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City Places for City People
Gaslight Village: Carfree in Philly?

A New Colonist Interview

Gaslight Village is a proposed carfree development on a brownfields site in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The New Colonist contacted J. H. Crawford of Carfree.com, one of the initiators of the project, who graciously agreed to an interview. Below is a text version of the much longer podcast, which is also available on our podcast page. You can also listen to it by clicking the following link: "Gaslight Village: Carfree in Philly?"

How did you come to choose Philadelphia for your Gaslight Village project?
Philadelphia has always been on the radar for a pedestrian village, as have Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, and the Bay Area. The reason is simple: only these areas have an existing public transport infrastructure that is sufficiently good to support carfree living. The eastern cities are especially attractive because they have close-in brownfield sites suitable for redevelopment as mixed-use pedestrian-oriented districts.

What is a brownfield site?
A brownfield site is simply a place that has had a previous use, usually industrial. There is often some amount of toxic contamination that has to be cleaned up first. Sometimes you get buildings you can reuse, although not in the case of Gaslight Village.

Not to discount the power of ideas, but is there any funding lined up?
Not yet. We're working on several approaches. In the case of Gaslight Village, we need the active participation of city hall. This might include a small level of initial funding to help launch the project. We are hoping that a foundation with a deep interest in sustainable urban environments will fund the preliminary feasibility study. Once that work is successfully concluded, we expect that the project will be self-funding along normal lines.

What about this specific parcel of land, how was it chosen?
We were looking at Google maps one day and noticed this large parcel of apparently unused land just a couple of miles southwest of the city center. Further investigation showed that it was the former municipal gas works, which was abandoned decades ago. The site appears to be owned by the city, and nothing seems to be happening on it now. The city will be interested in generating tax revenue from the land, and our redevelopment plans will yield more income for the city than practically any other use that might be imagined. At the same time, operating costs ought to be lower because we won't be building wide streets that need constant cleaning and maintenance. Also, the site already has heavy rail service running through it, which makes it comparatively quick and cheap to provide passenger and freight service on the site by rail.

It looks like this parcel is surrounded by industrial uses, will that limit public transit options?
The renovation of the Navy Yard calls for some sort of public transport link with the center city. We foresee initiating passenger rail service on the existing tracks between the Navy Yard, Gaslight Village, and Market Street at the Schuylkill River, just across from 30th Street Station.

Why do you think someone might choose to live here than in another Philadelphia neighborhood?
Life in Gaslight Village will resemble life in Philadelphia's favorite old neighborhoods, minus the cars and their noise, stink, and danger. We anticipate a diverse community with the rich public life that can arise in places where the streets are comfortable, enjoyable, safe places to spend time. It will be beautiful and peaceful. Most of the site will be bordered by a wide greenbelt that runs right up to the river.

What will the buildings look like? We will build narrow streets like those that characterize the oldest part of town, and we will respect the city's heritage of three-story brick buildings. We will add Gaslight Square, a large plaza, and many small squares to provide public spaces where people will want to linger.

Will there be commercial/retail development? Will it include chain stores?
Parking will only be available on the edge of the community, so we do not anticipate chain stores establishing conventional big-box retail in the neighborhood. Instead, we foresee a collection of smaller stores mostly clustered near Gaslight Square. Most buildings will have commercial uses on the ground floors. Near the center, these will mainly be restaurants and stores. As you move away from the center, small businesses will predominate.

What?s the timeline on the project?
Given what appears to be happening to the climate, tomorrow won't be soon enough. The project can only move forward with the active support of city hall and the larger community. If there is large-scale buy-in from many sectors, we foresee that the project could move ahead much more quickly than is usual for large projects of this kind. Breaking ground in three years might be a reasonable target.

I recently interviewed a fellow at the Urban Land Institute and he felt new urban developments in the suburbs would proliferate in the future, especially when generation Y starts to buy. Is there room for a car-free development that isn?t in a major city?
Carfree development can occur anywhere that a critical mass of people can be assembled who wish to live their lives, at least locally, without the intrusion of cars. Even just a few thousand people can be enough. However, I think the focus is going to be on inner cities and perhaps the first ring of suburbs. These are the areas that are best served by transit and easiest to live in without a car. Biking is an excellent option in these places as the distances to be covered are actually quite short.

Have you been to San Antonio? The canals there seem to provide an idyllic pedestrian environment. Could something like this be applied elsewhere and be oriented toward residents instead of or in addition to tourists?
I have not much spent time in Texas and never in San Antonio. The difficulty of bringing water into the Gaslight Village site is that the Schuylkill is tidal, and the range of tide is great enough to seriously complicate the establishment of canals. Canals are in any case foreign to Philadelphia. We want to stick with the iconic feel of old Philadelphia neighborhoods. That's something that most Americans are familiar with, whether or not they have ever been to the city. It's a sound and beautiful urban form that deserves respect and preservation.

How can someone keep up with development of the Gaslight Village?
Just visit www.gaslightvillage.org. You can sign up to the mailing list there.

The New Colonist