Franklin Town

1971 proposed model of Franklin Town as viewed from the northwest, looking down the diagonal canyon of the proposed Franklin Town Boulevard.

On March 15, 2019 the headline in East Coast real estate news was the opening of the first phase of "Hudson Yards" on the west side of Manhattan, the largest private development ever in a large city's urban core. When completed it is to be 28 acres of residential, office, and commercial space built on a platform constructed over the rail yards on the Hudson River. The first phase of the $20 billion project had its groundbreaking in December of 2012, with several near 1000-foot-tall towers and millions of square feet of office space. An impressive achievement in just over six years!

 

Philadelphia had its own private urban development project formalized 50 years ago, with a less impressive timeline and result. In 1969 a 39-year-old urban renewalist by the name of Jason Nathan was lured from New York City to Philadelphia to become President and CEO of the Franklin Town Corporation (FTC). Five private companies made up the consortium, these five being Smith Kline & French, the Philadelphia Electric Company, the Korman Corporation, I-T-E Imperial Corporation, all of which owned land in the neighborhood, plus the brokerage firm Butcher & Sherrerd. Their plan was to level 50 acres of land northwest of City Hall and construct a city-within-a-city for residential and commercial use. 

1971 original proposed map of Franklin Town with FTC-owned properties noted.
Image from article in The Philadelphia Bulletin dated June 13, 1971.

For context, after World War II urban renewal had become the catch phrase for rebuilding and beautifying cities left devastated by deindustrialization, disinvestment, and departures to the suburbs by residents and businesses. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway had already set a precedent for this as it required the razing of almost 2000 homes and businesses in the early 1900s. The map below shows the later projects: Independence Mall and Penn Center in the 1950s; Society Hill and Penn's Landing in the 1960s; and Market Street East in the 1970s. These were all public projects with government subsidies and supervision. 

Revised Map of Franklin Town as of 12/72, also showing areas of other urban renewal projects in black

Franklin Town was to be different: a $400 million ($2.8 billion in today's dollars) development, done by a private consortium, to be efficiently completed in a decade without government red tape.  For a decade these FTC landowners had been buying up most of the vacant land and homes in the declining neighborhood at depressed prices. By the time the announcement was made, these five companies owned 70% of all the private land within the borders of Franklin Town. The rest of the needed land, 11 acres, was to be obtained by eminent domain by the city's Redevelopment Authority, and sold to the FTC for the cost of acquisition. The benefits of the development included beauty to replace perceived blight, job growth, and a 28-fold increase in property taxes from those 50 acres. Of course, there would also be profits for FTC. To ensure quality design, master architect Philip Johnson was brought in as project head. A tree-lined boulevard leading to a two-acre park was to be the pedestrian highlight of the project. High rise residences were to look out over the boulevard and park. Other specific plans included 1,700 hotel rooms with convention space, 4,000 new residential units across all income levels, 4 million square feet of office and commercial space, underground parking, and 20,000 employees working within Franklin Town's borders. Time magazine hailed the project as an example for all cities, as Philadelphia "showed the way to a shortcut" for redevelopment using only private financing.

1971 proposed view of diagonal Franklin Town Boulevard as viewed from the northwest. It was planned that this boulevard, lined with shops and theaters, would attract neighborhood residents, and therefore was to be pedestrian rather than automobile focused.

On June 3, 1971, after 18 months of secret planning and coordination by FTC, the city, and bankers, the Franklin Town project was publicly unveiled. F. Bruce Baldwin, the chairman of the Redevelopment Authority, called it "the most far-reaching program of urban renewal in any city in the world." This plan sounded great to everyone except the estimated 700 people who lived within Franklin Town's borders. On June 3 they had learned that their homes were to be condemned when they read it in the newspapers or received brochures in their mailboxes. Needless to say, most of the 125 families who owned homes in their neighborhood did not want the development: people like 67-year-old Libby Scott, who was born next door to her her candy store at the southeast corner of 18th and Wood Streets and lived there her entire life. Many homeowners were working class Irish or Italians who had raised large families in their neighborhood, and invested as much money and time in their homes and neighborhood as they could afford. They resented the secrecy and what they perceived as the arrogance of the parties that were now taking their "blighted" neighborhood. Two thirds of these homeowners were senior citizens without clear strategies for opposition, so  their sons and daughters rose up to assist them. The Parkway North Residents Association (PNRA) was formed on June 8, "in direct response to the contemptuous manner in which the Franklin Town project was sprung on the homeowners" according to their pamphlets, and squared off against FTC and City Hall. The careful secrecy on the part of FTC building up to the announcement was needed to prevent land speculation, but also contributed to the anger of the residents. Another bone of contention was that FTC had been buying up houses, neglecting them, and then pointing out these houses as examples of blight, as shown in the house below.

Back of house at 1727 Carlton Street, next to the Libonati family.  This house was vacant, open, and neglected, and in 1971 cited as an example of the blight which justified the clearance of the neighborhood by eminent domain. The house had been owned by FTC since March of 1970. Photo from an August 4, 1971 article in the Bulletin.
Protest signs quickly sprouted up throughout the neighborhood, including the one above at 425 North 20th Street (which just sold last month for over $700,000)
The caption is a quote from an FTC letter to the residents.

The homeowners of the PNRA, chaired by newly-minted lawyer and resident Joe Daley, developed allies in their fight. Most of the residents were members of the Cathedral parish, and Monsignor Dolan, the pastor at the Cathedral, fought for his parishioners. Joe Hacala S.J., a Jesuit from St. Joe's Prep, had been a community activist in Chicago and lent his advice. Mayoral candidate Frank Rizzo and City Council President Paul D'Ortona looked favorably on the Franklin Town development but only if the homeowners were treated fairly. This "handful of dissidents...making noises which seem to be out of proportion to both their number and their grievances," as the Inquirer wrote about the PNRA in a July 15 piece, was ready to make more noise.

At a June 23 meeting of FTC representatives with 300 members of PNRA, FTC speakers were jeered when they offered each property owner fair market value plus up to $15,000 in relocation expenses. PNRA members wanted to stay, and suggested property restoration subsidies as was done in Society Hill, rather than condemnation and elimination.

 

At a Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) meeting on August 18, the Franklin Town project was approved after concessions were made by FTC. These included allowing preservation of the Albanian Orthodox Church on 17th Street below Vine; increasing the financial reimbursements to above Federal relocation requirements; and removing some homes from the condemnation list, dropping the number from 77 to 63. This last tactic was not seen by all PNRA members as generosity but as an attempt to split the PNRA homeowners into factions. In addition, the promised relocation units were to be "close at hand," but not necessarily within the project borders.

Revised proposal of the Franklin Town development, made after the August 18, 1971 meeting. Houses along the 400 block of North 20th Street, the southeast corner of 20th and Hamilton, and the southwest corner of 18th and Callowhill are shown as excluded from the development.
The little church that could.
Photo from the early 1980s shows in lower right the Albanian Orthodox Church that was spared the wrecking ball. The white leveled earth surrounding it would soon be occupied by the new headquarters of Smith Kline & French, the Sheraton Hotel, and a eight story office building at 1600 Vine Street. These three were called One, Two, and Three Franklin Plaza respectively.

At the final City Hall hearing on the development, on December 8, 1971, further concessions by FTC were made. The initial FTC proposal had promised to relocate homeowners at FTC's expense, but the relocations were outside of Franklin Town, mostly north of Spring Garden Street. The December concession was that homeowners who wanted to stay in the neighborhood were guaranteed new or refurbished houses within the borders of Franklin Town. By this time the number of homeowners who wanted to remain had dwindled to 31. In addition, FTC set up an escrow account for the homeowners to use to pay for the anticipated increased property taxes once Franklin Town blossomed. Council President Paul D'Ortona, himself 68 years old, was passionate in his demand that the elderly homeowners, in his words "the people who gave their lives to Philadelphia," be treated fairly and respectfully. D'Ortona also had concerns about the 65 persons renting in the area, many of them elderly, and planned to work with FTC to find an agency to construct an apartment building for the elderly within the borders of the project (see Spring Garden Towers article here). These concessions to the homeowners satisfied the PNRA, which represented 28 of the 31 homeowners, and City Hall gave the go ahead.

In April 1973 condemnation notices were sent to the owners of 82 properties, 45 of which were residential. Demolition and construction began soon afterwards.

In 1974 ten new homes were built along the east side of the 500 block of North 20th Street. Several homes just north of Buttonwood Street on both 20th and 19th Streets were refurbished as replacement housing. Despite the offer of new or remodeled homes, only about 15 per cent of the original homeowners decided to stay. Many of the others moved out, lacking trust that the Franklin Town vision would ever be achieved.

Ten attached two-story town homes along the east side of the 500 block of North 20th Street. These were the first structures built, in 1974, as part of the Franklin Town project. Number 519, with three bedrooms and two baths,  is as of this month under contract after listing for $435,000.

Korman Suites, an extended stay hotel, was built in 1975 at the former site of the Preston Retreat. Hamilton Townhouses Condominiums were built across 20th Street from Korman Suites, and then the Franklin Town project came to a crawl due to a tanking real estate market nationwide.

 

The original plan included one item most pertinent to the future Baldwin Park. FTC promised to build a park, which could also fulfill a requirement by the Redevelopment Authority, which had helped complete property acquisitions, to provide public art. Franklin Town Park, renamed Matthias Baldwin Park in 2011, was to be public art as park. Athena Tacha was hired in 1981 to do the design for the entire two acres, and in 1992 turned over the park to the City, keeping only her right to claim authorship of her art.

The completion of the vision of Franklin Town is now in a new phase, one of organic individualized growth without the name Franklin Town attached to it. In fact, I have never heard any of my Baldwin Park neighbors say that they live in "Franklin Town." There are mentions of it in the neighborhood, whether attached to the names of One Franklin Town Apartments, Franklin Town Boulevard, or on the plaques in Baldwin Park (originally named Franklin Town Park), or on the Benjamin Franklin themed artwork on the 17th Street bridge over the 676 expressway. Next month's article will be on Franklin Town 2.0, looking at what has been achieved 50 years on.

A visual conjunction as reminder. 
The Korman family was one of the five partners in FTC, owning the empty lot where the Preston Retreat had stood. In 1975 the Korman Suites, now the City View Condominiums, were built on the site of the Preston Retreat. The south tower is seen rising above the building in which the nonprofit MANNA rents space. When MANNA moved to this new location at the corner of 20th and Hamilton, Steven Korman's generous philanthropic support of MANNA was recognized in the name of the new digs.
2019 view looking northwest from the rooftop of The Alexander, the newest addition to "Franklin Town."
Special thanks to Seamus and Mike Kearney, Frank and John Libonati, and their siblings for providing me their recollections, photos, and news clippings from the early 1970s. The Kearneys and Libonatis grew up in two of the condemned houses on the 1700 block of Carlton Street. Some of the original inhabitants of what was to become Franklin Town still live within its borders, and though in their seventies and eighties, their emotions still betray how bitter their fight had been. The PNRA's hard work in obtaining concessions from FTC is a source of pride. The neighborhood David stood up to the FTC and City Hall Goliath to obtain concessions that should have been in the initial plan, and not the product of  "blood, sweat, and tears," as said by one of the former inhabitants.
authored by Joe Walsh, April 2019

Matthias Baldwin Park 

423 N 19th St 

Philadelphia, PA 19130

Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to preserve the Matthias Baldwin Park

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