Go North! The Case for an Uptown Business District


(Spagnolo Group Architecture)

With Center City, University City, and the Navy Yard expected to continue their moderately strong recent growth, there's increasing interest among local elected officials in pivoting the City's attention toward stoking job growth outside of these places.

Mayor Jim Kenney has named neighborhood commercial corridors as a focal point for his administration's economic development efforts, but the pool of credible ideas to create lots of jobs outside the core downtown area gets pretty shallow beyond that. There are a lot of Keystone Opportunity Zones scattered around, but with no discernable strategy.

What you'd need is an anchor--a way of coordinating expectations for growth in a specific geographic area--and a recent development proposal in North Philadelphia points the way forward: the creation of a new Uptown Business District on North Broad Street, near the Erie and North Philadelphia stations. 

North Philly is being revalued

Jacob Adelman reported recently that New York-based HFZ Capital Group is planning a $160 million investment in a complex of commercial buildings near the North Philadelphia Amtrak station

"...HFZ Capital Group is part of a consortium of New York investors planning a complex of homes, offices, labs, and start-up work spaces in what is now an enclave of vacant warehouse properties and empty lots around Amtrak’s North Philadelphia station.

The $162 million first phase of North Philadelphia District LLC’s proposal calls for two new buildings on what is now the train station’s parking lot, and the renovation of a hulking dilapidated factory site nearby, said Michael Shenot, who is leading the project as a managing director with the real estate services firm JLL, in an interview Friday [...]

The site could capitalize on the train station’s citywide access via SEPTA’s Regional Rail system and its Amtrak link to New York, as well as its location barely a half-mile north of Temple University’s main campus and just a few blocks south of its Health Sciences Center complex..."

The plan appears to be relying in part on a state grant, so it's not a done deal, but the larger significance is that North Philadelphia is in the process of being revalued upward by national investors, in spite of a stubborn local conventional wisdom that it's not North Philly's time yet. 

But the North Philadelphia station is just an 11 minute ride from City Hall on the Broad Street Line--a shorter trip than my commute from Fishtown to City Hall--and just looking at the fundamentals, there's really no good reason why neighborhoods along the BSL shouldn't be seeing as much reinvestment and population growth as neighborhoods along the MFL

North Philly has very good, but under-used, transit assets

As Harris Steinberg says in the article, the proximity of Amtrak, Regional Rail, and the Broad Street Line is what's driving the value of this site. 

Consider the lines that stop within just a 1/8 mile radius of the proposed development footprint.

  • Amtrak to NYC and DC (with potential for Harrisburg)
  • Landsdale/Doylestown Regional Rail
  • Manayunk/Norristown Regional Rail
  • Trenton Regional Rail
  • Chestnut Hill Regional Rail
  • Broad Street Line (with potential for an Express stop)
  • Broad Ridge Spur

This is a site with amazing transit access. Outside the core of Center City and 30th Street, there is no better transit-connected area in the region.

The transportation network here was planned at a time when Philadelphia had about 1 million more people, and the city was expecting the mighty North Philly industrial jobs engine to continue its incredible growth. Instead, North Philly suffered from the deindustrialization, followed by decades of job loss and disinvestment with all the attendant human consequences the city's still struggling to address today. 

But all that transit and rail infrastructure we built is still there, and it has the capacity to serve so many thousands more jobs and residences than it currently does. (Fun fact: the Broad Street Line is the only other four-track subway line outside of New York City in the entire United States.)

While the El is starting to suffer from some growing pains (due to a combination of rapid population growth in the Riverwards, and decisions made by SEPTA about seating layout and train length in the 90's), the Broad Street Line has plenty of breathing room to serve a lot more residences and jobs. 

The only real development boom on the BSL has occurred near Temple, though there are now some larger multi-family projects going up on Broad at Callowhill Street and Girard Avenue, and more planned near Fairmount Ave and of course Temple. It has the capacity to handle a lot more development than what's currently in the pipeline, though. 

As the City continues to grow, North Philly is once again the most sensible place to host that expansion, and an Uptown Business District anchored around the Erie and North Philadelphia stations would provide a useful coordinating point for this.  

Expanding other business districts is expensive

Employers aren't exactly beating down the door to move into Philadelphia, and the city continues to see much weaker office job growth than our peers. Still, job growth has been picking up recently, and there are already a lot of big plans out there to expand the Center City, University City, and Navy Yard business districts--plans that are all way more expensive than just taking more advantage of North Broad Street.

Center City has been expanding westward toward University City, and both business districts have been converging on the Schuylkill River. To support the convergence of the Center City West and University City business districts, University City boosters want to eventually deck over the rail yards next to 30th Street Station and build a part of the Schuylkill Yards district on top of the fake land. That would be pretty cool. It would also be really, really expensive!

The Navy Yard is also growing like crazy, and starting to run into transportation problems. They run a very popular shuttle service for employees from Center City, but there's still growing car traffic congestion that threatens to choke off the area's ability to continue growing. Navy Yard boosters dream of extending the Broad Street Line, which is a fine idea, but it's also going to cost half a billion dollars in federal and state funds at a minimum, and will take over a decade to bring to fruition.

Expanding Center City's dense development patterns southward is possible in theory, but there isn't a ton of vacant land available, so the program would mainly involve extending Center City's high-rise zoning below Pine Street and allowing some of the close-in rowhome neighborhoods to grow taller iteratively over time. It's a good idea, but it's politically contentious, and it's hard to imagine the current District Councilmembers touching this.

North Broad Street doesn't have any of these problems. The land is there. The transportation infrastructure is there. Nobody needs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars creating fake land or tunneling new subways. What's missing is the political interest in making better use of the assets we already have through rezoning.  

Don't Blame SEPTA, Blame Bad Zoning

The area around the North Philadelphia Amtrak Station is zoned in a pretty miserly way.

Looking at the zoning map for this area, the red blocks represent the most liberal zoning here, which is CMX-3, allowing mid-rise mixed-use buildings. That tracks the blocks directly on Broad Street itself for the most part.

But immediately off of Broad Street is a sea of RSA-5 and RM-1 zoning in yellow and orange, which allows rowhouses and small apartment buildings, respectively. There's some industrial zoning (purple) mixed in, some of which makes sense to maintain, and some of which does not.

Here's a close-up of the North Philadelphia Amtrak Station, where the large commercial complex was proposed.


You sometimes hear people complain that SEPTA offers inadequate transit service, on the basis that we don't have subway lines criss-crossing the city going straight to everyone's doorstep. And it's true that SEPTA has room for improvement, particularly when it comes to the bus network and off-peak service.

But the only realistic and cost-effective way to make transit useful for more Philadelphia residents isn't to build more subway lines--it's to locate more new housing and jobs close to the existing subways using Council's zoning powers.

The zoning maps as currently drawn don't support much new commercial investment in this area. And while zoning of course isn't a magic bullet, it does help to communicate to potential investors about what the city wants to see happen. The current map says "we don't want that many jobs here." Rezoning a big circle around the Erie and North Philadelphia stations for a mixed commercial Uptown Business District would send a new message, and provide a coordination point for something different to happen.

Fixing the Transit-Oriented Development Bill

The best vehicle for bringing about the Uptown Business District concept is the Transit-Oriented Development Overlay bill in Council that we wrote about previously. That bill would increase allowable height and density within 500 feet of transit stations chosen by District Councilmembers.

It's a good start, but it needs to be amended, as this map makes clear.


Specifically, the bill needs to cast a wider net by expanding the radius from 500 feet to a half-mile, or 2,600 feet. Rather than impacting just one block, right on Broad Street, the aim should be to create a whole 'transit district' within a 10-minute walk from stations.

Notice how 500 feet from Broad and Lehigh (the smallest of the circles) doesn't even cover the other subway entrance for this station. A quarter-mile radius (the middle circle) only barely includes the North Philadelphia Regional Rail Station.

What an Uptown Business District needs in order to coordinate expectations for more growth is the large circle around both the North Philadelphia and Erie BSL stations, in which where elected officials are going to commit to prioritizing jobs through more commercial development.

Urbanization is a Jobs Program

Elected officials say they care about growing jobs in North Philly, but it's not always clear they know what kinds of jobs they're talking about.

The boring truth is that Philly is going to continue transitioning to a service economy, where people will increasingly earn a living by providing services for one another, or for other businesses. 

This isn't just about the retail and restaurant jobs that many people who say they dislike the "service sector" are thinking about. Health workers, hotel staff, office building workers, administrators, couriers, construction workers, exercise instructors, hair stylists, cosmetologists--these are all attainable and dignified service jobs for people without a Bachelor's degree. 

It's not surprising that in addition to employing lots of professionals, Center City, University City, and the Navy Yard also employ non-college service sector workers in spades, since proximity to other people is a key ingredient for their success. Importantly, many of these types of person-to-person services are also unlikely to be threatened by automation. 

"Keep building more city" is one of the most boring jobs strategies around, but also one of the most under-appreciated. A combination of rezoning, strategic selection of KOZs, marketing, and organization could help leverage the work that investors like Shift Capital and HFZ Capital Group are doing, to achieve a much larger vision for a North Broad Street that employs more residents close to home, and takes advantage of North Philly's incredible, and incredibly under-used, transportation assets.

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