Suburbanizing Downtown

By Amy L. Webb

Philly gets ready for McHome, super-sized.

Picture a spring day, the clouds parting overhead as a teenage boy mows his family's lush green lawn. The house behind him is modest but impressive: It's a two-story with a stone and wood exterior. The shingled roof cuts down like a traditional Aframe. A short, paved walkway runs through the lawn aside a matching driveway. Inside, the square-shaped bedrooms, office, kitchen, dining room, living room and library offer ample space. There are two full baths with space for a third, and the attic allows for extra storage.

Sound like something you might find in the suburbs? Take a stroll through Mayfair, Fishtown, Northern Liberties and Fairmount -- and you'll think again.

Suburban-style homes -- smaller in scale, but complete with lawns, walkways and driveways -- are beginning to show up on Philly streets, replacing multi-family brownstone apartments. The trend is in part market driven: Families willing to move back to the city now want the space they'd get in suburbs. And it's partly in response to modern comforts: The old model for residential planning never took into account widespread use of cars.

Is it inevitable that Philadelphia will someday look like a condensed version of Abington Township or King of Prussia? "A lot of people are asking this question," says John Claypool, executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "My hunch is that people want what the suburbs offer, and the city wants to keep density down and attract new development."

The zoning code in Philly doesn't exactly dictate design. If a developer wants to tear down a functional brick rowhouse in favor of a vinyl-sided A-frame, she can do just that. And there's little regulation when it comes to height. While most homes still do not exceed three stories, code allows for 35 feet.

Code does, however, say how many families can live in a single building -- and the movement has been away from multi-family dwellings. "Generally over the years, various actions of City Council have been about decreasing density in Philadelphia communities because population has shrunk and because the housing stock has not shrunk along with it," says Tom Chapman, development and planning director for the Philadelphia Planning Commission.

Around the city, existing rowhomes are being converted into much larger suburban-style houses. On the 2300 block of East Fletcher in Fishtown, two rowhouses were knocked down recently and contractors are finishing the masonry on a massive, two-story home with a driveway, private garage and backyard. The development dwarfs the traditional rowhouses next to it and across the street. But the area is attracting young, affluent couples willing to do some work -- as long as they get extra space and amenities. In the past year, six homes on that block have been up for sale, and three were bought immediately after the listing posted.

"Developers are coming in and being encouraged to make bigger spaces for people, and some [developers] are more familiar with the way they build out in the suburbs," says J. Mark Wiedmann, principal architect at the Philadelphiabased Wiedmann-Zelig Group, LLC. "There are many efficiencies with that: ease of construction, extra storage on otherwise tight lots, cheaper materials and labor. That's unfortunate for some neighborhoods."

Cars have become an issue as well. When many of Philadelphia's blocks were designed 100 years ago, cars for personal use weren't taken into consideration. So streets were built narrowly, without plans to accommodate one or two cars per household. Now, parking -- and personal space -- have become valued commodities in the city. "You just have to provide space for cars," Wiedmann says. "People want private parking and developers are reacting to that by addressing the car issue. We're starting to see pockets of this kind of development around the city, and the bigger the development, the more space we'll need for cars."

The urban landscape is transforming also, in part, because of a radically different approach to public housing design, which is also using the suburban model. The new project just south of Broad and Girard is a prime example: Red brick houses have A-frame shingled roofs, driveways and fenced-in lawns.

"The high-rise multi-family design did not work that well for low-income families," Wiedmann says. "The projects were large and sort of unmanageable. They weren't kept up that well. There were studies done that had suggested that a lower-density housing type might be more appropriate."

Claypool says that it may be possible to reconfigure existing spaces without losing the urban character for which cities such as Philadelphia and New York are famous. "There are lots of ways you can configure attached properties and still accommodate cars and space," Claypool says. "For certain lifestyles, rowhouses are still an attractive and interesting option. But my hunch is that developers will continue to believe that they need something that looks like it came from the suburbs for this market. Are the new homes being designed in a way that would make architects proud? Let's say they've left some room for improvement."


DAG Forum essays do not represent the opinion of the DAG Steering Committee, rather those of the individual authors, who seek to broaden our perspective of critical issues that require thoughtful responses.