Updated: Friday, December 26, 2014, 1:07 AM
If you're looking for an easy way to describe the ambitious, $230 million mixed-used project that will soon sprout from a block-size hole on East Market Street, across from the Reading headhouse, just call it the anti-Gallery.
For years, the Gallery has been seen as a primo example of how not to design a retail complex in an urban setting. The building is too monolithic, too monotonous, too introverted. Its design dates from the time when enclosed urban malls were heralded as the replacement for the traditional downtown shopping experience.
Now the pendulum and our tastes, especially those of millennials, have swung the other way, and the Gallery is about to be upstaged by a retail project that does everything it can to mimic a traditional downtown shopping district. The development team - a group of local and national investors led by National Real Estate Development - has begun taking down the remains of the former Snellenburg store for the project, which they're calling "East Market." Eventually, it will span the entire four-acre block, from Market to Chestnut, between 11th and 12th.
East Market's master plan calls for no fewer than six buildings, and will incorporate high-rise apartments, boutique offices, and a small hotel. All of the retail will be at ground level, with entrances on the street. And, in a move that should warm the hearts of urbanists everywhere, the large site is being brought down to neighborhood scale by a network of interior streets.
Like the old-school malls, East Market will still have its share of big-name chains: Uniqlo, Topshop, and Neiman Marcus' Last Call are all being courted. But those stores will have other kinds of tenants as neighbors: bars, restaurants, a gourmet grocer, and a fitness center. Residents and office workers will populate the upper floors, providing a built-in clientele for the retail. All this is in the first phase, between Market and Clover Streets, and should be finished by the spring of 2016.
East Market may sound like a bland name for such a radical shift away from Philadelphia's usual car-centric development, but that's intentional. While East Market does tuck 210 parking spaces underground, they're meant for apartment residents. The developers see the project as serving the city's residential core and tourists who wander by.
The name also signals that East Market is about place-making. All of the buildings will be known by their addresses, rather than an invented brand, says Daniel Killinger, who is overseeing the project's development. Killinger once worked for the developer Tony Goldman, famous for dusting off historic buildings and making them anchors for redevelopment in places like SoHo, South Beach, and Philadelphia's 13th Street. Killinger has picked up the same instincts.
East Market also uses older buildings as a way to infuse the new development with a ready-made past. The diminutive Stephen Girard tower on 12th Street - Philadelphia's first skyscraper - is being eyed as a hotel, while Snellenburg's 11th Street warehouse is being "re-skinned" and marketed as office space for small creative firms.
While it's sad to lose its creamy terra cotta facade, which has been deemed unsalvageable, the new one by New York's Morris Adjmi is a worthy replacement. Adjmi started out working for the celebrated Aldo Rossi, and has perfected a neo-industrial style on buildings such as Brooklyn's Wythe Hotel. It would be great if the developers could use the same approach to retain the art deco parking garage on the Chestnut Street edge of their site.
There is no doubt that East Market's place-making is part of a calculated branding strategy, intended to trade on our memories of Market Street's retail heyday. The marketing prospectus for East Market is so packed with images of natural fabrics, vintage cameras, and old-timey cobbled streets that it could be mistaken for a J. Crew catalog. But who cares when the plan is so perfectly in sync with what the city needs in this place, at this moment?
The irony is that the master plan is the work of the same firm that designed the Gallery four decades ago, BLT Architects. It virtually owns the look of East Market - the street, that is. Over the years, its architects have produced a long list of acceptable, but unmemorable, designs: SEPTA's headquarters, the Marriott Hotel, and PSFS and Strawbridge renovations.
To make East Market look like it evolved organically, its developers have pulled in multiple architects. BLT will design the development's retail buildings along Market, and the two 17-story towers that will sit on top. It's clean, straightforward architecture, which will be faced in precast, limestone-colored panels that defer to the PSFS building.
Their real accomplishment, however, is the way they've organized the things we prefer not to think about: the loading docks. They're hidden underground and will be discreetly accessed from 12th Street.
They're also the ones who pushed the idea of breaking up the block with an interior street network. Most large-scale urban developments tend to erase the eccentricities of the city grid. East Market will put the quirky back by resurrecting the block's original alley streets, Ludlow and Clover, and introducing one pedestrian walk that will connect Market and Chestnut.
It's not just smart urbanism, it's smart business. Instead of one building with four possible frontages for retail, the developers get six with 24 facades.
While the developers are going to great lengths to give East Market a vintage patina, there will be one distinct difference: digital signs. East Market is the first to take advantage of the city's new Market Street sign district. There's big money in those electronic billboards.
It will be a tricky balancing act to integrate those commercial screens in a development that also hopes to attract residents and offbeat office tenants. Killinger says the signs will be limited to the Market Street retail facades, and insists the atmosphere will become edgier as the project shifts south, toward Washington Square West and 13th Street's so-called Midtown Village.
Screens aside, there is good reason to hope that no one should ever confuse East Market with a shopping mall.
Read full story: Changing Skyline: The anti-Gallery