Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Suburban Philadelphia

Decline and Fall of Philadelphia
In 1900, Philadelphia was described as the largest commercial (ie non-capital) city in the world. By 1929 it was flat on its back, and never recovered its former position. Why did this happen?

Right Angle Club: 2015
The tenth year of this annal, the ninety-third for the club. Because its author spent much of the past year on health economics, a summary of this topic takes up a third of this volume. The 1980 book now sells on Amazon for three times its original price, so be warned.

River to River, Pine to Vine

R. Bradford Mills

Brad Mills, a former Marine officer who now is a Commercial real estate advisor for Tactix Real Estate Advisors, was recently on the podium of the Right Angle Club. His theme was the Decline of the Suburbs, creating a return to Center City. Although some other cities have experienced an even greater change, his point generally corresponds to everyone's experience. If Stephen Levy is right that the automobile choked center city to death in the 1920s, this reversal of fortunes would seem to correct the migration of a century ago. The big question is whether it will continue, once an economic recovery, and cheap gasoline prices, make the auto popular again.

Center City Scene

The Center City scene at present is summarized by its rental prices: $100 per square foot for offices, $400 per square foot for top-level residential. So, naturally there are a number of office buildings being transformed into either residential or mixed-use. And about 20% of office space is unoccupied. The offices themselves are being transformed into a style which absolutely no one likes. Open space offices with insignificant partitions between them. Even the top officers are forced to abandon corner offices in order to show the rest of the employees they are participating in the new style, which as mentioned, everyone hates. Another statistic: the office space averages ten units per 1000 square feet, instead of the more luxurious 4 per thousand, and more often single offices. SEI carries matters to some sort of extreme: desks on wheels can be gathered together for conferences, pulled apart to talk on the phone. And to make things even worse, this seems to be following a European style. Ugh. For one thing, no American likes to appear European. No one likes it when office space is "hotelized", sharing a desk between someone in the office and someone else who is on the road, visiting the trade.

Comcast Building

There's a lot of talk of Drexel showing us the future, but that's probably in the far future, when Drexel has to consider building over the West Philadelphia train tracks along the river, for dormitories or whatever. In time that may happen, but what's immediately in prospect is the second building Comcast is building next to the existing one. To a degree, the people who will fill the new building are already here, scattered out in vacant spaces around City Hall. When the building is finished, those people will move into it, leaving their existing space -- either empty, if the recession continues, or occupied with "secondary" offices if we recover from the recession in time. It's a time of anxiety for architects.

And the people? Well, we have a doughnut hole model. The top executives want to be in town, close to work, where the action is. And young couples want to save on commuting expenses, living close to work, using public transport, living close to other people their own age. Out in the suburbs, things are emptying out, prices are down, and "crazy money" from New York is moving in for what they imagine are bargains. It promises to be an exciting scene, full of action. But what's missing? School-age children. It won't be much of a normal city without some kids, and to get them you need good schools, public safety, and a shift in taxes from that 19th Century wage tax, to the more modern real estate tax. Meanwhile, our speaker has his own individual office -- in Radnor.

Originally published: Saturday, January 24, 2015; most-recently modified: Tuesday, June 04, 2019