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The Philadelphia Inquirer Inga Saffron column: Changing Skyline: Francisville face-off on urban design [The Philadelphia Inquirer]
[July 24, 2009]

The Philadelphia Inquirer Inga Saffron column: Changing Skyline: Francisville face-off on urban design [The Philadelphia Inquirer]

(Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jul. 24--Francisville is by no means one of Philadelphia's hottest places to live -- at least not yet. Plenty of people have never heard of the modest rowhouse neighborhood wedged between fashionable Fairmount and comatose Ridge Avenue. But Francisville is where the future of urban design in Philadelphia could be decided.

The city's Office of Housing and Community Design is wrapping up a competition to select a developer for an oddly shaped, 1.5-acre site at 19th and Wylie Streets, a block north of Fairmount Avenue. For a change, the choice is between two excellent developers, each offering a progressive, urban-minded vision of what Philadelphia should look like in the 21st century. Yet their definitions of what's progressive and what's urban are poles apart.

In one corner, there's the Kensington-based, guerrilla design collective called Onion Flats, known for infiltrating the city with housing that is as sustainable as it is stylish. They're facing tough competition from a partnership between New Urbanist acolyte Sam Sherman and the Hankin Group, a Chester County development company that wants to give up its suburban ways.

In one key respect, however, the two developers share a common outlook. Both believe that it's time to reduce the car's influence on the design of city housing. They may include parking with their projects, but it's kept out of sight to emphasize the pedestrian experience.

Sherman's Spring Arts Point, near 10th and Mount Vernon Streets, is one of the few recent developments in the city to marry a contemporary design with Philadelphia's rowhouse traditions. The three-story houses ring the block, forming a tight row along the sidewalk. Their facades have doors, windows, stoops -- and no garages. Instead, parking is clustered in an interior court, a big advance in a city where developers have convinced themselves that a front garage is their most powerful sales tool.

The Sherman-Hankin proposal for Francisville follows the same approach, although their in-house architects unfortunately felt obliged to sketch more cliched, historicist facades in the renderings. Along with the rowhouses, they include a four-story condo building on Wylie Street, across from Francisville's community center and ball field, to take advantage of the spectacular skyline view. All told, they'd ring the triangular block with 96 units.

That sounds about as urban as housing gets in Philadelphia. Until you take a look at the Onion Flats proposal.

The collective, run by the three McDonald brothers -- Tim, Pat, and John -- and their childhood friend Howard Steinberg, devised a completely out-of-the-box design. Their proposal pairs a five-story, 70-unit condo building with -- are you ready? -- an urban vineyard and community garden. They intentionally push the condos to one side, along 19th Street, leaving a big chunk of open ground to soak up storm-water runoff and provide green space for residents to enjoy themselves. The parking has been slotted under the condos, out of view from the street, and there are just 65 spaces.

The plan looks nothing like a standard rowhouse block, and the proposal is daringly innovative in its suggestion that density and nature can coexist in the city.

The decision to leave so much of the site open isn't just a gimmick; it fits with the designers' philosophy that housing has to tread lightly on the Earth. It also honors the neighborhood's past, when it was planted with the grape vines that supplied wine to William Penn's household. The developers are calling the project Grape Flats.

Onion Flats has probably done more to incorporate green building techniques than any other developer in the city. Their much-praised Thin Flats duplexes in Northern Liberties received the highest LEED rating from the U.S. Green Building Council -- platinum -- thanks to an assortment of energy-saving devices such as photovoltaic panels, radiant heat, and super-efficient appliances. They promise the same for Grape Flats.

As you might expect from this rebel outfit, there's also some swagger in the condo's architecture. The Grape Flats concept isn't just good for you; it looks good, too. But because of all the extras, they've asked the city to give them the site for nothing, while Sherman-Hankin bid $900,000.

Philadelphia hasn't seen a design competition this interesting in quite awhile. During the decade-long housing boom, city officials took almost no interest in what buildings looked like or how their architecture supported its other goals, even when the design was brutally anti-urban. The operating philosophy was that if it's new development, it must be good development.

So, it's been heartening to hear Mayor Nutter talk about steering the city toward a more holistic, design-oriented approach that will make Philadelphia "the greenest city in America." The problem is that, so far, there's only been talk.

With the release of the ambitious Greenworks plan on April 30, many hoped that the Nutter administration was finally ready to convert words to actions. The plan suggests that all construction projects should be judged on the sustainability of the design.

So why don't the rules for the Francisville competition so much as mention the subject? When I posed that question to Deborah McColloch, the head of the agency sponsoring the contest, she responded by e-mail with the lamest of excuses: The competition, she said, was announced April 8 -- "well before the Greenworks came out." Well, 22 days, to be exact.

Francisville isn't the city's only major building initiative where sustainability has been overlooked. The Pennsylvania Convention Center wasn't pushed to seek a LEED rating for its expansion. Nor was the $100 million Philly Live! center at the sports complex. When exactly does Nutter's promised New Day actually begin? Meanwhile, there are other problems with the housing competition: It doesn't include anyone from Francisville on the selection committee. And the rules fail to mention the neighborhood's 2007 master plan, a sophisticated, step-by-step revival strategy that was financed and organized by the neighborhood's nonprofit development corporation.

Miffed by the oversights, residents held their own straw poll June 23 and voted overwhelmingly for Onion Flats.

Neither plan offers the perfect solution. If the architecture in the Sherman-Hankin design is too bland and oblivious to sustainability, it's also true that the Onion Flats approach isn't dense enough. Francisville needs pedestrian continuity that comes from lining the block with housing.

This competition isn't just a matter of choosing between Coke and Pepsi. The trick will be to choose the developer who can best adapt Philadelphia to a changing world.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or [email protected]

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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