In a 2013 interview with Hidden City, Drexel University President John Fry revealed his ideas for an “Innovation Neighborhood” inextricably linked to 30th Street Station that “puts Philadelphia at the 50-yard line of the United States.” This month Drexel and partners have released two plans that officially launch this effort. Indeed, March 2016 has been pretty eventful for the area around 30th Street Station. Early in the month, Brandywine Realty Trust and Drexel University announced their partnership on the next phase of the Innovation Neighborhood, which they and planning firms SHoP Architects and West 8 call Schuylkill Yards. Just a week later, Drexel and Brandywine officials joined those from Amtrak, PennDOT, SEPTA, the City, CSX, the University of Pennsylvania, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, University City District, Schuylkill Banks, PIDC, and New Jersey Transit in a public meeting to unveil “Philly District 30,” a 35-year plan under the guidance of the firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill to develop the entire 30th Street Station area. The two plans are inextricably tied together (Schuylkill Yards is really a subset area of Philly District 30) and related to the City Planning Commission’s Philadelphia 30th Street Station District Plan and many others going back to the 1970s. Schuylkill Yards is the name that the Philadelphia 30th Street Station District Plan provisionally gave to Drexel’s Innovation Neighborhood, and it is the first of the four large areas that Philly District 30 will attempt to address–sections with varying levels of redevelopment difficulty that each radiate out from 30th Street Station.
Yet, even with the surge of planning we have to wonder: what exactly will ever be built and how will existing buildings and infrastructure factor into the project going forward?
If You Render It, Will They Build?
The Philly District 30 Master Plan involves nothing less than the complete redevelopment of the area around 30th Street Station, stretching between the Schuylkill River, Penn and Drexel campuses, and up through the Amtrak rail yards to Spring Garden Street. Plans call for the creation of the new, mixed-use Innovation Neighborhood around 30th and Market north to Drexel Park at 32nd Street and Powelton Avenue east to the river. The project proposes a variety of other large and small amenities, including redeveloping and reopening the underground concourse linking the Amtrak station with the 30th Street Market-Frankford Line Station, a new bus terminal at Schuylkill Avenue and Arch Street, parking over the Schuylkill Expressway, a floating park area down on the river, pedestrian crossings above Powelton Yards to the new neighborhood, expanding Amtrak’s facilities in 30th Street Station proper, expanding SEPTA facilities in same, and much more.
The first and least complex to develop are Drexel’s Innovation Neighborhood parcels, namely parking lots and underbuilt buildings along Market Street between 30th Street Station and Drexel’s central campus. The next difficult area to tackle are the maintenance yards, a large area of open space lying between the SEPTA and Amtrak rail yards, with some low-slung structures scattered about. Building on these parcels won’t be entirely cumbersome, but the grade will need to be raised to connect them to the neighborhood and the Spring Garden Street Bridge. Development of Penn Coach Yards will require an overbuild of the Amtrak rail yards lying in a floodplain alongside the Schuylkill Expressway, an undertaking that is easier explained than done. However, the most difficult area of all will be SEPTA’s Powelton Yards, a large curving coach yard on the west side of the site and subject to several issues, including major grade changes at the south end–the overbuild roof of Powelton Yards would lie approximately 40 feet above the level of JFK Boulevard, requiring impressive infrastructure just for pedestrian connectivity–and places to set piers for overbuild structures in general.
Philly District 30 considers the Powelton Yards overbuild a far-future effort, one that will become viable only when Schuylkill Yards is well near completionand the Penn Coach Yard is overbuilt. Schuylkill Yards alone has a 14-year timeframe, and Philly District 30 proposes to complete a full buildout of the master plan in less than 30 years. To call the comprehensive project ambitious is an understatement. After all, the end goal is nothing less than creating an entirely new second central business district from the ground up around 30th Street Station. Even so, Natalie Shieh, principal officer of the 30th Street Station Master Plan for Amtrak, is cautiously optimistic. “I expect I’ll be around to see the first phase at least,” she told Hidden City earlier this month.
Others are more skeptical. Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron notes that Schuylkill Yards will be the city’s third innovation district currently planned for development–after the University of Pennsylvania’s Pennovation district in Grays Ferry and the Science Center’s uCity Square (notably all west of the Schuylkill River). “Even if you believe Philadelphia is on the cusp of a meds-and-eds-fueled expansion, it’s going to take a long time before Philadelphia attracts enough companies to fill the millions of square feet in the proposed innovation zones,” Saffron wrote.
Schuylkill Yards In The Cards
The first individual part of Philly District 30’s plan to rise to proposal stage, Schuylkill Yards, is breathtaking in terms of enterprise. The project sprawls across the underdeveloped properties and parking lots between Drexel’s campus and 30th Street, almost all of them Drexel-owned. Plans involve the re-skinning of the Bulletin Building at 3001 Market and conversion of the adjoining parking lot into a large public plaza, the construction of eight new towers on the site capped by a 950-foot tower at 3101 Market, the conversion of John F. Kennedy Boulevard between 30th and 32nd Streets into a Dutch-style esplanade known as a woonerf, and the implementation of pedestrian pathways throughout the core of the project site. Architecture and site planning services are being handled by New York’s SHoP Architects, a firm whose other major projects include the former Domino sugar refinery in Queens and the Hudson’s site in Detroit.
Grand architectural visions look great in the rendering phase, but delivery is a whole other ball game, especially in the context of Philly District 30’s plan as a comprehensive package. However, Schuylkill Yards, with its narrow scope, looks attainable if you consider what partners Brandywine and Drexel have accomplished since 1999: about $1.3 billion in real estate investment in Cira Centre and campus and commercial development.
Obscured At Street Level
But the scale of Schuylkill Yards raises another question. Skylines may look good from afar–as this emergent one does in renderings–but they tell us next to nothing about what a city looks like on the ground. Shanghai’s Pudong skyline, for example, is iconic from the sky or from the city’s historic Puxi district, but the skyscraper cluster is built to an utterly inhuman scale at street level as this Google streetview tour conveniently illustrates. This is a common affliction among new, built-from-scratch districts. It is part of what makes Jersey City’s Newport neighborhood bland and boring. Are Brandywine and Drexel talking a big game, one that nets us some shiny new towers, but at the price of a cold, out-of-scale street environment or are we seeing 21st century Philadelphia’s version of Rockefeller Center–a tall, dense, urbane space that is simultaneously intimate? Looking at what’s been presented so far, I’m pleased to say I suspect the latter.
A problem with superblock developments is the accumulation of blank hardscapes and landscaped greenways that, individually, may be innocuous enough. But applied repeatedly they can define the public realm of a whole district of the city create vast, vacuous expanses. Nature abhors vacuums, however, and these open spaces often get paved over later with streets and boulevards–spaces that only cars can ever be the true masters of and areas that divide, separate, and turn each block into its own cutoff island.
Though it might seem an outdated example, Rockefeller Center, organized and built around a defined public space, offers a useful comparison. Rockefeller Plaza, which runs through the center, is framed by the rest of the complex. It also provides a valuable, midblock pedestrian thruway in a long New York blocks, twice the length, but only half the width as a typical Philadelphia block–an issue Jane Jacobs famously discussed in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Rockefeller Plaza therefore provides pedestrian circulation spaces mid-block where they’re needed most and a central gathering space to organize a public realm. But it provides only this, and nothing more.
Likewise, the plan for Schuylkill Yards is to build around a single, defined public space–a conversion of the parking lot in front of 3001 Market into a hardscape plaza and an extension of the Drexel campus’s pedestrian circulation spaces. This public space was prefigured in Drexel’s 2012 campus master plan by the firm Goody Clancy, which I wrote about HERE. Other internal public spaces in the plan include a small plaza in the middle of the 3100 block of Market, a plaza between 3001 Market, the High Line (aka West Philadelphia Elevated Branch) and the spaces immediately underneath it, and the conversion of JFK Boulevard into a shared esplanade and traffic-calming of 32nd Street. All are clearly subordinate to the plaza across the street from 30th Street Station, created out of the unbuildable little nooks left behind after all the circulation systems across the site–pedestrian, auto, mass transit, and freight rail–have been accounted for.
We can see, then, that Schuylkill Yards has been designed in a way that reveals both its overarching aspirations and a considerable grasp of good urban planning, an understanding that seems hard won in University City and especially at Drexel, whose Urban Renewal-era campus was often about a decade ago named among the country’s ten ugliest. Recent projects, like Chestnut Square at 33rd and Chestnut and the Daskalakis Athletic Center at 34th and Market, knit the school back to the street and blur what had previously been a sharp boundary between “school” and “city.”
Out With The Old, In With The New
There is little notably historic architecture in the area surrounding 30th Street Station: the old Philadelphia General Post Office across the street, restored by Brandywine for IRS offices, the former D.B. Martin slaughterhouse on the southwest corner of 30th and Market, the 1955 Bulletin Building by George Howe of Howe & Lescaze, and the former Pennsylvania Railroad office building (an apartment building now known as University Crossings).
The Schuylkill Yards plan proposes to envelope the Bulletin Building, Howe’s last commission, which is not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, in a new façade and razing the D.B. Martin slaughterhouse for a tower down the road. As Inga Saffron points out the Bulletin Building received an alteration on its 30th Street façade once before, in 1997. This alteration was minimal, extending Howe’s fenestration across a new side, which resulted in one of the best looking modernist cosmetic upgrades in the city. The proposed alterations will strip Howe’s hermetic eastern façade down to its exoskeleton and sheathe it with what the plan calls a “dynamic front screen.” Inside out viewports will also be installed facing Drexel Square, an elliptical a 1.3 acre park built on the adjoining parking lot. The redesign will eliminate almost every trace of Howe’s tight, narrow-eyed Modernist façade, rendering the building mostly naked with a boxy grid of steel mesh and lots of natural light.
Aesthetics aren’t everything, of course. There is no doubt that the Bulletin Building’s current fenestration is less than optimal for today’s light-filled office. Some of the Howe’s greatest design weaknesses–narrow bands of windows, automobile orientation, and general lack of openness along any of its façades–prefigures Brutalism’s worst urban-design excesses. Yet, the 1997 interventions do show that some of the design’s most glaring failures can be–and, in fact, have been–fixed with what we might call masterful Madmen minimalism.
A criticism that can be leveled against the oldest building in the area, the Martin building, is that it is too squat. The old slaughterhouse is only two stories above grade level, after all, and much of the façade has been altered beyond recognition. But that, too, is no excuse to not even to integrate one of the district’s rare historic resources into the Schuylkill Yards plan. Precisely because of its squatness, the Martin building may offer a the possibility to install a new building behind and above a restored façade. In her piece, Saffron says that Millennials–surely a target audience of this project–crave authenticity. But you can’t achieve authenticity by demolishing the Martin building and altering the Bulletin beyond recognition.
Questions about preservation in this context are often ignored. But finely tuned urbanism ought to take into consideration the existing fabric. Doing so is one hedge against the worst instincts of the superblock master plan. We are optimistic about Schuylkill Yards, especially, but probably have a right to be skeptical until shovels are in the ground.
About the author
Stephen Stofka is interested in the urban form and the way we change it. A graduate of the Geography and Urban Studies program at Temple University, he enjoys examining the architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city.
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