Since 2011, one of Philadelphia’s more prominent design-and-build firms, Onion Flats, has been a partner in the redevelopment by owner Grasso Holdings of East Falls’ most prominent gateway, 4300-4326 Ridge Avenue. The parcel, located at the corner of Ridge and the Falls Bridge–often referred to as the “Rivage site”–still sits as a large parking lot across the street from a Lukoil gas station. The first proposal from Onion Flats, a firm dedicated primarily to contemporary, eco-conscious development, wowed the crowd in East Falls when renderings were released five years ago–a beautiful modern meld of apartments and thoughtful green space. Then the years ticked by and nothing happened–until a couple of weeks ago. New renderings of a proposed development at the Rivage site, called “Ridge Flats,” were circulated a few weeks prior to the Civic Design Review meeting on May 31.
The new design places retail fronts on Ridge Avenue and a café on the highly desirable corner at Falls Bridge and Kelly Drive and retains the community courtyard from the earlier plan (which was called “The Ridge”). The building now steps back from Kelly Drive, a gracious gesture to a very narrow stretch of Fairmount Park.
But while the new renderings reveal a mixed-use program similar to the earlier one, the current design displays a more defensive sensibility oddly reminiscent of the industrial buildings of architect Albert Kahn. This is a dramatic departure from the project’s original plan.
Onion Flats principal Howard Steinberg says that while his firm is indeed the managing architectural firm on record, they aren’t the design architect. New York’s Morris Adjmi Architects are. The contrast in both partnering firm’s style is a bit shocking. The work of Onion Flats is usually small-scale and contextual, yet surprisingly rustic. The cloistered, communal asymmetry of Rag Flats, the sustainable living community in FIshtown, might be Onion Flats’ exemplar. Morris Adjmi Architects tends to favor more muscular industrial-inspired design like that of their exposed steel exoskeleton behemoth, Atlantic Plumbing, in Washington, D.C. The stark difference in architectural principles, in turn, has affected the way the two firms approach the same design problem.
Onion Flats | The Ridge
The basic concept for Onion Flats’ original 2011 proposal seems to be less a single, unified structure, and more so a highly compressed apartment complex. The outer perimeter is wrapped in a five-story façade, but this is not immediately noticeable as the façade is broken into six distinct wings. Three smaller structures lie within the heart of the complex, linked to the outer structures with breezeways that offer elevator access. The plan featured a mix of 126 one and two bedroom apartments with 8,700 square feet of retail space. Green roofs, solar energy, and other sustainable building techniques were to be employed to achieve the goal of net zero energy use.
The exterior structures divide the internal space into a larger and smaller courtyard that is linked by a ground floor breezeway. The building is clad in the firm’s characteristic mix of metal panels and wood accents. A bright white palette animates the Kelly Drive and Falls Bridge sides with a darker mix of hues and more wood accents along Ridge. The balconies connecting the units are lined with wood around the courtyard, presenting a deeply intimate space with a Japanese aesthetic for the residents inside. Here, too, Onion Flats shows its flair. The interior courtyard is a garden of native grasses, while a large cutout along Kelly Drive allows views of the Schuylkill River. This is a sensitive, peaceful design that would have coexisted well with the existing building stock and the banks of the river.
Morris Adjmi Architects | Ridge Flats
Unlike the Onion Flats design, which presents a five-story box around the entire site perimeter, Morris Adjmi has placed the full five floors only along Ridge Avenue. The building steps back to two stories along Kelly Drive. The plan includes 206 studios, 1-bedroom, and 2-bedroom units, 20,188 square feet of commercial space, 194 parking spaces, and an amenity deck for gazing out onto the Schuylkill River.
Morris Adjmi’s design appears taller, due to the use of large industrial fenestration, and is more imposing along narrow Ridge Avenue. The interior courtyard looks value engineered into a simple grass lawn. While most of the residential and commercial choices appear unchanged, there is a sense that the Morris Adjmi design is simultaneously less dense and less gracious–a block-long brick wall allegory done in glass and aluminum panels.
The new proposal does have some merits. Old municipal maps show that the Philadelphia Housing Authority development across the street, as well as the Hilltop at Falls Ridge just up the hill, lie on the site occupied by the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co., before moving regional operations to Upper Gwynedd. Industrial development is indeed no stranger to East Falls, the location of several 19th century mills. In theory, the Morris Adjmi design does vaguely echo the area’s historic manufacturing narrative with no-nonsense geometry, but therein lies the problem. Rather than responding to the river with open portals and a network of native landscaping, the new design instead barricades itself in at street level.
Best Laid Plans
Like so many other prime development projects in Philadelphia, the change mostly came down to parking and parking access. According to Steinberg, “PennDOT directed the development to incorporate a second ingress/egress along Kelly Drive,” and the significant grade differential between Ridge Avenue and the southwest corner of the site forced the architects to incorporate a second level of parking below the ground floor.
But the decisive issue was the sourcing of materials. The Onion Flats project was modular, but, ultimately, the contracted manufacturer resisted producing the necessary detailing to meet the targeted Net Zero Energy Building Certification, says Steinberg.
Although Onion Flats holds a small ownership in the site, Grasso Holdings is the project’s major stakeholder, and has more say. Unlike most developers, Onion Flats is tremendously patient when it comes to their own projects (the second phase of Duck Flats in Northern Liberties is just now getting off of the ground nearly a decade after the firm took control of the site). However, most other developers, like David Grasso, want to get their projects financed and built quickly because investors traditionally look for return on investment first and craftsmanship second.
Business As Usual
It has been a long five years for the Rivage site. When the Onion Flats proposal was first chosen, it was a welcomed sign that patience and smart, green architecture would triumph over another limp design meant to turn a quick buck. But in the world of development, even patience has its price. Onion Flats may still be involved in the project, but the firm’s role has diminished significantly. With other projects underway, like the Falls Bridge Lofts right next door, the priority has shifted to simply getting a livable building up quickly instead. Morris Adjmi’s proposal isn’t entirely bad. The problem is, it could be better, and the Onion Flats plan was indeed much better. Unfortunately for the residents of East Falls and anyone moving along the Schuylkill River Trail, an opportunity for something sustainable and design-savvy has been squandered.