The main character in the new novel by Philadelphia writer Nathaniel Popkin, Everything is Borrowed, is a cutting-edge architect who has agreed, against his better judgment, to design a large apartment building at Fifth and Bainbridge for a powerful local developer. As his unease with the project grows, Popkin’s protagonist, Nicholas Moscowitz, becomes increasingly distraught over the prospect of selling out. He suffers a midlife crisis and never completes the design.
Imagine the whammy of a nervous breakdown Moscowitz would experience if he had to design the real-life project that — in a remarkable coincidence — is now proposed for the very same Queen Village site. In the book, one of Moscowitz’s big worries is that his client won’t go for his lofty environmental goals. If only that were the issue. In real life, the problem with this building is that it is more about warehousing cars than sheltering people.
The project, which was presented at a community meeting this month, has been commonly described as an apartment building with a small Target store on the ground floor. The truth is, the six-story structure would include a mere 50 apartments, mainly on the top two floors. Sandwiched between the Target and the two top residential floors is a 149-car parking garage. Its presence grossly distorts the design and turns what could be a good project into an objectionable one.
We’ve seen parking-heavy designs like this before, notably at the University City Science Center, easily Philadelphia’s most lifeless neighborhood. By contrast, the site on Bainbridge Street, between Fourth Street and Passyunk Avenue, straddles the border between the bustling South Street corridor and the history-rich residential streets of Queen Village. A tight ring of small businesses, apartments, and rowhouses encircles the site. It’s the definition of a walkable neighborhood.
Admittedly, the site has been used as a surface parking lot for a long time and is currently owned by Harvey Spear’s E-Z Park. While the existing lot accommodates between 57 and 80 cars, Spear and his development partner, Gorman & Co. plan to enlarge the footprint by demolishing four neighboring commercial buildings. All were occupied before the developers decided to sacrifice them for a larger parking structure.
Queen Village residents are rightly up in arms over the project, but they have tended to focus on side issues. Some feel the 75-foot-tall building is out of scale with the surroundings. Others, like Mitchell Cohen, the third-generation owner of Cohen & Co. Hardware, see the arrival of a 21,000-square-foot Target store as an assault on South Street’s identity, the mainstreaming of the “hippest street in town.” The responses to the proposed building mirror the ongoing debate over what South Street should be. In Cohen’s view, the chain retailer “will make us like every other neighborhood.”
That’s overstating things. This is a blip of a Target store, half the size of the suburban versions, and hardly bigger than the old five-and-dimes that were once the general stores of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. It’s true the proposed building would be taller than its neighbors, but not by much. The South Street corridor is home to a variety of building types, including a new five-story apartment house on the 500 block and several similar mid-rises at the western end. Properly designed, these modest apartment buildings can be a boon to commercial corridors, adding a permanent population that will patronize the stores and restaurants.
So the Bainbridge Street project isn’t bad because it’s too tall; it’s bad because it’s tall for the wrong reason.
Why does a 50-unit apartment building and a small Target store in a walkable neighborhood need 149 parking spaces? Answer: It doesn’t. But the developers believe there is money to be made from people who drive to South Street to visit the shops and restaurants.
“Demand at this particular lot has increased over the last three years,” developer Matt Gorman told me. According to Mike Harris, who runs the South Street Headhouse District, infill development on several surface lots has reduced the supply of parking in the neighborhood by almost 200 spaces.
That doesn’t mean there is a crisis. There are still several large parking garages nearby on South Street to pick up the slack. Meanwhile, to accommodate Target’s delivery trucks, it looks as though the neighborhood will have to sacrifice about a dozen on-street parking spaces, Harris says. Getting rid of them amounts to a transfer of public property to private ownership. The more you look at it, the more it seems the tail is wagging the dog in this project.
The worst part is: The garage wrecks the building’s looks. The design, by JKRP Architects, isn’t knock-your-socks-off architecture, but the red-and-gray brick facade is better than average for Philadelphia these days. The firm, which was responsible for 777 S. Broad and Southstar Lofts, layered the red brick portions on top of the gray, creating subtle recesses that add shadow and texture. Yet all that effort is wasted because of the huge amount of parking.
Because the building’s midsection is consumed by three levels of parking, most of the Bainbridge and Leithgow Street facades will have no glass in the window openings, to allow for ventilation. The architects will use mesh screens instead. Architect Jerry Roller says those openings “are scaled to mimic apartment windows.” Sorry. Empty windows are empty windows, and I doubt anyone will be fooled.
There is still time to improve the project. The developers plan to present the design to the Civic Review Board on June 5, but they also need three variances from the Zoning Board.
There are several obvious fixes. Start by reducing the amount of parking being offered to the public. That would immediately allow the architects to lower the height of the building by a floor or two. Even if the developers insist on providing spaces for Target and the building’s residents, they should still relocate the garage. Since this is an L-shape structure, why not push the parking to the back of the site, freeing up space along Bainbridge for more apartments? What kind of developers devote the priciest real estate in the building to cars?
I bet Nicholas Moscowitz would have told them that.