As wealth rises in Northern Liberties, businesses look for a lift

Ask longtime residents of Northern Liberties how the neighborhood has changed and they respond with “rapidly,” “all of a sudden,” and “a Philadelphia Eagle lives down the street from me now.”

But ask businesses in the area and the reaction is decidedly more muted: “It’s all food,” “there’s no retail,” and “we have a lot of empty storefronts.”

The historic, onetime manufacturing hub is now not only one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods — it’s also one of the wealthiest. How rich? As of the most recent census data, Northern Liberties (and a section of Fishtown) had the third-highest median income in the city, $78,775 per household, behind only Southwest Center City ($79,821) and Chestnut Hill ($80,127).

Moving on Up

The median household income in Northern Liberties and Fishtown was similar to that of the city as a whole in 1999. Now, according to the latest census data, income in the neighborhood is nearly double that of the city, and is roughly equal to that of Chestnut Hill, long the city’s wealthiest enclave.
Figures are adjusted to 2016 dollars
Note: Income figures from 2009 through 2016 are rolling five-year estimates. The 2009 figure is for the years 2005 through 2009, and the last year in the series represents 2012 through 2016.
Staff Graphic

But as old factory buildings get rehabbed into luxury condos, commercial strips have languished. Now the neighborhood wants to create a business improvement district  (BID) in hopes of making Northern Liberties more of a destination for visitors.

“Without a BID, Northern Liberties is not going to become what it could be,” said Matt Ruben, head of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. “It’s going to stagnate.”

The improvement district, which would be the city’s 14th, would require commercial property owners — not homeowners — to pay assessments. These funds would pay for streetlamps, sidewalk sweeping, and litter pickup within designated business district boundaries. There would be money for marketing and grants to aid local businesses.

The nonprofit’s first-year budget would be $374,000 and calls for one full-time employee, who would connect landlords with interested tenants. That’s a significant issue in Northern Liberties, where 20 percent of the commercially zoned buildings lie vacant. The citywide average is 4 percent.

Harvey Bell’s father opened a floor-covering store in 1936 on a Northern Liberties block when that stretch of Second Street was known as “Linoleum Row,” for all its flooring companies. Bell Floor Covering nearly closed in the 1970s when the neighborhood declined, but loyal customers kept it afloat. Now they’ve evolved with the neighborhood, from moving low-priced linoleum to hardwood floors and higher-end tile designs.

Camera icon Harvey Bell
A clipping from an industry paper “Logic By Armstrong” from the 1980s, featuring Bell Flooring.

“There’s a lot of residential development happening, but there is a lack of care for the basic necessities that a neighborhood should have,” Bell, 74, said. “And it has dissuaded a lot of commercial operators from joining us.” He thinks a district that paid for even modest improvements — sidewalk repairs and better trash pickup — could lure more businesses.

“We can take money and invest it in ourselves as opposed to waiting for the city to fix the things we’re complaining about,” Bell said. “Right now businesses are taking a look and saying, ‘I bet I can go somewhere better.’ ”

Northern Liberties’ population has boomed in the last 20 years. More than 8,000 people live in the neighborhood by the Delaware River, north of Center City. In 2000, it had just 3,500 residents. That number will rise, given plans for as many as 2,000 more apartments or condos.

Ira Upin and his wife, Jen, paid $6,000 for a sprawling brick warehouse when they moved there in 1977. Ira used the downstairs as an artist’s studio and upstairs the couple raised their children. Jen would walk around the neighborhood, peeking in windows to see if any other families were around.

Camera icon Handout/Julia Terruso
Ira and Jen Upin moved to their home on North American Street in Northern Liberties in 1977.

Now their section of North American Street is home to a pair of  seven-story condo buildings. The Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins lives nearby, as do linebacker Mychal Kendricks and several Comcast executives. Last month a home a block away sold for $1.6 million.

“A lot of the families who moved in when we did have remained, but today anyone of an average income can’t move here anymore,” said Upin, who serves on the neighbor association’s zoning committee. “The diversity starts to be lost. It’s mostly people with money, a lot of money.”

Shimi Zakin built one of the first million-dollar homes in the neighborhood in 2012. The developer and architect, who lives in Northern Liberties, has plans for 110 luxury apartments and condos in three buildings on North Second and North Third Streets.

Zoning for most of the condos going up will allow commercial spaces on the ground floors. That, Zakin said, is where the improvement district could help by surveying neighbors on what businesses they want, and ensuring those spaces fill.

But there’s a reason commercial development has lagged, with the exception of restaurants and bars to feed the neighborhood. Northern Liberties is a bedroom community where most people live but don’t work. During the week, businesses get very little foot traffic. Add high rents and that can make a risky place to set up shop.

Erin Waxman, co-owner of Art Star, has kept her handmade arts and clothing store alive for 14 years through a combination of walk-ins, online sales, and exhibitions she holds in the store.

“I think a lot of businesses in Northern Liberties are probably like that,” Waxman said. “Just relying on walk-in retail is difficult, but if we get more, that could change. Right now each block only has one or two retail spots, tops. We need much more if we’re going to be a place that attracts daytime shoppers.”

Renee Gillinger has heard those concerns before. For seven years she headed the business improvement district on East Passyunk Avenue and is now the lead consultant on Northern Liberties’ proposal. She said such a district could help tenants and landlords come to fair terms on rent and in some cases get grants for improvements. “When you build a relationship with people, you can get so much more done,” Gillinger said. “We want to help old businesses stay and vet new business to make sure they’re a good fit for the corridor.”

She points to nearby Fishtown and Kensington, where the New Kensington Community Development Corporation has helped support and pull in new businesses along Frankford Avenue. “There’s just no one doing that kind of work here right now,” Gillinger said.

Lois O’Neill, who owns a sewing repair shop, Keystone Sewing Machine Co. Inc., on Second Street, said she’s in a minority of those who don’t like the idea.

“My problem is they keep on putting on more and more taxes,” said O’Neill, who opened the shop 25 years ago. “City taxes, use and occupancy taxes. I have an accountant who does nothing but figure out how much we owe in taxes. This would mean a couple thousand dollars more a year. I would like to see improvement, but I feel the city should pay for it.”