As Infill Row House Projects Abound, A Designer Weighs The Issues

 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; at left, the short-lived Beauty Shop Café, at right, Harman Deutsch's 20th & Fitzwater residential development | Photo: Bradley Maule

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; at left, the short-lived Beauty Shop Café, at right, Harman Deutsch’s 20th & Fitzwater residential development | Photo: Bradley Maule

Recently, significant churches at 20th and Fitzwater and 19th & Fitzwater in the Graduate Hospital area were demolished and replaced with contemporary row houses, some of which have two car parking. Both projects were designed by Harman Deutsch Architects and developed by Michael Carosella.

Relatively low density block row house developments such as these are geared towards empty-nesters and families; many of them are larger in footprint than traditional row homes. With their super-sized girth, extra square footage, parking, and roof decks, these houses are intended to provide suburban amenities within the traditional urban landscape, a certain trend in new construction.

Across the city there are at present dozens of vacant lots undergoing redevelopment and construction in this manner. The level and scale of activity is at once thrilling and also worrisome, as the feel and function of the traditional streetscape is threatened.

For better or worse, each new building alters the existing streetscape and changes the overall neighborhood identity. The most successful ones add variety to the urban landscape (whether in scale, typology, or materiality) and respond to design intent, market demands, and zoning requirements, all while enhancing the neighborhood they inhabit. Additionally, successful infill construction deals with building adjacency; how the building “meets” a neighboring building without sacrificing either the new construction or the existing building. Unsuccessful ones however, can become eyesores in the landscape and do a disservice to the adjacent context.

Architects and real estate developers are certainly bound to face challenges when designing within the existing city fabric. Design intent and vision, market demands, zoning requirements, and site conditions will inevitably shape how a project develops. Regardless of these conditions however, a successful project should see these challenges as opportunities to create better environments for their residents and the community. Unfortunately, that’s not always the result.

As with the northeast corner at 20th & Fitzwater, these large Harman Deutsch homes replaced a century-old church | Photo: Bradley Maule

As with the northeast corner at 20th & Fitzwater, these large Harman Deutsch homes replaced a century-old church | Photo: Bradley Maule

Row Houses, Graduate Hospital, designed by Harman Deutsch Architects

Both G-Ho projects in fact appear to be bloated versions of their older row house neighbors. The buildings on 19th and Fitzwater, for example, are two feet wider than the new homes on 20th Street; which means that each one is at least two feet wider than a traditional row house. In creating the wider row houses, the builder has distorted the rhythm of the inherited streetscape. Does this matter? The contrast might heighten economic class distinctions. Moreover, it could impact the social coherence of the block.

Perhaps more importantly, a wider row house means less density. Where traditionally five houses would have been built, for example, only three stand in their place–and for ever shrinking households. As a city thrives on density–retail and transit demand it–a reduction can be detrimental to the development of an urban neighborhood, a negative result of the suburban house in the city.

Although these low density projects–and many others like them–were begun before Philadelphia’s new zoning code went into effect a year ago, the code seeks to diminish these negative impacts. It aims to facilitate the creation of new construction while respecting the neighboring streetscape and urban context. For example, a new three-story row house on a predominantly two story street is required by code to enforce an eight foot setback on the third story, the intent of which is to help maintain the existing urban edge.

While well-intended in theory, an eight foot setback on a third story might not change the cornice line of the street directly, but the extra height will certainly impact the streetscape. Still, the setback itself tells a story about layers of change and development, a story that’s harder to interpret when new buildings mimic the old in size and materials.

Still more modern homes on the former site of a church—these at 24th & Brown in Fairmount | Photo: Bradley Maule

Still more modern homes on the former site of a church—these at 24th & Brown in Fairmount | Photo: Bradley Maule

Large Row House Development in Fairmount, designed by Interface Studio Architects (ISA)

Of course, one doesn’t need to build bloated to convey or deliver row houses that appeal to the contemporary buyer. At Fairmount Court 2.0, on the site of another demolished church–St. Hedwigs Catholic Church at 24th and Brown–Interface Studio Architects made attempts at a contemporary urban insertion without trying to imitate the 19th century row homes across the street. While the contemporary brickwork and metal cladding are uninspiring, the project adds density to the neighborhood without sacrificing the streetscape, all while adding a new architectural style into a somewhat traditional Fairmount street. Next door, Fairmount Court 1.0, however, is an unfortunate attempt at historical mimicking with its neo-traditional cornice and three point bay windows.

Maintained cornice line | Photo: Bradley Maule

Maintained cornice line | Photo: Bradley Maule

Moreover, Fairmount 2.0 is more successful than the Carosella projects in G-Ho because here each unit is similar in width to the adjacent row houses and the cornice line along 24th street is maintained.

This isn’t the first time, of course, that Philadelphia has grappled with these issues (massive 19th century buildings surely overwhelmed their pre-Civil War neighbors). Mid-20th century, city planner Ed Bacon negotiated with the scale, style, and material palette of 18th and 19th century Society Hill. Like designers today, he was challenged with fulfilling his design intent, capturing the needs of the market, and stitching new projects into an already dense and diverse urban fabric.

On balance, the Society Hill Towers successfully altered its neighborhood while maintaining respect for the existing city fabric and implementing what was then considered to be innovative design. The project, designed by renowned modernist I.M. Pei, is comprised of three concrete and glass multi-family residential towers framing Dock Street and a series of low rise masonry and glass townhouses deemed “Bingham Court.” By inserting a new architectural language and building typology into Society Hill, the towers, low-rise town houses, and other modernist infill housing diversified the streetscape while respecting the traditional–and historic–fabric. The new row houses injected modernist elements, such as large spans of glazing and minimal ornamentation, while respecting the cornice line and materiality of adjacent buildings.

American Lofts, Northern Liberties, designed by Archi-Tectonics

Flashback, 2007: Spaceship American Loft touches down on Brown Street in Northern Liberties | Photo: Bradley Maule

Flashback, 2007: Spaceship American Loft touches down on Brown Street in Northern Liberties | Photo: Bradley Maule

Very much like Society Hill Towers, the mid-rise American Lofts in the Northern Liberties at North American and Brown Streets, completed in 2010, forces itself on the street in complete scalar juxtaposition to its neighbors. Designed by New York-based Archi-Tectonics principal Winka Dubbeldam, who is also chair of the architecture department at Penn’s School of Design, it is the only building of that scale in the vicinity (though visually it connects with the Waterfront Square towers six blocks away). In fact, the building’s website boasts, “No other building in Northern Liberties is or will be this tall, providing you with unsurpassed views of Center City and the Delaware River.”

Like Pei’s icon in Society Hill, this building emphasizes height and skyline views over neighborhood integration, isolating the building and its residents from its immediate context. But the Society Hill Towers work because they are embedded in the modernist architectural language around it and because the hill itself creates its own kind of pronounced set-aside.

Howdy, neighbor | Photo: Bradley Maule

Howdy, neighbor | Photo: Bradley Maule

The Granary, designed by DAS Architects

The nearly complete eight story Granary Apartments above Logan Square at 20th and Callowhill Streets is another multi-family mid-rise infill project. Commissioned by Pearl Properties and designed by DAS Architects, the former parking lot of the old Reading Terminal Granary has been transformed into a mixed use luxury apartment building that relates in scale to the granary itself and other mid-rise buildings around it but towers over its immediate two and three story neighboring row houses. The effect is barely ameliorated by use of structural metal to visually break up the façade.

Granary, not to scale | Photo: Bradley Maule

Granary, not to scale | Photo: Bradley Maule

Instead of respecting the urban edge, a small two story portion of the Granary Apartments is set back from the adjacent building. Similarly along 19th Street the building steps down again to a narrow two story segment next to a two story single family house. Instead of stepping in however as the Callowhill façade does, the edge of the building steps forward past the house, revealing a blank CMU (concrete masonry unit) wall. Large windows facing north look over the roof of the neighboring buildings.

Most of these infill projects are aimed at young professionals–a demographic that didn’t exist similarly at the time of the Society Hill Towers. But beyond market demand and desires, zoning has a significant impact as to how and where neighborhoods get developed. The new zoning code intends–whether the Zoning Board of Adjustment allows it to happen is up for debate–to facilitate infill development near transit and retail corridors as well as retro-fit projects in prior industrial/perimeter city zones. Reduced parking is specified for medium and high-density projects if existing nearby parking is underused. This can help minimize the amount of new surface lots or parking structures in the urban context. Environmentally conscious projects, such as those attempting LEED certification, are allowed an increase in density (floor to area ratio) and the potential for tax incentives, among other things. Additionally, the sustainable practices implemented projects will have positive effects on its residents and the community as a whole; have the potential to raise the market price / demand on a particular neighborhood.

Ice House, Fishtown, designed by Continuum Architecture

The LEED certified Ice-House condominiums (Phase 1 & 2) in Fishtown was designed in this light and it has positively altered its neighborhood, promoting growth and sustainable practices in the area. It is also successful in incorporating contemporary design without sacrificing the relationship to its immediate context. Commissioned by the Envision group and designed by Continuum Architecture, this low-rise complex respects the existing urban edge and share a similar scale to the neighboring buildings. The salvaged brick gives a nod to adjacent row homes while wood and metal cladding give way to a contemporary design.

Thin Flats | Photo: Bradley Maule

Thin Flats | Photo: Bradley Maule

Thin Flats, Northern Liberties, designed by Onion Flats/Plumbob

Similarly successful, the nine unit Thin Flats, designed & developed by Onion Flats and Plumbob LLC and finished in 2008, takes the façade proportions of a typical row house and adapts it to multi-family living all while incorporating sustainable practices. The project is the first LEED Platinum duplex project in the country incorporating natural ventilation, rainwater cisterns, and sustainable materials in its design. The glass and metal clad façade adds visual interest to the neighborhood while respecting the heights of the adjacent row homes. Additionally the project maintains the street edge on Laurel Street while the rear of the units along West Allen is set back allowing for backyards, parking, and balconies.

Various sites, Amber Street Design Corridor, Kensington

In Kensington, new construction along the “Amber Street Design Corridor” is successfully stitched into the neighborhood context. Although contemporary in aesthetics, many of the houses are smaller in size and scale than the other row houses reviewed here, allowing them to integrate more seamlessly. Some of the most interesting houses are clad in cement fiber board and wood and incorporate “passive house” design, a notion that refers to energy efficiency but could also describe a very different kind of design philosophy.

About the author

A native of Puerto Rico, Fátima Olivieri is a designer/writer who has called Philadelphia home since early 2011. Prior to moving to the city, Fátima worked at an architecture firm in Charlottesville, VA and taught at the University of Virginia School Of Architecture, where she graduated with her Master of Architecture in 2010. She currently works at an architecture firm in Center City and has been guest critic at various architecture schools in the area.

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5 Comments


  1. Maybe I\’m not a designer, but how does Society Hill Towers, built on an invented hill, an example of modern design that is well-integrated with the surrounding urban fabric?

  2. \”Perhaps more importantly, a wider row house means less density.\”

    3 new rowhouses go up on a lot where 5 narrower rowhouses could be. According to my calculation, that\’s a net increase of 3 houses and an increase in density.

    Now if 5 older rowhouses were torn down to make room for 3 new ones, then indeed density would be going down. But these houses are replacing vacant lots or in this case underutilized churches, which provide zero residential density.

    Now if suburban single homes with lawns were going up (like for example near Girard Ave), I\’m be concerned.

  3. The narrow, shallow, dark low-ceilinged 19th century Philadelphia workingman\’s rowhouse is not viable for modern living any more than New York City\’s dumbbell tenements or Leeds\’ back to back terrace houses are.

    It\’s an unfortunate fact of history that Philadelphia was so liberal in allowing subdivision of its lots during its early history. This has saddled us with too many 13, 14 or 15 foot wide lots, while the lots in New York and Boston are more substantial.

    To preserve the rowhouse form, the rowhouse necessarily has to be reimagined and enlarged.

    It\’s a little know fact but the UK has demolished millions of its 19th century workingmen\’s terrace houses, because they were such poor living environments. The demolition continues to this day.
    (For example, see http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/apr/21/fight-to-save-ringo-starr-estate)

    I think it\’s wonderful that Philadlephia has not gone down this route, but at the same time, we have to recognize that these are outmoded dwellings.

  4. I agree with the previous commenters, that people\’s housing preferences today are different from those of the city\’s 19th century residents. Forcing new houses to be the same width and height as those from the Victorian era, simply to make them look more like the homes across the street, is wrong-headed. We should be encouraging re-population of the city, and doing that means making some accommodation for people who have lived some or all of their lives in the suburbs. Those people want more than 1,000 square feet and private outdoor space. Within the confines of the urban landscape, that means 3 floors plus a rooftop deck.

  5. I.M. Pei is the master of modern architecture. who happened to design those towers.. also, some of the surrounding houses in the neighborhood. that\’s how. 🙂

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