When Alex Robles first walked into the abandoned textile factory at 3360 Frankford Ave., he thought it looked a lot like the shuttered, post-industrial buildings he saw every day growing up in Kensington.
With no windows on the first floor and very little natural light coming in, the factory had a spooky vibe. Robles was used to blight, but still, it bothered him. Especially since, as an adult, he’s increasingly seen new, luxury developments pop up — in South Kensington, Fishtown, Northern Liberties — pushing the people he grew up with out of their neighborhoods.
Northern Liberties ranked as one of the 10 most gentrified neighborhoods in the nation, WHYY reported in 2018. Between 2000 and 2016, home values there (and in neighboring Callowhill and West Poplar) rose 203 percent, while average incomes there nearly doubled, going from $59,280 to $81,889, the results of middle-class residents moving into formerly working-class neighborhoods.
“We wanted to think creatively on how we could give the community the opportunity to not just invest in the project, but also just get basic education, learn about investing and investing in real estate.” — Alex Robles of Voyage Investments
As a developer and founder of Voyage Investments, Robles has the opportunity to take abandoned buildings and transform them into spaces that benefit the sorts of families he grew up with. That textile factory at 3360 Frankford? He’s partnered with socially-conscious developer Shift Capital, as part of its new Developer-in-Residence program, to turn it into a home for El Centro Big Picture High School, an alternative high school operated by Big Picture Philadelphia.
As part of the project, Shift and Voyage are crowdfunding small investments from community members, so that everyone in the neighborhood can both invest in and benefit from the new development.
Here’s how it works: Until April 30, anyone over age 18 can contribute as little as $100 to the project. Contributions will go toward the rebuild now, and, in about four years, once the building has been rented out, Shift estimates these contributors — investors, really — will start to see returns. In nine years, Shift and Voyage believe, a $5,000 investor should receive just over $10,000.
This project is part of Shift Capital’s broader NextGen Impact strategy, which aims to educate and support a new generation of socially-conscious developers and help current residents benefit from real estate development projects in their neighborhoods.
Shift Capital’s groundbreaking work
Shift has been redeveloping old factories in Kensington and other Philly neighborhoods since 2013. The group, founded by Brian Murray, an accountant-turned-real estate developer, aims to tackle poverty through smart development projects — those that increase economic opportunity for people already living in our neighborhoods.
Shift opened its first development, MaKen Studios, in 2016. The 260,000-square-foot commercial space now offers artists studio space and entrepreneurs a home for small manufacturing operations, bringing 500 jobs to the neighborhood. Then, they started renovating and building small, single family homes nearby and priced them for people earning 70 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). About 95 percent of the residents in these projects came from Kensington.
Two years later, Shift brought empty storefronts on Kensington Avenue and launched the Kensington Storefront Challenge, which gave nine small businesses a year of free rent and $10,000 for renovations — an attempt to increase economic opportunity in the area. Then, in 2019, it started work on J-Centrel, a mixed-use development with 116 mixed-income apartments and 30,000 square feet of commercial space. The complex was designed with both market rate units and those designated for people making between 40 to 70 percent of the AMI. Residents can also get a discount on their rent by volunteering with the community.
“Our focus as a whole has always been on the mission of equitable neighborhoods,” Murray says. “We’ve been committed to the neighborhood of Kensington for close to a dozen years, and anytime we have an opportunity to take something that has been neglected and turn it into something positive, we’re always trying to find a way to do so.”
Shift has invested in ten more projects since then, started work in seven other neighborhoods both in and out of Philly, investing a total of $385 million into these communities. The development with Robles at 3360 Frankford is just one example of the work they’re doing.
A new home for El Centro
Robles started his career in real estate development in 2019; when he co-founded Voyage Investments shortly after graduating with an MBA from Wharton. Prior to that, he’d worked for 10 years in the hotel industry on the West Coast and in Washington D.C. He got into real estate development work after realizing how much his hometown had changed in the 10 years he’d been away.
Robles began work on 3360 Frankford in February 2022, after Voyage and Shift acquired the building. The plan was to adapt the existing structure so that one of Shift’s current tenants, a light manufacturer, could move in.
As Shift and Voyage began the pre-development phase of the project, they realized that the costs would be too high for the original tenant. So they started looking for someone new. Murray had heard of Big Picture Philadelphia, an offshoot of the national organization, Big Picture Learning, that operates two alternative schools in Philadelphia. He connected with them about possibly signing a lease for the space.
One of Big Picture’s schools, El Centro Big Picture High School, used to be in Kensington, before building safety issues forced them to vacate in January of 2022 and move to a new building in Sharswood. Since then, they’ve been looking to come back to the neighborhood, where many of their students still feel at home. El Centro Big Picture High School (currently called El Centro de Estudiantes) offers intensive, one-on-one and group academic advising, real-world learning opportunities and trauma and resiliency-informed counseling services to students aged 16-21 who might have struggled in a traditional school setting.
The group had been having a hard time finding a new space that would allow them to have community gatherings and to expand their workforce training programs. When they connected with Shift and Voyage, Tia Hall, executive director of Big Picture Philadelphia, says that students and alumni told her the factory at 3360 Frankford felt like home. She remembers falling in love with Robles’ plan to add large windows, which would allow natural light to pour into the first floor. The group signed a 10-year lease for the space.
“I’m excited to see students walking through the doors of this beautiful facility,” Hall says. “Having a place that you can call your own and a sense of permanency is so critical, and we get to offer that to these young people.”
Community investment, community involvement
The new El Centro Big Picture High School will have 11 classrooms, a community gathering space and dedicated room for the school’s workforce development programs spread throughout the 28,000 square-feet space. The 1,500-square-foot workforce training space will be used by the school during the day and at night community training programs will be able to use the space.
Shift and Voyage are completing the project in two phases. Robles expects construction of phase one to wrap up in January. By then, 65 percent of the space — the classrooms — will be completed, and El Centro students should move in and start learning in fall 2024.
Phase two will involve construction on the workforce training center and the community space. By fall of 2024, the school will be completed, and the school will be able to grow from 115 to 200 students.
“We’re a community-based school, and we’d like to have communal space,” says Jacquie Tisdale, principal of El Centro Big Picture High School. “We’re all excited about this facility.”
The project is funded through a mix of Voyage and Shift’s funds, a bank loan and money from real estate developers. For the smaller community investors, Shift is using the crowdfunding platform Small Change.
The goal is to fight gentrification by allowing Philadelphians to invest in and profit from new developments moving into their neighborhoods. As with any investment, contributions to the Small Change campaign aren’t guaranteed to receive returns. A natural disaster could occur, for instance, that delays construction and increases the costs. But Shift and Voyage have shared a detailed business plan that breaks down the project’s estimated construction costs, the details of the lease with Big Picture, and an investment risk sheet that explains to potential investors where the project might lose money. That way, people who are interested in giving to the project can understand the risks before they invest.
“This is our way of replicating our impact by creating others who are going to go on and do great things or being supportive of others who are going to go on and do great things.” — Brian Murray of Shift Capital
“As a Kensington native I have seen a lot of development, whether it’s in Fishtown or in South Kensington. One of my frustrations in the past has been that the long-term, legacy residents very rarely get to participate in the economic development taking place within these communities,” Robles says.
“We wanted to think creatively on how we could give the community the opportunity to not just invest in the project, but also just get basic education, learn about investing and investing in real estate and through the Small Change platform.”
This is the second project Shift has crowdfunded via Small Change. The first was Sharswood Ridge, a 234,000 square foot mixed-use development, built in partnership with The Philadelphia Housing Authority and Mosaic Development Partners, that has brought housing, a grocery store and other businesses to the neighborhood. The campaign raised a total of $751,250.
Right now, Shift needs to raise $2.4 million for the project. Murray hoped for between $2,500 and $124,000 from small investors when they began crowdfunding. They’ve raised $7,800 so far. The deadline to invest has now been extended to April 30, 2024.
Building the next generation of socially-conscious developers
The El Centro project, and the Developer-In-Residence program as a whole, are part of Shift Capital’s NextGen Impact strategy. Launched five years ago, the plan aims to expand Shift’s signature socially conscious development strategy to other cities and to train a new generation of developers in their methods.
The platform has three goals: provide funds for projects, educate the next generation of developers, and measure project impact.
Shift’s Catalyst Fund supports the first tenant of the platform. Through the fund, Shift invests in projects and provides loans to developers whose projects align with the company’s values. With an investment from Shift, a developer gives up some equity, but with a loan, they’re just borrowing money that they’ll pay back with interest. So far, the fund has distributed $12 million across a dozen projects.
The second pillar is educating the next generation of developers and local communities on real estate development. In 2021, Shift launched its Developer-in-Residence program, a three-year incubator where young developers receive mentorship from Shift’s team and work on some of their projects. The program helps developers make connections and gain experience raising funds, reading them to take on projects of their own.\
Robles and his business partner Juan Saenz are the first participants in the Developer-in-Residence program, but they’ve already worked with Shift on two projects — El Centro Big Picture High School and a 36-unit housing development in West Philly. They’ve also gained experience working with architects and engineers on some of Shift’s larger projects.
“The goal is that at the end of three years, Voyage is in a much better position to scale,” Robles says.
“Shift’s done an amazing job with the redevelopments that they’ve done already in the last several years. We’re really trying to push that mission forward and really activating these long dormant spaces along Kensington and putting them into positive use, whether it’s generating jobs or educating the next generation of folks.”
In addition to educating developers, Shift is working with communities to teach them about real estate investing and to help them care for their communities. They’ve partnered with Jumpstart Kennsington to teach people about small-scale development.Their housing development J-Centrel offers discounted rent to people who volunteer with neighborhood organizations through its Good Neighbor Program.
Once Shift funds and trains developers, it continues to support them by allowing them access to its Impact Metric platform, which helps them track how their projects are benefiting communities. The resource helps developers quantify the impact they’ve had on neighborhoods, so that they can see if they’re actually operating in a way that’s aligned with their values.
All of these programs are designed to help Murray spread Shift’s ethos across the city and the country. Through NextGen Impact, Shift has already partnered with 12 different developers, in cities ranging from Baltimore, Maryland to Newark New Jersey.
“This is our way of replicating our impact by creating others who are going to go on and do great things or being supportive of others who are going to go on and do great things,” Murray says.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the new name of the school currently known as El Centro de Estudiantes. The new school will be called El Centro Big Picture High School; it is scheduled to open to students fall 2024. The name of the Sharswood project has also been updated to a new name, Sharswood Ridge. The deadline to invest has also been updated to April 30, 2024.
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