The census tract for a central portion of Northern Liberties (0367.00) includes the area bounded by Poplar, Front, Vine and 6th Streets. According to the 2020 Census, the tract had 1,557 housing units with a population of 2,747. Nine new developments in this tract, either planned or currently under construction, will add 1,914 housing units to the tract, more than doubling the current number.
Four new housing developments along Delaware Avenue and Christopher Columbus Boulevard will add another 1,722 units. This census tract (0366.00), bounded by Poplar, Front, and Tasker Streets and the waterfront, had 1,387 units according to the 2020 Census.
There is also intense development underway to the west and north of the boundaries of these two tracts. At the former, there is the full square block bounded by Fairmount Avenue, 6th, Green, and 7th Streets, the site of the former Fairmount Manor garden apartments, where 404 units will be built, as well as a seven-story, 146-unit building with 3,361 square feet of retail being developed by Arts & Crafts Holdings at 741 Spring Garden Street.
To the north along 2nd Street, three developments adjacent to The Piazza are nearing completion and will ultimately add roughly another 1,200 units. At the Piazza Alta, 695 units are currently underway, with subsequent additions bringing the total to around 1,000, according to a spokesperson for Post Brothers, the current owner and developer of The Piazza. Straddling Germantown Avenue between Girard Avenue and North 2nd Street, Streamline’s North Liberty Triangle and South Liberty Triangle contain 127 condominium units, sharing the block with the 51 units of The Beverly, built by the Stamm Development Group.
As executive director of the Northern Liberties Business Improvement District (BID), Kristine Kennedy keeps an eye on development in the district, whose service area is from the Delaware River to 7th Street and between Callowhill Street and Girard Avenue. “We had been using a rough figure of 5,000 new units either under construction or being approved in our service area,” she explained, “But in 2021, we did an actual count and discovered the total number is actually 6,700.”
Northern Liberties is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. William Penn originally envisioned it as providing open space for city residents, but subsequent generations quickly filled in the streets of his grid with smaller side lanes and alleys. As a result, it became a densely packed neighborhood with a low building profile.
In order to fit that many new units into the relatively small footprints of land, the only way to go was up, with three of the largest projects topping 12 to 14 stories each.
A zoning overlay in the area attempted to keep the height of development more in line with the existing neighborhood stock, but developers were given ways around it. “Nobody was ready for eight, 10 stories because of the bonuses,” said Larry Freedman, chair of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association’s Zoning Committee, referring to the additional height a project could be granted for including certain amenities such as retail space, a green roof, outdoor public space, or a small number of affordable units.
Despite that last option, Kennedy expresses concern that almost all of these projects are aimed at the same type of customer and based on a specific set of circumstances. “Low interest rates, high rents, and an appetite for luxury,” she said, wondering whether the neighborhood could become a bedroom community for New York City. “If you only have to be in the office two days a week, why wouldn’t you move to Philly for all this luxury at much lower prices?”
Another feature of these developments is a large amount of new commercial space. Three of the largest projects will collectively offer 52,000 square feet of new retail space, while the apartment tower at 501 Spring Garden Street includes space for a grocery store.
A frequent concern at neighborhood meetings has been the apparent amount of vacant commercial space that already exists in Northern Liberties, particularly along the 2nd Street corridor and the Liberties Walk units adjacent to The Piazza at the northern end of the neighborhood. “We actually don’t have a lot of vacancy,” countered Kennedy. “And the new developments will bring a different kind of larger commercial stock compared to the 2nd Street corridor of older shop spaces.”
She said of the current business owners, “They’re excited about it. It’s an opportunity to have the population density they need.”
However, Kennedy does harbor concerns about the size of the developments. “They’re like villages unto themselves. The alarm for me is that these people don’t have to go out. Their coffee shop, dry cleaner, gym, and so on are all in-house.”
The significant influx of new residents and increased visitors raises the perennial concern of parking. “There’s been anxiety for residents about parking,” Kennedy noted. “Lately, I’m starting to hear some resignation.”
She shares that resignation. Despite a zoning code that attempts to encourage mass transportation use by requiring only three parking spaces for every 10 units, Kennedy feels that the impending developments will continue to bring an influx of cars. “It’s kind of a bedroom community for commuters, with its proximity to I-95, Columbus Boulevard, and the Vine Street Expressway.”
Such a radical increase in population will bring other stresses. “One of our biggest concerns is infrastructure,” explained Kennedy. “The Planning Department’s job is to review project by project. We asked, ‘What is your plan? How are you going to help this neighborhood when the population doubles? For example, can the current sewer mains handle that?'”
Freedman and fellow zoning committee member Ira Upin posed the same questions. “Each project works by itself with all the departments—Streets, L&I, Water, and so on—a la carte,” he said. Freedman recalled being told by the Planning Department, “We don’t have the manpower to analyze that stuff.”
With 30 or so years of zoning committee experience, he’s seen the neighborhood wrestle with change repeatedly and maintains a realist’s view of the committee’s agency. “If you don’t like change, Northern Liberties is not the place for you,” he declared. “We try to protect the neighborhood from noise, traffic, and so on and do the best we can.”