills factory conversion — but they’re billing it as an education hub, with discounted rents for teachers and 40,000 square feet of commercial space dedicated to education nonprofits. Most of the lofts are one bedroom — likely to attract single people. D3 expects to draw Teach For America members, who are typically younger. But, says D3’s Greg Hill, “This is really open to the teacher community at large; it doesn’t matter if it’s younger or older, or public or private schools.” His partner, Gabe Canuso, adds that, though D3 hasn’t started marketing the residences yet, there’s already a long list of teachers who want to move in.
On the commercial side, the anchor tenant is a Teach for America regional headquarters. Others include a charter operator, a cafe run by Gryphon Cafe & Coffee Co. and, possibly, a University of Pennsylvania-backed education incubator. Pointing out the restored arched windows and freshly power-washed brick of Oxford Mills — a pair of former factory buildings flanking the cobbled remnant of Hope Street — Canuso and Hill say they’ll compete by creating a unique collaborative community and offering amenities like shared conference rooms. “A lot of the tenants have been in Cen-ter City, though maybe in grade-C office space. Getting them to shift their mindset to come to South Kensington was a bit of a heavy lift initially,” says Hill.
But now, he says, “People are getting really fired up about it.”
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