Newbold: Mr. Longacre’s Neighborhood
Conjure up an image of the average incoming Newboldian, and you just might get a vision of someone like Jeff Goldman.
Goldman, upon approach in a crowd of The Pharmacy rock-concert patrons that looks akin to a poster ad for Urban Outfitters, rolls right through his spiel: He landed at 16th and Hicks streets in February from Graduate Hospital for the cheaper rent, treks it to South Philadelphia Tap Room about twice a week and, he admitted, doesn’t even recognize “Newbold” as the community’s moniker – not because he’s a Point Breeze skeptic, mind you, but because he’s never even heard the name.
“I know there’s a beer called that …” he said, confused.
Goldman, you see, represents the revolving-door, youthful population that has come to – in some respects, incorrectly –symbolize a neighborhood that’s gone from way-back-when commercial corridor, to blighted to gentrifying neighborhood full of both promise and contention. All, it must be mentioned, in the span of about a decade.
But Goldamn’s confounded demeanor raises a legitimate question about the neighborhood’s muddled identity: What is Newbold? And, moreover, where’s it all going?
The best answer, for a neighborhood like Newbold that’s seemingly been in gentrification purgatory for eons, can be elicited from the man who coined its name and has, more than any other developer, molded its current melting-pot identity: 40-year-old John Longacre (pictured above, atop his reNewbold development).
“I would never want [Newbold] to turn into East Passyunk Avenue,” said Longacre, owner of LPMG Companies and popular neighborhood businesses like South Philadelphia Tap Room, Brew and American Sardine Bar.
Longacre, on this late-March morning, is planted at a far-end table of Ultimo Coffee, which he calculatedly helped bring to 15th and Mifflin streets in May 2009 after cold-calling coffee connoisseur Aaron Ultimo, who then lived in Washington, D.C. Full-figured, Longacre sports a semi-casual khaki-colored jacket with brown shoulder patches, complemented by a V-neck sweater poking out underneath. In conversation, he maintains eye contact at all times, brings his hands together when he’s intent on making a point and occasionally fidgets with his wallet when a story trails off.
As he delves further into dialogue about the neighborhood, he swigs his coffee — black and sans lid, as if to get right to the point.
“East Passyunk is great, but it’s there already,” he continued, mulling comparable neighborhoods. “We don’t need two. I feel like [Newbold] is a nice residential neighborhood with some cool businesses in it that can live harmoniously with all of those restaurants [on East Passyunk Avenue] for a good long time. And I think a Northern Liberties, it’s just too much. Fairmount is a nice [example], it has a nice little commercial space with businesses, but it’s not overly business-oriented.”
Longacre could be understood, for better or worse, as the Duke of Newbold – not just the giver of the neighborhood’s polarizing name, which was taken from what was once known as Newbold Street (now Hicks Street), but the first to erect a catch-all commercial business and establish a development presence in a neighborhood that was otherwise stripped of its commercial-corridor prowess decades ago. Though it’s still lightly populated, sprinkled with corner shops and a daycare center just across the way from Longacre’s first Newbold venture, it continues to see new development of all kinds in large part because of Longacre’s advocacy.
“I’ve known John for about six years and I respect what he’s doing here in Newbold,” said Gaetano Piccirilli, Girard Estate Neighbors Association president, who in March worked with Longacre to explore the possibility of a now-tabled Ultimo Coffee kiosk in Girard Park. “I think it gives him a certain amount of street credibility among folks in the neighborhood, and in Girard Estate. He has a brand factor to him, which is great, and he has ideas. And not only does he have ideas, but he’s willing to listen to other people’s ideas.”
Despite what some may suggest, Longacre is not — in spite of major market-rate housing developments like reNewbold — a real-estate clone of OCF Realty owner and Philadelphia City Council candidate Ori Feibush. He’s been pitching up houses – largely an unspecified number of in-fill ones – and businesses since 2002, long before 20- and 30-somethings could be found strolling neighborhood sidewalks and sipping lattes from cups with green OCF Coffee House sleeves.
The truth, is that Newbold’s admittedly elusive narrative all began at a corner home at Mifflin and Hicks streets that, as Longacre recalls its pre-South Philadelphia Tap Room history, had previously been an overpopulated, dilapidated apartment building run by, he said, “slum lords.”
“You wouldn’t have walked down this block 10 years ago,” Longacre said, prideful. “It took four months to get a blown-out mini-van with no tires off the sidewalk. That’s how bad it was. … It was an absolute disaster — nothing around here now represents what it looked like.”
Today, the immediate blocks surrounding Longacre’s South Philadelphia Tap Room boast a close-to-city-average median income of $33,951, according to April Kwelia data. To boot, thanks to a median rental price of $1.07 per square foot, Newbold landed in an April New York Times list of on-the-rise – but still affordable neighborhoods nationwide.
From a development standpoint, the above stands as good news for a neighborhood like Newbold when paired with Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative’s April 5 report, which relayed city-at-large news that bodes well for fresh-faced real-estate scenes like Point Breeze. More than half of Philadelphia’s population is now younger than 35, one quarter has a bachelor’s degree and job growth up-ticked 3.8 percent in 2013.
Put simply, Longacre could be considered to be the on-the-ground general who woke up the neighborhood at the right time, while being careful to not make too many enemies in the process.
“I think the difference between [Longacre] and Feibush, is that Longacre’s more politically astute,” said Sandy Smith, who runs Philly Living Blog. “Ori tends to resort to blunt force too often.”
Smith also chuckles at the notion that developer personalities like Longacre and Feibush are bad for changing neighborhoods.
“That’s what developers do,” he said. “Some build houses, some build communities. Think of [Bart Blatstein’s] The Piazza. It’s like the dorm I always wanted to live in.”
Before he became a so-called community-builder, Longacre grew up just north of Philadelphia in Hollen, Pa., a farmland Bucks County town. He attended the University of Maryland before transferring to Temple University and graduating with an economics degree. In college, he found his passion for development.
Though, ironically, he claims to be terrible with numbers. He said that he wanted a “challenge” from his career, and fell in love with economics and neighborhood development after interning in his early 20s for the Commerce Department of Ed Rendell’s mayoral administration.
“Everything that gears what I do,” he said, “is based on macroeconomic principle. Every single thing: from a company perspective, to personal investment.”
Longacre said he first came upon the area he would later call Newbold during strolls through South Philadelphia for odds-and-ends tasks for his Rendell internship.
“I’d walk through these neighborhoods and couldn’t believe it, man. Neighborhoods so close to the central business district, and they could be so disinvested. So many empty lots,” he said. “I don’t understand how this could happen. We’re literally a six-minute walk from the highest-valued real estate in the city, and I feel like I’m in Serbia.”
He also learned a lot about management from former Mayor Rendell while interning – tactics he keeps with him in his business practices, which concurrently speaks volumes to his process for neighborhood development.
“The thing about Rendell, is he knows he’s not the smartest guy in the room, and he doesn’t have to be. He surrounds himself with brilliant private-sector people who know what the fuck they’re doing, and he lets them run their business units,” Longacre said. “Most people who have the type of political prowess he does have to feel like the most important guy, that they’re the smartest and running the show. But I get the sense and feeling that he wasn’t like that. He surrounded himself with private-sector superstars.”
Longacre emphasized that failure to include the community is the biggest problem in neighborhood-developing most of the 15 or so developers he said he hears from each week makes when coming into Newbold. In a practical sense, it’s a counterargument to anyone who argues Longacre’s seeming monopoly over new commercial businesses in the neighborhood — which, though it remains to be seen, may very well include another Longacre amenity at the corner of 16th and Moore streets.
“Anybody can open a business, and anybody can make it look pretty. But if the product sucks, you’re not going to do any business. And I see that all the time,” he said. “I won’t name names, but I see it all the time. Just like every single house I see being built …”
The notion that Longacre and Feibush are the only interested players in town, then, is hogwash. It’s Mr. Longacre’s neighborhood upon reading the at-a-glance, but not necessarily in the finer print.
“Ori and John don’t have the majority of the development in this area, they’re just the most well-known, outspoken. They don’t have the majority,” said Point Breeze Community Development Corporation’s Executive Director Barbara Kelley, her voice tinged with laughter.
Part of Kelley’s commercial-advocacy work, which she’s continuing from Francisville –another transformed neighborhood — is to train developers to think with the same mindset Longacre has: with the community accounted for pre-development, training residents to become business owners, developers and licensed contractors themselves.
“What I’m trying to do, is work with developers to give back to the community before they even get there,” Kelley said. “[John’s] someone who [residents] want to see something done before they trust someone to get something done. The community has been screwed so many years by so many people, and I don’t blame them.”
“He can be cocky every once and a while, but everyone can be,” added Kelley.
As far as education and property taxes in particular are concerned, Longacre is convinced the issue is easily resolved — if the latter’s even an issue it all.
“No one’s being displaced here,” he said.
The city, he insists, won’t be reevaluating property taxes on a whim. Or at least not any time soon, especially as it deals with a litany of other issues that have an effect on the neighborhood, including nuisance taxes on wages, businesses and property that he said make Philadelphia comparatively behind other similar-sized cities.
He diagrams his game plan for fixing such problems like a football strategy in a locker room.
“Listen, you can fix the city with the assets of this city. The only thing it requires is political will, and require a guy like Darrell Clarke or a guy like Kenyatta Johnson, it would require a person like Wilson Goode, Jr., Jim Kenney, to not get re-elected,” he said. “Here’s what you have to do: The city has a $571 million revenue stream, uncollected revenue stream in back taxes. That is a blip in the pan compared to what suppression in values that $571 million causes. Example: So the city had a $300 million funding gap last year, for the schools, [but] there’s 571 million dollars on the books — go collect it. … If you’re living in your house for 25 years and you haven’t paid your taxes, that’s probably a good rationale behind the fact that you shouldn’t be there.”
In the meantime, while the city’s bureaucracy twiddles its thumbs as neighborhoods like Newbold experience growing pains, Longacre and his legion of followers continue to develop the area through new residences, businesses and, somewhat uniquely, through Newbold Civic Corporation’s business-improvement-district-esque actions. One example is the recent privately funded hiring of Horizon House employees to sweep streets west of Broad Street to 18th Street, down Snyder Street and Passyunk Avenue, and north on 15th Street from Snyder to Mifflin streets, about four days each week.
“What’s interesting to me about [Newbold] is that there seems to be a kind of organized incrementalism there,” said Laura Wolf-Powers, assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “Longacre and others are doing in-fill residential development, and they are also connected to the business improvement district — some are business owners themselves — and to other civic groups. So, change is happening property-by-property, yet very quickly and deliberately and in a way that is more of a shock to the real estate market.”
Thus, Newbold is both the latest in a trend of entrepreneur-pushed neighborhoods — in a similar fashion as Fishtown and Northern Liberties circa 1980s and onward — and unique in its organic blossoming of business.
But whether Newbold turns into a Fairmount, like Longacre speculated, remains a toss-up.
“I think people are still trying to figure out how to talk about the neighborhood, and what Newbold is,” said Brittanie Sterner, another youthful Newbold dweller here for reasons not unlike Goldman’s.
Though she said Longacre intriguingly “has his hands in every cookie jar,” Sterner ultimately has faith that the neighborhood will continue to grow healthily in part because of his work. But her own story is perhaps indicative of an inevitable trend. She’s in the process of moving, but outside of Newbold.
“[My roommates and I] got our house for $1,300 [per month], and we can’t find anything else like that in the neighborhood. It’s three bedrooms, with a backyard. We were like, ‘Man, we should hold onto this,'” she said. “Because it’s not that cheap anymore.”
Meet the Newboldian: Victor Hurdle discusses life in Newbold, and whether he’ll stick around.
Meet the Newboldian: Jeff Belonger talks neighborhood clean-ups and taxes.
– Text, images and videos by Brandon Baker and Kate McCann