Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Venturi Scott Brown Converts Guns to Condos on the Schuylkill River

Just south of the South Street bridge, a behemoth of an industrial building dominates a long stretch of the Schuylkill River bank. It began its life in the 1940s as a munitions and tank factory and ended its latest chapter as a cavernous office building for the School District of Philadelphia, aka the JFK Administration. But it will soon get a new lease on life as loft condos. The 232-unit project, which is being developed by Sam Switzenbaum and designed by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, will make its debut Thursday at 12:30 pm. with the usual ceremonial opening of the sales office.

It's nice to see Venturi's office design something in Philadelphia, even if it is a mere loft conversion. This one appears to be more interesting than average. Because the old tank factory is built like the proverbial tank, the parking will be located in the center of the building, and ringed by apartments. You'll be able to drive right up to your front door. Switzenbaum also promises that it will have a green roof. The units start at $300,000, which suggests he is targeting a younger demographic than the Naval Home.

The two projects, along with Toll Bros. proposal for the 2400 block of South Street, presage a huge sea change coming to this little pocket of Gray's Ferry. When they're built out, they will add almost 1,100 units of new housing. If you walk down the dreary stretch of Schuylkill Avenue, where South Bridge is located, and half close your eyes, you can almost imaging the day when it is lined with outdoor cafes and shops. The front of South Bridge faces the rear of the Naval Home property. If the two developers are smart, they will make sure that there are friendly relations and easy access between the two projects.

On Monday night, Toll Bros. presented its latest plans for 2400 South Street, a 160-unit project that incorporates another old industrial building the Tenet garage, a former Abbot's dairy building. The Toll Bros. plan is sophisticated and sensitive from an urban design point of view. Although the actual architectural treatment falls into the usual faux brick, faux historical schtick, the townhouses along South and Bainbridge Streets all put their best face forward. No garage fronts! There are also townhouses located in the interior of the block, behind the dairy building. Their lay-out was inspired by St. Albans Street. Toll Bros. promises this will not be a gated community. But I would be more likely to take them at their word if the interior driveways were lined with sidewalks like real city streets. Our other gripe is that there is no ground-floor retail on 24th Street in the dairy building, which is getting four more stories and being converted to condos. I'm not talking about Whole Foods-sized retail, but something more neighborly and able to complement Grace's Tavern and Woven Treasures. The people who live in those 1,100 units are going to need grab their coffee and drop off their dry cleaning somewhere. Plus, retail could help make that Odunde triangle into a lovely town square. Unfortunately, the speakers at Monday night's meeting seemed more interested in racheting up the parking ratios than making this a more gracious, liveable neighborhood. In order to fit the retail in the garage, Toll Bros. would likely have to eliminate a few parking spaces. Too bad the neighbors didn't use their opportunity to demand retail.

17 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at the meeting and still remain somewhat conflicted about the ground floor retail. While I would love to see it there, I think there is quite a bit of available space in that area, the triangle, and throughout the neighborhood. And it seems that density more then anything else that will drive retail and commercial into the area. And although I would gladly cede another floor to the develolpment get that ground floor retail, I think forming a coalition in the neighborhood for ground floor retail would be difficult.

What did the toll guy say...we considered retail, but with the enormous traffic and congestion burden that would bring, we dropped it...

While this ignores completely the fact that retail provides a direct benefit via services, thus people may be willing to accept loading/unloading and whatever other minor issues arrise, and that residential provides its benefits through more indirect channels...

his injection of retail=traffic probably goes a long way to discourage members of the community to forming a united front on this one...

11:51 PM  
Blogger James Aslaksen said...

"What did the toll guy say...we considered retail, but with the enormous traffic and congestion burden that would bring, we dropped it..."

That's tortured logic, to be sure. Having retail in the building would allow residents not only of the development but of surrounding blocks to be able to access needed services on foot, thereby reducing the number of automobile trips to, from, and around the development.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous btv22@drexel.edu said...

Inga makes a great point about the potential for a "beautiful town square" at this location. It would be really nice.
There are always going to be those batshit crazies at the neighborhood meetings. Would anyone be willing to sign a petition stating the desire to have ground floor retail? If so send me an e-mail... Maybe I will do it.

1:09 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Having retail in the building would allow residents not only of the development but of surrounding blocks to be able to access needed services on foot, thereby reducing the number of automobile trips to, from, and around the development.

Second that! We need more places where people can walk to the stores and back, not fewer. There is a climate out there that is getting warmer by the day, and gasoline whose price is rising all the time. We don't need to encourage lots more driving.

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a resident of that area, these two new developmenst have PLENTY of anemities to use...there are at least 4 coffee shops with in a 4 block radius as well as upscale taverns and such. The things they should maybe consider are lobbying for a post office or a library branch. This arae is growing in leaps and bounds, partially because of the businesses that have ALREADY set up shop WELL before the developers.

Bob Dix

4:52 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

A post office and a library branch are both excellent suggestions, but they don't conflict with some additional shops. All of these suggestions would enrich the area's life.

4:59 PM  
Anonymous HospitalityGirl said...

Retail doesn't necessarily mean coffee shops and taverns, anonymous 2. It also means things like dry cleaners and hardware stores and the like. I say rasphila is right on the money with his assessment. Warming climate=need for more close by retail instead of jumping in the car to do every little thing!

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree re the retail/commercial space. Let's face it. This area is growing exponentially and there's plenty of residential space between South and Washington. It's fine for Toll to add a ton of new residences there, but that area is (perhaps was after this project) the perfect spot to be the "retail/commercial center."

11:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there's plenty there already.
we can always use more, I guess...but there ARE hardware stores, cleaners, coffee shops and many other amazing restaurants/stores within a 5 block radius of the toll brothers developments.

if anything I'd love to see the grocery store possibly expand. they do fine and tehy DON'T HAVE A PARKING LOT!!! **GASP!!*
how do they do it??

10:12 AM  
Anonymous btv22@drexel.edu said...

We need to speak up at the next community meeting. Most of them are held at the St Anthonys senior center and information about them can be found at the SOSNA office at 1700 South Street. If you ask for Eve Lewis she can put you on the e-mail list and you can recieve a notice before the next meeting, including a summary of what will be discussed so you know if you are interested in going on that day.
Logical people need to speak up. The people who cannot accept the fact that change is coming (ie the people who complain about parking) are making all the noise. Community groups like CCRA are taking charge in other parts of the city and becoming part of the process. We need to make our voices heard.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People nowdays are used to zoning that clusters residential and commercial together in separate areas that are often a 10 min drive away from each other. This causes a lot of congestion when everyone from the residential area all drive to the commercial area at the same time (after work, for instance) to do errands.

Since this type of development constitutes the vast majority of Toll Bros' work so far, I guess they always assume that commercial==traffic.

I don't live in the area, but I doubt that having more small-scale, street level commercial space in a burgeoning urban neighborhood can really be a bad thing. If you already have bars, coffee shops and dry cleaners, then maybe a gym can open there. If you already have a gym then maybe a small movie theatre... or a clothing shop, or a Kinko's. C'mon, use your imagination.

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes -- a gym would be awesome, especially one with boxing so I can beat the crap out of all the punks in the area who think they're bad.

2:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In some of the early meetings around this development several of us asked for small/mid-sized commercial on the ground floor, especially on 24th Street. The response that Toll gave then was probably nearer to the truth -- we're a residential developer, that's what we do. We don't do commercial and don't plan to start.

Also, with regard to the "Odunde" triangle -- actually Catharine Thorne Triangle -- there are two different theories about what to do with that. Some folks in the area would like to see the little bit of Grays Ferry Ave that is east of it be closed off to create a plaza/park there. Others would like to see traffic on Grays Ferry shifted to become two way so as to ease the congestion on Bainbridge (traffic would continue on to South Street before turning). I'm with the plaza crowd myself and could see getting Toll to invest some in the conversion. It would really make a nice anchor to the commercial on South and GF.

3:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In some of the early meetings around this development several of us asked for small/mid-sized commercial on the ground floor, especially on 24th Street. The response that Toll gave then was probably nearer to the truth -- we're a residential developer, that's what we do. We don't do commercial and don't plan to start."

This meshes well with my zoning theory. The prevalent zoning around that country that separates uses is creating huge one-use-only developers like Toll Bros, none of which are willing to do mixed-use.

4:07 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

if anything I'd love to see the grocery store possibly expand. they do fine and tehy DON'T HAVE A PARKING LOT!!! **GASP!!*
how do they do it??


Once upon a time, city shops didn't have parking lots. They were within walking distance of people in the neighborhood. The success of the grocery store shows that this can still work. And if it can work for a grocery store, it can work for other shops as well.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fifteen comments so far and yet no one has seen fit to write about doing the Snoopy Dance over the sheer bliss of having a VSBA design in our city? Finally, all our problems are solved!

5:24 PM  
Anonymous HospitalityGirl said...

Ok, I will do it. WOO HOOO, Snoopy is dancing over the skyline, VSBA is doing something in the City, and I am happy!

9:30 AM  

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