Residents of South Philadelphia were treated to a presentation Tuesday night on a plan to bring new density to a crucial stretch of South Broad Street, albeit through a development that likely spells the end of a historic military building.
The 1898 Third Regiment Armory at Broad and Wharton Streets, whose history can be traced to Benjamin Franklin, will be fully demolished and replaced with a six-story apartment building under the preliminary plan proposed by developer Michael Carosella and architect Vincent Mancini of Landmark Architectural Design. The new L-shaped building would have 50 units and a courtyard entrance along Broad Street, with room for 52 parking spaces on the surface level behind and under the building. According to Mancini, there would also be racks to accommodate 17 bicycles and a green roof deck.
Carosella, who has recently torn down two Graduate Hospital churches for residential development, is negotiating to acquire the armory from the Tolentine Community Center and Development Corporation, which has struggled to maintain it with limited operating expenses and onerous legal burdens. Until recently, Tolentine was blocked from reselling the property as a condition of acquiring it from the State of Pennsylvania. During its ownership, sections of the building’s roof and at least one floor have collapsed, producing a string of citations from L&I.
From the start of the community zoning meeting held by the South Broad Street Neighborhood Association in the Morgan Conference Room at Methodist Hospital, demolition of the armory appeared to be fait accompli. The presentation focused largely on how the design for the new building allowed for more open air by occupying slightly less than half of the full parcel and included deep enough setbacks in the rear to placate neighboring residents. Some attendees objected to the lack of retail in the development. Also raised as a point of contention was the keeping of the retaining wall that divides the site from residential properties on Titan Street immediately to the south. Despite these concerns, the design of the project was met with a generally positive reception.
On the question of reusing the original building, Mancini highlighted the architectural challenges posed by restoration–among them the fact that the current building’s ground floor is set halfway below ground level, creating a sense of detachment from the street for residential use.
Carosella said that he had surveyed the inside of the armory and deemed restoration to be impossible. Though he considered ways to salvage the facade while tearing down the rear shed, he ultimately concluded that only new development would be feasible.
“We looked at how we could restore it,” he said, “but with the damage and the money needed to fix it up, it won’t work. So then the question becomes, how do we go about creating something that has the best impact for the area, to serve as a gateway for that section of South Broad Street.”
Although they will be rentals, the presenters touted the size of the units, which will include two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and the availability of parking as essential to encouraging long-term occupancy.
While sentiment for the armory’s history was palpable among the crowd, the opinion that it was well past its prime resonated more strongly. “That building is falling down,” one attendee declared.
Located at the intersection of the Passyunk Square and Point Breeze neighborhoods, the armory was used by the Pennsylvania National Guard before Harrisburg began renting the premises in the 1980s to Tolentine, which bought the whole building in 2003. State Senator Larry Farnese introduced legislation last year to lift the no-resale clause to spur redevelopment.
The preliminary hearing will be followed up with an updated presentation once the project is set to go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Construction activity may commence at the site before the end of the year.
About the author
Christopher Mote is a graduate of Holy Family University and the Creative Writing Program at Temple University. Currently a freelance writer and editor, he lives in South Philadelphia and blogs about art and culture here.