Our Top 10 real estate stories of 2013

The biggest story in real estate this year concerned not a building that went up, but rather one that came down.
The biggest story in real estate this year concerned not a building that went up, but rather one that came down. Photo by the author.

10. South Broad takes another step towards becoming a residential canyon. Developer Carl Dranoff doubled down on the Avenue of the Arts this year, breaking ground on one mixed-use project near the start of the year and announcing a blockbuster one near its end. Both Southstar Lofts, now nearing completion at Broad and South streets, and the proposed SLS International Hotel and Residences at Broad and Spruce will continue the transformation of what was the city’s main office canyon in the first half of the 20th century into one of its hottest places to live in the first half of the 21st. Some advocates argue that Dranoff shouldn’t stop with the tallest residential building in Pennsylvania; at least one commentator has urged that Broad Street be upzoned for more height and density to capitalize on its strong transit infrastructure. While we’re not holding our breath for this to occur, we’re sure that if it ever does, Carl Dranoff will have a project that takes advantage of the new opportunity ready for rollout as soon as the ink is dry on the new zoning map.

9. The zoning code makes it through Year One in one piece. The Philadelphia zoning code turned one in August, and the City Planning Commission moved to take stock of how things were working out. Much to the commission’s dismay, several Council members had moved quickly to revise provisions of the code once it became law, and two of the biggest ones – changes in the process for recognition as a Registered Community Organization and notification and meeting requirements many in the development community saw as overly burdensome – proved to be complaint fodder at commission feedback sessions. Bills to rescind some of those changes are now working their way through City Council, but it is unclear whether these too won’t be diluted by some Council members who believe the disenfranchised still need a more prominent place at the table.

Evo tower under construction
University City is rapidly becoming an extension of – or perhaps rival to – Center City as an employment center thanks to a raft of new construction projects. Several others, including the Evo tower pictured here, will up its residential population as well. Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania.

8. Drexel reshapes heart of its campus. University City’s other university, Drexel, has stepped up its game in just about every respect under the leader ship of President John Fry, who had previously served as Penn’s executive vice president. The building spree started by his predecessor, Constantine Papadakis, continued unabated on Fry’s watch with several large projects designed to enliven the somewhat bland heart of campus. The two biggest projects this year have been the new home for the LeBow School of Business, which replaced its unexciting state-designed facility, and Chestnut Square, a residential-retail project that has turned the campus’ student center into a round-the-clock community. Drexel also announced plans to build an additional residential/retail project at 34th Street and Lancaster Avenue this spring.

7. The pace of redevelopment quickens beyond “Greater Center City.” As the neighborhoods between Girard and Washington avenues close in on being fully redeveloped, or nearly so, the virtuous cycle of renewal has extended into the communities north of Girard and south of Washington. Four neighborhoods in particular stand out: Brewerytown, where developer MM Partners has led a well-thought-out commercial renewal program on its main street, Girard Avenue; Fishtown, where younger single adults have caused the onetime working-class ethnic neighborhood to gain a new reputation as a “hipster heaven”; Francisville, where the head of the neighborhood’s community development corporation has embraced new residential construction warmly, seeing it as good for her struggling neighbors, not all of whom agree with her, too; Old Kensington, where old industrial sites – at least, those that don’t catch fire first – are being transformed into innovative housing, augmented by equally innovative small- and large-scale new projects; and Point Breeze, where the focus has been on moderately priced housing – and on one of its high-profile builders, Realtor-developer Ori Feibush, who half the neighbors love and half can’t stand.

6. The saga of 400 S. 40th. The John Levy House, a historic mansion at 40th and Pine streets in University City has spent most of the past two years as a development football, with its owner, the University of Pennsylvania, claiming it cannot redevelop the property and preserve the mansion while neighbors insisted it could. While both the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the Licenses & Inspections Review Board sided with the university, the neighbors did not give up, and last month, a developer presented plans for redevelopment that preserves the house intact.

5. Post Brothers takes on the unions. A number of developers credit the 10-year tax abatement as the only thing that makes development possible at all, as otherwise, high construction costs would make building new homes in the city a losing proposition. One prominent developer of rental housing, Post Brothers Apartments, chose to tackle the cost issue head-on by hiring a nonunion labor force to build its Goldtex project in the Callowhill Loft District, turning the firm into the target of a long, loud and occasionally violent protest campaign by the unions – many of whose members, Post Brothers liked to point out, don’t even live in the city. A cold truce worked out in the early summer brought most of the pickets and harassment of workers to an end, but the unions have continued to criticize Post Brothers via documentary films and picket signs of questionable legality on Vine Street.

4. Cira South begins to take shape. The second phase of the Cira Centre development got under way this year with the start of work on Evo, a high-rise housing development aimed at college and university students. The more recent announcement that FMC Corporation will move its headquarters to a new office tower to be built as part of the Cira South development also further confirms the emergence of University City as an employment center rivaling Center City in importance.

Updated Market8 design
While it’s now too late to weigh in on the subject, it’s not too late to place your bets on the outcome of the competition for Philly’s second and last casino license. The city put its chips on Market8, shown here, and the Provence. Rendering courtesy Market8.

3. The casino license crapshoot. Six – then five – applicants have spent just about the entire year jockeying for favor with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board as the body deliberated over which of them should receive the second and last casino license in the city of Philadelphia. With Wynn Resorts’ pullout, the remaining proposals can be lumped into two groups: projects aimed at boosting urban vitality with sites in the city core, and sites easily accessible by car near the stadiums and little else. City officials and many critics have expressed their preference for the former, while some skeptics have wondered whether the predicted benefits will materialize. The PGCB is weighing all the commentary and is expected to reach a final decision early in 2014.

2. AVI takes effect. Billed as a long-overdue rationalization of the city’s property assessment system, the Actual Value Initiative was greeted by many homeowners in gentrified neighborhoods with dismay as their property tax bills jumped sharply. In response, the city has rolled out several programs designed to cushion the blow for many of those homeowners. Overall, though, the revamp pretty much worked as advertised: most homeowners in the city received only slight rises, or even drops, in their property tax bills.

1. 22nd and Market building collapse. When a building being torn down at 22nd and Market streets fell onto the Salvation Army thrift shop next door, killing six – seven, if you count the city building inspector who committed suicide in its wake – and injuring 14 others, it exposed more than shoddy demolition work. It brought to the surface lax regulation and oversight of contractors, leading to grand jury indictments, City Council hearings and ongoing changes in the way the city oversees demolition and construction work.