Tuesday, October 18, 2016

'Franklintown' dream renewed north of Center City

by Jacob Adelman, Staff Writer Philadelphia Inquirer

When Kevin Flynn moved his business to a former taxi garage north of Center City's office district in 1983, his was one of just a few occupied buildings among blocks of vacant lots and abandoned warehouses.

That was fine with Flynn, a property broker, investor, and developer of Harrah's Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack in Chester, among other projects.

He had relocated what is now the Flynn Co. to the area northwest of Broad and Vine Streets - remembered by some as the site of the 1970s' mostly unrealized "Franklintown" development scheme - because its little-trafficked streets made it easy to hop onto nearby highways to visit suburban clients.

Now, Flynn is preparing to bid those open streets goodbye, as a wave of development promises to fulfill Franklintown planners' largely forgotten dream of a vibrant northern extension to Center City.

"You'll be bumper-to-bumper trying to get out of here," said Flynn. "The roads will be jam-packed."

On the vast parking lot that fronted Flynn's two-story building - an eccentric warren of cigar-shop Indians, mounted hunting trophies, and ephemera recalling the 76-year-old's stint as a Marine - now rises a 32-story apartment building.

The 277-unit tower, the Alexander, is being built by Property Reserve Inc., the development arm of the Mormon Church, which unveiled its soaring Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple about a block away in August.

About two blocks to the east, on the southwest corner of Broad and Callowhill Streets, Philadelphia's Parkway Corp. and a partner are developing a 239-unit, six-story apartment building as the eastern wing of their Hanover North Broad project.

Community College of Philadelphia, meanwhile, plans an 11-story complex beside its Spring Garden Street complex, with 500 student and nonstudent apartments.

And this month, to the south, PMC Property group plans to begin removing the concrete facade of GlaxoSmithKline's former 24-story headquarters in a bid to convert the long-vacant building into a glass-skinned office-and-residential tower with 360 housing units, to be called One Franklin Tower.

Those cumulative 1,376 new units will nearly double the 1,500 dwellings tallied by the U.S. Census in 2010, the most recent year data are available for the area between Broad and 18th Streets, from Race to Spring Garden.

And even more housing could be on its way, with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia set to present conceptual plans to community members next week for a possible development that could include residential buildings.

The interest in the area comes as developers seek to capitalize on its location near core Center City - where there are ever-fewer spots left to build - and the museums and parks along Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"Pushing a couple of blocks north of the main business district provides great walkability, not only to the offices and jobs, but also to all the great amenities that line the Parkway," PMC executive vice president Jonathan Stavin said.

The activity in the area largely picks up on the never-fully realized Franklintown development scheme of the 1970s, which aimed to stem the loss of population from Center City with a new district of office towers, residential buildings, and hotels.

With the city's backing, area landowners - including the predecessor companies to GlaxoSmithKline and Peco Energy Co. - pooled their properties and cleared them for development.

But while the plan saw construction of the Glaxo headquarters tower, a hotel (most recently a Sheraton), and other buildings on the site's western half, it largely fizzled as it approached Broad Street to the east.

Paul Levy, president of the Center City District business association, said today's turnaround comes after the construction of the Barnes Foundation museum on the Parkway and the Mormon Church's moves to develop a large swath of vacant land into its apartment tower and temple complex.

"The result is a very positive connection that is being forged between the [central business district] and adjacent neighborhoods," Levy said.

But at the center of all this development, broker and developer Flynn expects the peace he's long enjoyed in his neighborhood to be upended by the coming wave of new residents.

Gone already are the days when cheap land let him enlarge his offices into a compoundlike state that includes the full interior - wooden wall panels included - of a since-demolished Kensington tavern and a big parking lot that doubles as a basketball court for Thursday night staff games.

Still, the real estate entrepreneur plans to leave the property intact for now.

"I'm not interested in making money off real estate here. This is our office," he said. "Where else are we going to put our basketball court?"

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