Let's cheer the humble mid-rise and the return of North Broad Street

By filling in two large parking lots on North Broad Street, the Hanover apartments are helping to bridge the 676 divide and reconnect Center City to Lower North Philadelphia.

Let us consider the humble mid-rise apartment building.

If skyscrapers have always been the urban stars, bedazzling us with their audacious height, mid-rises are more like the supporting players. That means they suffer the same fate as ensembles everywhere. They rarely get the attention they deserve.

Yet, as residential construction has boomed over the last decade, hundreds, if not thousands, of these workhorse structures have been quietly going up across the country. You see them not only in the redeveloping sections of major cities, but also in urbanizing suburbs, like King of Prussia and Conshohocken. In some rebounding American cities, where new residential neighborhoods are being created out of whole cloth, mid-rises are so numerous they are now the dominant architectural type, forming the main backdrop of daily life.

The big reason mid-rises are so popular with developers is that they are significantly cheaper to build than high-rises. Under the standard building code, anything under six stories can be framed in wood, rather than concrete or steel, reducing material costs by 20 percent to 50 percent. Urbanists like them, too, because the scale is less overpowering and they can be lined at street level with shops and restaurants. 

The problem is, it’s not easy to design a six-story building on a developer’s budget that looks halfway interesting. Setbacks are almost nonexistent because developers are always trying to cram in as many units as possible, and the facades are often covered in cheap metal panels. 

To liven things up, architects usually fall back on the same handful of tricks. They can either arrange the facade in a geometric pattern that breaks up the monotony and makes the building appear a little bit taller. Or they can try to persuade the developer to spring for some brick veneer or bay windows to give the flat surface some depth and shadow. Yet, with all that, the typical mid-rise still ends up looking like the architectural equivalent of a white shirt and khakis. Cookie-cutter blandness rules. 

Given the challenges of the form, the design of the new Hanover Co. project on North Broad Street comes as a pleasant surprise. The development, overseen by Baltimore’s Design Collective, consists of two six-story buildings that face each other at Broad and Callowhill. Though they will never be confused with high architecture, the skillful composition, better-than-average materials, and unexpected design flourishes make them a handsome pair. 

The buildings sit a block north of the I-676 canyon, which has long formed a psychological barrier between Center City and North Philadelphia. For decades, the two enormous parcels were used by Parkway Corp. as surface parking. The presence of the parallel empty lots immediately north of the highway only accentuated the feeling that you had entered a barren no-man’s land. Even though Callowhill is the same distance from City Hall as Pine Street -- a mere half mile -- it seemed a world away.

The sense of distance has been shrinking as development pushes north of the highway. To the west, the Mormon church is finishing up a mixed-use complex that features a 32-story apartment tower. The Callowhill loft district sits just to the east. When the new Reading Viaduct rail park opens next year, it will be the neighborhood park for Hanover’s residents. 

Those projects were still in the early stages when Hanover started, but Design Collective architect Michael Goodwin said he immediately recognized that the two buildings would become the gateway for the reviving North Broad Street corridor, and that developers (Hanover and Parkway), couldn’t turn out just another pair of mid-rise clones. He has worked on at least nine mid-rise projects, including the massive Eastside Bond project in Pittsburgh and the Metropolitan apartments in Columbia, Md.

“I thought to myself, ‘How many times am I going to get to work on both sides of a boulevard in a major city?’ ” Goodwin told me. “It’s five blocks north of City Hall. I felt we had to do something special and unique.”

That required some persuasion. Like many big residential builders, the Houston-based Hanover takes a chain-store approach to development, turning out the same product over and over. It has produced nearly 7,000 mid-rise units around the country and is building the Villages at Valley Forge. A quick tour of its website makes the values clear: Photos of building exteriors are few. All the emphasis is on the usual luxe array of stone countertops, stainless steel appliances, “Texas-size closets.” Nearly every mid-rise includes an identical amenity deck equipped with barbecue pits, benches, and bocce courts. 

For Philadelphia, Goodwin felt Hanover’s buildings needed to have a strong urban look, and he persuaded the company to spring for more than the usual amounts of brick on the exterior. Despite the toll that decades of neglect have taken on North Broad, the sites are bounded by a trio of extraordinary buildings: Albert Kahn’s Packard Building, Simon & Simon’s 401 Building, and the former Inquirer and Daily News Building. 

Because those buildings are all light in color, the architects chose a tan brick, arranging it in vertical sections to break up the long Broad Street facades. The brick is accented with terra cotta-colored metal panels and gray trim. The color adds pop but is used with restraint. Balconies and slightly recessed windows help animate the facades.

The best design move can be seen at the corners, where the architects pull back to create small setbacks. Slightly inbound from the corners, they use narrow bands of gray metal to frame the facades. In more expensive construction, those cantilevered bands would have been made of steel. Here, they are pressure-treated wood covered with metal panels. Not only does the detailing make the buildings more interesting, the setbacks create several penthouse units with terraces and double-height living rooms that the developer can market at a premium. 

Still, chain developers can be pushed only so far. As part of Hanover’s marketing effort, it has been touting the apartments' walkability to Center City.  But it wants things both ways: The Hanover buildings have far more parking than the 100 spaces Philadelphia’s zoning code requires. Thanks to the acquiescence of the Zoning Board, which handed Hanover two variances, there are now 300 spaces for 339 units, housed in internal garages on the ground floor behind the Broad Street retail.

The reason has to do with its partnership with Parkway, which owns the garage spaces and which wanted a sizable public parking component. Parkway  insisted that it needed to put the main entrances on Broad Street to give the garages the most visibility and ensure that potential customers didn't pass them by. 

In fact, drivers can easily access both garages from the north and south sides of both buildings, although the entrances might be a little less obvious. But by having curb cuts on Broad Street, the developers interrupt the continuity of the attractively designed retail and force pedestrians to do battle with cars driving across the sidewalks.

More mid-rise buildings are coming to Philadelphia. The Hanover project raises the bar on design, but there is still a long way to go before these buildings are really at home in the city.