Jesse Hein bought a new house with his husband about a year ago in Kensington near York Street. The rowhouse — just a few blocks away from the Berks Street station on the Market-Frankford line — had only been on the market a month. Hein, a communications professional at a Center City healthcare company, said its proximity to the El is one of the main reasons he chose the area.
Today, he concedes, he probably couldn’t afford a home like that in his neighborhood because of the flurry of development and skyrocketing prices. Hein, 29, drives only four or five times a year. He realizes he couldn’t operate without the El.
“It was absolutely awful during the SEPTA strike, and it sounds silly, but it really threw everything into chaos,” he said. “When the El is messed up, it really throws my day into a tailspin pretty hard.”
Any time there’s even a minor disturbance on the El, a domino effect can stall riders and overburden platforms along the 13-mile stretch from Frankford to Upper Darby. Buses are pressed into service as ad-hoc shuttles — easing the load on the tracks, but clogging already-gridlocked streets of the old city.
If you’re a commuter, a patient headed toward the doctor or a student on the way to class, SEPTA can absolutely ruin your day: When the El goes out, Philly slows down.
But the crises on an overworked, aging infrastructure underscore how valuable the Market-Frankford Line is to Philadelphia. For years, the city shed population and appeared headed toward the fate of Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland. Around 2000, this changed. Experts pointed to any number of factors, including immigrants, empty-nesters and millennials, and civic leaders bragged about a restaurant scene drawing national envy, beer gardens and even Jay-Z and his “Made In America” festival.
New numbers from the transit agency tell a different story. The creaky, overburdened MFL has as important a place among millennials, immigration and swanky restaurants as keys to the city’s early 21st century turnaround. Its cars carry more people than they have in decades. That’s why Billy Penn and the Philadelphia Inquirer decided to team up to write about how important the El has become to the city’s continued growth — and examine why the fruits of that growth have not benefited more stops along the way.
Change along the rails
Much of Philly’s resurgence straddles the Market-Frankford Line. Take away the census tracts abutting the El, and Philly’s average annual growth rate the last few years is only about 0.4 percent. Clustered around the El, it’s 1.5 percent, a rate surpassing the performance of most American big cities.
Richard Montanez, chief traffic and street lighting engineer of the Streets Department, called the El one of the city’s “aortas.”
“It is a major lifeline in the city of Philadelphia,” he said, adding, “I don’t think the city could be what the city is without it.”
Areas along the Broad Street Line have seen similar growth since 2010, but not the prolonged expansion seen in census tracts near the El where population began increasing around the turn of the century.
“The Market-Frankford is probably the critical one,” said Alan Greenberger, former deputy mayor of economic development. “I think that’s simply because Philadelphians kind of understand East to West, particularly in the center of the city.”
New development along the rail line hasn’t spread to every neighborhood with direct access to the El. Northern Liberties has been nearly built to capacity, gentrification around University City has reached westward, yet parts of West Philadelphia — and some of the easternmost points of the El — still struggle with vacant housing, rampant drug use and economic hardship.
Some communities along the El already have bustling commercial corridors and have found themselves resisting the gentrification pushing from Center City outward. Cobbs Creek, in West Philadelphia, is not commonly seen as one of the city’s growing neighborhoods but has seen its population increase 7 percent since 2000 and its number of El commuters double. (The Inquirer and Billy Penn will look at neighborhoods like these more thoroughly in future articles.)
But with those caveats, it’s the Market-Frankford Line and the areas surrounding it that have spurred progress and development in the city as developers and buyers alike increasingly look for transit access.
“Transit is an equalizing force,” SEPTA’s Director of Business Innovation Erik Johanson said. “If you provide low-cost transportation to everyone, that has benefits to people living in any neighborhood along the line.”
The start of a turnaround
William Reed moved to Northern Liberties in 1996 and opened Standard Tap, replacing the foreclosed Bull’s Head Tavern. Back then, homeless people were living in the old Schmidt’s brewery, and Liberty Lands Park was still a massive tannery. To get to work at the Sam Adams brewpub in Center City, Reed rode the El. The trains and the station felt as dead as the neighborhood.
“I remember the escalator being broken,” he said. “It wasn’t a heavily used station.”
Those same complaints could be lodged almost anywhere on the Market-Frankford Line in the 1980s. SEPTA was struggling. The transit organization dealt with declining federal funds that caused it to raise its fares and thousands of lawsuits filed every year that nearly led to the agency’s going out of business. From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, SEPTA saw its ridership decline about 15 percent. When funding and ridership picked up in the 1990s, the transit authority spent hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding trains and infrastructure, starting on the eastern side and moving westward.
Attitudes toward public transportation changed, mirroring a national trend. Since 2001, ridership on the Market-Frankford Line has increased by 20 percent in total on weekdays, far outpacing population growth citywide. During the same time period, ridership on Saturdays and Sundays grew by 26 percent and 43 percent, respectively, according to figures provided by SEPTA.
This growth hasn’t applied to every El station but 22 of 28 stations along the Market-Frankford Line saw an increase in ridership over the last 15 years. The largest was at Berks Station in the Fishtown and Kensington area, which saw a 214 percent ridership increase. In 2016, 480,000 more rides were taken from Berks Station than in 2001. Huntingdon Station in Kensington had the second-highest ridership increase — 155 percent.
Not every station benefited. 52nd Street station in West Philly and 11th Street station in Center City lost 10 percent of their riders over those 15 years. And 11th Street suffered from all of the construction around Market East and the decline of the Gallery.
(SEPTA projects that its numbers will improve significantly over the next several years as the agency fully rolls out SEPTA Key, the authority’s new digital fare payment system. Once every rider uses the new system, SEPTA will have a complete picture of where riders begin and end their trips.)
Johanson said commuters have an increased reliance on transit, and that’s best seen in Center City. The number of workers has gone up while the number of parking spaces has gone down, and the number of cars actually occupying those spaces has decreased. The 46,000 parking spots in the city will likely only dwindle more as development continues and reliance on transit grows.
Look no further than the most visible development project in the city: Comcast’s Innovation Center, the company’s second tower rising in Philadelphia. The 59-story structure will stand as the tallest skyscraper in the city and replace a 360-car parking lot. The new tower won’t have any public parking built along with it. Those types of projects where buildings are taking over parking spaces are happening all across the city.
Across the river in University City, office growth has been explosive. Population totals aren’t just rising near the colleges, they’re also rising farther up the El, near the 52nd Street corridor. Karen Fegely, deputy commerce director at the Commerce Department, said the area from 48th Street west was particularly interesting in terms of new development.
“We’ve seen a lot of new investment and I’m hearing a lot more that’s planned,” she said.
In the Riverwards, residential development that started about two decades ago in Northern Liberties has overtaken Fishtown and is now pushing into Kensington.
“The places where people live are moving farther and farther out, and so Fishtown and Kensington and Northern Liberties become overpopulated,” Johanson said, adding that now infill development — or new development in vacant spaces — is filling in the areas adjacent to the Market-Frankford Line.
Reed remembers when, even a decade ago, developers shied away from being directly next to the El. Now new businesses and homes aren’t just near the El, they are under it, including his latest project, a bar on Front Street in East Kensington that he’s planning to open this year.
Mike Carroll, the city’s deputy managing director for Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, has seen a lot of changes over the past 10 years. “In the past, I think you may have seen people really frustrated by what they saw coming and going from the stations— feeling like as soon as they got to where they wanted to go they wanted to get away as quickly as possible,” Carroll said. Now, though, “you find that people are interested in looking for what they can do around these stations, to make them places, to make them real cornerstones of the community. The last 10 years, I think we’ve started to [focus more on stations], but I think in the next 10 years, you’ll see that really accelerate.”
If you fix it, they will come
As ridership increased, so did the number of people living near the El. After decades of decline, like the rest of Philadelphia, the 52 census tracts surrounding MFL stops didn’t lose population from 1990 to 2000. Then from 2000 to 2014, the growth happened. Population grew 7.4 percent, from 205,000 to 220,000.
The growth in those areas nearly matched that of the entire rest of the city over the same time period, from 1,320,000 to 1,339,000 — a 2.8 percent increase.
Fishtown, Northern Liberties and University City are the strongest examples of turnaround along the El, but they’re far from the only areas that grew. Thirty-one of the 52 tracts abutting the MFL grew in population from 2000 to 2014.
So was it the El that brought everyone there? Clearly, other factors have led people to live in these growing areas, but developers picked and continue to pick areas around the El for their residential and commercial projects.
“We used to talk about this pretty openly,” Greenberger said of city leaders. “The Fishtown-Kensington scene is absolutely tied to the El.”
Fegely said the Commerce Department is continuing to view the El as a major draw: “We want to keep growing the city and bringing more people in. It’s to our benefit to encourage that development along the transit lines.”
Frank Mazzio, a Philadelphia native and a partner at AGA Developers, is developing South Square, a 19-unit residential and commercial development on the 100-block of West Berks Street in the “South Kensington” area. That means homes that average $450,000 are popping up about two blocks from the rapidly growing Berks Street stop along the Market-Frankford Line. Buyers include a surgeon, an accountant, two lawyers and a few real estate agents, he said. Mazzio said some of the interest in the units was because of their proximity to the El.
Mazzio said transit was “definitely a factor” in why AGA left Point Breeze and started developing in the Fishtown area in 2013.
Andrew Stober, vice president of planning and economic development for the University City District, sees the population growth near El stops as a result of commercial development. The businesses want to be near the El, and employees are following their jobs to residences along the transit line.
“Very few people are actually ideological in their transportation choices,” Stober said. “They are practical. I think that the El is a very practical, really fast and efficient way to get around.”
Nick Daroshefski, a junior at Drexel, said he and his friends routinely take the El for entertainment or work in Center City. Even though Drexel offers a free shuttle for students, they find the subway a more convenient and quicker option.
Penn student Elizabeth Peto lives in Germantown and commutes to 30th Street Station by Regional Rail daily. She then travels the rest of the way to campus by the El. A couple of times a week, she also rides it from University City to Northern Liberties for a part-time job. Peto hates the “many inexplicable days when [the El] takes over 15 minutes to get here,” but admits she wouldn’t be able to live and work as she does without it.
The growth can be a struggle for the transit agency. Overcrowding on the El during rush hour times is already a problem, and SEPTA Deputy General Manager Richard Burnfield said ridership on the line is “really starting to max out capacity-wise.” The huge wave of projects along the line — both residential and commercial — will continue, and SEPTA’s admittedly nervous about the El’s capacity to sustain a growing ridership.
In addition, SEPTA’s working toward establishing a line to King of Prussia within the next decade that could bring some 10,000 additional riders to the El as commuters switch from taking a bus on the Schuylkill Expressway to taking the KOP line. SEPTA’s considering its options like reconfiguring cars and lengthening some platforms to increase capacity.
“You don’t want transportation being a limiting factor to the growth of this region,” Burnfield said, “and when we look at the Market-Frankford Line, we look at reaching capacity.”
City officials share this concern. Montanez said the city is working on transit signal priority projects to streamline connectivity between the El and the numerous bus lines that pass by it. That, of course, would mean even more bodies on the Blue Line.
“As we build, and we expect more and more of our citizens to take the El to go work and run their everyday errands, we don’t want to discourage them,” said Montanez. “It is a challenging [issue]. It’s not as easy as adding trains to it, as everybody says. There’s certain limitations to it within the system. That’s one of the things we want to look at and focus on— making sure it’s there for the next 30 years, or plus.”
The tie-in to developing commercial areas leads Greenberger to believe other neighborhoods along the El that have not experienced great economic success in recent years could be the next ones to turnaround, given people will still want to be close to transit after the developed neighborhoods get too expensive or full.
“The places that are tied to transit,” Greenberger said, “are going to have an advantage in terms of their desirability.”