Elegant Complexity At Cira South

April 29, 2013 | by Nathaniel Popkin and Bradley Maule


Shovels are in the ground: The Grove at Cira Centre South is under construction | Photo: Bradley Maule

Shovels are in the ground: The Grove at Cira Centre South is under construction | Photo: Bradley Maule

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.

Brandywine Realty Trust CEO Gerard Sweeney discusses Cira South with architects David McHenry and Scott Erdy

Brandywine Realty Trust CEO Gerard Sweeney discusses Cira South with architects David McHenry and Scott Erdy

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.

The Grove at Cira Centre South, view from the Walnut Street bridge | Image courtesy of Erdy McHenry Architecture

The Grove at Cira Centre South, view from the Walnut Street bridge | Image courtesy of Erdy McHenry Architecture

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.

The Grove at Cira Centre South, rooftop pool view | Image courtesy of Erdy McHenry Architecture

The Grove at Cira Centre South, rooftop pool view | Image courtesy of Erdy McHenry Architecture

“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.”

The Grove at Cira Centre South, Chestnut Street view | Image courtesy of Erdy McHenry Architecture

The Grove at Cira Centre South, Chestnut Street view | Image courtesy of Erdy McHenry Architecture

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.

The Grove at Cira Centre South, parking garage green roof view | Image courtesy of Erdy McHenry Architecture

The Grove at Cira Centre South, parking garage green roof view | Image courtesy of Erdy McHenry Architecture

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.



  1. Randall says:

    So what are the future plans for that abomination of a garage facing the river???

    If it’s under used then it should be wrapped in habitable space facing the river.

    There needs to be a prohibition against unlined garages facing rivers in Philadelphia.

  2. Anthony Zul says:

    And now I am officially taking a path toward living in this building. I love it.

  3. J. says:

    Nothing says social integration and city-friendly like a thirty story high end residential building that addresses a super sensitive inner-city area by blocking air flow, sky, sunlight, and overall access for public pedestrian use.

    30 stories, no setbacks … quite the sympathetic response to the vanishing small scale Philadelphia standards in the vicinity — the University-Theme-Parking of west Philly continues. (Oh, and I might be mistaken, but other than the color of ‘suntan’, I don’t see any people of color in any of the renderings, either the poolside paradise or streetlevel view. Must be an oversight, or maybe the Cad program ran out of color ink that day.)

  4. Nabil says:

    You do realize this is currently a hole in the ground right? Is this really blocking your access as a pedestrian?

    Being of color, I have no concern that the demographics will match that of Penn and Drexel’s current racial make up.

    This area is designed for dense mixed use. It makes no sense to plop 6 single family affordable homes here. It must not be a bad plan if a significant complaint is the lack of color in renderings.

  5. bedfordstreet says:

    Nabil, don’t be daft. J just wants to return the area to its former colonial spirit. You know, trinities, cobbled streets, maybe a church steeple, and a little bit of… wait, what’s that?

    Mmm, quaint.

  6. J. says:

    My point is that this thing is way too large a monolith given the area, will legitimize monstrous scale-up in the area, and will block out Sky, block out Air, block out Light.

    (If the faux points above (what do you want, it’s a hole now/ what do you want, rowhomes) are the best you got, I’m considering my point pretty well nailed.)

    Have to say that it’s reminiscent of the Society Hill towers at the other river’s edge across town, but broader, no breaks in the blockage. Unmistakably out of place, and like the Towers, a real obstruction to traffic and pedestrian flow; glaringly disrespectful to the scale & vernacular of the area.

  7. Brandon says:


    I think most would agree you’re wrong on this one. It’s a slender tower that does a great job respecting the scale of the area as UCity steps down from the Center City skyline. There is plenty of sky to be seen (though not sure that is important in the downtown of one of the densest cities in the US) and there is plenty of light to be had. The air comment is weird. How in the world would this block air? Air flows around the building. “It blocks air” is what NIMBYs say when they have no legitimate concerns.

    Furthermore, the points above (it’s a hole now/what do you want, rowhomes?) are legitimate. What DO you want there? Is this not an appropriate place for a high-rise residential building? What, in your mind, would fit in here?

  8. J. says:

    Crazy, but I’m finding some comments here a little disingenuous.
    First, I didn’t post here to sell my alternate plan for the site. So asking what my plan would be– is pretty much irrelevant. How about this: No Giant Highrise. And go from there.

    Best and most inventive question: “How in the world would this block air ?”

    Massive slabs of structure block air currents.
    Air currents benefit people in sweltering Philly summers. Every little breeze counts in August. Or do we all just crank the aircon once the summer begins ? Oh, right, “air flows around the building”; to some extent, yes. But never, ever, directly through the building. So it stops breezes like… like a massive slab of rigid structure would. Yes, exactly like that.

    Massive slabs of structure block also views, clouds, sun, the sky. Light.
    Ever lived right across the street from a blocklong highrise ? Darker, all year, and especially in the winter. Or do we just crank up the electric lighting, perhaps now in daylight hours ? Maybe just courteously install some skylights and withhold mentioning that it’s not so bright in the neighborhood anymore..?

    Prosaic, obvious; that’s what you get with the disingenuous question approach.

    How about this : Ever noticed that real-estate ads frequently mention ‘open’ ‘bright’ ‘views’ ‘light-filled’ etc.? That’s probably because each and every one of those qualities is a highly valued aspect in residences. Shoehorning giant monoliths into sites remove those qualities in the surrounding neighborhood. So that the highrise developers can then mention open/ bright/ views, etc. –in their own ads for the highrise.
    Just a coinicidental effect there, I guess.

    1. samac says:

      Yes, people who reflexively oppose development should at least offer some alternative as to what the best use of that site is. And how that best use would be achieved.

      This proves how even a first class project well located will attract some NIMBY opposition. Fortunately in this case no one listened.

      1. J. says:

        No, doesn’t follow. Nothing says those who recognize a bad idea must somehow magically produce alternative plans, or methods for “how that best use would be achieved”. Bad idea is a bad idea.

        Back to the drawing board would be the best new idea. Work in terms of the area’s pre-existing average heights in order to avoid blocking sky, air and light, don’t raise the scale of this side of the river, because it will keep getting raised. Don’t double the scale. You can’t get back what you block out.

        Nimby opposition is yet another non-starter. This isn’t in my backyard, but affects a whole segment of the city. And it’s going to affect the way UCity is further developed.

        Last: “fortunately in this case no one listened”.
        Fortunate for whom, the economic partners here ? Those who would like to high-rise the whole UCity area ? Those suntanned people in the picture ?
        Translation: “fortunately, in this case, no one listened and greed wins over moderation”.
        Thanks for that.

    2. Seth says:

      Are you really attempting to state that this tower is going to blot out the sun? Is it going to turn all the air into carbon dioxide so people can’t breath? And clearly, if there is to be a thirty-story tower no one will be able to see the sky, right? Stop being ridiculous. You are a classic NIMBY: when an excellent project comes along you find some way to shoot it down with erroneous concerns about noise pollution and crime. If we all listened to people like you this city would never make progress. What about Temple’s tower in North Philly? It’s 26 stories and doesn’t fit in with the stock of run-down and abandoned houses in the neighboring community. Does it block out the sun, prevent people from seeing the sky, or interrupt “airflow”? NO. I wasn’t aware they were planning on building mid-nineteenth century New York City-style tenement housing…

      1. The comment stream on this article has been aimed primarily at one person’s views. No need to vilify that person, and no need for that person to vilify those who disagree with him. If you want to present a case in any which way please stick to the ideas and facts. Many thanks for reading, caring, and responding. –ed.

  9. Geoff says:

    Stellar use of this site. Transit Oriented Development at its best. This building will become a focal point much like Cesar Pelli’s has to the north. Thank you Penn for your design influence. What an amazing visual gateway linking the two sides of our fair Schuylkill.

  10. andrew says:

    J, You mention that the tower will “legitimize monstrous scale-up in the area,” but the west bank area is already a neighborhood of monstrous scale. 30th Street Station, the IRS building, and the parking garage are all monolithic buildings that take up full city blocks. On the adjacent northwest corner sits a large, below-grade parking lot, across the street from a sprawling Post Office building. Penn Park itself exerts a gigantic, below-grade presence. And then there are the nearby bridges, which drivers treat as expressways. This is not a neighborhood of ‘human scale,’ nor has it ever been.

    The comparison to Society Hill Towers is just off-base. There: densely populated, historic city blocks were bulldozed to install upscale apartment towers. Here: zero residents will be displaced, and a desolate block with massive institutional neighbors may finally gain some vitality.

  11. Steve says:

    The current surroundings of the site are:
    East: 9 Train tracks and 2 layers of 4 lane highway before getting to the river
    North/ NE: 2 solid blocks of massive architecture being the IRS and 30th street station
    Northwest: a massive 200+ spot block long parking lot
    West: Entire block long post office and other large scale buildings including an eight story office building.
    South: 11 story parking lot and soon to be 50+ story Cira Center South.

    Beyond this are other massive university based buildings and the nearest single family dwelling is 7 blocks away. Even heading east across the river yous till hit several multistory apartments before ever hitting a small scale row-house.

    I understand the concern for blocking off light and air but the only place this building will cast shade is on the IRS building.

    Philadelphia is blessed (or cursed depending where you stand) with having very strong neighborhood boards and standards that keep “monstrosities” from popping up.

    1. FS says:

      Give J. a break, folks! Lots of us would prefer a lower building.
      But here is my beef. In the summer, the hear reflected off the Cira building is really intense, I feel it on the other side of the river. And the shine must go into a lot of windows. How come no one ever mentions the reflective heat problem from shinny buildings? And then there are all the AC’s they need adding to the hot air.

  12. J. says:

    Andrew, a fair point on scale, but none of those examples you cite are anything like thirty sky-blocking stories tall.

    The Society Hill Towers (31 stories tall) are no exact analogy, but are and should remain a warning about jamming in a thirty-story tower –and what the neighborhood gets– something you need to walk around, or through, quickly (maybe while thinking of The Sixties, or Brazilia …) because its only relevance is to its inhabitants.

    I would suggest– and yeah, I get the idea I’m alone here– that every project that raises the scale and height of the area pushes the next large project to do at least the same or, more likely, a little more. More stories in height, more units, more parking for many more cars –which this area also doesn’t need.

    The street-dwarfing walls-of-glass urban-canyons thing has been done, extensively, in Ny. One would have hoped Philly could have had a slightly more moderate, longer-range understanding of scale and liveability.

    1. D. says:

      J, I think that if you want to make general arguments against building large buildings, you picked the wrong project to start with. For all the above reasons (especially Steve’s and Andrew’s). You’re making a “slippery slope” case, and I share those concerns, but I think the strength of Philadelphia’s neighborhood associations will go a long way toward preventing another Society Hill Towers- style mistake. I can see nothing but benefits from adding a large number of residents to this block. I worked across the street from the site for 8 years and it has always felt devoid of life outside of business hours. This residential tower will change that.

  13. J. says:

    Well, D, I was more interested in making a general argument against the building of *this* building. Which is twice the size of most buildings in the area, put simply.

    (Just wondering, since others have brought it up as a given– which particular “neighborhood association” was it that had any legitimate input on the overall height and air rights here ?)

    And one person’s ‘slippery slope’ case of likely outcome is perhaps best understood in terms of “inevitable” outcome. Does anyone think that the up-scaling of this area will END with this building ? (other than all of the 1oo%-consistent, 1oo%-convinced, forward-saluting team-players here in the comments section, that is) ..?

    Philadelphia’s downtown has something that skyscraper-gulch cities can’t match, a diversity of building styles and multiplicity of designs and eras, side-by-side; and the scale of the city has been a long fight to hold to a moderate profile. You must really start with the scale of the streets– small– and respect that on every following decision. It is something to be preserved and reinvented only with judgement & care.

    But trying to discuss that idea here feels a little close to being shouted down at a convention of the chamber of commerce. As my last post in this thread, I’d like all the team-players here to think of the feelings of all those suntanned white people in the poolside rendering– when the next highrise across the street, perhaps double this size, eliminates their tanning paradise. (Although perhaps philly could get its own metallic gehry masterpiece to act as a reflector. And build higher.)

    Best of luck, team; urban planning is just a cash-register that keeps on ringing.

  14. Sandy Smith says:

    The point everyone seems to miss about Society Hill Towers was that they were intended to be an exclamation point for the neighborhood, not a harbinger of Things to Come. The Grove at Cira Centre South, I suspect, will no more trigger the transformation of Market, Chestnut or Walnut streets in its vicinity into a skyscraper canyon any more than Penn’s three High Rises – true architectural mistakes that also DID obliterate an actual residential district – turned Spruce Hill into Second Avenue.

    There are indeed no near neighbors to raise objections to high rises like this one the way those living near Stamper Square or 205 Race have done – and if you look at Brandywine Realty Trust’s master plan for the whole Cira Centre development, you should see that tall buildings were intended to go on both this plot and the one to be developed on Walnut from the start.

    Methinks J.’s alarm is wildly misplaced. Where was he when City Council was debating Liberty Place?

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