Updated 1:34 p.m.
North Central Philadelphia has long been a section of the city dominated by historic landmarks and quaint rowhomes. The blocks surrounding North Broad boast institutions built and run by black Philadelphians of the past.
There are the murals and hotels, historic homes and mansions. There are theaters: the Uptown at Dauphin Street, the Freedom Theatre near Master and the Met at Poplar. Not to be forgotten is the Blue Horizon, a famous boxing gym once voted the best in the country.
As these buildings age, new ones rise around them. Sprouting across the landscape are massive glass high-rises — courtesy of developers who’ve come to build housing for Temple students.
The newest will be sandwiched between the Freedom Theatre and the Blue Horizon, both closed and in disrepair. Under construction on North Broad Street near Master, The Nest at 1324 is an 18-story tower with 192 luxury student housing units, priced from $700 to $1,300 per person, per month. When it’s complete (August 2019 is the target), more than 500 students will move in.
There’s apparently great demand for this kind of housing. The Nest’s leasing office hasn’t even opened yet — it’s set to do so on Oct. 1 — but the developers have already gotten more than 150 inquiries about moving in next year, they told Billy Penn.
“It feels great,” said Tom Citro, a managing partner of the project for Bock Development Group. “To help develop Broad Street…and to have a landmark of this magnitude, it’s beyond belief.”
The tall glass buildings look a whole lot different than the older buildings more characteristic of North Philly. Can they coexist in the same neighborhood? Some are adamant they cannot.
“That building represents a theft to our community,” said Tinamarie Russell, chief executive officer of the North Central Philadelphia CDC.
Staying ‘close to Broad Street’
Bock isn’t the only one building up in the neighborhood. There’s another student housing high-rise under construction on 12th Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue — which is literally next door to one just like it. Then there’s yet another on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 15th Street.
Some of the developers say they’re acutely aware of the existing communities there, and are working to make sure the new projects fit in. Bock principals insist they’re deeply invested in the success of the North Philly. They built around the historic landmarks on purpose — to avoid interrupting the families living west of Temple.
“We wanted to stay closer to Broad Street for gentrification purposes,” Citro said, “so we don’t disrupt the neighborhood.”
Though Bock says rooms at The Nest are cheaper than its competitors, they’re not exactly affordable. A student opting for a 440-sq.-ft. single-person studio will be on the hook for $1,300 a month — double what some landlords in the area are charging for one-bedrooms. For a 1,045-sq.-ft. three-bedroom apartment, The Nest will collect $750 from each student, making the combined rent $2,250, which is enough for an entire four-bedroom house down the block.
The firm says it’s in close contact with Council President Darrell Clarke (who represents the 5th District) to meet community needs. They’ve worked to engage their neighbors, donating turkeys and gift cards to local families around Thanksgiving.
And the building’s designer, Cecil Baker, said he was intentional about reducing the architectural disturbance in the neighborhood.
“That was a key element in the design: How do you create a tall building between these two brownstones that have been here for years?” Baker said.
Parts of The Nest’s facade will incorporate the same brownstone material used at the Freedom Theatre, Baker added, and there’s a courtyard on the north side of the building designed to welcome North Philadelphia residents.
“There’s a courtyard there, which is sort of an invitation to the Freedom Theatre to participate in this open space,” Baker said. “It’s a visual invitation.”
‘Building up’ vs. ‘building out’
Architecturally speaking, can a glass high rise fit in on North Broad?
As a matter of fact, that might be one of the few places in North Philly that it can work, per Temple architecture professor Tim Kerner. Sure, the scale of the buildings is vastly different, he said, but in Philadelphia, it’s not uncommon to plop new buildings next door to the old ones.
“Broad Street, because of its size and the diversity of what’s on the street…it could afford juxtaposition,” said Kerner, who owns the Philadelphia-based Terra Studio. “That’s one of the exciting things about a city: You have a glass high rise and then historic masonry structure right next to it. I think that can work.”
Plus, Kerner said, building up might be better for the surrounding neighborhood than building out.
“In some ways, the high rise housing means students will be concentrated around the university and not bothering the residents,” he said. “That answers to the issues of residents having kids from Temple coming into their neighborhood and not behaving properly.”
Russell, who directs the local CDC, appears to agree with that sentiment. “It’s best to go higher than spread all over the community, which is what has been happening,” she said. “As far as the tall housing goes, it’s best to go higher than to go wider.”
Still, that doesn’t mean the new construction is welcomed with open arms. Although the landmarks surrounding the new housing complex are closed, Russell desperately wishes the vacant lot between them could have been used to bring them back to life. “We were really shocked it was going to be student housing, because it’s not what the community needs,” Russell said.
If develpers have money to spend, Russell said, “they should’ve put it into the existing infrastructure, building up existing historical landmarks that are badly in need of repair.”