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Refitting to Revitalize: The Surge in Building Reuse in Philadelphia

by Brandyn Campbell

 Having at least a few green features is now the norm in new construction in the city of Philadelphia. Whether it is green roofs or elements or solar panels, sustainability in real estate is a significant trend. The city’s Greenworks initiative has helped make the greening of Philadelphia’s built environment a policy priority.


It’s also smart business. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, the two top reasons for building green are client demand and market demand: It’s what buyers want. In historic cities like Philadelphia, there are important ways that this desire can contribute to the city’s vitality and well-being.


Much of Philadelphia’s history is told through its wealth of older buildings. Some are extremely well-maintained and a key feature of the city’s tourism, while thousands more are left in disrepair. Many older buildings and their stories are left to fade, becoming forgotten eyesores and contributing to urban blight. Viewed differently, there is an abundance of opportunity inherent in Philadelphia’s old building stock.


While Philadelphia has made a series of notable economic strides to revitalize Center City, making it a desirable destination and attracting significant numbers of the ever important millennial market, profound challenges remain. The city needs more jobs, and the success experienced by greater Center City must extend to other neighborhoods.


In fall 2014, a report titled “Retrofitting Philadelphia: The Partnership for Building Reuse,” was issued, outlining the opportunities inherent in repurposing historic properties. The National Trust for Historic Preservation identified Philadelphia as a prime location for its objective, and partnered with the Urban Land Institute in Philadelphia, one of five cities participating in the initiative. Of the partnership, ULI Philadelphia Chair Chris Hagar says that the trust sought “to establish best management practices,” identifying Philadelphia because, “as a result of being the start of the country, there is a tremendous building stock and great need for building reuse here.” One of the partnership’s most significant objectives is to find ways to ease the challenge and expense of repurposing older buildings.


It can take anywhere from 10 to 80 years to reverse the negative environmental impacts related to demolition and construction. In addition to the significant environmental benefits, such as decreasing carbon emissions, building reuse stimulates investment in communities, increases employment, reduces building vacancy and helps expand Philadelphia’s economic progress to more neighborhoods. It presents options for neighborhoods in decline to create opportunities out of challenges, turning the eyesore of abandoned properties into hubs of innovation, employment and sustainability. In short, it’s an option that can begin to address many of the issues that continue to plague Philadelphia and other urban areas.


Retrofitting properties also fits in well with the city’s growing creative economy. Urban Outfitters transformed five buildings at the once-abandoned Naval Yard into its headquarters, complete with light-filled work spaces to stimulate creativity. In fact, the Navy Yard promotes active sustainability in work environments and has a number of innovative projects in building reuse to its credit. FringeArts along the Delaware River waterfront, took a former pumping station and turned it into a 10,000-square-foot entertainment complex complete with theater, dining, rehearsal and office space.


In the heart of Center City, Kimpton Hotels has transformed a couple of historic properties and turned them into two of Philadelphia’s most popular and distinctive boutique hotels, the Hotel Palomar and the Hotel Monaco. Additionally, the hotels have attained LEED Gold status, dispelling the notion that sustainable design and building reuse are mutually exclusive.


With all of the potential benefits reuse of the city’s expansive stock of historical buildings brings to Philadelphia, it’s also an important matter for Philadelphia’s future. BUILD Philly (Built environment, Urban, Infrastructure, Land use and Development) is a coalition of organizations that actively worked to ensure that issues related to the built environment were at the forefront of the last year’s mayoral campaign. It included organizations such as the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, Hidden City, PennPraxis, Philadelphia Center for Architecture, ULI Philadelphia and the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.


“The coalition was formed to bring development- related issues into the campaign discussion because they are what really lead to a continued Greater Philadelphia,” says Hager. “We at ULI Philadelphia, and the many other organizations involved, are really looking to help make Philadelphia more attractive for people to work, for businesses to relocate to, which is good for all residents of the city of Philadelphia,” he continues. “It’s one Philadelphia. It’s one region. And, that’s what we’re promoting.”


It helps retain history and contributes to environmental well-being on top of many more advantages. Building reuse presents tangible opportunities for Philadelphia to address some of its biggest issues. As more companies and projects find innovative ways to refit previously thrown away properties, retrofitting will become common parlance in the real estate community, meeting customer demand and the needs of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods alike.


Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 1, Issue 2 (January, 2016).

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