New Children's Hospital campus yearns for the big city, but can't leave the office park behind

The new research tower of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia looks good from the South Street Bridge.

When Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia began laying the groundwork a few years back for a high-rise research campus on the Schuylkill waterfront, some wondered whether the plan might be too big and urban for the diminutive rowhouse neighborhoods clustered nearby. Now that the first of four planned towers has been completed — the Roberts Center for Pediatric Research — the problem turns out to be the opposite: The hospital’s vision is far too suburban for its Center City location.

At 22 stories, the blue-glass building by Pelli Clarke Pelli certainly looks urban enough, especially viewed from a distance. Because the stout, cylindrical tower sits beside the South Street Bridge, the form suggests a medieval gatehouse, guarding the entrance to the city. Its curves are in all the right places, concave ones to greet the street, convex along the river.

It’s only when you reach the drawbridge, so to speak, on South Street that it becomes clear height and density don’t automatically translate into urbanity. Though the outdoor areas are all accessible to the public, and there are some truly enjoyable moments, you are always aware of being in a sterile, hypermanaged hospital complex. The castle motif isn’t just a clever design idea; it’s embedded in the DNA of the entire project.

Camera icon Tom Gralish
The entrance plaza at the Roberts Center for Pediatric Research is overwhelmed by large planters.

You see it in the moatlike array of plazas, planters, and landscaped berms that buffer the building from the surrounding neighborhood, rather than connect it. You see it in the gargantuan maw of the garage that interrupts the flow of pedestrians, bikes, and cars on the South Street Bridge. The brick-colored panels on the tower’s lower floors are meant to connect the glass facade to the redbrick neighborhood but end up pandering instead. Maybe the fullest expression of the office-park aesthetic is a street sign that reads, “Office Drive.”

Hospitals have always been hardwired to control their environment, probably because they must be constantly on guard against unsanitary conditions. Unfortunately, their heightened vigilance often extends into the realm beyond the hospital walls. Rather than fight this tendency, Philadelphia agreed a decade ago to create a dedicated hospital district on the west side of the Schuylkill. Dominated by a street loop that links all the driveways, garages, and lobbies, it isn’t a place you would ever want to spend your free time.

Even though Children’s Hospital has a big footprint in the district, it decided it would be better able to compete for talent if it could have research offices in a real neighborhood, a place where going for a walk didn’t mean hopscotching among driveways. It acquired a group of handsome industrial buildings on the Schuylkill’s Center City side, leveled the structures, and hired the New York firm Cooper Robertson to produce a master plan for the 8.5-acre site.

Camera icon Inga Saffron
Children’s Hospital built a new pedestrian bridge to connect its research campus to the Schuylkill River Trail. A new section of the trail from South to Christian Streets will open in December.

To make the massive redevelopment palatable to the low-rise neighborhood, the plan deliberately included a substantial amount of open space. The hospital even donated a crucial riverfront parcel that was needed to extend the Schuylkill River Trail south to Christian Street. It also agreed to build a pedestrian bridge to the new trail section, which opens in December.

With all that, the plan was still met with enormous neighborhood resistance when it was presented in 2013. Residents argued — correctly — that the hospital buildings needed to come to the sidewalk, especially along Schuylkill Avenue, with ground-floor spaces that could accommodate retail and restaurants. They won a few concessions, but not enough.

Children’s Hospital was stung by the criticism, and officials refused to speak to me for this column. They seem to believe that by building lavish outdoor spaces, they had done right by the neighborhood.

The hospital certainly spared no expense on the landscaped plazas, executed by Philadelphia’s Ground Reconsidered. It’s the sensibility that’s off.

Camera icon Tom Gralish
The street sign installed by Children’s Hospital marking the entrance to the parking garage at the South Street Bridge.

The worst offender is the entry plaza at the South Street Bridge. The wedge-shaped space leads to a promenade overlooking the Schuylkill, but its surface is overwhelmed by enormous planters that seem to exist purely to control your path to the tower’s front door. The lobby has a pretty good lunch place, the Waterfront Gourmet, but strangely no outdoor tables on the promenade. With its white walls, generic seating, and harsh lighting, the cafe screams corporate cafeteria. Meanwhile, the garage, a temporary structure faced in plasticky brown stucco, resembles the back end of a Costco.

A similar blandness exists at Bainbridge Place, the plaza below the South Street Bridge on Schuylkill Avenue. Originally conceived as an enormous curving driveway, Bainbridge Place was reconfigured to do double duty as flexible open space. No curb separates the driveway and the central plaza, which is shaded by lacy honey locust trees. The corner of the garage facing the plaza was outfitted with  retail space that can house a restaurant (and, presumably, include outdoor seating). The hospital has promised to hold health fairs and a farmers’ market in the plaza.

Unfortunately, when nothing is going on, it’s just a beautiful space to walk through. There aren’t many places to sit. For that, you need to continue toward the staircase that Cooper Robertson dubbed the “Spanish Steps,” after the popular hangout in Rome.

Camera icon Inga Saffron
An area along Schuylkill Avenue that should be lined with active uses is treated with a landscaped berm.

Once again, the design quality is unusually high. The staircase is embedded within an elaborate, interlocking geometric composition that includes a zigzagging ramp. Benches made from rot-resistant ipe wood are notched into the planters. The ramp would make a perfect racecourse for a 3-year-old, as well as a nice spot to take in views of the sun setting over Center City.

But as in the main plaza, your movement is determined by the enormous planters that dominate the space. You get the sense these walkways were established to give hospital employees something to do on their lunch break, like the circular walking tracks you see around some office parks.

The antiurban urbanism at Children’s Hospital is something we’re likely to see repeated as the east bank of the Schuylkill explodes with high-rise development. Carl Dranoff’s new condo tower, One Riverside, at 25th and Locust, is a study in wasted waterfront property. The skinny tower is served by a massively overscale driveway, paved, of course, in expensive stone blocks.

And next week, the Civic Design board will consider PMC Property Group’s twin towers, 60 N. 23rd St. Though the design by Gensler extends a street through the site to the river, it is essentially a long driveway that leads to an automobile turnaround and a garage entrance.

Of course, it is buffered by large planters.

Camera icon Gensler
View of PMC’s 63 N. 23rd St. tower project from 23rd and Arch. The space between the towers should be usable for the public, but instead, it is a driveway with large planters that keep the public from fully enjoying the waterfront location.