Fresh food amid a stale design

This article was originally published on January 29, 2010.

During the last decade, America's supermarket chains made a startling discovery: City residents have to eat, too. The chains went into expansion mode, erecting spacious, modern stores in Philadelphia neighborhoods that hadn't seen a fresh apple in decades. 

That's the good part of our story. 

Unfortunately, most food retailers design their stores on autopilot. In the absence of oversight from the Street administration, the chains put up the same buildings they always do, stand-alone boxes adrift in acres of parking. Most made no provisions for sidewalks or bus stops within their blacktop oases. Then they applauded themselves for bringing a suburban, car-oriented amenity to folks who live in rowhouses, often without cars. 

Given the dismal competition, North Philadelphia's Progress Plaza is hardly the worst-designed shopping center to emerge from the decade's fresh-food frenzy. It just happens to be the worst-designed one in the best location. 

The newly remodeled and enlarged plaza at Broad and Oxford Streets, which opened in December, is also the only one with a history. Originally built in 1968, it claims the honor of being the first black-owned shopping center in the nation, and the brainchild of the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan. 

He can be excused for imposing that suburban form on Philadelphia's great boulevard. In those days, shopping centers were synonymous with suburban privilege, while Broad Street's tightly packed commercial storefronts were seen as second-rate. 

But today we're wise enough to admire Broad Street's early 20th-century commercial buildings and rue the flimsy, drive-in interlopers. 

Sullivan, the late pastor of Zion Baptist Church, would hardly recognize the old neighborhood now. Broad and Oxford marks the southern boundary of Temple University's increasingly lively campus, now home to 11,000 resident students. After the Avenue North complex arrived in 2006, with its multiplex theater and row of gleaming, glass-fronted shops, the intersection looked poised to become the new commercial hub of North Philadelphia. 

Progress Plaza has now derailed that dream with a big blank wall located kitty-corner from the movie theater. Goodbye vibrancy, hello dead zone, it shrieks. 

That concrete-block wall casts its mean shadow across half the block's length. If you happened upon it from the north, as many of Temple's students do, you wouldn't know that the red-and-white structure enclosed a luxurious new Fresh Grocer supermarket until you had covered a good 100 feet. 

Ironically, that's when the plaza design starts to improve. Inside, the store is as lavish as they come, with polished concrete floors, soft lighting, and a wood-burning oven that turns out camera-ready disks of pizza. 

On Broad Street, three traditional, glass-fronted retail spaces pick up the march to the Jefferson Street corner. But by then, many pedestrians will have lost interest in walking any farther. 

By the standards of its peers - such as the depressingly oversize ShopRite complex near the Mann Music Center in Parkside - Progress Plaza made good use of its land. Its surface lot is modest, and motorists are directed to a parking area on the supermarket roof. A bar-shaped building holds the back edge of the plaza, featuring ground-floor shops with two levels of office space above. 

It's the gulf between what is and what could have been that makes the renovated plaza so maddening. 

By the time the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the project, South Street's Whole Foods development already had established the preferred urban model: That ground-floor store has big windows and forms the base of a well-camouflaged garage. 

But for the Street administration, any development was good development. The Zoning Board chief, David Auspitz, cut short Progress Plaza 's hearing with a regal wave, declaring that the project was so good it didn't need a public discussion.  

After that, the developer, Progress Investment Associates, didn't see any reason to visit the Planning Commission with its design. Had the project been proposed for South Broad Street - the whiter part of the boulevard - city law would have automatically mandated a planning review. Why wasn't North Broad accorded the same respect? 

Wendell R. Whitlock, Progress Investment's chairman, argues that the blank wall hasn't hurt the plaza's business one bit.  

But it's easy to see that the plaza's design does hurt the neighborhood by constraining its further improvement. Given that Gov. Rendell and State Rep. Dwight Evans arranged for the state to pick up $5 million of the renovation's $20 million cost, one might expect more civic-minded behavior from the for-profit Progress Investment.  

You would think that the entity that financed the project might have intervened. The construction loan came from the Reinvestment Fund, which is dedicated to improving urban neighborhoods. Donald R. Hinkle-Brown, who runs the fund's lending program, now concedes that the blank wall "was a lost opportunity. "

The fund, incidentally, has helped finance nearly all the new, suburban-style supermarkets in the city, including a Fresh Grocer at 56th and Market Streets and one at La Salle University. That makes the fund a powerful force in shaping the form of Philadelphia's neighborhoods. 

Yet, none of the new supermarkets, the plaza included, makes any real connection to the local shopping district. Don't healthy residents still need healthy neighborhoods? Why encourage more car-oriented development in a city where obesity is a scourge? 

When the Rev. Leon Sullivan first imagined Progress Plaza , North Philadelphia was being written off by the city. Now, with Temple's growth and Center City's expansion northward, it's just a few years from being reintegrated into Philadelphia's successful core. Let's hope there are no more blank walls to interfere with progress. 

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.