Lets not strip-maul a promising loft district

Big-box stores are a one-size-fits-all form of architecture. These generic sheds are designed to rule the suburban highways from Cherry Hill to Beverly Hills. So why is Philadelphia encouraging a developer to build one of these mega strip malls in the middle of the quirky, up-and-coming Northern Liberties loft district? 

Perhaps the proponents of the Schmidt Plaza project on Girard Avenue at Second Street don't understand what makes a successful urban neighborhood successful, despite excellent models in nearby Old City and Manayunk. 

Northern Liberties hasn't reached their level yet, but it's getting there. It has all the hallmarks of a comeback neighborhood: art galleries, restaurants, distinctive local bars, as well as that key development tool - cafes where you can get decent espresso. Although people have been talking about Northern Liberties' revival for two decades, Realtors say it has finally achieved a critical mass. 

Even long-suffering Girard Avenue is perking up. It is now home to the hottest nightclub in town, the Aqua Lounge; a bakery; a folk-rock club; a Mexican restaurant; and an Albanian grocery store. It's hard to imagine that a suburban-style retail strip with a 1,100-car parking lot is going to add to Northern Liberties' eclectic charm. Those big-box strips are known in the business as "Power Centers. "

And right now, a power center is exactly what developer Bart Blatstein plans to build on the 16-acre tract where the former C. Schmidt & Sons Brewery used to stand. Blatstein has done the neighborhood a service by tearing down the main part of the derelict brewery complex, but his vision for its replacement still needs work. Because no tenants have been signed, there is still time to alter the project. 

Blatstein says he wants to reprise his RiverView Plaza shopping center on Columbus Boulevard, which includes a multiplex theater and a large Staples office-supply store. The difference is that the RiverView is located on a highway strip that is separated from the surrounding neighborhood, while Schmidt Plaza bumps right up against residences. 

In one scheme prepared by J.K. Roller Architects, the loading docks would face a block of stalwart rowhouses that have weathered the hemorrhage of Northern Liberties' industrial base. Blatstein is talking about bringing in Kmart as a tenant, as well as a supermarket. 

But the Schmidt site is more than six blocks from Delaware Avenue and the I-95 interchange, quite a distance for a shopping center that hopes to fill a 1,100-car lot. Because the site has only a tiny toehold on Girard Avenue, the area's main thoroughfare, Blatstein will have to create a sprawling asphalt desert along Second Street to fit in the parking. 

Because the looming Schmidt's Brewery was an eyesore for so long, the project has received tremendous support from Philadelphia officials. Councilman Frank DiCicco sponsored legislation to give Blatstein an $8 million tax-subsidized loan through the city's Tax Incremental Financing program. Mayor Street kicked off demolition in August by knocking out the first brick. 

Their view is that anything built on the site is better than what was there before. But that sort of thinking is a way of excusing the city from doing any serious planning in Northern Liberties. The city is encouraging a car-dependent development on the site at the very same time it is spending $150,000 on streetscape improvements to make Girard Avenue more pedestrian-friendly. You can't have a giant parking lot and a nice place to stroll at the same time. 

Even DiCicco now seems less enthusiastic about the proposed strip mall. "I never shop in big-box stores like Home Depot. I always patronize the neighborhood hardware store, even if I have to pay a few dollars more," he told me, before going on to rue the continuing suburbanization of Philadelphia's landscape. He said he supported the project only because he didn't see other viable options for the site. 

But local residents can sure think of a few. In keeping with Blatstein's plan to turn the historic Boone school on the edge of the site into loft apartments, architect Timothy McDonald has suggested that the developer also preserve Schmidt's original brewhouse, a once-elegant relic of Philadelphia's beer-making past. The brewhouse is the only building on the Schmidt site still standing, although it is slated for demolition. With its dramatic four-story atrium, McDonald believes the building could make a fine location for a brew pub. 

Schmidt's brewhouse is one of the last remaining buildings by architect Otto C. Wolf, who designed industrial buildings to look like small temples. Preserving the distinctive building would prevent Blatstein's development from being just another anonymous shopping center.

With the brewhouse and the school framing the site, all sorts of possibilities emerge. What about combining a small-scaled retail complex with new loft-style apartments? 

The American Street Empowerment Zone is now considering giving Blatstein a low-interest loan to help finance the development. But its officials are deeply concerned about what a vast strip mall would do to the neighborhood. They plan to ask Blatstein to revise his design as a condition of the loan. That is a fine idea. For all the money Philadelphia is putting into this project, taxpayers deserve to get something that looks as if it belongs in a city.