Erdy McHenry Architecture’s first major commission, in 2001, was a new headquarters for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. The SPLC, founded by Morris Dees and Joe Levin in 1971, needed collaborative office space for its large team of lawyers, but the building itself, situated alongside the national Civil Rights Memorial and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King first delivered sermons on racial justice, would be part of a sacred space. The new SPLC building would have to defer to the church and the memorial, in part by framing various kinds of views of the sacred buildings (depending on the viewer). But given the decisive historic role of the SPLC, the building would carry significant symbolic meaning itself. Its design would therefore have to communicate the movement’s power to wedge open the South’s heart of darkness.
Since then the firm, under the guidance of principles Scott Erdy and David McHenry, has sought similarly complex projects on sometimes difficult, highly constrained sites with often conflicting needs, while engendering a sophisticated dialogue among the building, its users, and the city itself. Much of the firm’s resulting work—particularly the Piazza at Schmidt’s, the Radian, and Drexel University’s Millennium Hall—explores the increasingly urgent idea of the city as a social nucleus by accounting for the formal and informal ways people connect with one another, by enhancing those opportunities, and communicating the endeavor to the rest of us through structure and urban design.
This outlook has been put to the test—and given room to develop—in the design for the 30 story residential and retail project called The Grove at Cira Centre South, just now under construction at 30th and Chestnut Streets. Cira is a multi-block, multi-phase, multi-use complex being developed by Brandywine Realty Trust on the eastern edge of University City, from Arch Street south to Walnut Street. Architect Cesar Pelli designed the 437 foot Cira Centre, which opened in 2005, and a master plan for the rest of the project, including the renovation and repurposing the of the Philadelphia main post office for new Internal Revenue Service offices. Brandywine has renamed that building Cira Square. Pelli will also be the design architect for the last phase of the project, a mixed-use office, retail, and residential tower at 30th and Walnut Streets scheduled to begin construction in 2014.
Brandywine had originally imagined Cira South to be an office and hotel project. In 2008, the firm decided to pursue instead the high end residential market. Recession made that impossible.
One residential sector that had endured the recession was the private development and management of undergraduate and graduate student housing. In Philadelphia, with its significant concentration of higher education institutions with growing enrollments and pool of recent graduates in love with city life, the market was expanding. The 498-bed Radian, at 39th and Walnut Streets, which Erdy McHenry designed in 2007, was the first major project of this kind in Philadelphia. It was developed by Inland American Communities Group. At 32nd and Chestnut Streets on Drexel University’s campus, American Campus Communities, a publicly traded firm, is currently building the 869-bed Chestnut Square residential-retail complex designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. Simultaneously, the Goldenberg Group has begun construction on a similar multi-phase project designed by the firm WRT at 11th and Master Streets adjacent to the campus of Temple University.
So Brandywine decided to shift gears and pursue the student residential market. “It was an ‘aha!’ moment,” says the company’s president and CEO Gerard Sweeney. “We were focused on market rate housing. Then we said, forget those discussions.”
Sweeney’s team pursued another publicly traded developer of student housing, Campus Crest Communities, based in Charlotte, NC, known for embedding rigorous social and cultural programs into its developments, largely on suburban and rural campuses in Texas and the Southeast. In Pennsylvania, Campus Crest has two other Grove projects underway, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Penn State. The $158.5 million, 850-bed Grove at Cira South, jointly developed among Brandywine, Campus Crest, and Harrison Street Real Estate Capital and facilitated by a ground lease with the University of Pennsylvania, will be Campus Crest’s first densely urban, high-rise development. The building will open in fall 2014.
“With the Cira Centre,” says Sweeney, “we wanted to create something unique in the market—a brand of architecture that felt different in Philadelphia. We have always thought that uniqueness should drive value.” Sweeney says the firm has the same goal with Cira South, which will be targeted toward Drexel and Penn graduate and professional students particularly, but attractive to grad students from other institutions as well as young professionals.
Because the ground lease goes through Penn, the university’s design review committee, co-chaired by Penn School of Design dean Marilyn Jordan Taylor and university architect David Hollenberg, has helped guide the Grove, meeting with Erdy McHenry and Brandywine several times as the project unfolded. Of the review, Hollenberg says, “we always ask two questions: Is this the right design for Penn? Are we getting the best out of our architects?” For both questions, signs point to the affirmative. In fact, Cira South is the first manifestation of a strategy outlined in the 2006 Penn Connects master plan that called for tall buildings at the entrance to West Philadelphia to engage student life and street life equally.
“This is a pretty amazing site in many ways,” says architect David McHenry, particularly because of the concentration of public transit. “We looked at this carefully. You can be at any university in the city in just about 15 minutes, or at NYU in a little over an hour, if you want.”
Campus Crest CEO Ted Rollins makes note of two programs to be offered to residents at the Grove: SCORES (Social, Cultural, Outreach, Recreational, Educational, Spiritual) and CLEAR (Center for Living Environments and Regeneration), which he thinks will help attract graduate students who choose now to live in Center City. “We’ve framed this building around these programs in a way that we believe The Grove will bring a lot of grad students back across the river from Center City,” Rollins said.
Architect Erdy says that in addition to the social programming, the building will offer a level of privacy that’s not now accounted for in the market. The ratio of beds to bathrooms will be one-to-one, allowing each resident to enjoy a “suite within a suite.”
Graduate students, he says, need autonomy. “But the question we posed is how do you overlay social spaces on top of that?” To do so, the architects built in eleven multi-story lounges that act as “public spaces” and link residents by “neighborhood.” In addition, the entrance, lobby, retail stores, concierge spaces, and rooftop swimming pool (with carefully planned views of the city and a disappearing railing) are each designed to facilitate various kinds of formal and informal social interaction. “Because of the level of sophistication of clientele, it’s not just about including a video game room anymore,” says Erdy.
“You could have Penn, Drexel, Temple students from different disciplines interacting,” says McHenry. “The potential for this to be a really great hub of activity is high.”
Erdy says his firm’s approach to the project was to think of the building as a series of scalable communities, each experienced differently. “You have the residential unit, the lounge, the building, the campus, the city, and the region: you can live at any of these scales,” he says. The building should account for all of them—and communicate the ways it does so to the city at large so that everyone “will be able to see the building at multiple scales from multiple distances.”
The mostly glass façade—designed to feel akin to Cira Centre’s magic skin—will be able to be read like a vertical map. “If you’re in an airplane looking down on the city you can see the squares and the social spaces. ‘Oh, that’s where I hang out,’ you say; when you look at outside of this building you’ll be able to see where the social spaces are.”
Much of this sort of communicating the building does with the resident and the passerby alike happens in the air. (Indeed, the architects have chosen to dialog with Pelli’s iconic Cira Centre shape by slicing the building at the top to give it a familiar asymmetry most noticeable from the south.) But at the street, the building has to negotiate the bi-level Chestnut Street (there are bridge and lower street levels), Amtrak service lines, and PennDOT. It has to lure pedestrians into retail stores (where so few have existed before), and bring people closer to the river. The architects achieve much of this with aplomb, despite the infrastructure constraints. Using “fairly complex geometry” they’ve designed a notch at the retail/lobby level and a second level of retail that will draw people to a terrace above the railroad tracks, highway, and the river.
One of the additional constraints is an 11 story parking garage built to service the employees of the IRS. But not only is the garage unattractive, it’s proven—to the delight of Sweeney and Brandywine—to be functionally unnecessary: because of the concentration of transit, far fewer IRS employees drive to work than were anticipated when the agency moved from its previous location on Roosevelt Boulevard in 2010. Some of the garage’s spaces will be available to tenants of the Grove. Sweeney wonders how many will use them; the building will offer ample bicycle parking. “The question will be how many people will want to have a car versus a bike,” he says. “You can really make the case that people don’t need much parking.”
The architects, however, will engage the garage by covering it in a green roof and creating a mid-level one acre public space that will ultimately serve as a central square between The Grove at Cira South and the Walnut Tower at Cira South. Viewed from here, a third of the way to the top of the building, Cira South most resembles Pelli’s Cira Centre.
Pelli will design Walnut Tower, a phase of the Cira project that’s become more compelling because of the completion, in 2011, of Penn Park across Walnut Street. “Fifteen years ago, when we started this, there was no Penn Park,” he says. “Now Penn Park is there; we’re all obligated to take advantage of it.”
The Grove, under construction now, will open in September 2014 for the 2014-15 academic year.
About the author
Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press, for sale November 12). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.” The fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine, he also writes the “Bookmarked” column for Art Attack/Philly.com and is a contributing writer at The Smart Set. .
Bradley Maule is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, a four hour train ride from 30th Street Station on Amtrak's Pennsylvanian. He lived in Philadelphia from 2000–09, during which time he created and operated Philly Skyline. After a three and a half year vacation in Portland, Oregon, he's back, bearing brotherly love. Follow him on Instagram @mauleofamerica.
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