You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Stop obsessing over empty offices. Philly could have a future as a ‘Bedroom City.’

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 7/24/2022 Inga Saffron, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Old City's new status as a Bedroom neighborhood got a boost when its first grocery store, Riverwards Produce, opened this spring on Bread Street. © JESSICA GRIFFIN/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Old City's new status as a Bedroom neighborhood got a boost when its first grocery store, Riverwards Produce, opened this spring on Bread Street.

In the two-plus years since the pandemic emptied America’s office towers, there have been dozens of media reports speculating about the future of downtowns. This column isn’t one of them.

It should be obvious by now that desk workers will never again fill the trophy towers that define our urban skylines. Despite the wide availability of vaccines and improved treatments, just 44% of American office employees are showing up in their cubicles on any given weekday. In Philadelphia, only a paltry 38% have been lured back. I don’t doubt that the numbers will improve as time passes. But except for those occupations where people must be on-site to do their jobs, workers will do everything they can to limit their visits to the office — assuming those offices continue to exist.

So let’s stop obsessing about returning to the way things were and instead focus on what Philadelphia could be: a great Bedroom City.

Opinion: Will we ever work in the company office again? | Inga Saffron

American cities have been organized around downtowns at least since the late 19th century, when rapid urbanization gave cities their now-familiar, concentric form. Business and culture mostly happened in the center. People mostly lived on the periphery. But those lines were blurring even before the pandemic, and now they’re meaningless. Neighborhoods will become places to work, while downtowns will increasingly be places to live, as well as work. The Bedroom City is one way to think about cities where both things happen in a residential setting.

Joe and Marita Hirt are among the recent transplants who moved to Philadelphia by choice during the pandemic. After living in four states, they bought a condo in Mount Airy in January. © JESSICA GRIFFIN/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Joe and Marita Hirt are among the recent transplants who moved to Philadelphia by choice during the pandemic. After living in four states, they bought a condo in Mount Airy in January.

That phrase, of course, is a play on Bedroom Suburb, the cookie-cutter subdivisions that emerged after World War II, when planners convinced us that separating residential from commercial areas was a good idea. The truth is, it’s been a long time since suburbs were monocultures. They will continue to evolve, too.

The Post Brothers constructed this playground outside the Piazza apartments. Although an amenities for residents, it is open to the public. © HEATHER KHALIFA/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS The Post Brothers constructed this playground outside the Piazza apartments. Although an amenities for residents, it is open to the public.

You can have it all

In some ways, Philadelphia has always been the equivalent of a very dense suburb. While New York was building vertically and cramming poor people into tenement apartments, Philadelphia was constructing block after block of rowhouses. Philly’s tiny trinity houses could be cramped, but they still gave people a bit of privacy and a patch of yard. And unlike the single-family homes in suburban developments, Philadelphia’s tightly packed blocks — which were later punctuated with midrise apartments — created the density necessary to support a rich cultural scene, frequent transit, shopping districts, and good parks.

While we can’t predict how the world will change as we learn to live with recurring waves of COVID, it seems likely that people will seek places where they can have a bit of everything. Because you can live in a house and have access to open space, while still enjoying the sophistication and walkability of a big city, Philadelphia has a strategic advantage over other places.

Philly had its largest one-year population decline since 1975: See charts that show the factors

Yes, Philadelphia has its problems: high levels of gun violence, underperforming schools, less-than-stellar public services. But most cities are struggling with those issues. What Philadelphia has in spades is housing, much of it still affordable, especially in comparison with high-cost cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington. It’s also more affordable than many of the suburban counties around Philadelphia, where it is nearly impossible to find what used to be called a “starter home.” And forget about renting anything other than a luxury apartment.

Kouklet Brazilian Bakehouse decided to open a shop on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia because of increased foot traffic from neighborhood people working at home. Melody Santos, the sister of pastry chef/owner Mardhory Cepeda, serves a customer. © MONICA HERNDON/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Kouklet Brazilian Bakehouse decided to open a shop on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia because of increased foot traffic from neighborhood people working at home. Melody Santos, the sister of pastry chef/owner Mardhory Cepeda, serves a customer.

Philadelphia, in contrast, has been building like crazy. In 2021 (the year before the 10-year property tax abatement was replaced with a less generous version), Philadelphia issued permits for 26,000 units. That number represents two-thirds of all the new housing approved in Pennsylvania last year.

Even with all the available housing, Philadelphia did lose population during the pandemic, around 25,000 people. But, percentage-wise, the drain was dramatically less here than it was in other Northeast cities. There are already signs that Philadelphia is gaining back some of its lost population. The city was up 3,000 people in the first six months of 2022.

Neighborhoods tilt toward domesticity

The flip side of depopulated downtown offices is that more people are home in their neighborhoods during the day. When residents need a morning coffee break, they now head to a local cafe instead of the one in Center City. While they’re out walking dogs, pushing strollers, going for runs, they’ve been popping into the new bakeries, plant boutiques, hardware stores, and service businesses that have sprung up to cater to the work-from-home population.

All those stay-at-home residents have changed the rhythms of East Passyunk Avenue, says Adam Leiter, who runs the business district there. In the past, East Passyunk tended to rack up its biggest pedestrian counts on weekends, but now weekday foot traffic is soaring. Storefront vacancies on East Passyunk are actually lower today than they were before the pandemic.

Josh Guelbart, who serves on the board of Northern Liberties’ business district, has observed the same trends on North Second Street.

His employer, Post Brothers, is completing the sprawling 1,100-unit Alta apartment development, just south of Girard Avenue. Convinced that more families are willing to live in apartments, Post designed 40% of the units with two or more bedrooms and included an array of kid-friendly amenities, including spray pools, playrooms, and dedicated stroller parking.

For its next project, Post will go even further. It plans to replace Liberty Walk on Second Street with seven-story buildings featuring only family-size flats, along the lines of New York’s “classic six” apartments.

The same tilt toward domesticity can be seen in Old City, once known for its late-night club scene. Since 2019, its residential population has swelled from 5,000 to 6,900. This spring, Old City celebrated its new status as a bedroom neighborhood when Riverwards Produce opened the area’s first grocery store. Meanwhile, the Northwest neighborhoods of Germantown and Mount Airy and the Northeast neighborhoods like Mayfair are also seeing an influx of people migrating from high-cost cities. Maybe it’s part of the gradual beer-ifcation of everything, but Germantown just got its first craft brewery with the opening of Attic Brewing Co. in Wayne Junction, a former industrial corridor now being redeveloped by Philly Office Retail.

In the past, a retired couple like Joe and Marita Hirt would probably have never considered living in those leafy Northwest neighborhoods. The Hirts have no connection to Philadelphia but decided to move here in January because the location is convenient to both New York and Cleveland, where their children live.

Rather than gravitating to Center City, they bought a condo in a converted Mount Airy church. Although the Hirts have lived in four states, Marita told me it’s the first time they’ve owned a place in a walkable neighborhood and had access to mass transit. They just acquired their first SEPTA cards, she said.

Amenities are everything

It’s hard to overstate the role that Philadelphia’s convenient rail and air connections play in making the city a desirable place to live in a post-pandemic world. There aren’t many American cities where you can get to the airport from downtown in 15 minutes, and fewer still that offer easy train service. The airport connections and Amtrak make Philadelphia a magnet for remote workers.

Some young families would no doubt prefer a traditional suburb. But the dearth of starter homes, along with high levels of student debt, has made that quintessential American dream much more difficult. Phil Katz, who owns 3rd Story Philly, a firm that specializes in adding third floors to two-story rowhouses, has seen his business double during the pandemic. People “started throwing in the towel after losing out on multiple homes” in bidding wars, he explained.

More residents are patronizing local businesses and hanging out in local public spaces, like the Singing Fountain Plaza on East Passyunk Avenue. © MONICA HERNDON/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS More residents are patronizing local businesses and hanging out in local public spaces, like the Singing Fountain Plaza on East Passyunk Avenue.

If Philadelphia is going to reinvent itself as a Bedroom City, it will have to double down on providing protections for low-income residents to keep them from being pushed out by more affluent newcomers. Several recent measures introduced by City Council and State Sen. Nikil Saval (D., Phila.) should be helpful in preventing displacement. But Council members also need to rethink their aversion to density, especially in places like West Park, a 12-acre public housing site at 44th and Market Streets slated for subsidized apartments.

For the Bedroom City idea to work, public amenities are everything. Mayor Jim Kenney promised major upgrades for city parks, rec centers, and bike lanes but has made only modest progress. He has also repeatedly caved to automobile interests (See: MLK Drive, Washington Avenue) and gets a failing grade on many quality-of-life issues, such as safe sidewalks, illegal dumping, and street-sweeping. His administration also has taken a casual attitude toward the demolition of Philadelphia’s distinctive architecture, a big draw for newcomers.

In these difficult times, it’s all too easy to dismiss these things as frills. But improving the day-to-day experience of city life should be considered crucial to Philadelphia’s economic success. Center City will never generate the same amount of wage tax it once did. The situation could get worse if the owners of the Market Street office towers petition the city for property tax reductions. While Council has made a series of micro adjustments to the city’s wage and property taxes, what Philadelphia really needs is a complete overhaul of its tax structure to account for the changes in how we live.

In the meantime, strengthening residential neighborhoods can help recoup some of the lost revenue. People who work from home pay taxes, the same as any commuter. You can also run a successful company out of your den, one that creates jobs.

Just ask Michiko Thwe, who moved from Baltimore to Philadelphia in 2020 to get a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. When her classes went remote, she found herself with time on her hands and started a company that supplies prepared sushi meals to hospitals and universities. Thwe was drawn to Philadelphia because of its sizable Burmese community and used contacts from her Burmese temple to find skilled sushi chefs. Aramark just took her company on as an approved vendor.

The idea that Center City might cease to dominate Philadelphia’s economy will probably be difficult for some people to accept.

The Bedroom City represents a more decentralized approach, but it doesn’t mean that Center City stops being important. After all, a lot of people live there. They’ve been working and shopping there all through the pandemic. Downtown may not work as purely as an office district anymore, but it’s a perfect model for every other Bedroom neighborhood.

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices

More from Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia Inquirer
AdChoices
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon