Inquirer Calls Toll Brothers ‘Hip’ And Other Mistruths This Morning

 

The former milk pasturizing plant at 24th and South | Photo: Bradley Maule, Phillyskyline.com

Two key development sites in Philadelphia are hijacked by McMansion builder Toll Brothers and this morning, on the front page, the Inquirer swoons with delight. “Both ends of the city’s most irrepressible district will be capped by shiny new condo developments,” the paper says, apparently with a straight face, of the impending neo-neo-colonial, anti-urban, farcically regressive condo developments at Headhouse Square and in G-Ho at 24th and South.

That statement, which concludes the paper’s lede, itself full of inaccuracies, is revealing on the fundamentally retarded city-wide conversation about architecture and design. The Toll projects might be welcome in Richmond, VA or Frederick, MD, but they have no place in a city that seeks to present itself on the cutting edge.

So wonderfully sophisticated and progressive on issues like food and beer, arts and cultural programming, and landscape design–and even shopping–Philadelphia remains trapped in architectural Kindergarten. And not because we lack talent, ideas, or motivation. This city is home to dozens of firms with a forward-thinking urban vision. We just don’t get to hear from them often enough.

What we do get is this drivel, loaded with myths and anecdotes masquerading as authoritative news and taken out of context.

Let’s start with 2400 South Street. Toll Brothers originally purchased the former milk processing plant the Inquirer simplifies to “Graduate Hospital’s parking garage,” a heavyweight concrete industrial building exuding potential for mixed-use residential or live-work conversion with plans to do just that. Reinvented, the project was to be architectural counterweight to Toll’s brick 18th century fantasy Naval Square. Somehow, when the project was reinvented post-bust, it was necessary to demolish the milk plant, leaving us with a cartoon reenactment of a Boston or New York street, circa 1819. This musty, soft-focus junk is what the Inquirer calls “shiny.”

Screenshot from Philly.com this morning

Both projects have squandered opportunities for retail development. There is none on Headhouse because Toll didn’t want to be bothered and Society Hill residents, after Chestnut Hillers the most angrily repressive and restrictively small-minded neighbors in the city (this despite their wealth, which certainly allows them to travel to those widely admired cities of the Old World with charming street life and round-the-clock amusements), refused to allow it.

To rationalize building a major project in a key location without retail, the Inquirer recalls the horror of
the multi-use 1970s New Market development that stood on the Toll lot, as if the issues of trash and noise that project anecdotally raised couldn’t be simply rectified with adequate facilities and regulatory control.

But what’s worse is the tone of the article, which takes this narrow experience and expands it into proven doctrine. “A fundamental paradox of urban development,” notes the paper, paraphrasing a Toll Brother vice president, “is that neighborhoods want and need restaurants and dry cleaners and boutiques, grocery stores and gas stations and pharmacies,” but–now quoting the Toll employee, Brian Emmons, the only source of authority in the article–”not across the street from their house.”

This is NIMBYism turned into policy, corporate desire imbibed and spit out as truth. Never mind that it’s the exact opposite of present-day thinking on urban design. Never mind successful and influential projects like the Piazza and the Navy Yard, where officials are busy planning for progressively-designed mixed use developments that do exactly what Toll, and the Inquirer, tell us people don’t want.

Never mind, indeed, the city’s new zoning code, which encourages mixing uses precisely because our experience tells us rich urban life can not be achieved without it.

The only positive I see from either project, and hardly mentioned in the paper this morning, is that the Headhouse project incorporates underground parking–probably because the site has an enormous foundation already dug. But in a city that routinely allows builders to construct parking decks on the first floors of major projects, this is a step in the right direction.

Architects, lay-people, planners, urban visionaries: we want to hear from you about how to move the city’s architectural conversation forward. All around us, other cities build projects that stretch our imagination and make us feel wonder and delight. Architecture can deliver this promise–and it can do so in the guise of creating a contemporary Philadelphia vernacular. Neo-neo-colonial no more.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is also senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine.



14 Comments


  1. I am by no means agreeing with the inquirer article however, new market sq was hardly “hijacked”, the site has been vacant for years with tons of failed proposals. (i think i could call your hijacked statement inaccurate.) Toll simply builds what it can sell, it is a business, not an architectural experiment. If these developments are so terrible for the city, then why do people keep buying them? Naval sq. has been one of the best selling new developments in philadelphia for the past 7-8 years. So i guess your just saying homebuyers in philadelphia are stupid?

    and what is this cry for retail, there is plenty of vacant lots throughout the city and empty storefronts in center city, old city, south st, and manayunk. Comparing this development to the piazza, is really not comparable at all. The piazza boasts over 400 rental units (of which are mostly rented to young people), while new market sq will be 69 units and will most likely sell to a much different demographic

  2. With a record of deliberately neglecting local landmarks (or anything else in their path) and deceiving communities, they shouldn’t be allowed in the city.

    Toll Brothers, one of highest grossing builders in the country, allowed the Naval Home to languish for over a decade until a fire nearly destroyed it. It was a classic case of demolition by neglect. http://www.southphillyblocks.org/photos_essays/navyhome/index.html

    They’ve done this same thing in the suburbs. http://concordhist.org/component/content/article/1/64-history-vs-bos.html

    They don’t care about the history of the places they develop, they don’t care about urban design. It’s all about money.

  3. The success of the referenced development is very misleading. Virtually anything built that that location would be immensely successful due simply to it’s location. The fact that something sells has little bearing on the quality of the product in city like Philadelphia which has notoriously low standards of both design a craftsmanship.

    The above comment is inaccurate in that Toll has owned 2400 South for almost a decade and let it rot in one of the most key location is all Philadelphia. Toll turned down numerously retail concepts in favor of their usual brand of schlock. It’s a real missed opportunity for of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city. How they were given a variance for that monstrosity is testament the how incompetent the planning commission has become.

  4. I don’t love Toll Brothers’ work, but as some of the other commenters pointed out, they build what the market wants, and that happens to be traditional. And traditional architecture can still be fresh and forward looking if it’s done well. I don’t know if Toll can do that, though.

    That said, Nathaniel, why do you insist on picking on other places (as in “this might be fine in ____?”) Have you been to Frederick or Richmond? They both have great, vibrant neighborhoods and beautiful architecture that just happens to be traditional. I don’t know if you’re trying to say they’re backwards, which is an unnecessary and inaccurate slight that doesn’t do much for your argument.

    The issue isn’t that Toll Brothers builds traditional-style homes, it’s that prominent sites in the city aren’t getting the kind of development or urbanism (regardless of style) they deserve.

  5. The point, I think, is that this ISN’T “traditional” architecture in any relevant sense of the word. It’s a hamfisted and insincere attempt to appease the “historical people” with a few fake shutters. As a confessed “historical person” by trade, its depressing how often that this works. So much so, it is now a style in its own right– “Revivalesque.”

  6. It’s an odd comparison between the Toll Bros.’ projects and “successful and influential projects like the Piazza and the Navy Yard.” The Navy Yard is an office park; the Piazza is an apartment complex that caters to twentysomething renters. Of course they’re going to have mixed uses incorporated into their plans. They’re not catering to a house-buying market that is generally older, and more conservative (and more suburban) in their tastes.

  7. Agree 100% about 2400 South — but don’t forget that the neighbors in that area routinely fight even the most benign retail and covet–even fetishize–parking, so Toll and GradHo are a match made in heaven.

    About New Market, you are too harsh. The project might be a missed opportunity architecturally, but otherwise nothing is wrong with it. There is no need for retail in that spot as Headhouse, South St and southern Old City are overflowing with vacant storefronts.

    And the Old City neighbors are much worse than Society Hill.

  8. Nathaniel,

    As a resident of this community for some time I agree with many of your points. The Toll Brothers projects here are very much “development blight”. They simply exist with no real connection to the community. While the spaces themselves may bring new consumers to area shops, restaurants, etc., the private – almost suburban – nature of the projects does little to express any investment in the neighborhood which houses it. The courtyard and main building at Naval Square could easily have been envisioned as a dynamic public space hosting concerts, fairs, farmer’s markets, exhibitions, etc. without compromising the “secluded” feel of living in the units. Perhaps even including a small museum on the history of the space itself. Now the history is merely a selling point for new tenants. In fact, it may have generated a more holistic connection between the Square residents and the neighborhood.

    However, as someone who has developed substantial contemporary creative projects in the area, I do object to your characterization of Chestnut Hill. I think the mood of the area is changing rapidly as more and more younger families are investing in the region. In my experience the community there is more receptive to contemporary directions than usually billed – but yes, always vocal.

    Thank you for offering some much needed critical dialogue about these projects.

  9. A sad state of affairs when you take one of the most beautiful historic landmarks, and the largest open space in the entire zip code, and erect a gigantic fence around it to keep everyone out.

    These gated communities have no place in an urban setting regardless of how well they sell.

    • The walls are the historic landmark and protected by the Philadelphia Historic Commission and the National Historic Register… Take a long hard look at the wall – its nearly 200 years old. Toll didn’t build the walls. The United States Navy did….

  10. I find this article as appalling as the one in the Inquirer. No fan of Toll Bros., but neither am I fan of your pretentious and off-base writing. I’ll pass on your vision of architecture for the city as much as I’ll pass on the crap Toll is building.

    Also, what’s a NYMBY?

  11. So tell us how you REALLY feel, Nathaniel!

    I agree that in terms of architecture and design, this project is a missed opportunity on a number of fronts, and from what I’ve heard about the development, it’s also yet another example of gated-community thinking (if not indeed practice) applied to the wrong place for it.

    But as others have noted, there are other builders working in the city producing high-quality housing in a wide range of architectural styles that either respect their context, as with much of Metro Impact’s work in the same neighborhood, or advance the dialogue, as with just about everything Onion Flats does.

    Let’s give those LOCAL builders a shout-out too. (Yes, Toll is also “local” in that they are headquartered in this area. But I think we can all understand the difference.)

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