Philly-owned Chinatown site draws dueling development visions

Dueling visions for the largest parcel of Center City land owned by Philadelphia's redevelopment agency will go before the public Monday night, as officials seek a more dynamic use for what's long been a parking lot near a little-used subway station in a traffic-choked corner of Chinatown. 

Developers Pennrose and Parkway Corp., both based in Philadelphia, will present their proposals for the 3.2-acre lot occupying most of the area bounded by Race Street and the Vine Street Expressway, between Eighth and Ninth Streets, at a community meeting arranged by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to help vet the companies’ plans.

The agency is seeking the property’s sale to a developer with a plan that “enhances the quality of the built environment and improves the overall quality and physical appearance of the community,” according to its September request for proposals to develop the site.

The request also marked the first time that “social impact” was included among the criteria for selection, part of a recently introduced initiative by the agency. The property will not necessarily be sold to the highest bidder, said Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for the authority. 

"We were impressed by the quality of proposals that we received and partly credit the social-impact scoring criterion as one of the reasons why the proposals were so strong," Chrystie said.

Pennrose and Parkway were the only companies to submit proposals for the site, large sections of which cannot be built on because of subway tunnels that run beneath it. The property also accommodates an entrance to the Chinatown station on the Broad-Ridge Spur of the Broad Street Subway. 

Parkway’s proposal -- designed by Philadelphia architecture studio Cecil Baker & Partners -- is being planned in collaboration with the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Corp. and senior-housing developer Presby’s Inspired Life.

It calls for about 120 market-rate condo units, 60 units of low-income senior housing, a hydroponic greenhouse to supply local residents and restaurants with produce, and an “inter-generational park” with playground equipment for kids and exercise stations for adults.

Also planned are stores and restaurants on the buildings' ground floors, along with a 20,000-square-foot anchor Asian supermarket with a second-floor food court. About 180 parking spots will occupy parts of the site where underground tunnels make construction unfeasible. 

Parkway president Robert Zuritsky said his company joined with the Chinatown community organization on the project to make sure that it is responsive to neighborhood needs.  

"We see this as an expansion and an improvement on Chinatown,” Zuritsky said of his team's proposal. “We wanted to do something that would enhance the neighborhood, expand the neighborhood, and be a good thing for kids and the elderly."

John Chin, executive director of the Chinatown group, said his organization joined the proposal because of the supermarket jobs and open space it will deliver to the neighborhood.

Employment and economic development are also guiding principles of Pennrose's proposal, said Jessica R. Hilburn-Holmes, executive director of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, which is joining with the developer on its plan. 

While Pennrose's vision also entails market-rate housing (in the form of an 11-story, 150-unit apartment tower), affordable senior housing (55 units), and parking (143 spots), its defining feature is a 160,000-square-foot office building for legal-aid organizations, to be called the Equal Justice Center. 

The aim of the EJC is to consolidate dozens of legal-aid agencies now spread across the city into one building, to the benefit of public-service attorneys and their clients, Hilburn-Holmes said.

The Pennrose team's proposal -- which is being designed by architecture firm WRT LLC of Philadelphia and San Francisco -- also includes a 147-room Comfort Inn hotel.

Combined with the ground-floor retail planned throughout the development, the hotel will create jobs for the community, while the residential buildings' tenants and the legal center’s workers draw customers to area businesses, Hilburn-Holmes said.

“These components are built into the project under the understanding that those are the kinds of things the Chinatown community was looking for,” she said. “There’s a lot of economic possibility built into this.”

Pennrose and Parkway will present their proposals at 6 p.m. on the third floor of the SEPTA headquarters building at 1234 Market St.

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