Philadelphia is famously a city of neighborhoods, each with its own cherished set of zoning peculiarities, and the Planning Commission is determined to create a customized growth plan for every one of them. After six years of going from neighborhood to neighborhood, the commission has now completed 17 out of 18 district plans.
It’s no accident that the last place to undergo this intensive zoning review is the part of the city that includes the leafy, unchanging suburban enclaves of Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, and Germantown, collectively known as the Northwest. On the map, the area seems to stick out like a big green thumb on the hand of Philadelphia. The Northwest is so culturally and physically distinct that “some people forget it’s part of Philadelphia,” says Brad Copeland, who runs Mt. Airy USA, a nonprofit development agency.
“Some people” includes developers. Even as the city’s midsection exploded with new housing construction, the Northwest managed to sit out the boom. The ritzier sections of Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy look pretty much the way they did 50 years ago, a mixture of attached, porch-fronted homes and Wissahickon-stone mansions, surrounded by azalea and hydrangea bushes the size of SUVs. The stores on Germantown Avenue may come and go, but the street’s architectural mix has largely remained frozen in amber.
With the completion of two mid-rise apartment buildings on Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy, and several more in development, it’s clear that the housing boom’s relentless steamroller has finally reached this quiet corner of Philadelphia.
The arrival of construction cranes is a mixed blessing. The two new buildings, which have attracted younger residents and new retail tenants, have brought a jolt of vitality to Mount Airy’s commercial district. The issue is what comes after them. Although the Planning Commission plans to release a draft of its Northwest District Plan at a June 18 meeting, and then submit a final version to City Council, development in Mount Airy is moving on a much faster schedule.
Because Mount Airy always thought of itself as a built-out place, the neighborhood is unprepared for this onslaught of new development. Only a handful of buildings are historically protected, Copeland told me, even though the neighborhood is home to some of Philadelphia’s oldest structures. Part of what makes Mount Airy Mount Airy is that so much of its housing was built around the same time, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and works as a cohesive architectural ensemble. Mount Airy could easily suffer the fate of Spruce Hill or Roxborough, where fine Victorian homes and churches are being ruthlessly cut down for their large building lots.
Until the Westview Apartments opened in 2016, most Mount Airy residents hadn’t given preservation much thought, Copeland admits. Germantown Avenue hadn’t seen a single new building since 2000, when Mt. Airy USA completed its headquarters at the corner of Phil-Ellena Street. Then came a second apartment building, 6610 Germantown Ave., which displaced an 1880s funeral home.
While the old home wasn’t a notable design, plenty of others on the avenue are. Luckily, the Planning Commission just signed off on a historic district for the Lutheran Theological Seminary, which dates to 1864 and includes several houses by architect Frank Furness.
But Copeland wonders whether a separate district is needed to protect Germantown Avenue’s distinctive mixture of colonial, Victorian, art deco, and modernist commercial buildings. It’s worrisome that at least two teardowns have been proposed on Mount Airy’s residential blocks, including a large stone house at 601 E. Sedgwick, by developers who want to cram more houses in the same space.
“What differentiates Mount Airy from other places in Philadelphia that have experienced development pressure is that it’s been a couple of generations since it made financial sense to do a teardown,” notes Ian Hegarty, the city planner overseeing the Northwest plan.
It’s no secret why developers have discovered Mount Airy. The area is a suburb-in-the-city, with two commuter rail lines and several buses within an easy walk of most homes. Twenty minutes after leaving Center City by train, you can be walking in the forested glades of the Wissahickon. By the standards of Fishtown or Graduate Hospital, housing is a bargain. The neighborhood is starting to see an influx of millennial-age families. Among them is Kathleen Woestehoff, a tech worker who moved to Mount Airy from Brooklyn with her husband and two young children.
Woestehoff was drawn by Mount Airy’s racial diversity, which mirrors the neighborhood where she grew up in Brooklyn. The community was on full display, she says, during a recent Parks-on-Tap event at the freshly landscaped Lovett Library park. Woestehoff is eager to see the completion of a new performance venue, the Art Garage, being constructed by Mt. Airy USA, as well as several pocket parks on Germantown Avenue. Yet she feels both “excitement and concern” about the coming housing developments.
So far, the new buildings are attracting people who are already in Mount Airy and the Northwest. While the two completed mid-rises are rentals, developer Ken Weinstein plans to construct 19 condos inside the Mount Airy Presbyterian Church’s former office building. Most will have two or three bedrooms, making them ideal for families and empty nesters.
“We’re hearing from a lot of people in Mount Airy who are ready to downsize and want to stay in community,” Weinstein says.
The church conversion is a model project. Weinstein even plans to lease back the sanctuary to the congregation. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the new Pipers Glen townhouses next to the Acme on Germantown Avenue, on the site of the Thomas Ustick Walter’s fire-damaged Garrett-Dunn house. Planned by a developer with the unfortunate name of MEH Investments, the layout is oblivious to the busy, commercial street on its doorstep. Several of the development’s 32 townhouses will sit right on the avenue, yet there is no retail space on the ground floor. If the poor design wasn’t bad enough, construction has been stalled for at least eight months without explanation. Talk about meh.
Mount Airy has higher expectations for an apartment house on a surface lot at the intersection with Hortter Street, which is being developed by Glen Falso, who developed 6610. His new proposal calls for a four-story building with 60 apartments, underground parking, and a full-size urban supermarket. While Falso’s first apartment house was just a bland box (albeit with a brick facade), he promises that this new project, by M Architects, will bring a higher level of design to the avenue.
Hegarty, the city planner, told me that the Northwest district plan will suggest ways to protect the buildings that give Mount Airy its distinctive character.
That’s been the promise of other district plans, of course. But as we’ve seen on Jewelers Row, it’s easier to make zoning changes than to put historic protections in place. After 17 district plans, it’s time to get the order of operations right.