Friday, July 25, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Hospital plan needs work

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) is one of our crown jewels - a world-class institution with a reputation to match. When such an organization builds on a large scale, it is usually cause for celebration.

The Design Advocacy Group (DAG) is, therefore, dismayed that CHOP's planned Schuylkill Avenue project in southwest Center City has offered an urban vision that is unworthy of the hospital and the thriving city neighborhoods it will shape for the rest of this century.

The 2.16 million-square-foot project, to be built in phases over 18 years, will transform the east bank of the Schuylkill near South Street. When complete, it will contain more space than the Comcast tower, and its impact will reach far beyond the adjoining residential neighborhoods, affecting transportation and traffic patterns, riverfront development, and even the skyline.

Although the project has a cast of reputable consultants, the limited information that they have presented thus far requires candid public critique. Our concerns, many of which are shared by the neighborhood organizations, are as follows:

Arrangement of buildings. The cluster of the high-rise buildings seems to have been arranged to separate southwest Center City from the river. The proposed connection to the Schuylkill Banks park by means of a new bridge over the railroad tracks is itself admirable, but the bridge is not in Phase I of the project, and it is not the whole answer. Many urban-design configurations exist that would improve visual and spatial connections to the river.

Single use. Large projects with just one use - especially large concentrations of office buildings - tend to be dead zones, while the thoughtful combination of retail, residential, research, office, and recreational uses can create lively, 24-hour, full-service environments. CHOP's excuse for not planning for mixed use is that such complex design and development work is "not part of our core mission." But by choosing to rebuild this large part of our city, CHOP has expanded its mission to include city planning and urban design, and it must rise to the occasion. It should empower its well-qualified consultants to create a bold vision worthy of such a project. Successful undertakings of this scale are often the product of partnerships with sophisticated developers who are capable of envisioning and financing vibrant mixed-use communities.

Vision. This facility will house world-class researchers in children's medicine, yet it is now planned to look like an ordinary office complex. The contrast with the recently announced second Comcast Tower, which proposes truly innovative concepts for the work environment in a mixed-use tower, is telling. We are confident that CHOP's project can be as innovative in incubating creativity as the new biotechnology center in Kendall Square, Cambridge, adjacent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or the new Apple, Facebook, and Google projects on the West Coast - all of which are comparable in size, but far exceed the CHOP proposal in vision.

Coordinated public planning. The remaking of the Schuylkill waterfront - in which CHOP is only the largest of five concurrently advancing projects - has so far escaped the attention of the Planning Commission. Perhaps this is because until recently, the riverbanks seemed to be on their way to a residential future, with the simple extension of existing patterns; or, in the case of CHOP, there may be a natural tendency to defer in all things to a great and good institution that proposes to spend nearly a billion dollars. While our eyes have been focused on imagining the future of Penn's Landing and the Delaware River waterfront, both sides of the Schuylkill are alive with new construction. What is the city's vision for this? Only the Planning Commission can untangle the highly complicated three-dimensional opportunities and challenges presented by this complex terrain - with its multiple grade levels, a river, a highway, two railroads, and several bridges, and which is populated by major institutions, energetic developers, and vigorous community organizations.

Let us be clear: We favor building this project, but it must be made worthy of its site and owner. CHOP should mobilize the talent that it has already assembled (and more that it can attract) to develop a truly visionary design. And the City Planning Commission must be given resources to move swiftly to develop the "big picture" for development into which this large piece will fit. While this will require CHOP to temporarily withdraw its planning and zoning applications, the result can be a bolder, better project that places Children's Hospital and Philadelphia in the vanguard of those who will remake the great cities of the world with science and good design.

 


George Claflen is an architect and a vice chair of the Design Advocacy Group (DAG). Kiki Bolender is an architect and chair of DAG (www.designadvocacy.org).

George Claflen and Kiki Bolender
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