Hipness a Heavy Hitter in Philly's NoLI

James S. Russell's picture

The corner café on North Second Street in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia aspires to Euro-style café culture though it lines a little-trafficked street of row houses showing every year of their century and a half of existence, and faces a vast empty, chain-linked block where a brewery once stood.

It's part of Liberties Walk, built by Tower Investments, and self-consciously styles itself an arts enclave (though I was a bit mystified if it was about art or merely artsy). Artists have driven the slow but steady gentrification of the Northern Liberties since the early 1980s. Tower's development seems to have been generated right out of the development-follows-arts playbook codified by Richard Florida in his influential Rise of the Creative Class.

If it has, it's because Florida's formulation works in spite of critics who wish he'd stop touting artists, students and gays as engines of urban rebirth and focus on the "real" economy, whatever that is these days. But the unusual development approach has also been made possible by the length and breadth of America's housing boom, especially in older cities long shunned by conventional lenders and developers.

With its apartments mounted on top of non-chain boutique retail, Liberties Walk is the kind of development that could not have garnered conventional financing just a few years ago. Years of low interest rates, the more open-minded approach (some would say giddiness) of lenders, and their late recognition of urban amenity have permitted  developers to transcend tired, me-too "product."

Its success led the developer to build the NoLi housing (will they stop with the faux remixings on "SoHo"?) across North Second Street.

The rumpled façade may be marketing its hipness hard, but architect Erdy McHenry has inventively mixed duplex units that deliver light, space, and views on a tight budget. (The recesses visible along the façade are small gathering spaces that enliven the long, skinny internal hallways.) More importantly, the architects have created an architectural presence that is architecturally magnetic – creating excitement that draws additional investment as well as tenants. (Its second phase nears construction.) It's an assertion of faith in the future -- very important in a city that's still hemorrhaging people, and where dozens of neighborhoods have seen little investment in decades.

It's in striking contrast to the usual timid, low-grade infill and rehab that has been inflicted on cities desperate for any investment. The boxy stripped-down suburban Georgians that developers wedged into small city lots back in the 1980s (when irrational real-estate exuberance last reigned) are looking mighty tired now. They've been milked of all their value, and sit sucking energy from the street rather than adding to it.

Another aspect of Northern Liberties gentrification that differs from in-city growth even a few years ago is how quickly chains move in. A Victorian building of muttlike architectural heritage has been handsomely rehabbed for the Hyperion Bank.

Of course officials at this bank (and the two others I found nearby) have read Florida's books and have hustled to harvest the buyer influx, sometimes with unnerving results.

Others have been able to add inventive compositions to the streetscape that less pioneering neighborhoods often resist.

(This one's by Plumbob, an architect and design/builder temporarily found here.)

Will it last? I can't say – certainly the investment winds are chillier in Philadelphia these days. But I hope it works.

The city has too long felt like this. This structure, embalmed in stucco, was probably once a quite assertive mid-19th-century neoclassical church. When it was built, the fortunes of the city probably looked limitless. Perhaps someone will peel off that wrapping and reveal that optimism again.

James S. Russell is the architecture critic for Bloomberg News.



Scott Page's picture

Optimism runs rampant in NoLi

Nice post James. Always nice to see Northern Liberties in the spotlight. It's important to note an addition to your report. The continuing evolution of the neighborhood into a hip haven is due, in large part, to planning. I don't mean necessarily planning in the formal sense although the neighborhood does have a recently completed neighborhood plan which can be found at www.nlna.org (full disclosure, i was involved). I am referring more to the commited artists, residents and other interested parties who have long overseen new developments through their zoning committee, pushed developers to put up better 'product' and have taken it upon themselves to build a park and now a community center among other amenities. The new architecture by Erdy McHenry, Plumbob and a few others is fantastic and deserves praise. But the community deserves a shout out as well for setting the tone for what their future should be.



FYI - the abbreviation for Northern Liberties is NoLibs. I'm not sure a Philadelphia audience would even recognize NoLi out of context.

Northern Liberties is a great neighborhood with a lot going on although for the last 10 years people have been talking about it being the next hot neighborhood. Most of the restaurants, bars, clubs, cafes, and groceries have only been around for a few years. 7 years ago it was still a wasteland of abandoned buildings and empty lots.

While artists definitely have a strong presence there and have done a lot to shape the culture - and to establish NoLibs as the artist hub of North Philly (with New Kensington and the fringes of Fishtown serving as the next frontier of cheap loft space) - they're not driving the market there. It's not that I disagree with the concept of the Creative Class and the appeal of NoLibs to many probably is the artsy vibe but it's long been unaffordable for artists. There's been rampant speculation there for a decade that's only served to slow development and now that it's happening it's new lofts and condos that start at $350k and push $1.5 million. No doubt, the infrastructure that the pioneering artists built paved the way for the yuppies but i think it's safe to say that, at this point, it's probably only the gallery owners who can afford to live there.

While real estate in Philly is no longer seeing the double-digit growth it was just two years ago it's definitely not dead. Blatstein, who built Liberties Walk and is building out the huge old brewery site across 2nd St. is slowing down but not stopping. Good article on him here http://images.zap2it.com/20060112/johnnyleemiller_angelinajolie_hackers_...
Demand shifted a few years ago from condo to rental and it's taking a while for developers to shift their plans. With all that's been invested in NoLibs thus far the neighborhood is way past the point of tipping back.

James S. Russell's picture

Northern Liberties Post

Thanks for commenting. NoLi was the developers' idea of a name. Ick. Thanks for adding context. I was just reacting to what I'd seen. I remember the nabe was supposed to be hot in the mid-1980s when I lived in Phila., but I guess the areas closest to the Art Museum gentrified first.

Nice pictures, BTW. Yes,

Nice pictures, BTW.

Yes, the 80's was very much about the Parkway and the area between Vine and Pine.

The 90's saw the investment shift toward the area between Lombard and Christian
on the south and Fairmount and Old City on the north.

The last 7 years has been about bringing the Center City demographic up to Girard Ave. (and even beyond into Fishtown and Brewerytown) and south to Tasker St. The east side of Broad St., the 19147 zip code, is much further along than the area west of Broad.

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