Producing master plans to combat blight and revive rundown neighborhoods has practically become a cottage industry in Philadelphia. But comebacks, when they happen, rarely turn out the way planners script them.
So it is with Point Breeze, which begins south of Washington Avenue on the west side of Broad Street, and extends well past Snyder Avenue. Once a working-class area of stalwart brick rowhouses, dramatically punctuated by cathedral-size churches that seem worthy of Rome, Point Breeze began coming apart at the seams with the '80s crack epidemic. Its population dropped 17 percent in the last two decades, and one of every 10 houses ended up a trash-strewn patch of dirt.
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But almost overnight Point Breeze has been transformed from a forgotten corner of Philadelphia to an up-and-comer, with new houses, cafés and restaurants.
No one would have predicted such an improvement a decade ago - or the current concerns about runaway gentrification and rising taxes. Point Breeze's advances are largely the work of two innovative, young, and sometimes controversial developers, John Longacre and Ori C. Feibush, who saw the area as a diamond in the rough and began buying vacant buildings.
Longacre and Feibush have gone well beyond the strategies of earlier generations of rehabbers, who were content merely to fix up shells or build infill houses. Working independently, they have stage-managed Point Breeze's makeover using savvy marketing and social media skills.
The developers start by bankrolling social anchors, like bars and cafés. Longacre, whose company is known as LPMG, calls them "incubators." The idea is to create visible activity that will give potential buyers the sense that the neighborhood is already on the upswing. The emerging scene is then chronicled by a blog that Feibush underwrites, Naked Philly.
Together, these moves have helped rebrand the area still better known for its gun deaths than its grub pubs. Longacre has been so successful at selling renovated houses that he just announced plans to erect a new, mixed-use development at 16th and Moore Streets, which will include townhouses, apartments, and retail. As part of his marketing strategy, he christened Point Breeze's east side "Newbold." Though some old-timers resent the name change, it seems to be sticking.
The ginger-haired, gregarious Longacre, who, at 40, is the elder of the two, began to develop his strategy in 2003 when he opened the South Philadelphia Tap Room at Mifflin and Hicks Streets, in the shell of a shuttered dive bar. Though there was hardly a hipster in sight at the time, Longacre says he stocked the pub with 10 craft brews on draft and made wild boar tacos a menu staple. The Tap Room operated at a loss for years. But making money from the pub wasn't the point.
Rather, its purpose was to turn attention away from the area's less attractive aspects, like the burned-out car that had been abandoned on the sidewalk next door.
To strengthen the neighborhood's civic fabric, Longacre has helped form a neighborhood association and a nonprofit community development corporation. They meet in the Tap Room, of course.
"We've given away so much food and drink," Longacre explains. "I can't say we're the only ones to use this strategy, but it seems to be working. We've built and renovated hundreds of houses."
As he sold more homes, Longacre decided Newbold needed a cafe. He invited Washington, D.C.'s top barista, Aaron Ultimo, to open Brew across from the pub. Like Longacre's office employees, Ultimo also became a Newbold resident. Longacre followed up with a sit-down restaurant, American Sardine Bar.
Meanwhile Feibush, 28, a former actuary, was following a similar strategy on the west side of Point Breeze, buying up empty lots and doing infill. After founding his company, OCF Realty, in 2008, Feibush decided that he needed a physical beachhead in the neighborhood.
Rather than setting up a traditional real estate office, which would have to be staffed with licensed brokers, Feibush borrowed a page from the orange-themed Internet bank, ING, and opened a cafe under the OCF brand at 20th and Federal Streets.
Visitors can use computers to check out his listings, or just use the wireless to work. He has since opened other OCF cafés in the Graduate Hospital and Fairmount neighborhoods.
But it is the Naked Philly blog that has probably brought Feibush the most notoriety.
Started to promote development in Point Breeze and other gentrifying neighborhoods, it has become more than that. Naked Philly is run by a skilled blogger, who goes by the pen name "Mr. Fox." It has evolved to cover developments that have nothing to do with OCF projects. Even people who have no interest in Point Breeze look to Naked Philly for real estate news. All the buzz about forthcoming projects reinforces the sense of activity and progress.
Still, the blog is clearly a platform for Feibush to air his grievances and conduct his many feuds with city officials, particularly Kenyatta Johnson, the councilman who represents Point Breeze. It was Naked Philly that elevated Feibush's spat last summer over a vacant lot next to his Point Breeze cafe into a viral story, dubbed "Lotgate."
His aggressive methods have tended to undercut his branding strategy. Residents on the western side of Point Breeze, who are predominantly African American, often bristle at his brusque tactics.
It's a question more of style than substance, says George Upshur, a neighborhood activist. "We welcome progress, especially if it means that we get better services." But he's concerned that as housing prices rise, long-term residents will be persuaded to sell out too soon, before the neighborhood reaches its peak.
With Mayor Nutter's new property tax plan, there's another worry for Point Breeze. The average tax bill is expected to rise by $1,500. That wasn't in the script either, but let's hope Longacre and Feibush figure out how to brand that, too.