It's getting sunnier in Philadelphia
Last week's column was about designing cities of the future that would meet all the needs of their residents. But what about the cities of today? What do you do with a city that's, say, 300 years old, that represents an important time in history, and that wants to be a modern place where people enjoy living?
Philadelphia is an example of this. Independence Hall and other structures from colonial times remind us that this was once the capital of the United States, before Washington, DC, was built. Tall office buildings nearby remind us of the city's commercial importance in the mid-20th century, before one-quarter of the population moved away. The center of town is compact enough to walk, but various dangers and obstacles make it difficult to do so. Expressways and railroad lines form chasms that cannot be crossed, and ghettos are never far away in any direction.
Developers now think they can change this in what may be a win-win situation. What's even more surprising is the involvement of the Mormon church.
Yes, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) is now in the real-estate business. Having built a 30-story apartment building near church headquarters in Salt Lake City, LDS now plans to put a 32-story residential tower in north central Philadelphia.
A place for people, not for cars
The tower will contain 258 apartments; as part of the project, 13 townhouses, various shops, a meetinghouse and a Mormon temple will also be built on the city block. While use of the temple will be restricted to Mormons, the apartments will be available to anyone, Mormon or non-Mormon, to inhabit. The meetinghouse will double as a community center.
The Philadelphia Inquirer describes the project as "filling in a key piece of the no-man's-land that has long separated Center City and North Philadelphia's rebounding neighborhoods". Until now, the site has been a 200-car parking lot overlooking the six lanes of Interstate 676. The surrounding neighborhood is mainly one of parking garages, parking lots and a cloverleaf. The addition of enough residents, and things for them to do within walking distance, will start to turn an urban area made for cars into one made for people.
Part of the new building project's raison d'être has to do with the temple itself. "The church is sensitive to what can be developed next to its temple and wanted to have something that would be very compatible with the sacred nature of it," Michael Marcheschi, an LDS senior real-estate manager, told The New York Times. Even as construction begins, the church is leaving its moral imprint. Workers are not allowed to smoke cigarettes or drink coffee on the site, and they are warned not to use profanity or engage in "discourteous behavior".
Why do this?
The project will cost the LDS church tens of millions of dollars. So what is it hoping to achieve?
The church already has 25,000 members in Philadelphia and is hoping for a few more. But much more importantly, the new buildings are a financial investment. Unlike the temple, which by law is tax-exempt, the apartment building will be taxed and run for profit.
The LDS church does very well for itself, because its members agree to give it 10 percent of their personal income. The church, in return, promises to use its money to look out for its members. If there is a broader benefit to the community, it feels, so much the better.
LDS can afford to start such a project without asking for loans or subsidies — and it is willing to spend some extra money to get things right. This means designing buildings that are decorative and functional, and built to last.
Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia's deputy mayor for economic development, praised this forward thinking. "Most developers are followers. Few are pioneers, and the Mormons are pioneers by religion," he told The New York Times.
Cultural note: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia was a TV series about a group of friends who, week after week, came up with big plans. Even though these plans were usually crazy and unsuccessful, they often had unexpectedly positive side-effects.