Learning from Center City Philadelphia

June 13, 2006 1 comment Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Applying successful urban redevelopment strategies from the city of Brotherly Love.

Learning from Center City Philadelphia

Applying successful urban redevelopment strategies from the city of Brotherly Love.

Philadelphia, PA

2004 city population: 1,470,151
2004 metro population: 5,951,797

City Description

Founded and developed by William Penn in 1682, this city was a major player during the Revolutionary War with the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution both being drafted here. In 1854, 114 years before Jacksonville made a similar step, Philadelphia consolidated with Philadelphia County, creating a 135 square mile city/county. This heavily based manufacturing city grew rapidly, until the later half of the 20th century, when white flight, suburbs and cars became popular and American manufacturing companies began to relocate. After years of decline, the city finally implemented a tax abatement program, eliminating property taxes for 10 years. This resulted in a center city population boom, starting in 1997. Center City’s (downtown) population was 78,000 in 2000, 88,000 in 2005 and is expected to grow to 110,000 by 2010. The biggest growth has been young adults who do not yet have children and people over 55 whose children no longer live at home.

Learning from Philadelphia

While Philadelphia has completely different demographics, is 5 times larger, more culturally diverse and cosmopolitan, when it comes down to the basic principles of urban design, there are things we can take from its recent renaissance and incorporate in our efforts to push our core to the next level. Here’s five things worth discussing.

1. Mural Arts Program

Mural Arts Program (MAP) started in 1984 as a component of the Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN). PAGN is a city-wide initiative to eradicate destructive graffiti and address neighborhood blight. As part of this effort, PAGN hired mural artist Jane Golden to reach out to graffiti writers and redirect their energies to mural-making. Mural painting not only helped these young men and women develop their artistic skills, but also empowered them to beautify their neighborhoods.

The mural on the side of the Burrito Gallery is great and everyone misses the old Jaguars mural on the side of the Ed Ball Building. With all of our surface parking lots and blank walls, there’s plenty of space for local artist to add their touch to the fabric of downtown. Why not? http://www.muralarts.org/

2. The City of Philadelphia Percent for Art Program

This program, the first of its kind, was established in 1959, when the city passed an ordinance mandating a percentage of construction costs for municipal projects be set aside for fine arts. There’s also a program that requires the private sector to provide one percent of their construction costs to be spent on public art. The result is a city full of parks and public spaces with interesting and unique sculptures. This could be a great way to increase financing for public art in the River City.

3. Signage

Garage and lot owners in this city really want your business. Nearly every garage had “P’s” or “Park Here” illuminated wall mounted signs. Despite the density and narrow streets, its tough to drive more than a block or two in any direction and not see a parking garage’s sign inviting you to spend up to $18/day on parking. The same goes for way-finding signage. Attached to a light pole, at the center of every block, is a small “inexpensive” (pedestrian friendly) way finder sign, identifying your current location and the location of major downtown destinations. Unlike the larger directory signs mentioned in the Laura Street Study, these would require little maintenance and could be easily attached to our historic streetlamps.

4. Architecture

Despite its rich history, there’s no underlying movement to make the design of modern buildings conform to “so-called” traditional elements. The result over time has been the creation of an urban area with a diverse collection of architecture and building materials that give the area a true cosmopolitan feel. You don’t have to walk too far to see an all glass tower sitting next to a 100 year old classical building or that building near townhouses from the 1700s. Although architectural styles may be different, the way the buildings hug the streets and open up at pedestrian level brings all the elements together. If you can’t experiment with architecture downtown, then where can you?

5. Tax abatement

Since 1997, 328 properties have been converted for a total market value of $132.9 million, according to the Board of Revision of Taxes. Because of the property tax abatement, the city won’t realize any tax gains from the projects until 2009. (Even though the bill was passed in 1997, projects didn't begin in earnest until 1999). However, the city is benefiting in other ways. Vacant buildings and empty lots that were once eyesores are vibrant residences. Neighborhoods considered on the fringe are now trendy areas to live. The city's population has increased in some neighborhoods and stabilized in others. Retailers and restaurants have set up shop to cater to the new residents. New housing stock, once a rarity, is cropping up. Property values have increased. Attitudes have changed. People actually want to live in Philadelphia. Could a local residential tax abatement program work for inner city Jax?

Center City Philadelphia Photo Tour

When completed, Comcast Center will become the city’s new tallest rising 975ft


An impressive structure in the Antique District


Banners are big in the city of Brotherly love


Chestnut Street, looking east


Philadelphia is home to the country’s third largest Chinatown District. The largest are in NYC and San Francisco.


Avenue of the Arts, once the city’s main financial strip


City Hall


Avenue of the Arts, looking north, from city hall


These simple way-finding signs are located on every block, within the core


All parking garages come complete with “P”s and other forms of signage, indicating public parking. This garage (near Univ. of Penn) also contains a grocery store at street level


Philadelphia is also known as the row house city. Despite an overall population loss, since the 1950’s, it still packs over 11,000 people per square mile


Society Hill


Sidewalk dining in the Old City, along Market Street


A SEPTA commuter rail train passes over the new river pedestrian walkway


Ritterhouse Square is nationally recognized as one of the country’s best public squares. There’s nothing special about it (no pavers, arches, etc.), but its packed full of people. It’s the perfect example of an urban park that’s successful because of the residents, restaurants and shops surrounding it.


The Lowes Hotel (PSFS) in the background, is recognized as the country’s first modernist skyscraper


Center City skyline from the roof deck of a high-rise condo building


Skyline shot from the Schuylkill River


Skyline shot from a park in Fairmont, which is a neighbor that sits NW of downtown. With a little love and care our Springfield Parks could present a similar view.


Philadelphia is a city of layers. Instead of copying traditional styles of architecture, Center City is full of buildings design for their particular era. This picture shows a house from the 1700s, a commercial building from the early 1900’s, and a recently built condo tower.


Philly also has one of the largest mural arts programs in country. It was started to reduce the spread of graffiti in 1984


Love Park, with a blend of old and new in the background


Jeweler’s Row


Italian Market in South Philly


You can’t visit this place without stopping at Independence Hall

So much for signage ordinances.