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A New Breed of Developers Reanimate the Skeletons of Forgotten Buildings

April 23, 2013 By:
Richard Pawlak, Inside Magazine feature
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Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory craftsmen at the Globe Dye Works. Photo by JA Kemp.

“Each material item that a righteous person uses is a means toward a spiritual repair in the world.”

 —Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder/director, Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and Jewish Eco Seminars

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, a crazy quilt of ethnicity, income and culture. It is no surprise, then, that from this fabric of diversity and its denizens’ own insatiable appetite for local restoration, local businesses, local bands, corner taprooms and produce from fields no further than a bike ride away, that several imaginative entrepreneurs would reclaim and repurpose old buildings as a way to create micro-communities of artists, craftsmen, tech wizards and sustainable food professionals, while removing the blight and danger of unused buildings and creating economic stability and viability at the same time.

These are not mere industrial/warehouse/factory rehabs; they are raw laboratories of creativity, commerce and collaboration, at least in the idealistic minds of their creators, and one of the latest, most vivid examples of the myriad of ways that cities continually reinvent themselves to survive and thrive.

Around the Globe

The Globe Dye Works may be the best example of the hybrid nature of these new neighborhood centers. Described as “a community of artists, artisans and fabricators,” Globe has, in just five years of existence at Worth Street in Frankford, become a hub of culinary and decorative artistry, as well as a home to craftsmen focused on Old World techniques. It is now home to Birchtree Catering, a seasonally focused, locally sourced caterer that offers biodegradable dinnerware to its clients; Cupcake Wonderland, a custom baker; Lovebar Chocolates, a boutique chocolatier; Anita’s Guacamole, a salsa and guacamole kitchen; Moda Botanica, a custom florist; and, most recently, Rival Brothers Coffee, whose gourmet coffee truck has kept people buzzing around Center City ever since former Pub & Kitchen chef Jonathan Adams launched it last year. Rival will now roast its beans in a spiffy and airy second-floor space fitted out for them by Globe’s developers, Charlie Abdo and Pete Kelly.

“We set out to create a community of people that we’d like to work with,” says Abdo, a veteran developer who has spent decades restoring Philadelphia neighborhoods like Brewerytown, where he and Kelly opened the groundbreaking restaurant/music venue, the North Star Bar, in the 1980s. “But Globe Dye Works has grown to become so much more than that. It’s become a film location (the 2013 Colin Farrell movie, Dead Man Down and NBC’s recently canceled show, Do No Harm), a reception location for a large art installation, and a home for a ceramicist, a woodworker and a metal fabricator. We even have a boat builder here — a boat builder!”

The Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory mentors children and teens on carpentry skills, boat-building and craftsmanship from a large, light-filled studio crowded with boat hulls in various stages of completion. The space buzzes with activity, hushed conversation and the sounds of scraping planes, rubbing sandpaper and measured hammer strokes. It is a remarkable and unexpected sight to behold. 

Professional offices and studios are scattered throughout the sprawling, former yarn-dyeing factory, including a broker of upscale French furniture and artifacts, a custom framer (who crafts unusual, one-of-a-kind cutting boards for several of his food-savvy clients), and the offices of the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia, a trade association whose president, Steve Jurash, sees developments like Globe as a vital component to creative and economic growth.

“This is the new paradigm,” says the enthusiastic Jurash. “Places like Globe will be the future of American manufacturing. Local design and manufacturing — instead of offshore — that become the hub of a neighborhood and revitalize a city like Philadelphia that has a rich history of manufacturing. 

“You can actually have people moving into a neighborhood like Frankford,” Jurash adds, “to come to work for a company that has located here. That’s how it used to be. Neighborhoods used to grow up around places like this, just a single factory. Now a more creative place like this attracts the designers and the fabricators and the support businesses like web designers and graphic artists and photographers, and then you have this powerful community. This is the future, it’s green and it’s very exciting.”

The next big thing

This visionary stance is echoed by Evan Malone, Ph.D, founder and president of NextFab, the 3-year-old “collaboration space” reconfigured from a former custom iron workshop at the rim of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood.

“I created NextFab to provide the ingenious people of Philadelphia the opportunity to learn about and use computer-controlled advanced manufacturing technologies normally only available in giant corporations or university labs,” says Malone.  “These tools can turn creative ideas into products with less manual labor than traditional manufacturing.”

NextFab operates as a kind of high-tech micro-incubator, with monthly ($129) and weekend ($69) membership fees, and has attracted over 200 member artists, inventors, fabricators and entrepreneurs who can avail themselves of the cutting-edge, computer-controlled machine tools (such a water-jet cutter and a robot-controlled router), electronic workbenches, 3-D printers (Malone invented one of them), software and classes held by the 20 full-time staffers who insure the proper operation of the million-dollar equipment installed inside the 21,000-square foot, multilevel space. The look is pure Silicon Valley, but with a no-nonsense Philly attitude. 

“Members are trained on every piece of equipment they want to use,” explains Ross Kessler, vice president of member services at NextFab. He is an electrical engineer himself, and manages the electrical and software engineering for the complex. “Or they must show us that they are already trained on the equipment. We teach classes and workshops on all of the equipment, and we can also provide low-cost consulting on projects when needed.”

Like at Globe, there are clever uses of space for offices and special events, a street-level café, Café L’Aube, for light meals and house-roasted coffees, and a similar community outreach to Philadelphia-area students “who might not otherwise have the opportunity to work creatively with their hands,” as NextFab’s website details.

“I’ve been concerned that in the last 10 years, we’ve been rapidly losing the ability to make things in this country,” says Malone. “We’ve shut down high school shops, and the last vestiges of the mid-20th century American manufacturing expertise are dying off. The hope here at NextFab is to help rekindle a culture of innovation, and to build a new, globally competitive manufacturing economy based on creative uses of advanced technology. NextFab has everything necessary to invent, repair, create and innovate.”

The heart of the community

But the real future of what these multidiscipline centers may become is taking shape in West Philadelphia’s Cedar Park neighborhood, near the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Sciences. An old Studebaker car dealership building has been reclaimed and restored by two local contractors into a community-oriented work and meeting space, The Cedar Works.

Stretching for nearly a half-block on the quiet, narrow 5000 block of Pentridge Street, just south of Baltimore Avenue, the 20 studios and offices of the facility are bathed in an abundance of natural light, courtesy of enormous skylights that were original to the building. The workspaces range from 250 to 600 square feet and are adjacent to the workshop of Mill Creek design partners Andy Peifer and Linford Martin, who bought the building a year ago when they saw its potential.

Now local potter Ken Beidler is creating hand-thrown pottery and teaching workshops to his neighbors and aspiring ceramicists; artist Douglas Witmer creates canvases with his signature geometric imagery and emphatic use of color; designer Michelle Judge creates both jewelry and leatherwork that reflects her world travel; three photographers have studios here, including J.J. Tiziou, whose large-format photography can be seen across the exterior of the Philadelphia Airport’s parking facility; there is even the Philly Lens Library, a rental resource for photographers.

The Cedar Works has only just opened but has already been warmly embraced by neighborhood artisans for its low rental fees ($1 per square foot!), large indoor-outdoor meeting spaces, full kitchen and community activism. 

“Most of our tenants are from Clark Park, University City and right here in Cedar Park,” says Peifer, “but I really think we’ll be used as much for our community room and outdoor patio spaces as for the studio spaces. There is an obvious need for a simple community gathering place like this.”

And like the developers of Globe Dye Works and NextFab, Peifer envisions similar synergies for collaboration and community outreach. “This place became known almost entirely by word of mouth,” adds Peifer. “It’s the supportive nature of our neighborhoods. Linford and I both have homes here and we work here, so it made sense to us to make this happen. Every neighborhood needs a place like this, where it all comes together.”

Richard Pawlak is a frequent contributor to Inside.

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