In early February, the South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA) hosted representatives from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to talk about CHOP’s plans for developing the nine-acre parcel the hospital acquired on the east side of the Schuylkill River immediately south of the South Street Bridge. At one point during the question-and-answer session, an audience member asked the CHOP team, somewhat poetically, about their dreams.
In his response, Doug Carney, CHOP’s senior vice president of facilities, said his hopes were that CHOP would continue to “be attractive to the world-class researchers we compete for.”
Carney’s invocation of “world-class,” however, left an opening for those in the audience unhappy with CHOP’s plan for a 23-story, half-a-million-square-foot tower right next to the low-rise neighborhoods of Graduate Hospital and the Devil’s Pocket, which would bring 1,000 CHOP researchers to the site each day. (Note that this is not going to be a place for patient care, as with CHOP’s complex across the river, but an office building for research.) “Is it world-class,” a follow-up questioner asked the CHOP team, “to drive 76 then take a ramp into a parking garage?”
It doesn’t seem that CHOP’s institutional ambitions and the city’s ideal planning needs will coalesce. But CHOP, which is currently undertaking a remarkable amount of expansion, has goodwill on its side—it is, after all, devoted to the care of children—as well as, frankly, considerable leverage to do what it wants. The Graduate Hospital Area project serves as a good insight into CHOP’s role in the city and illustrates the influence it wields.
Besides the tower, the Phase 1 plan for the site includes a four-story parking garage mostly tucked away next to the South Street Bridge. A new stoplight would be installed at the garage’s entrance on the bridge, cutting a hole in the bike lane and the sidewalk, thereby requiring bicyclists and pedestrians to stop and wait as an estimated 500 cars a day come off of I-76 and make the turn into the driveway. Level with the bridge will be a promenade positioned above the CSX tracks to offer a view of the Schuylkill River. At the southern end of this promenade, an eventual bridge over the train tracks will provide access to the extension of the hike-and-bike trail, although this feature is still labeled as “future” in the most recent plans. Phase 1 construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2016.
At this point, CHOP will build the first tower in order to consolidate employees who currently work out of a few locations around the city, mostly at 3535 Market Street. But the idea is that, as CHOP grows, there will be three more buildings on the site, not as tall as the first tower, depending on CHOP’s needs in the next 20 years.
The person at the meeting who invoked the idea of “dreams” was George Claflen, an architect and planner who also serves as the Vice Chair of the Philadelphia Design Advocacy Group. Speaking on his own behalf (i.e. not on that of DAG’s), he doesn’t think CHOP’s plans as such earn the label world-class. “It seems about as engaging as a suburban office building in a critical location in the city,” says Claflen. He brings up the new Silicon Valley headquarters for Apple and Google, which are comparable in size to CHOP’s development but for Claflen not comparable in imagination. “It’s axiomatic,” Claflen notes, “that if you build large things with a single use, they are dead when they’re not being used and boring when they are being used.”
Many of the neighbors, though, are more accepting of CHOP’s impending presence and appreciative of the way the behemoth hospital has worked with the residents. Charles Williams was a SOSNA representative on a committee, along with members of the Center City Residents’ Association and the South Street West Business Association, that in 2010 studied the potential uses for that parcel. Currently home to the abandoned JFK Vocational High School, the parcel has been a dead zone for years, the object of some interesting proposals that never got off the ground, and an impediment to accessing the river. The committee’s report called for mixed use, public spaces, and pedestrian-oriented amenities.
“I think they have responded to what was in the plan,” Williams says of CHOP. The early February meeting, after all, was only the latest of several presentations that CHOP has made to the neighborhood over the last four years.
“On the macro level they’ve been very good,” says SOSNA programs manager Andrew Dalzell. “They get points for the amount of outreach they’ve done.”
“The discussions have been very cordial and, for us, very insightful,” says Peter Grollman, CHOP’s vice president for government affairs, community relations and advocacy. “We’ve had the chance to learn about this community and their needs.”
Williams sees the biggest benefit of CHOP’s plan to be “pedestrian access through the site” to the planned promenade and the Schuylkill River Trail extension. “My quality of life is going to improve,” he notes.
Kelly Gibb Piasecki, an architect who lives in the neighborhood, notes that “the density proposed for this currently underdeveloped area where the neighborhood meets the river can seem overwhelming and even be off-putting at first blush,” but she likewise feels the amenities, like river access, will ultimately make it a positive addition.
The tower itself, from the firms of Ballinger, Pelli Clarke Pelli, and Cooper, Robertson & Partners, has a footprint shaped like a fan or a seashell. The first four stories will be clad in terra cotta and vertical metallic tubing, above which an aluminum and glass façade will rise to the roof, topped by a section of metallic tubes that create a background for an illuminated CHOP logo. The wall facing east, toward the neighborhood, has some visual character at ground level thanks to the wide steps that flank both sides of the tower and lead to the promenade, as well as a semicircular indentation that marks the building’s entranceway and rises to the roofline.
The main concern is whether those grounds will feel welcoming for residents to walk through. Williams notes that after business hours on CHOP’s main campus in University City, the place is desolate: “It’s a very different setting on this side of the river.”
“The last thing we want is an institutional feel [to the site],” says SOSNA chair Lauren Vidas.
One thing that neighbors in general and SOSNA as an organization have specifically requested from CHOP, to no avail, is a retail presence on the parcel—as the 2010 report called for—in order to mitigate that institutional feel. Chelle Greenfield, owner of the South Bridge bed-and-breakfast, is thrilled to get rid of the “eyesores” sitting there now, and she appreciates CHOP’s presence. “I’m always in favor of development,” she says. But she wishes there would be amenities for the residents: “Restaurants and shopping and a doctor’s office and a bank—there should be that.”
But CHOP won’t entertain the idea of mixed-use other than one café, in the vein of an Au Bon Pain. About this, Grollman says, “we are comfortable that it will fulfill the needs of the people located in the building.” Of course, those employees are free to walk several blocks to patronize local businesses, and Vidas, the SOSNA chair, gladly hopes they will. But the neighborhood’s commercial corridor, centered around South Street and Grays Ferry Avenue, is five blocks away, forming an ostensible ten-block walk on a lunch break. And given that the neighborhood has been booming on its own accord over the last decade—there are over 600 units across Schuylkill Avenue in Naval Square alone—and that 500 of the projected CHOP employees will be commuting via the Expressway, many heading home presumably to the suburbs and New Jersey, Vidas doesn’t view these medical researchers as a game-changing economic engine for the neighborhood.
It is, however, the neighborhood’s growth that would seem to be the argument for the viability of mixed use—if not, say, a late-night restaurant, which would indeed be jarring on a research campus, then maybe services such as a daycare center. The constant refrain coming from CHOP officials is that retail “is not part of our core mission.” But apparently becoming a massive real estate developer is part of its mission, or has effectively become so.
When asked about the hospital’s role as a developer, CHOP’s Grollman says, “we develop based on the needs that support the mission.” When it comes to including retail, he explains, “in this particular project, a clinical research operation, this isn’t the type of investment where we’re willing to take on unnecessary risk.” He notes, “We’re certainly aware of people’s requests to see more in the way of additional retail and commercial space,” but as a nonprofit, “CHOP can’t be in the position to subsidize that. We subsidize care, we subsidize programs, and that is our highest priority.” Nonetheless, he concedes, “we’re not exactly ruling it out” for the future phases of development.
The fact that one of the major West Philly eds and meds institutions is jumping the river, so to speak, is noteworthy in and of itself—and CHOP is currently in high-gear expansion mode beyond the eastern bank of the Schuylkill. The hospital giant is currently constructing a huge new outpatient facility in University City, adding to the city-within-a-city it has already created there. It is partnering with the City to build a combined health center/library branch/rec center at Broad and Morris in South Philly. And it has satellite campuses under construction in King of Prussia and in Princeton. The volume of CHOP’s current and ongoing real estate development is truly astonishing.
But it is CHOP’s Graduate Hospital Area project that will significantly impact the urban fabric and the evolving plan for Philadelphia. CHOP has included plazas that could host sporadic community events, and a promenade overlooking the Schuylkill, but until a bridge is built over the railroad tracks, there won’t be the much-desired access to the river. With only one café, despite the neighborhood’s and the planning community’s ongoing calls for more, who will actually be walking through the grounds? It’s easy to see what Claflen, the architect, dreads: a dead zone in a prime location in the city, rather than a “world-class” active space that would benefit the neighborhood, the various users of the Schuylkill River Trail, and CHOP’s employees, both the 1,000 who will work in the new tower and the ones already situated just across the walkable South Street Bridge.
While the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron wrote that the City had some sway over getting the developer of the generally derided Home2 Suites to include ground-floor retail space, that hotel at 12th and Arch Streets received City subsidies.
Carolyn Adams, a professor in Temple’s Department of Geography and Urban Studies, provides insight into how an institution like CHOP obtained the leverage it has. She considers CHOP’s development of the site as “part of a larger pattern of major nonprofit institutions leading the expansion of Center City into adjoining districts.” She explains in an email that when Philadelphia restructured its downtown during the 1960s to fit the office and service economy that was replacing the manufacturing economy, “there was major federal money available to help pay for that transformation.” These days, any retrofitting and expansion the city undergoes to adapt to the global economy has very little federal money available to fund it, “so public officials have ceded a lot of the responsibility to private developers, including major medical, educational, and cultural institutions.”
In the end, observes Adams, “I think local government officials have an ambivalent relationship with these powerhouse institutions. They have to rely on the institutions to raise the funds to reinvest in the city, but cannot exert direct control over what are essentially independent organizations. And meanwhile, of course, public officials are conscious of the fact that nonprofit institutions enjoy the advantages of tax-exempt status.”
As an organization, CHOP is exempt from paying taxes. But at the same time, keeping its employees in the city means they’re paying Philadelphia wage taxes.
As Adams observes in conclusion, “I think it’s a complicated relationship.”
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CHOP is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission’s Civic Design Review Committee on Tuesday, April 1. View CHOP’s March community presentation, including renderings and schematics, HERE.