Changing Skyline: Big, bold building for traditional Chestnut Hill

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The landscaped driveway and placement of the supermarket off the street are among the design features that helped One West integrate itself into the surroundings in Chestnut Hill. This approach could succeed in other traditional neighborhoods.

Chestnut Hill does not do change easily. Several years ago, when a Germantown Avenue toy store dared to paint its old-timey facade in rainbow colors, it seemed like the keening could be heard all the way to Center City. The neighborhood once put a stop to a proposed Exxon gas station by appealing directly to major shareholders living in Chestnut Hill. (Yes, shareholders, plural.) "Development" has always been something that happens to other Philadelphia neighborhoods.

So imagine the consternation when in 2011 a local developer proposed a mid-rise condo building in the middle of the shopping district on Germantown Avenue. With a supermarket. And townhouses.

A petition opposing the building garnered a thousand signatures, and that was before Change.org made such efforts easy. Committees were formed, and intense negotiations ensued.

But, gradually, the neighbors came around to the idea. For one thing, they realized the project was an improvement over the existing use, a car dealership with noisy service bays. And it helped that the developer, Bowman Properties' Richard Snowden, agreed to a list of concessions to minimize the building's heft. He even footed the bill to reverse a street, Hartwell Lane, to improve traffic flow.

Now nearing completion, the five-story building, called One West, is the first new commercial building in Chestnut Hill in 20 years - a generation in development time. It has turned out to be more than just a model neighbor: It also is a model for how to insert a complex, mixed-use development into Philadelphia's sensitive, low-rise neighborhoods.

While still a strong presence on Germantown Avenue, One West draws up to its neighbors as comfortably as an easy chair before a fire. That has as much to do with the placement of the retail as it does the superb architectural craftsmanship and wedding-cake setbacks on the upper floors. The brick-and-stone building was a joint production of Runyan & Associates and SPG3 Architects, which designed the Whole Foods building on South Street.

The inclination in such mixed-use developments is to place the supermarket front and center for maximum customer visibility. But most grocers tend to block up their windows with displays or posters, a practice that sucks the life out of urban shopping streets. Though SPG3's South Street store was a good early effort, the Chestnut Hill design is a big advance.

Snowden deserves credit for taking the road less traveled. He had to persuade his lead tenant, Fresh Market, to locate its store on the side of the building, near the back of the lot. To access the grocery, the designers created a long driveway that looks and functions like a street, complete with a real sidewalk running the length of the building, angled parking, and a row of trees. A tasteful sign and pocket park on Germantown Avenue direct shoppers to the store.

It's a simple move, but it changes everything about the way One West engages with the neighborhood. By putting Fresh Market on the side, the team freed up the front of the building for small stores. That continues Germantown Avenue's natural retail rhythm. You wonder why more urban supermarket projects - or for that matter, drugstores - don't consider a similar strategy.

There are other advantages to shifting the grocery off the main street. Because supermarkets need to handle deliveries from tractor-trailers, the driveway makes it easy for the trucks to reach a discreet loading dock at the rear of the building. As a bonus, the side location gave Fresh Market plenty of sidewalk space to set up a dining patio near its front door. If you're going to have surface parking (86 spaces), this is the way to do it, with extensive landscaping and quality materials.

There are neighborhoods around the region clamoring for a supermarket like this, but too many are unwilling to pay the real price: density.

What makes the $35 million project economically feasible are the 20 apartments above the shops. Because this is Chestnut Hill, they're condos - prices start at $875,000 - but they could have just as easily been rentals or even subsidized housing. One West demonstrates that a large apartment building doesn't have to be overbearing.

Apartments in small commercial districts (and not just Center City) are a growing trend. As the population ages, they allow people to downsize while sticking around the neighborhood. Residents like the activity, explains Snowden, who owned hundreds of apartments near Germantown Avenue, including one he lives in. "You walk out your front door and it's a party," he says. He also plans a row of townhouses at the rear of the lot, on Shawnee Street.

Even with its smart layout, this project wouldn't be half as good if the architecture were less skilled.

The setbacks on the upper floors make the large mid-rise feel less blocky and ensure terraces for the residents. Architect Stan Runyan's facade design is, as might be expected, a modern take on tradition. But he rigorously keeps the details from devolving into the twee. Even the requisite Wissahickon schist at the base is given a tight shave, rather than its usual stubble finish. The flat, ashlar cut brings a sophisticated urban feel to the building.

Now that so many apartment houses are being packaged up in dull metal panels, it's a real pleasure to see a building finished in quality materials, installed by skilled brick masons. Snowden even sprang for Belgian block around the sidewalk tree pits. The landscaping helps mitigate the large blank wall on Hartwell Lane, which faces a row of houses. Once the extensive wooden millwork around the windows is painted dark green, they will become more recessive.

Some Chestnut Hill residents feared the supermarket would draw business from the beloved Weavers Way Co-op, two blocks away, and the farmers' market across from One West. But having multiple food stores in the area should make the avenue even more of a grocery destination. If history is any guide, Chestnut Hill residents aren't likely to change their shopping habits entirely.

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