Changing Skyline: Retail magic is missing from South Kensington lofts proposal

SOKO-new

The proposed Soko Lofts project promises to do for South Kensington what the Piazza at Schmidts did for Northern Liberties.

  • Soko Lofts would have far less retail space and fewer restaurants than the Piazza.
  • Philadelphia's new Civic Design Review committee meets May 7 to discuss the project, and it has a chance to make Soko better.

On paper, the proposed Soko Lofts project promises to do for its South Kensington neighborhood what the Piazza at Schmidts did for Northern Liberties. Like its paradigm-shifting predecessor two blocks south, Soko Lofts would rim its large block with a dense array of mid-rise apartment buildings, smartly broken up into manageable segments. The spaces between the buildings would become passageways, beckoning the public into a landscaped interior courtyard.

It is a pretty good plan, but it is no Piazza.

For all its effort to replicate the Piazza's first-rate urbanism, Soko Lofts misses the crucial lesson of that project. The Piazza packed its ground floor with shops, galleries, and eateries, especially along its primary frontage on Second Street. Though not all have succeeded, their presence tied the Piazza into the neighborhood. They made what was just another behemoth residential development into a real urban place.

At Soko, the buildings - bounded by Second, Thompson, Master, and American Streets - would be punctuated by a few token retail spaces. The rest would be long stretches of dullness. And American Street, which should be Soko's front door, would be the dullest.

Soko's developer, Canus Corp., envisions a seven-story apartment building there. It would be raised on stilts so a parking lot can be inserted at street level. Two wide driveways would further break up the American Street frontage, destroying any hope that the former industrial corridor could evolve into a walkable, residential boulevard. It is not a good start for South Kensington 2.0.

Philadelphia's new Civic Design Review committee - a product of the revamped zoning code - meets May 7 to discuss the project, and it has a chance to make Soko better. But will it try? Canus' owner, Paul Rabinovitch, is quick with an excuse for every design mistake, and the committee has so far not demonstrated that it has the moxie to stand up to a strong-willed applicant.

To be fair, Rabinovitch isn't one of those my-way-or-the-highway types. After neighbors from South Kensington Community Partners complained about the initial design, he sent his architects, Barton Partners of Norristown, back to the drawing board.

Their second version was a big improvement. They started by breaking down the immense scale of the 2.7-acre site. A pedestrian street now bisects the block, connecting American and Second Streets and providing easy access to the interior courtyard.

In response to neighbors' concerns about the lack of ground-floor activities, Barton added more lobby entrances for the Second Street apartments. They beefed up American Street somewhat by bracketing the building with retail space. Although some residents still had concerns about the streetscape, the neighborhood group signed off on the project.

That doesn't mean the Design Review Committee should rubber-stamp the neighborhood decision. With 320 units spread over a full city block, Soko Lofts could radically transform the tattered, postindustrial streets of South Kensington. American Street has the potential to become the neighborhood's main thoroughfare.

It may not seem that way right now. Once lined with factories, American Street is now pocked with empty lots, partly as a result of 20 years of failed city policy to rekindle its manufacturing glory.

Yet Rabinovitch is concerned that there is too much industry on American Street. His site now faces a small food processor, a furniture maker, and a glass supplier. That's his argument for putting cars, instead of people, on the ground floor.

But American Street is in flux. You can see it in the success of the historic Crane Building, a mammoth hive of studios for creatives developed by David Gleeson that sits catty-corner from Soko. More shops at Soko would only tighten the connection with Blatstein's Girard Avenue retail complex, which includes a SuperFresh grocery, one block away. If Soko doesn't embrace American Street, why should the next developer?

Of course, renting retail in such transitional neighborhoods isn't easy. Blatstein pretty much gives away the Piazza's ground-floor spaces. But there is no doubt the loss leader has paid off for the overall project. "Retail" doesn't necessarily have to mean traditional shops. Rabinovitch already intends to populate some of the ground-floor spaces with artists' studios. Fitness centers, small offices, cafes, and a grocery would help fill in the rest.

The bigger stumbling block seems to be the appetite for parking. Although the site's zoning - CMX3 - requires only 106 spaces, Rabinovitch says he needs 140 to qualify for financing. Surely they can come up with a better solution than dedicating American Street's ground floor to parking, especially as the site has great transit connections - the Market-Frankford El, the Route 15 trolley, and several buses.

Soko won't be constructed all at once. Indeed, the American Street portion - Phase 2 - may not happen for several years, and by then, retail may be a no-brainer.

The problem is that the project is on a fast track in City Council, where President Darrell L. Clarke has already introduced a bill to legalize residential uses on American Street. Once it passes, the city cedes its leverage. That's why it is important for the Design Review Committee to take a stand now.

Overall, the architecture of Soko Lofts can't compare with the muscular authenticity of the Piazza. Erdy McHenry's design flair and Blatstein's planning insights were a magical combination that is hard to repeat. But the city should at least make sure the developer applies some of the same charms.

 


Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.