In Callowhill, a race to claim the last undeveloped scrap of Center City

It’s been nicknamed the doughnut hole — one of the last remaining pieces of undeveloped areas in or near Center City, where elevated railroad tracks enclose vacant factories and used-car lots.

Callowhill, or Chinatown North, or Spring Arts — whatever the name, it’s a postindustrial stretch that’s changing quickly, but competing visions are vying to determine what the neighborhood becomes.

Walk its 1.7 square miles, bordered by Vine, Spring Garden, Eighth, and Broad Streets, and you’ll see former factories converted into luxury lofts, bright murals, craft breweries, and restaurants attracting residents — including an influx of LGBTQ professionals — to the brick and concrete expanse.

Above it all is the highly anticipated elevated viaduct rail park, due to open in 2018.

“It’s like a neighborhood that hasn’t figured out its identity yet,” said Evan Urbania, who moved to the Beaux Arts Lofts at 13th and Callowhill Streets two years ago. “Having lived in a lot of different neighborhoods, I thought it was attractive to see a neighborhood come into maturity, I think it’s probably just graduated college. ... This neighborhood still could be anything it wants.”

Callowhill is different from other changing neighborhoods because it doesn’t have a large swath of established residents. Instead, developers have scooped up dozens of parcels to bring in people to live and do business. For their part, Chinese community leaders see the area as an important extension of Chinatown.

As development and housing prices rise, their goals are sure to collide.

“Chinatown North or the Callowhill neighborhood has historically been a place for recent immigrant folks looking for proximity to services,” said Alix Mariko Webb, executive director of Asian Americans United. “It’s increasingly going to be difficult for that to be in the future, because so much of the properties have been bought up. I don’t think it’s anything against the folks moving in — but these are the folks who can afford these prices and there just isn’t enough affordable housing in proximity to Chinatown.”

Camera icon Cameron Pollack/Staff Photographer
A mural on Hamilton Street in the Callowhill neighborhood. CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer

When Sarah McEneaney moved into her home and art studio on Hamilton Street in 1979, she was surrounded by junkyards on the industrial block that buzzed by day and stood eerily silent at night. In the timeline of the industrial neighborhood, McEneaney says, she’s “still sort of new. There aren’t like generations of people who have been here.”

McEneaney, who is also president of the Callowhill Neighbors Association, is excited by the changes, which are coming rapidly.

Arts & Crafts Holding is leading the charge. Craig Grossman, the general partner who worked on Midtown Village’s reimagining, is part of an effort to rebrand part of the area as “Spring Arts.” His company has commissioned a dozen murals to brighten up the concrete, treeless stretches.

Arts & Crafts converted the Haverford Cycle Co. building, which now houses apartments; 990 Spring Garden, which has office space; and the new Roy-Pitz Brewing Co. on its ground floor. The old Reading Co. building at 915 Spring Garden is being redone and will open to creative businesses and artists. Arts & Crafts recently bought the building that houses the Electric Factory, one of several music venues in the area.

It’s little surprise more people are moving to Callowhill, lured by the roomy lofts, central location, more-affordable rents than in neighboring zip codes, and the spirit of a place on the brink of something.

Among those moving in are a growing number of LGBTQ community members, including the head of the city’s Independence Business Alliance, an executive at the Mann Music Center, a conductor, a well-known performance artist, and a retail executive.

Camera icon Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer
Zita Devan toasts son David and David Dubbeldam (right) after they renewed their vows in their loft apartment on Callowhill Street, at a party with about 100 friends on Aug. 4. David Devan and David Dubbledam have lived in the area for about five years and drawn other members of the LGBTQ community there.

Callowhill is probably not Philly’s next Gayborhood, but there is a concentration of gay white men moving in, residents say.

“We sort of joke, is Callowhill going to become like the Meatpacking District or Tribeca? And I think the answer is, it’s going to be both,” said David Devan, CEO of Opera Philly, who moved to the area five years ago with his husband, David Dubbeldam. “There’s some places for gathering, clubs and bars — and then there’s really cool living spaces, and just like in other urban centers that have that kind of feel, I think there’s going to continue to be a growing LGBTQ presence.”

The Davids, as they are known to friends, host frequent parties — including a vow-renewal celebration last week — in their double loft on the fifth floor of the Beaux Arts building. The gatherings have drawn some people to move to the neighborhood.

“I don’t know any gay people, besides younger ones who just moved to the city, who are excited to live right in the Gayborhood,” said Zachary Wilcha, head of the Independence Business Alliance and a Callowhill resident. “The whole city of Philadelphia, at least Center City-adjacent, is so gay-friendly, I’ve never felt like I need to live in a designated gay-friendly area.”

Wilcha was drawn to Callowhill because it hasn’t established itself yet.

“I think there is something specifically about the LGBT spirit that aligns with coming in somewhere that has had some blight and some unused space and being the ones who have moved into these spaces,” he said.

If there is a longtime presence in Callowhill, it’s the network of businesses, many restaurant-supply shops, that have for decades supported Chinatown.

John Chin of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. watches the development and sees something missing.

“I think the development is wonderful for the neighborhood, and it will bring in more services for residents and eliminate blight, and that’s all good,” Chin said. “One key concern we have is housing affordability.”

Philadelphia’s Chinatown is one of the largest remaining “living” Chinatowns in the nation, said Chin, and the blocks to the north have been a vital extension of the cultural center.

PCDC is creating a neighborhood plan for Callowhill largely focused on business and development. A separate survey exploring how art, culture, and public spaces can fit into the changes came from the Asian Arts Initiative, which has offices in Callowhill. The group is to present the findings of its six-month survey at a public meeting Tuesday, said Dave Kyu, neighborhood project manager for the Asian Arts Initiative.

People they surveyed asked for libraries and recreation centers, currently missing from Chinatown, as well as green spaces, street lighting, basketball leagues, and lemonade stands. In short, things that make a once-industrial area feel more like home.

“My hope is that it is not a turf war,” said Kyu. “There are a lot of different communities occupying the same space, and that does inherently create tension. My hope, the hope of the cultural plan, is not to obliterate that tension but … acknowledge each other’s differences and that we are working for different communities toward the betterment of the neighborhood.”