Just north of Girard Avenue and adjacent to trendy Northern Liberties lies a neighborhood that is referred to alternately as Olde Kensington, Lower Kensington and South Kensington.
Three new large apartment projects planned in the area show that real estate developers believe there’s potential for this part of Kensington to become Philadelphia’s next hip, desirable neighborhood to live in.
SoKo Lofts by The Canus Corporation, Liberty Square by Blackstone Development, and Oxford Mills by D3 Real Estate Development are all proposed to be built south of Oxford Street, north of Girard Avenue, and between North 4th and Front Streets. Together they represent more than 600 new apartments for the area.
“It is a lot of units being proposed at once,” said Leah Murphy, co-chair of the South Kensington Community Partners’ (SKCP) zoning committee. “You have to wonder if there is sufficient demand to support all of them.”
South Kensington is notable for the Crane Arts Center, a refurbished industrial building at American and Master streets that now houses artists’ studios. Earlier this summer, 3rd Ward Philadelphia, a creative co-working space inside a former industrial building, opened at North 4th and Master streets. 3rd Ward was first open in Brooklyn.
Developers seem to believe that the success of those sites can be repeated with residential projects.
The Canus Corporation’s SoKo Lofts, designed by Barton Partners, was first proposed in 2007, but was delayed due to the economic downturn. Now the 294,000-square-foot project, planned to include more than 300 apartments and four to six commercial spaces, is slated to begin construction in 2014 on the former Absco site between American, Thompson, Master and 2nd streets — currently a huge vacant lot.
“We thought it was sort of a hidden gem,” said Paul Rabinovitch, vice president of the Canus Corporation, of the project site.
Rabinovitch said that the area’s proximity to public transit and amenities like the nearby Fresh Grocer supermarket make it attractive for residential uses.
Just around the corner, Blackstone’s 200-unit, 277,000-square-foot project, designed by Harman Deutsch and currently known as Liberty Square, is planned to sit between West Thompson Street, Stile Street, Germantown Avenue and Girard Avenue. The project includes a restaurant and may include other commercial spaces.
If the project moves forward as planned, demolition of the existing structures on the site and construction of a 15-foot-deep underground parking garage should be completed by early 2015, at which point the construction of housing would begin, according to Blackstone owner Michael Petri.
A few blocks north, the Oxford Mills project, by D3 Real Estate Development, is already in the early stages of construction. The 114-unit project, which will inhabit two existing, red brick industrial structures, will include commercial office space for the Teach for America program, and will offer discounted housing to teachers.
Some neighbors are concerned that these three projects will represent a huge increase in population density in the neighborhood, according to Murphy.
“The amount of available land and the zoning changes that are coming have the potential to drastically change the character of the neighborhood, in both good ways and bad ways,” Murphy said.
The “zoning changes” Murphy referred to are part of the City Planning Commision’s (CPC) Philadelphia 2035 comprehensive plan. The CPC will holding hold two public meetings later this month to discuss the Lower North District, which includes South Kensington, and their plans to remap the neighborhood’s unused and vacant industrial lots with mixed-use commercial and residential zoning.
Rabinovitch said the city-supported industrial zoning in the neighborhood is the only reason residential development hasn’t been more widespread in South Kensington.
Murphy agreed that South Kensington is on the way up.
“If you do live in the neighborhood, you can see it happening. I’ve seen it incrementally in small ways, building over time,” she said. ••