Editor’s Note: We’ve asked contributor Jason Lempieri to have a look at the state of planning, urban design, and architecture at the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia. In this first part, he breaks down and analyzes the elements of the 2013 master plan for the site, arguing that it’s insufficiently urban. Part Two, on architecture, comes next.
Urban conditions that we savor—like those in Rome, Madrid, and Paris—have evolved over generations. Paris is a refined city now, however its much-appreciated patina appeared over time and with serious planning and investment. In mid-19th century Paris, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann famously spent decades razing whole swaths of the city. There he built broad avenues lined with regulated dressed-stone facades ready for developers to turn them into mixed use apartments. Many of the beloved Paris landmarks such as the Palais Garnier opera house and parks, as well as quite a few planned boulevards and avenues, were not completed for decades.
Cities by nature are constantly evolving entities. Philadelphia, a newly minted World Heritage City, has matured over its 333 years and areas that once were farms are now housing. The former sites of historic cemeteries have become recreation centers, and industrial areas are now mixed use commercial corridors. One industrial hub, the Navy Yard near the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, was once a marshland called League Island. It was linked to the mainland in 19th century and slowly evolved into a shipyard by 1871 when the Navy moved there from Front Street in Center City. Today, the Navy Yard is getting its own Baron Hausmann makeover, but with many more strings attached. In its current state it is an amalgam of historic areas, industrial zones, empty space, and new commercial architecture, the latter being the dominant direction of development. Can the Navy Yard cut through all those strings to move from a corporate office park to a truly integrated part of the city?
The Navy Yard offers an extraordinary opportunity for Philadelphia to state its ambitions as an urban competitor within a global setting. The Persian Gulf city-states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are building integrated campuses to provide 21st century education and creative business and design centers. NYC is working with Cornell to develop a Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. What could Philadelphia show the world in 2026 when the nation turns 250 years old? Surely the country’s birthplace will be front and center and this is where Philadelphia’s global intentions should be set.
Seizing upon a 1,200 acre area in 2004, the quasi-public Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, working with the real estate investment company Liberty Property Trust, Synterra Partners LTD, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, found a goldmine. The Navy Yard is situated adjacent to a skilled and educated workforce, skirted by major interstate connectors of highways, bridges, and an international airport, surrounded by active port facilities, and populated by historic buildings with great bones. Coupled with serious tax incentives and the desire to bring in and retain mid-size corporations and large scale government enterprises, it is no surprise that suburban planning has arrived with a vengeance to the site. If it works in Conshohocken, Radnor, and all of New Jersey, why can’t Philadelphia compete with its own corporate campus?
The Navy Yard may as well be suburbia. Given the adjacent mega scale industrial infrastructure, integrating the Navy Yard and the city would require an extraordinary infrastructure transformation. The area is hemmed in to the west by the active Navy reserve basin and the shipyard, cut off to the east by the expanding Southport facilities, and cut off from the north by the rail lines and Interstate 95. Even if one were to venture beyond those northern transportation lines to a more accommodating region of South Philadelphia, the trek would take one through the vast expanse of the stadium complex and the connected port facilities, and under Interstate 76—a distance of 1.5 miles end to end. Even the sky is occasionally limited by low flying jets. What the Navy Yard does have, however, are dedicated developers, historic structures, and large-scale, industrial artifacts alongside the widest expanse of riverfront in Philadelphia.
So who is this isolated land for? The developers have created and edited a decade’s old master plan that has embraced the Navy Yard’s industrial history and combined it with progressive corporate architecture, sustainable methods, and an awareness of the region’s potential. Yet, encroaching port facilities, retention and expansion of Naval facilities and industrial shipbuilding, and a furthering of the suburban-oriented nature of the Navy Yard have limited the master plan’s viability. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the car-focused nature of the campus. Mass transit is usually built first in contemporary urban plans with development following as in the case of Ørestad, a new neighborhood with exciting architecture in Copenhagen that has named streets after notable designers, not developers (a new thoroughfare at the Navy Yard is named Rouse Boulevard, for Liberty Property founder and Philadelphia booster Willard G. Rouse III). In Ørestad, the architects of the master plan were able to achieve many of the same attributes that are found at the Navy Yard—sustainability, open space, and office buildings—while first installing a new transit line that has spawned developer investments for a technical university, concert hall, convention center, shopping center, and dense housing.
While residential development is called for in the updated Navy Yard Master Plan, completed in 2013, it is sequestered in the “historic core.” Meanwhile, the coveted riverfront is mainly wasted on the Navy, port facilities, and proposed parking lots, thereby killing the potential for a promising promenade with dense housing, retail, and offices. This area’s history and its buildings do not necessarily require the retention of all that is there. Some demolition and topographical adjustments are warranted. We can’t thrive in a fictitious past, especially one as sparse and short as the Navy Yard in this specific location. A major reworking should aim to create cohesion and a place where people will actually want to work and live.
The earlier Navy Yard Master Plan, completed in 2004, had residential development connected to a marina. That’s not a bad idea: in an area with nearly no other urban amenities, a secluded marina sounds attractive. However, the port expansion at the eastern end of the site has killed the marina concept. Now, the planned marina has been squeezed into what is called the “Canal District,” and connected new development is strictly corporate office space. Currently, the plan for the 38 acre Canal District (about as big as the entire historic Independence Mall area including Washington Square) shows four, block-long office buildings on either side of a canal, which also serves as a water management system. Parking lots are planned for either side of the office buildings with green buffer zones at their furthest edges that are defined by the expanded Navy zone to the west and the new port zone to the east. Ideally, this area would be used for mixed-residential and offices similar to areas in London such as the Docklands, Paddington Basin, and Little Venice. There, water is a valued amenity and becomes integrated as little streets with house boats, gardens, and terraces. There is ample room for a planned community like this in the Canal District if the parking situation gets resolved with a garage or two north in the Mustin Park District, which is planned to be a light-industrial zone. More waterways would make the Canal District live up to its name and create a desirable place to live because of its uniqueness within the city. Also, its proximity to offices and a potentially developed coastal promenade make it a great sell. Louis Kahn would have loved it.
So far, housing–which hasn’t yet gotten zoning approval–has been relegated to existing structures and some new buildings within the northern historic core. While there is logic to this positioning, one has to wonder who wants to live here and why? Being proximate to where you work is surely a benefit, yet without urban amenities such as grocers, banks, cafes, shops, pharmacies, restaurants, etc., what is the incentive? What housing typologies would make most sense in this region? While some larger existing buildings on the site are to be turned into housing, just because they exist does not mean they necessarily are worthy of retention. One wonders what new kind of housing could exist on those sites. Per the master plan, the building labeled 624 at Kitty Hawk Avenue and 12th Street has 428,000 square feet and takes up an entire block. Nearby, building 83 is more than half that square footage. Both buildings are massive and reach eight stories. There is sustainability in reusing structures, but these buildings would need serious surgery and abatement. Further, a more contemporary way of living could be achieved with an entirely new design that would be more sustainable and denser in the long run.
Still, the main question lingers: who will live here and why? To whom do you market this housing? Penn State students (Penn State runs a building sustainability program at the Navy Yard)? Artists? Retirees? Families? The latter would require playgrounds, a school, and related child care support facilities, none of which exist nor seem to be planned. However, the building formation of Building 608–the former Halsey Hal–is ideal for an educational facility. A primary school serving students up to 8th grade, renovated with sustainability and ecology programming in mind, would fit well here. It is a full block site and it’s location next to two parks are perfect for this use. If that doesn’t quite work from a development perspective, a retirement home—or, to go down that road further, a hospice—may do the trick.
The master plan calls for two new transit stops, extending the Broad Street Line. To warrant that kind of major infrastructure investment, the Navy Yard needs not just office workers, but residents and nightlife as well. Often, transit stations are the focal point for retail density and are given ample public space. At the moment, the master plan does not seriously entertain that prospect. The two proposed stops–one at Broad Street and Kitty Hawk Avenue and the other at the intersection of League Island and Rouse Boulevards—aren’t fully conceived. Are these at street level running through the Navy Yard? Underground? Will there be any other connections? Could there be a major urban plaza with retail and residences? All of this remains unclear.
All told, the master plan has done well in considering environmental concerns, real estate value, and investment in contemporary architecture. There are risks to developing such a removed zone. However, as demonstrated at the Navy Yard, with the right amount of tax incentives, quality landscape design, and architecture, the site is positioned to succeed. The major concern is what will happen when those tax incentives disappear. Will those office buildings retain their caché or will the current leaseholders move to the next incentivized office park? If so, who will be there to sustain the seven million square feet of leasable space? Creating a good mix of unique urban residential areas with proximate commercial spaces and a cohesive coastal promenade will be key. The investment in quality architecture is apparent thus far. The worry is that it hasn’t been accompanied by an equal investment in planning. The suspicion is that the developers want it this way: trophy buildings amidst a quasi-suburban landscape that feels safe and accessible. Urbanizing, for that is what is really called for, probably feels too risky as the suburbanized model works for the short-term. But then again, more risk more reward.
A self-described Catalyst, Jason Lempieri investigates subversion, history, and collective memory in his work. He designs from the perspective that form follows meaning. He is the founder of the multi-disciplinary architecture and design studio RethinkTANK llc. Currently, he is raising public funds for Gilded Gates, an artfully designed bike rack at Rittenhouse Square endorsed by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
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