Philadelphia granary plan harvests a bounty of bland design

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The granary at 20th and Callowhill Streets is a certified landmark. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer))

When we last left the massive redoubt of the old granary at 20th and Callowhill Streets, Pearl Properties was proposing to scale its great turreted roof with a thrilling, though problematic, design for an apartment tower. But because the former grain silo is a certified landmark, the Historical Commission rightly poured hot oil on the idea.

Now the developer is back with a completely revised proposal that preserves the granary's virtues and shifts the apartments to an adjacent parking lot, kitty-corner from the rising Barnes Foundation. In urbanist terms, Pearl is offering an Eagle Scout of a plan, as well-mannered a design as anyone in Philadelphia could want.

As for the architecture, well, there isn't any.

Why does it have to end up this way, with ambitious design sacrificed for the sake of good urbanism?

Theoretically, there is no reason the granary project couldn't have both. There are plenty of daredevil designers in Philadelphia, but too often their projects display a callous disregard for the city's street life and history. Meanwhile, the nice guys bore us to tears. Since today marks the start of DesignPhiladelphia, the annual celebration of the city's design culture, maybe this is a good time to give the problem an airing.

You would see exactly what I'm talking about if you looked at the new granary renderings. But Pearl's management, James R. Pearlstein and Reed J. Slogoff, wouldn't provide the images - or, for that matter, return my phone calls. The folks at Blackney Hayes Architects didn't call back, either. Since their name has been spotted on the project documents, I have to assume they're the ones designing Pearl's eight-story Callowhill Street apartment block.

Fortunately, this is a city of a thousand hearings, so no project stays under wraps very long. I finally got a look at the new design last month when Pearlstein gave a PowerPoint to illustrate his plans to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. Won over, the group voted to back the developers' request for a zoning variance.

It's hard to imagine the association doing otherwise. After members raised a ruckus in June over the height of Pearl's original proposal, designed by Interface Studio Architects, the developer dropped ISA and went back to the drawing board. The new design wholeheartedly addresses all the group's concerns and also adheres to Logan Square's master plan.

In this version, the historic granary gets the respect it deserves. Instead of shearing off its crown to provide a landing for a 12-story tower, Pearl will now construct a mid-rise with 198 units on its Callowhill Street parking lot.

The proposed bar-shaped apartment house checks off every urban must-do: The entire ground floor will be lined with shops. Sidewalks will be 16 feet wide and generously landscaped. The parking garage is tucked out of sight in the granary basement. And not one, but two, green roofs are planned.

What's more, Pearl is pledging a complete renovation of the granary itself and plans to turn its signature turrets into 12 apartments. Pearlstein told the neighborhood group that he intended to enliven the 20th Street side of the concrete castle by opening up the solid facade and installing a restaurant.

The only weak note is Pearl's plan for a bridge over Shamokin Street, to connect the granary and the new apartment house. That elevated passage will just keep people off the street, while gouging an unnecessary hole in the granary. (The Historical Commission is scheduled to vote Friday on the bridge issue.) Overall, Pearl's plan should do wonders for the lively micro-neighborhood that has emerged on the Barnes periphery.

Neighborhood groups have become Philadelphia's design policemen, keeping the streets safe for pedestrians. Yet, once the basic urban-design issues are settled, they rarely bother with the higher aesthetic ones. (The hot issue at the Logan Square meeting was the project's potential impact on the area's dog population.)

But if there is a current project where the city ought to pay attention to looks, it's Pearl's granary. As the first new residential development on the periphery of the Barnes Foundation, it will set the standard for future construction in that underdeveloped area north of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Pearlstein's PowerPoint gave only a general outline of how the future design will look. The images of the Callowhill Street facade were chopped off after the third floor.

Still, it was clear that there was not much to break up the relentless, nearly block-long building. Pearlstein maintained that the images were only a "massing" diagram to show how the apartment building would sit on the site, and that no decision had been made about materials.

That's hard to believe with the construction schedule he outlined. Explaining that the project must be fast-tracked for financing reasons, Pearlstein vowed to break ground in March and finish construction in 14 months. Given that the architects started work on the current scheme a mere three months ago, the only way to meet that schedule is to turn out a generic box.

The results are likely to resemble another recent Blackney Hayes project, the Pearl condos at Ninth and Arch Streets in Chinatown. That's not architecture; it's shelter duded up with a variety of panels. The view along the block-long facade is as unchanging as the Sahara.

Of course, such flat, uninflected boxes are the cheapest, easiest, fastest thing developers can build, which is why we're seeing so many of them. The proposed Family Court at 15th and Arch is the civic equivalent of the same bland box.

Pearl Properties once dared to do better. It got the ambition part right the first time. Now it has the urbanism part right. Both are necessary.


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