On a Monday morning, Community Legal Services’ small Broad and Erie office waiting room, with its poor ventilation and leaky roof, is standing room only. The glazed looks on clients’ faces mask their frustration with problems like obtaining disability benefits or food stamps, keeping the heat on during the winter, or preventing eviction and homelessness–all this on top of the stress of dealing with legal bureaucracy.
It’s CLS’s goal to help their clients overcome endless run-around and assist them in obtaining free and equal access to justice, but the poor office conditions add to stress and anxiety. Attorneys handling nursing home and elder issues are shoe-horned into basement offices. Without elevators they are often inaccessible to their clients. Leaks and pests threaten client records and some staffers work in spaces carved out of hallways.
All this is about to change, however, as the CLS North Philadelphia team will soon move into a new three and a half story office building designed by Atkin Olshin Schade Architects around the corner from the current location. The new building is designed to facilitate the agency’s work and help relieve some of the stress of poverty and uncertainty. It may well lead to further development at the key North Philadelphia corner.
“Our interactions treat our clients with respect. We want a space that does that as well,” says CLS managing attorney Amy Hirsch, who has been part of the building project team since discussions began over seven years ago. Client stress, she says, will be reduced by the new larger waiting area with natural light from an inner courtyard, privacy from the busy street, and the opportunity to sit under the shade of a tree while waiting for legal advice.
“The new building is dignified, elegant, an appropriate sized space,” says the agency’s development director Lisa Dunlop. “Just because you can’t afford to pay doesn’t mean you can’t have a lovely and respectful space around you.”
The architects also aim for LEED Gold Certification. “It was important to the staff and board to have a green building in terms of its value and fiscal prudence with running costs in the future,” says Hirsch. When asked, clients and neighbors also talked about a building with green elements, such as a sustainable structure, trees, and a green roof. The resulting building has an additional laundry list of green amenities, such as highly efficient gas pumped heating, low-flow water fixtures, a highly efficient building envelope, day lighting, glazing on windows, high efficiency fixtures, and low voc products for carpeting and floor tiles.
Architect Mike Schade also looked at the larger sustainability picture when drafting the design. “The building is located at Broad and Erie, one of the most highly connected transportation spots in the city, so we did not have to include parking,” he says. “We did plan a shower in the building for bikers and bike racks. This lowers transportation costs for staff and clients.”
For all its amenities and space, both architect and client want the new building to fit into the current neighborhood, seamlessly filling a lot left vacant after the city tore down six dilapidated row homes years ago. “It was important for us to put something back that fit the size, scale, and rhythm of the street,” says Schade, who designed the building’s height to match that of the neighboring Northern Central Trust Company Building, now occupied by Church’s Chicken.
The new structure’s windows mirror those of the surrounding Victorian row home windows, and its use of limestone and brick combine the building materials of its neighbors, while glass on the first floor makes the space inviting to clients and appealing to those walking by.
Committed to North Philadelphia
CLS has had office space at Broad and Erie since the 1970s. They were located in the Beury building until its disrepair made conducting business impossible. In the early 1980s, the agency moved across the street into a former Horn and Hardart automat turned shoe store. As the CLS team grew and this space slowly required more costly repairs, they looked for new rental space. A lack of viable stock led to purchasing land and building a new structure.
Hirsch says there is a long-standing, stable community here, and that many of its members have accessed CLS services over the years. “We are pleased to be a resource for the neighborhood and to help one another,” she says.
CLS’s caseload reflects the demand for their services in North Philadelphia; last year this office served over 7,000 people and responded to 4,000 new civil legal cases. And for clients living outside the neighborhood, Broad and Erie is a popular transit hub.
A Step Toward Additional North Philadelphia Revitalization and Green Building?
“It’s going to upgrade and uplift us,” says a nearby resident watching the building’s construction. “It will bring a lot to the neighborhood.”
The architect hopes for impact. “Hopefully it will spur other developers to invest in the area,” says Schade. “Not that this building is enough to create an economic turnaround of the neighborhood, but it is a step in the right direction.”
Building green here may not yet be the new norm, but Schade believes “almost all owners see the benefit of saving energy and so saving money. If we start early enough we see a lot of synergies, so we can do an integrated design process.” This includes starting with a highly efficient building envelope so, for example, required heating and cooling systems can be smaller and therefore use less energy.
“A lot of developers are still about immediate costs,” he says. “Once they are done someone else pays for energy use, the costs over time, so they don’t care about them. They want to build as cheaply as possible and this is not always green. If they own a building, it is unlikely they think just about the short run.”