Event Recap: The Formation of A Life Sciences Neighborhood – A Study of the Navy Yard
ULI Philadelphia hosted a panel discussion on the current redevelopment of the Navy Yard into a thriving live-work-play hub.
On April 20, ULI Philadelphia’s Women’s Leadership Initiative hosted a conversation titled “Affordability, Equity, and Culture –The Redevelopment Balancing Act”. The discussion focused on how historic preservation can better serve the needs of low-income communities and communities of color. The discussion was moderated by Laura Spina (Philadelphia City Planning Commission), and the panel included Adriana Abizadeh (Kensington Corridor Trust), Dominique Hawkins (Preservation Design Partnership), and Martha Cross (Philadelphia City Planning Commission). In a city where 3 percent of its building stock is protected on the local historic register, most of which being in Center City, the panel was asked how Philadelphia can use preservation to keep underserved communities intact and in place.
Part of the issue is that it is hard for developers to see the value in these communities the way residents do. Hawkins mentioned that many people only see civic buildings like banks and schools as worthy as saving. What is equally if not more important if are the blocks upon blocks of rowhomes that create the “glue” or fabric of a community. Within these blocks of rowhomes are commercial corridors, which also operate off a “sameness” of rhythm, scale, material as the rowhomes do, that are fed by residents who live in them. Keeping residents in their homes not only maintains a neighborhood’s fabric but keeps the local businesses and institutions that are part of it thriving. Also, as Hawkins puts it, “If not the people, what is the neighborhood? It’s not a collection of buildings, it’s the people living in them who can tell their stories”.
Abizadeh sees Kensington Corridor Trusts’ (KCT) model as one way of elevating the voices and stories of the people who live there, using real estate as a tool. Kensington is facing a looming affordability crisis, as gentrification pushes north from Fishtown and speculation increases in the community. To protect the community from the negative effects of gentrification, a group of community stakeholders formed the Trust to combat some development pressure before widespread displacement occurs. Their strategy is to buy assets, place them into the trust, and have the community control these assets. This way, the trust is protecting its building stock and the residents who call Kensington home. Abizadeh stressed that while optimism is necessary, it is important to also remain realistic. While the Trust cannot fully protect the corridor, it can absolutely do what it can to ensure that the existing residents can lay some claim to it.
At the city level, while our preservation tools are not full proof, they do provide some level a level of protection. Last year, the Mayor’s Preservation Taskforce adopted 3 legislated bills last year targeted towards accessory dwelling units, reducing parking requirements, and expanding uses allowed by-right for historic buildings—all of which to incentivize adaptive reuse. The team is also using their resources surveying and taking inventory of historic buildings. Unfortunately, preservation tools are often critiqued as preserving the buildings themselves and not the people living in them. Philadelphia’s preservation tools are currently not able to accommodate protect buildings and people, as evidenced by the debacle of an Asian-owned grocery store in Graduate Hospital.
Hawkins said one approach to this issue could be looking at the zoning in communities and making it more consistent with what is there today. If taller buildings are disincentivized in lower-scaled neighborhoods, then preservation might become viable. The controversial demolishing of a rowhome on Black Doctors’ Row in South Philadelphia, and other demolitions like it, might be able to be mitigated if zoning better incentivized the reuse of historic buildings.
Also, some historic significance is not tied to a building at all, but the people and programming who occupied it. Going forward, preservation will need to create tools that protect historic and cultural symbols. Resident engagement will be key in finding what buildings mean the most to communities and why so that tools can be made to protect them. Hawkins shared a brief story about the importance of these voices about an encounter with a local resident during her work in New Orleans who walked her around community, tell the story of the community and highlighted important neighborhood landmarks. Years later, that encounter informs her work to this day.
“‘What is it you want someone to say about your neighborhood?’ Slow down and ask the question.”
ULI Philadelphia would like to thank the panel, sponsors, and attendees for making this event possible.
Contributed by Stewart Scott, Master’s of City Planning candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and ULI Philadelphia intern.