For decades, Philadelphia has dreamed of lining its two rivers with urbane apartment houses, only to end up with an unsightly jumble of garage-dominated towers, big-box stores, fast-food restaurants, and surface lots. Developers keep telling us the threat of flooding makes it impossible for them to build the kind of pedestrian-friendly projects that would help the waterfronts evolve into real neighborhoods. And so we end up with horrors like Dockside on the Delaware and PMC’s latest Schuylkill River apartment project, where the first thing visitors see is the soaring wall of a garage.
Two recent proposals for the Delaware offer clever workarounds to this depressing situation. The architects for Piers 34-35 (immediately south of Dockside) and for the former Foxwoods site have come up with housing designs that prioritize pedestrians and public space while still managing to accommodate parking. If they can do it, so can other waterfront projects.
The two proposals couldn’t be more different. The one at Piers 34-35, across from the I-95 exit, is a 22-story slab tower with high-design aspirations. The work of Philadelphia’s Digsau architects, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the High Line’s celebrated Standard Hotel by Ennead Architects. The other project, located between Reed and Tasker, is a conventional rowhouse development that would populate the eastern half of the Foxwoods site.
If it’s true that “good architects borrow and great architects steal,” then Digsau has pulled off an impressive heist at the piers. Taking their cues from the Standard, which floats above the High Line to avoid blocking the walkway, Digsau’s designers have similarly lifted their building above the piers, supporting the structure on concrete stilts. That one architecture move not only takes care of the flooding issues, it sets the stage for a series of public-spirited features.
What’s ironic is that their design flouts everything we’ve been told about how waterfront buildings ought to behave. Urbanists have traditionally argued for the model perfected in Vancouver, where slender high-rises are spaced out along the harbor to preserve views of the water. The Central Delaware master plan embraced that exact concept for Philadelphia. But Digsau’s 308-unit apartment house would turn its wide side to the shore.
In reality, there can be problems with the Vancouver model, as Dockside painfully demonstrates. Placing the narrow facade of a high-rise along the street doesn’t leave much room for activities aimed at pedestrians. Virtually all Dockside’s street frontage is taken up by the garage entrance. You can barely make out the location of the lobby door. Dockside is like a person without a face, expressionless and inscrutable.
Digsau’s main reason for avoiding that arrangement isn’t entirely selfless: Two parallel pier buildings would have canceled out each other’s views. But the architects quickly realized that the advantage of setting the wide facade — which would measure 218 feet — on Columbus Boulevard is that it creates more opportunity for pedestrian activity.
Even though half the building’s facade is given over to the garage entrance, there is still plenty of frontage left over for a lobby, walkway, and small retail building. The project’s developer, Kambiz Babaoff, chairman of Ensemble Investments, told me the company hopes to land a gourmet market for the retail space, even if it means subsidizing the operator. “We see it as important to the place-making,” he said.
That progressive thinking is everywhere in this design. As anyone who has spent time on the western end of JFK Boulevard knows, the downside of slab towers is that they create long, dull walls along the street. Digsau avoided that fate here by creasing the facade like an open book (similiar to the Standard’s center hinge) and pinching the north and south ends.
By lifting the apartment house 40 feet off the ground, Digsau was also able to open up views of the water. Rather than build on both piers, Ensemble hopes to set aside the southern one for a wetland with a walking path. The model, says Digsau’s Mark Sanderson, is Spruce Harbor Park, the waterside midway a couple of blocks upriver.
The concept will need a sign-off from the Army Corps of Engineers, but assuming the proposal flies, the wetland will be designed by Groundswell, the same landscape architecture firm that created Spruce Harbor Park. Along with being a nice place to hang out, it will serve as a buffer against flooding. To raise the lobby above the level of the floodplain, Digsau has fashioned an almost invisible ramp from Columbus Boulevard to the front door.
Yes, there will be a garage in this project, just like Dockside, but it’s tucked behind the building. By using an automated storage system, Ensemble can house 100 cars in the single-story structure. The plan calls for camouflaging it further with green walls and a rooftop amenity space. My one beef is that the driveway from Columbus Boulevard is way wider than it needs to be. That space should be allocated to the pedestrian plaza. Or, better yet, extend the lobby toward the street.
Despite its much lower scale, the townhouse project proposed for the Foxwoods site also offers a public-spirited vision for the waterfront. Once owned entirely by developer Bart Blatstein, the eastern half was recently sold to U.S. Construction. It threw out an earlier plan for the property in which the houses were stiffly arranged like rows of soldiers on a parade ground, with few streets or public spaces between the brigades.
The new version, put together by Atrium Design Group, civilizes the layout. There would still be 169 rowhouses arrayed across the two-block-site, but Atrium’s Snežana Litvinovic has organized them around garden blocks, similar to St. Albans Street in Graduate Hospital. Those landscape spaces provide play space for children, as well as walkways to the river.
Meanwhile, to deal with the flooding issue, she elevated the living rooms to the second floor. There are garages at ground level, but they are in the back and accessed by alleys. If we were designing Philadelphia’s rowhouse neighborhoods from scratch, the alleys would be the way go.
Despite the master plan’s recommendation to extend the city’s street grid to the river’s edge, few developers have taken the call seriously. Atrium’s plan would run three city streets — Reed, Dickinson, and Tasker — across the development, where they would meet up with a new, north-south boulevard that parallels the water and gives the project its name: Waterfront Boulevard. Litvinovic says U.S. Construction is committed to creating a 50-foot setback allowing the Delaware River trail to be extended through the property, from Tasker to Reed.
What a boost that would be to the waterfront’s evolution. This spring, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. will start construction of the trail segment behind the Walmart shopping center, immediately south of the Waterfront Boulevard site. The agency also plans to upgrade the section north of the planned townhouses.
A lot can change between now and spring. Both projects need government approvals. But together they show that it is possible to design buildings that welcome pedestrians — not just cars — to Philadelphia’s waterfronts.