Changing Skyline: New apartment development near Temple finds a better way

The new mixed-income, transit-friendly Paseo Verde project near Temple. PHOTO: Jeffrey Totaro

Stand at the corner of Ninth and Berks Streets in North Philadelphia and you can practically feel the tidal wave of gentrification bearing down from both directions. One block west, the twin concrete towers of Temple University's Anderson Hall loom up like a medieval gate. Walk a few blocks east and you're enveloped in the hipster precincts of Fishtown.

But the parts in between have been forsaken for so long that it's hard to recall what this rowhouse neighborhood was like in its prime. Empty lots outnumber buildings on many blocks, the surviving houses arrayed like tombstones.

With conditions changing, you might expect the response to follow the usual Philadelphia script. Either the neighborhood would surrender to developers and allow a construction free-for-all. Or, it would dig in, using its political power to hold onto the acres of vacant land in the hope that someone, some day, might build subsidized housing.

Instead residents found a third, and better, way. It's called Paseo Verde.

The four-story apartment house makes peace with gentrification by accepting high-end, modern apartments as a fact of life. But it also ensures that longtime residents will have a good place to live if the area takes off and prices spike.

To achieve that tricky balance, nearly half of Paseo Verde's 129 units are set aside for low-income residents at reduced rents. The other 67 go for market rates. After a quiet opening in the fall, Paseo Verde is now home to a mix of Temple University students, professionals, and low-wage workers.

Actually, Paseo Verde is a lot more than just a utopian experiment in mixed-income living.

A collaboration between a local community group, Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, and a for-profit developer, the New York-based Jonathan Rose Companies, the $48 million project is a trifecta of socially responsible development. It's environmentally friendly, transit-friendly, and urban-friendly. All that, and the design by WRT's Antonio Fiol-Silva still manages to slip some real architecture into the mix.

Nurtured by the Nutter administration, the project is one of those rare cases where all the pieces came together just right. The 1.9-acre site had been a PGW parking lot for decades, but the city took the land back after the lease expired and organized a competition to find a better use. Rose and APM, which has been building affordable housing in the neighborhood for 25 years, won, and were awarded the property for a dollar.

The site might seem to be an improbable location for an apartment house. The long skinny block backs up to SEPTA's Temple University Station, a major regional rail hub. Commuters waiting on the elevated platform have been scratching their heads for months, trying to figure out what's behind the colored panels that form Paseo Verde's rear wall.

Although building next to the busy station presented some design headaches, the convenient transit connections more than made up for them. It's just four minutes by regional rail to Center City, and residents can easily walk to the Broad Street subway or choose among seven bus lines. For low-income residents, that kind of access is as important as subsidized rent, says Paul Freitag, the Rose Company's development director, because it enables families to get around without a car. "It removes a huge financial burden."

The Nutter administration deserves credit for making such transit-oriented developments a priority, by raising the zoning densities near train stations. It's crazy that earlier administrations allowed peaked-roof, clapboard houses with driveways - the kind of thing you expect to find in a suburban subdivision - to be built just a block away from the station. Transit is this neighborhood's great asset.

SEPTA also has pitched in by building a generous new entry plaza to replace the narrow stairs that used to serve the station. The new space flows into Paseo Verde's own small plaza, and leads visitors around to the front of the apartment house on Ninth Street.

To deal with the train noise, the architects at WRT laid out Paseo Verde as four small bar-shaped buildings perpendicular to the station platform. The Berks corner is marked by a slightly higher module, perched on jaunty, angled legs. The sections, clad in shades of grays punctuated by orange and reds, are connected by a soundproofed corridor that runs parallel to the tracks.

While dictated by necessity, the arrangement has advantages. The four distinct modules hark back to the early 20th-century apartments, like the Ben Franklin House in Center City, which were broken into sections to reduce their mass and ensure that every unit receives ample light. At Paseo Verde, WRT inserted gardens between the bar buildings, providing open space where residents can hang out. Hence the name Paseo Verde, which translates as "Green Lane."

At street level on Ninth Street, the four modules are linked by a one-story commercial space. Faced in a handsome black brick, the ground floor is lined with public uses, including a pharmacy, a health center, and a computer lab. The premier spot, next to the station plaza, remains empty for now while APM mulls over dueling applications from a cafe and a bank. (Go for the cafe!)

Even though APM and Rose were working on a tight construction budget - $147 a square foot vs. the typical $230 - they managed to incorporate just about every energy-saving feature in the book. Paseo Verde includes Philadelphia's first "blue roof," a rooftop water-retention system, as well as green roofs and solar panels. Philadelphia developers should take note: The project boasts more bike spaces than parking spaces.

The bike racks are a concession to a neighborhood in flux. You can't stop neighborhoods from evolving, explains APM development director Rose Gray. All you can do is "try to manage economic change," she says. "If you can build this here, you can build it anywhere in the city."