By Michael Greenle
The redevelopment of Northern Liberties over the past 20 years is a hallmark of Philadelphia's revival and a beacon for high-quality, unabashedly urban development. Bart Blatstein's Tower Investments played a major role in this sea change - along with Onion Flats, which conjured a modern kind of rowhouse that honors our historic inventory and improves on it, as well as countless others who saw promise in the neighborhood's small streets and mix of rowhouses, brownstones, industrial relics, and eclectic churches and schools.
Tower, which produced Northern Liberties' mixed-use Piazza at Schmidt's and other high-quality projects after years of developing strip centers, created a center of gravity for investment, as well as hope that big things could happen in the neighborhood. They did what most large-scale, big-talking Philadelphia developers don't: deliver. Regardless of your feelings about its aesthetics or the changed neighborhood, Tower's work in Northern Liberties must be admired for the way it embraced the city, offered retail relief and sidewalk activity, attracted a major grocery store, and invested in groundbreaking design.
Given all this, the recent news that Tower intends to demolish Northern Liberties' Ortlieb brewery complex is regrettable. It also likely blindsided preservationists and neighbors. There was no previous indication that the Ortlieb brew house and stock house would be completely lost.
If the buildings are being demolished due to deterioration, Tower should take responsibility for their condition, as it has owned them since 2000. While development has been slow in the current market, Tower could have sealed the buildings to ensure they could be reused in the future.
Used to losing
We Philadelphians are used to losing evidence of our bountiful heritage, usually before we can do anything about it. Significant buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries - mills, schools, places of worship - disappear every few months due to fires, neglect, and poor planning and code enforcement. While large-scale development has increased across the city, as The Inquirer recently reported, this quiet crisis of preservation is diminishing the most valuable asset in Philadelphia: the fabric of its neighborhoods.
Buildings like Ortlieb's provided the authenticity that helped neighborhoods like Northern Liberties attract residents interested in urban revival. To turn our back on them is decidedly un-Philadelphian: We're not fickle about our heritage, and we take our working-class roots seriously, or at least we're supposed to.
Northern Liberties is a place where these buildings should no longer be endangered, a maturing neighborhood that has enjoyed tremendous investment but retains the landmarks that make Philadelphia different from its Disneyfied Southern and Western urban counterparts. Losing these structures risks afflicting Philadelphia with the same lack of character.
Northern Liberties is not a colonial town or a rowhouse neighborhood, but a collection of buildings of varying scale: proud factories, genteel and humble homes, and the buildings that housed services for Philadelphia's first suburbanites. Let's hope that even if the brewery is demolished, Tower will at least craft new development that conveys the same heft while mingling respectfully with its neighbors. But I hope Tower will reconsider the demolition and see this as an opportunity to take the lead again in defining how outmoded but important buildings can be reused. Tower can be successful while preserving what makes Philadelphia unique and desirable, which will be the greatest challenge facing the city's built environment in coming decades.
Development of the Piazza began with the unceremonious demolition of Schmidt's brewery, whose immense brew house loomed memorably over Girard Avenue. After that, however, Tower moved away from the kind of suburban-style, automobile-oriented development that's unbecoming for a city like Philadelphia, and toward more innovative urban design. Saving a building like Schmidt's at the time would have been unlikely; major development in Northern Liberties was not yet a sure bet. But let's hope that this time, Tower will look at what it's built, reconsider, and find a way to maintain and adapt what makes Northern Liberties special.