We’ve been incredibly vocal about our hopes and dreams for the western side of Washington Avenue over the years. The corridor has historically been industrial, and building supply companies have operated as the overwhelming majority of businesses on the corridor for the last few decades. But when you consider the location of Washington Avenue, with the Graduate Hospital neighborhood and eventually Center City to the north and Point Breeze to the south, an industrial or even a purely commercial corridor doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We’ve been hoping for mixed-use on Washington Avenue for the longest time, and with projects finally proceeding at 24th & Washington and Broad & Washington, we’re finally seeing answers to those prayers.
A complete transition won’t happen overnight, or in a year, or even in a decade. While we’re obviously most excited by the large mixed-use projects mentioned above, we’re also generally pleased about changes on Washington Avenue that makes it more friendly to neighbors and less friendly to forklifts. To wit, we’re glad to see Chick’s restaurant on the 1800 block, even though we’d like it much better if there was a few stories of apartments upstairs. Similarly, there’s a (very outstanding) real estate office in a building at 20th & Washington with a window manufacturer upstairs, and we’d likewise prefer a taller building with some apartments. But we’d contend that the real estate office is a step up from the kitchen and bath store that operated here previously.
We’ve seen some similar changes at the northwest corner of 19th & Washington, where Donatucci Kitchens operated for many years. Last year, we told you that a bridal shop was opening here, along with a cell phone store. Again, neither of these are groundbreaking businesses, but those businesses still contribute to the narrative of a changing corridor. A couple days ago, we learned about another project for this property which would seem to be a step backward.
At 1901 Washington Ave., a permit has been approved for a 7-story horticulture nursery and greenhouse facility which will serve as a vertical framing operation and urban agricultural facility with a collaborative grow space, supplying fresh produce and other “framed goods” to local restaurants, brewers, and markets. Taking aside for a moment the question of what’s a framed good, this permit indicates that an indoor urban farm will be opening at the corner of 19th & Washington, and it’ll be seven stories tall. Probably related to this project, there’s also a demolition permit pulled for 1913 Washington Ave. for an 18 car parking lot and a wholesale and distribution and storage facility.
In the abstract, this is really cool. Indoor farming is a unique approach to growing food locally, and has real potential as a technology to provide tastier food in a more environmentally friendly way than traditional farming. Already, Philadelphia is home to one of the pioneers in this business, Metropolis Farms. If an indoor farming business were looking to establish roots (sorry) in an old warehouse in North Philadelphia, or at the Navy Yard, or near the airport, we’d call it a big win. But at 19th & Washington, it doesn’t seem to make much sense.
This is a very desirable location for a retail business, in a building that’s valuable in its current form and even more valuable for its redevelopment potential. The construction of several new stories and the signing of what we’d think is a very long term lease would seem to preclude redevelopment for decades to come, in a way that a restaurant or office buildout would not. So we don’t see how this makes sense for the property owner. And while we have no clue about the business fundamentals of an indoor farming company, we’d have to think that it would make better business sense to operate in a less expensive location, especially since the business that doesn’t rely on foot traffic. We don’t see how it would make economic sense unless they’re gonna just grow marijuana for PA dispensaries, but even in that case, we don’t see why that would need to happen at such a prominent location.
Maybe we’re way off base about this business and it’ll end up as a huge hit in the neighborhood. Maybe they’ll offer indoor farm share spots to the community. Perhaps they’ll have a farmer’s market stall on the first floor and provide tasty, locally grown produce to the neighborhood at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, since this property and others on Washington Avenue haven’t been rezoned from an industrial designation, this project will proceed by right with no input or vetting from the community. So we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. At the very least, it’s gotta be better than a storage facility, right?