Class Warfare On Arch Street

 

Editor’s Note: This story, originally published March 31, 2015 at 9:50AM, has been altered.

Ross Luxury Townhomes | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

“Ross Luxury Townhomes,” like dozens of other contemporary row houses built in the last five years | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

“I’m hoping to bring a little more artsy-ness to this artsy neighborhood, a little more design and creativity to it, and hopefully have something that will be appreciated when people are at the Betsy Ross House,” Jason Morris told the Inquirer earlier this month. Morris is the project manager for the New York developers of three average looking contemporary row houses, “Ross Luxury Townhomes,” designed by Landmark Architects at 240-246 Arch Street.

The development faces the Betsy Ross House, the historic site owned by the City of Philadelphia that commemorates the life of the woman known in myth as the embroiderer of the American flag.

“Architecturally, the townhomes are going to make a statement that Philadelphia is with the current times, that Philadelphia is an up-and-coming city,” Morris said in the Inquirer.

Morris’s description of his project includes about as much truth as the legend of George Washington stopping over at Betsy’s place and asking her to sew the first flag.

The development is a fine expression of the “luxury” domestic taste of the very rich–among other lavish fittings, each house will have two kitchens the developers are installing at a cost of $100,000 and a $100,000 elevator. But “statement” architecture this is not.

Betsy Ross House | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Betsy Ross House | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Betsy Ross, née Griscom, was one of 17 children of a house carpenter. She is one of the subjects of “The Storm,” the latest episode of the film documentary on Philadelphia’s history, “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” which I wrote along with Hidden City Daily contributor Devon McReynolds and “Great Experiment” director Andrew Ferrett. “The Storm” airs Thursday night April 2 at 7:30PM on 6ABC (watch the trailer HERE).

Our portrayal of Ross, based largely the recent biography by historian Marla Miller, Betsy Ross and the Making of America, links her with the Philadelphia worker-driven movement that led to the Revolution. Betsy Griscom became an upholsterer’s apprentice, defied her family’s Quaker culture by marrying an Anglican and joining the Revolution, and worked during the war sewing munitions cartridges. In our film, the narrator, actor Michael Boatman, says, “The upholsterer’s apprentice Betsy Griscom learns that her future hinges on the demands of the upper class.”

Issues of economic class were indeed paramount during the Revolution. In Philadelphia, the authors of the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution considered including a clause that would have limited excess wealth. While the provision didn’t pass, Philadelphia split pretty predictably along class lines. Artisans, craftsmen, and laborers joined the Revolution while many of the wealthiest families stayed on the fence, or declared themselves loyalists.

If Jason Morris thinks visitors to the Betsy Ross House are going to be impressed with his three $2.5 million houses whose name has been usurped from this hero of the working class, he might lack a sense of irony. The houses come with a posh 10 year real estate tax abatement. That’s a loss of about $300,000 that would otherwise fund Philadelphia’s public schools. Last week, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the distribution of funding of Pennsylvania’s schools is the most unequal in the nation. School districts like Philadelphia’s spend 33 percent less per student than wealthy districts across the state.

Ross Luxury Townhomes | Image: Landmark Architects

Ross Luxury Townhomes | Image: Landmark Architects

Morris and his partners Lee Kaplan and Bob Miller, beneficiaries of the tax abatement, also got a plum from City agencies responsible for zoning and land use. The City approved two-car, street-facing garages for each house that interrupt the retail storefronts on the street and certainly violate the spirit of the Old City Historic District (the Historical Commission, which oversees the District, had only an advisory role in regard to the project). While existing businesses could stand to lose customers and the city parking meter revenue and the public four or five spaces, the developers of the houses will stand to gain about $300,000 in additional profit (buyers pay a premium for private parking). It’s the fancy garage doors the visitors to the Betsy Ross House will see, a sign not of the city’s “up-and-coming” stature, but rather of its consistently backwards defilement of the urban fabric (Jane’s Walk, walking tours on May 1, 2, and 3 in honor of urbanist Jane Jacobs, probably should skip Third and Arch).

The backward approach to urban development means that we taxpayers are underwriting private garages a block and a half from the subway on a street with an excellent bus line, the 48. That is, we’re paying Mr. Morris and partners to undermine the public transportation system we’re already subsidizing with our taxes. SEPTA was the only major transit system in the U.S. to lose riders last year. While turning public resources into the private gain, this development also assures that the street becomes less interesting and less lively.

The 200 block of Arch Street, with about a dozen and a half storefronts, is a wide 335 year old commercial street that wants more density and more commercial life, not a wall of garages and half empty buildings. How many people will live at the three Ross Luxury Townhomes? Six? 10? 15? Hardly enough to benefit neighborhood businesses. Any urban economist will tell you the scale and use of this development is all wrong for the site, the neighborhood, and for the city’s long-term fiscal health.

The garage-houses interrupt the retail street | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The garage-houses interrupt the retail street | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

This is the kind of deal Betsy Griscom, in her revolutionary days, might have warned us against. The future owners of these houses, with generous windows to the historic site and the eclectic street below, will benefit from the view, not the tourist or the neighbor.

And so we’re stuck with another set of boxy, metal clad row houses where there might have been architecture to delight and inspire, or at the very least new buildings that incorporate public-minded green materials and sustainable design.

“Artsy,” if that’s what we’re getting, is a perverse distortion, a downright lie.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



31 Comments


  1. GARAGES?! How was that alright to build?!

  2. The houses face north, not very sunny.

  3. Preach it brother!

  4. Hit the nail on the head!

  5. I just walked by this and thought these COULDN’T be garages. How is this even legal? It’s like the last 30 years of urban design never happened.

  6. Can we address the fact that this architectural style is ugly as sin?

  7. Thanks for this. After i read that article in the Inquirer I tried composing an email to the developer that wasn’t shrill and angry but I couldn’t so I didn’t. I’m afraid those houses are an iceberg making it’s way into old city, the garages and silly cladding being only the visible tip of it. It’s sad. I’m not sure if the developer is cynical or just honestly ignorant and myopic. I wish I know what was wrong with the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

  8. Michael McGettigan

    Those sort of garage fronts would be perfect places to stage up groups for walking and Segway tours, esp. once we learn the schedules of the 1%ers that will be pulling across our sidewalks twice a day!

    Certainly a great spot to double park as well.

  9. Michael McGettigan

    Oh, and Philly.com closed the comments on their weak, advertorial story after two replies!

  10. Nathaniel – I think it is a bit unfair to turn an indictment of the townhouses’ design into a class issue. You say “The development is a fine expression of the ‘luxury’ domestic taste of the very rich.” Is that serious? I agree wholeheartedly that this (along with pretty much every following the Dranoff-school aesthetic) is visually horrifying, a exemplar of poor taste, and wholly incongruous with the neighborhood. But labeling it an expression of “rich” taste? Consider perhaps that this city lags economically and architecturally because there is a LACK of product appealing to “rich” taste. I would argue the innovative and stylish “rich” development you see Williamsburg or Portland is quite different from this crap. This doesn’t express rich taste, it expresses bad taste. So let’s advocate together for better design and development in our city rather than simply explain it by vilifying those who have a little bit more.

  11. There are two dozen store fronts on the 200 block of Arch street ?

  12. Nathaniel, have a look around at the rest of the poorly built overpriced boxes being built in Old City.
    100 block of Walnut Street
    100 block of Church Street
    200 block of Vine Street
    200 block of Race Street
    100 block of N Front Street

    The suburbanization of Old City with the homogenization of bad taste being spread around will most likely end my time here soon.

  13. The folks in Fishtown can’t vote fast enough add more box “paper plate” houses. The funny part to this all is that they actually think they still have a say in this matter.
    Yes mostly all the new houses here are really ugly.

  14. I like the garages. We need more of them.

  15. Thank you. Thank you. And, thank you for writing this article. Most who live and work in Old City object to these horrendously mundane structures. I only wish that we had protested them in full force. I know that members of the OCCA did object to the garages and put up a fight before the group disbanded.

    The developer is clearly delusional in his aspirations for these townhomes and clouded by big dollar signs.

  16. Could not agree more with every word you wrote!!! Unfortunately this hits much too close to home for me, as the project in the link below is going up within a stone’s throw of my apartment windows, on what used to be a lovely, (mostly) quiet, historic street–Church St., between Front and N 2nd. The project has made life a living hell for those of us who live on the 100 block of Church St;, we have lost tenants and businesses, have been subject to constant noise for over a year now, and worst of all is the complete change to the aesthetic of this block that dated back decades. The lot they are developing is the size of a postage stamp, surrounded on all four sides by other buildings; in fact it practically abuts the buildings on its North, East, and West sides! If you can afford a home at this price range, why would you POSSIBLY want to live in a box, with no view, on a tiny street that you can’t comfortably get your equally-expensive car down? It boggles the mind!!

    http://www.theseveninspire.com/

  17. The property was up for sale and you could have bid on it. What properties are you currently developing? How much of your own coin is in the game? Do you even live in Old City?

    • Amen. Everyone on here and philly.com always talk down proposals or developments, but never have a solution for the investor. A great example is the UED’s in a non residential area. I would rather have development than nothing.

    • Since I am not in Iraq carrying a rifle fighting with the Peshmerga I guess I am not allowed to say ISIS is bad either. I don’t even live in Iraq and Syria.

      Get a grip. It is cheaply built and ugly housing the city allowed to be erected across from a nationally famous site. It is a scar on the face of Philadelphia in a major tourist area. It is blight, only freshly built blight, not the usually dilapidated sort. The end.

  18. Great article! Regarding taxes, “…as soon as the young couple’s abatement expires, their child will be ready to start school, at which time they will pull out of their Arch Street garage and drive permanently to the suburbs (and I don’t mean Germantown)…” What a great program!

    As for Old City, maybe I’m stuck in the past, but one still laments the recent loss of the pre-Civil War buildings that were demolished last year at NE and SW corners of Third and Market Streets. Less than a block from Franklin Court and in a historic district, I never dreamed that the city would allow the facades to be taken down entirely. In most other places of Philadelphia’s importance—heck, even in Louisville, such facades would have been braced and preserved.

    Lastly, regarding the developer’s permanent contribution, I think the landmark nomination in 2075 will read something like this, “the Ross Luxury Townhomes, circa 2015, ‘reflect(s) the environment in an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style,’ representing the tenth period of replacement sheathing, as well as the great period of American unemployment, as the siding was manufactured in and imported from China, and the elegant boxadelphia-bay-windows that protrude gracefully from the primary elevation represent the most distinct architectural trait in Philadelphia houses between 1990 and 2020.”

    What was it the New York Times said, “this generation represents ‘the period’ of the sentence that describes architectural history through the ages.”

  19. Any connection here between the approval of garage fronts (2-car, no less), and the fact that there is no longer an active civic association to review zoning issues? How is that being handled in Old City these days?

  20. As a former Old City resident it sickens me to see these character-less dwellings taking shape. Even worse than these on Arch St are the 1+ million dollar townhomes going in on Church between Front and 2nd (my old block) complete with their own elevators and garages (May God help them try to pull a car out of a garage onto the tiny cobblestone pathway that is Church St). Where is the historic association in all this? Can’t anyone protect what’s left of our city? What’s next, a Starbucks on Elfreths Alley?

  21. To be clear– The Historical Commission did not “approve” the townhouses with the front loaded garages. The commission was quite clear that they were inappropriate given the existing context of the neighborhood.

    BUT in cases such as this, where a developer is building on vacant land within a Historic District, the commission only has ADVISORY authority over these types of projects. The Historical Commission was unanimous in its’ recommendation that the garages were inappropriate for this neighborhood. The developer can ignore the advice offered by the Historical Commission. Which he did.

    The commission felt that the variance for front loaded garages would be denied by the zoning board. We were wrong.

  22. Ugly as all hell. Sigh.

  23. They do put the “Ug” in Ugly

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