August 5-11, 2004
For 30 years, Northern Liberties has been a mecca for artists and their growing families. Galleries pepper the neighborhood as a reminder that art is still a dominating force in the area. But it's been no secret that the landscape of the close-knit neighborhood may soon change dramatically.
Much like parts of Old City, Northern Liberties is experiencing an increase in housing costs due to new development. Here, it's called Liberties Walk, a 16-acre housing and commercial site that's the end result of a four-year fight between the community and developer Bart Blatstein.
The controversy began when Blatstein, of Tower Investments Inc., proposed replacing the old C. Schmidt & Sons Brewery with a strip mall and a parking lot. (He's best-known for similar development on Columbus Boulevard.) Protests by residents and the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association (NLNA) weighed heavily on Blatstein; as evidence, his design changed so that an artsy renter's community would grow in the creative, peaceful neighborhood. Tower even advertised that "for the right creative tenant, we will be creative with rent!"
Blatstein's compromise between the art community's demands and his original strip-mall plan is Liberties Walk, a mixed-use development. On the outer rim of the old brewery site, four buildings anchor a traditional urban streetscape to Second Street. Beyond the facade of the four structures lies a labyrinth of townhouses, apartments and commercial buildings separated by a public plaza. The plaza is part of five acres known as the Piazza, in honor of the town squares often found in Italy's cities.
The almost-completed development is expected to raise property values significantly, which may change the makeup of the community in more ways than one. NLNA President Matt Ruben says while Northern Liberties does have artists who have planted their roots, the community stands to lose others.
"As the neighborhood is gentrified, the artisans are forced out," he says.
Studio space is easy to find in Blatstein's design, but the price might keep artists away. One-bedroom apartments start at $950, which is a few hundred more than similar spaces nearby.
Construction on Liberties Walk is not yet complete, but Tower recently planned to host an open house to attract new residents for the complex. NLNA member Debbie King says residents of Northern Liberties will stick together, no matter what happens.
"There are a lot of young families with children and people who have stuck it out because they are just so committed to the neighborhood," she says.