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