Most Intriguing Projects Of 2016

December 21, 2016 | by Hilary Jay

Editor’s Note: Parts of Philadelphia seem to swell with new buildings in 2016 and there will be many more finished in 2017. Quite a few of these are boxy row houses with metal cladding and large windows. But real estate developers also put up small and large apartment buildings with retail storefronts in buff or black brick. Some of these, like Dalian on the Parkway and The Collins on Chestnut Street, featuring significant national retail tenants, have altered the rhythm of Center City. In 2016, it may be noted, new retail and restaurant space was added in Kensington, University City, South Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill, and Center City even as the Delaware waterfront’s first major new development in a decade, One Water Street, eschewed public commercial space. Universities built sophisticated dormitories with interior and exterior social spaces, and one, the University of Pennsylvania, turned a legacy paint factory along the Schuylkill River into a research and development center. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints completed its Philadelphia Cathedral. Non-profit and for-profit developers adapted several factories for use as apartments; at the Orinoka Mills in Kensington, the long-anticipated investment may be transformative. Public agencies and private non-profits invested in public parks and playgrounds (in rec centers and schools), and in public amenities like the Spring Garden Connector below Interstate 95, which employs lighting and public art to improve safety and the pedestrian experience.

Along with our editors, contributor Hilary Jay, the founder of Design Philadelphia and a former design columnist for the Inquirer Magazine, selected eleven examples of design excellence among new construction and adaptive reuse and public amenities large and small. In addition to striking design, we sought public visibility, commitment to community and neighborhood sensitivity, progressive design and reuse, quality of materials and workmanship, and sustainability measures. You’ll note that we don’t love everything about these projects, but have included them because there is at least one outstanding design feature at play.

1200 Intrepid is starchitect Bjarke Ingels’ curvy contribution to the Navy Yard. | Photo: Michael Bixler

1200 Intrepid

1200 Intrepid Avenue, Philadelphia Navy Yard

Bjarke Ingels Group/Liberty Property Trust

Cost: $35 million

In early 2015, speculative commercial property development began a substantial, post-Great Recession resurgence in Philadelphia as it did in other American cities like Las Vegas, Denver, Atlanta, and Columbia, South Carolina. Today, Philly has 20 commercial buildings under construction, about 10 million square feet worth—the largest real estate bet on the city since 2006.

With empty, and usable, space a premium at the Navy Yard, Liberty Property Trust and joint venture partner, Synterra Partners, put together a plan for a speculative office building. A typical spec office building tends to be blandly conceived in order to have the widest possible appeal. Liberty’s first Navy Yard projects, on Crescent Drive, fit this description.

But having learned the value in high-concept design and in employing well-known designers, with 1200 Intrepid, Liberty’s 14th at the Navy Yard, the real estate company opted to buck both definition and trend. The development team commissioned Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group (aka BIG) based on Ingel’s reputation as an architect with a clear vision (the firm’s VIA was named one of the best new buildings in New York in 2016 by New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman) to compose a 92,000 square foot low-rise, the firm’s second U.S. building and its first Gold-certified LEED project.

Penn Capital Management Company, Inc is the first tenant at 1200 Intrepid, which opened officially in November.

BIG designed the building facade from pre-cast concrete panels stacked in varying sizes that create a basket-weave pattern and allow for the double curved face to echo the rippling of the James Corner/Field Operations-designed Central Green Park—a five-acre landscape incorporating a circular running track, activity areas and planting vignettes. This stunning approach conveys the optical illusion of the building falling forward.

Inside, the elevator lobby forms an actual periscope to deliver natural light as well as spiffy views of the mothballed ships docked nearby. The other three sides are conventionally vertical, form following the urban grid function of Philly.

The Cira Centre complex, November 2016, nearing completion of its fourth building (sixth if you count two parking garages), César Pelli’s FMC Tower. | Photo: Bradley Maule

FMC Tower at Cira Centre South

2929 Walnut Street

Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects/Brandywine Realty

Cost: $385 million

The Cira Centre South complex, which includes the FMC and Evo towers and a public space, Cira Green, is a handsome representation of 21st century design sensibilities. Both human-centered and soaring, the complex creates a fitting, contemporary gateway to University City. We are particularly struck by the bold unapologetic geometry of the FMC Tower, striking use of building materials, the mixing of office, residential, social, and retail uses, and the incorporation of open public space.

Cesar Pelli, of Pelli Clarke Pelli, designer of the original Cira Centre and the Cira Centre master plan, composed this 49-story, 730-foot glass tower, the fourth tallest building in Philadelphia (fifth once the Comcast Innovation Center is complete). An industrial chemical company, FMC (“Food Manufacturing Company”), is the lead office tenant in the building with its rather prominent red logo in seventies retro-seeming typeface near the top. The company’s office headquarters shares the tower with 260 apartments on floors 29 through 46, managed and designed by AKA University City residences, luxury offshoot of Philadelphia-based Korman Communities, whose AKA brand has restored two historic buildings by Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer—AKA Rittenhouse Square, a 1913 Beaux Arts apartment building, and AKA Washington Square, the former Benjamin Franklin Hotel.

The 830,000 square foot tower, slated to open in January, will also feature public commercial space, including retail shops, fitness and training facilities, green space with fire pits, a movie theater, a 3-D golf simulator, and an indoor-outdoor restaurant managed by the NYC-based, Michelin-rated restaurant Rebelle.

The Buerger Center for Advanced Pediatric Care: building hope in 2016. | Photo: Bradley Maule

Buerger Center for Advanced Pediatric Care

3500 Civic Center Boulevard

FKP Architects & Pelli Clarke Pelli/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Cost: $425 million in construction; $175 million for equipment, furniture and other expenses

The Buerger Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is the nation’s most advanced center for pediatric outpatient care (serving about 200,000 patients, CHOP is one of the leading pediatric hospitals in the country). The Buerger Center’s first phase includes a garage and clinical levels two through five. With the addition of two more clinical floors in 2017, the building will fan out just shy of 400,000 square feet with plenty of space to expand skyward and parking for 1,500 cars.

The 2.6 acre landscaped outdoor plaza and 14,000-square-foot roof garden provide space to immerse kids in nature, natural light and fresh air, to free their minds from their medical challenges. State-of-the-art recovery and healing practices have been put into place, too. The Alex Scott Day Hospital employs ample windows for natural light, uses an intuitive design for easy way-finding, and paperless practices with fully integrated electronic medical records.

FKP Architects, which designed the facility with “children in motion” in mind, colorfully articulated each functional part of Buerger. Even within the parking garage—often a family’s first and last impression—the theme supplies the spirit of living and excitement, while providing visual cues for visitors to find their way. The firm Pelli Clarke Pelli was the associate design architects, and Nelson Byrd Woltz was hired as landscape architects. Additionally, Philadelphia-based Metcalfe Architecture & Design, known for interactive exhibition design, worked to bring the “children in motion” theme to life by designing a robust collection of interactive experiences and environmental graphics in and outside the building, further setting the stage for a positive healing process.

Every healthcare facility should be utilizing architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and lighting design to augment healing. Studies prove that green space is calming and reduces stress, speeds the healing process, and increases productivity.

Wm Mulherin’s Sons, an old 19th century whiskey distillery, is one of a growing number of adaptive reuse projects reviving Front Street under the El. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Wm Mulherin’s Sons

1355 North Front Street

Stokes Architecture/David Grasso

Mulherin’s Sons opened on March 29th and the line to get in hasn’t let up. Bon Appetite and a wave of media attention has established Mulherin’s as one of the best new restaurants in Philadelphia in 2016.

The mind behind the success is Randall Cook, the former COO of a corporate housing firm, Korman Communities, and developer David Grasso, who formed Method Hospitality and ROOST, an alternative extended-stay apartment hotel that opened its first location two years ago, converting two floors in the Packard Building at 15th and Chestnut Streets into a better-than-home-away-from-home experience. This year a second Roost opened in Rittenhouse Square with 15 to 20 more planned in various cities. Like the listings on AirBnB, each ROOST apartment is unique. ROOST’s design accolades go to Morris Adjmi Architects, the talent behind The Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn. Mulherin’s Sons includes four hotel rooms not yet open.

Cook and Grasso fell hard for the 19th-century factory at Front and Master Streets in Fishtown. The duo purchased the place, plus the warehouse next door. The 7,200 square foot, three story building had been mainly dormant since being shuttered back during Prohibition. Originally built by the Mulherin brothers to house their family’s whiskey distillery, they carved “Wm. Mulherin’s Sons” into the facade to honor their entrepreneurial father. The Irish surname hardly reflects the Italian homestyle cuisine offered in the first floor restaurant by premier Italian chef Chris Painter, formerly of Il Pittore.

Hospitality architect Richard Stokes restored the old whiskey distillery with an approach of maximum reuse. The dining floor has a 90-seat capacity, wood-paneled booths, brick pizza oven, and gutsy urban-casual atmosphere that intertwines the building’s historical narrative, including a repurposed safe, terra-cotta arched windows, and the original vestibule. The floor plan includes three distinct dining and drinking rooms—a bar, a dining room with a fireplace, and a rear dining room facing the wood-fired oven and grill.

Occupied for decades by Magarity Ford, the corner of Germantown Avenue and Hartwell Lane is now home to One West, a wedding-cake-and-balconied mixed-use project with a Fresh Market on the first floor. | Photo: Bradley Maule

One West

8200 Germantown Avenue

spg3 & Stanley Runyan and Associates Architects/Bowman Properties

Cost: $35 million

The last time Chestnut Hill saw new residential construction on Germantown Avenue was 30 years ago, about the same time that developer and landlord Richard Snowdon and his firm, Bowman Properties, began investing in the neighborhood. Snowdon accomplished a good deal of adaptive reuse since then but zero new construction. Until now.

High-end real estate drives this project, which picks up on Center City luxury development for empty-nesters by real estate developers Tom Scannapieco and Carl Dranoff. Why not here in the village that so many know and adore?

Residents protested the project’s density when Snowden proposed his concept in 2011; a 1,000 signature petition halted his efforts. Neighbors inserted themselves into the design process and eventually ceded to the desire to rid themselves of an empty car dealership situated there.

The mixed use complex was designed by spg3, an architectural firm whose work includes Abbotts Square in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood, under the mandate that design must be contextual, materials of the best quality, and workmanship par excellence. spg3 worked in association with Chestnut Hill-based Stanley Runyan and Associates Architects, known for placemaking and integrative design, to ensure the project adds value to the urban experience of Chestnut Hill. The five story building with a private entrance on Hartwell Lane includes 20 condominiums over four floors, each with a terrace and residents-only garage. The street level of One West houses Fresh Market and a few small retailers and service providers. Most of the tenants are in the 55-75 age range.

One West has turned out to be both a model neighbor and a fine example of how to insert a mixed-use development into Philadelphia’s sensitive, low-rise neighborhood fabric. Next door, the 1744 Detwiler House is the oldest building in Chestnut Hill. Today, it serves as a cat clinic right next to the new Fresh Market.

Digsau bus shelter, 12th and Market. | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Bus Shelters

600 planned bus stops across the city

Intersection & Digsau/SEPTA/City of Philadelphia

Cost: $12 million

In November 2015, SEPTA, the City, and the architecture firm Digsau introduced a prototype bus shelter, wrapped in a red ribbon and installed on Cecil B. Moore Avenue and North Broad Street, the culmination of more than five years of planning and waiting for the economy to recover (and ad revenue to rise enough to justify the project). In 2016, workers have installed more than 100 bus shelters, producd by Intersection, an “urban experience” advertising firm formed by the merger of technology design firm Control Group and Titan Advertising. The new firm hired Digsau and made a $12 million+ investment in bus shelters. Ad revenue pays for the cost of design and installation. Generated advertising revenue over the next 20 years is expected to near $100 million.

Jules Dingle and his partners at Digsau designed the glass shelters to replace 318 existing ones and add 282 new, with $12 million going toward 600 shelters in all. The City identified some possible new shelter locations based on a list of criteria that includes ridership, proximity to places like hospitals, shopping centers and senior centers, and requests from residents and elected officials. The Philadelphia Transit Shelter Project is seeking input on possible placement of the new shelters. Vote on the city’s recommendations and add your own at the project website.

Dingle notes that the shelters are designed to withstand abuse. Durable wood-slatted benches are meant to last 15 to 20 years. Glass walls, protected by a special coating, make graffiti easy to remove and is resistant to etching. (Intersection has been contracted to maintain the shelters weekly.) Each stop features a map, information about SEPTA routes, historical neighborhood information, LED safety lighting, and digital advertising. Because SEPTA doesn’t have the circa-20th century technology to track real time bus and trolley locations, the bus shelters do not provide next to arrive information.

According to Dingle, the best part about the design is the aspect of shelter and respite they create, like a small stop or a semicolon in our lives.

At Perry World House Penn campus architect David Hollenberg and 1100 Architect took a 164-year-old Gothic Revival mansion designed by Samuel Sloan and repackaged it for the 21st century using hybrid preservation. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Perry World House

3803 Locust Walk

1100 Architect & University of Pennsylvania Facilities and Real Estate Services

Cost: $17.85 million

Perry World House is an example of hybrid preservation practice that fuzes contemporary architecture to a legacy building in order to preserve the form of the original (another University of Pennsylvania project, Pennovation Works, in Grays Ferry, is a second) and create a designed collage. Under the leadership of David Hollenberg, Penn’s campus architect, the New York and Frankfurt-based firm 1100 Architect reimagined and somewhat preserved a 164-year-old Gothic Revival mansion, designed by the architect Samuel Sloan, formerly a fraternity house, and added a large minimalist addition to the existing structure, creating the 17,393 square foot finished product, eclectic as a composition. As a practice, hybrid preservation nods to history, to the narrative of time; poorly executed, the design may feel sentimental. But when done masterfully, as in this case, the contemporary component adds to the original and the overall product is greater than either can produce separately. To achieve this, the architects simplified the design vocabulary of the original Gothic Revival mansion to its bare bone geometry and integrated this vocabulary in the building addition to create fluidity between the disparate parts.

Perhaps all this works as a metaphor for the programming of Perry World House, which seeks to integrate disparate cultures: scholarly and “real,” contemporary and traditional. International research and global policy programming at Perry World House fosters engagement with global issues among the faculty and students of Penn’s 12 schools. The center features a 150-seat hall for lectures by visiting policymakers and international scholars, plus a large classroom and conference room, considerable flex space, and 14 offices for staff and visiting scholars.

Everything is illuminated. The South Philadelphia Community Health & Literacy Center opened up the dark and desolate corner of Broad and Morris with light and a buzz of activity. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The South Philadelphia Community Health & Literacy Center

1700 South Broad Street

VSBA Architects and Planners/CHOP/City of Philadelphia

Cost: $45.2 million

Libraries are so last century—or so we thought. To remain strikingly relevant, architects are moving reading rooms and book stacks out of public view in order to reconsider purpose and audience with engagement and programming driving design.

The new South Philadelphia Community Health & Literary Center, at the corner of South Broad and Morris Streets, is the newest addition to the Philadelphia Free Library system. The library partnered with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the City of Philadelphia to establish a new model for the delivery of holistic and integrated public services. It is the first all-new Free Library building in more than a decade. The building is high on function, but low on high-impact visual design. It’s defining characteristic is decorative colored bars struck against the beige façade. The architects, inheritors of the firm Venturi Scott Brown and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s design principles, follow tradition by inserting the building’s name, “South Philadelphia Community Health & Literary Center,” in weighty typeface across the front of the zigging façade.

The 12,000 square foot Community Health Resource Center is staffed with practitioners from the University of Pennsylvania Center for Public Health Initiatives. The complex also offers a living room of sorts where patrons can enjoy library programs. There is a hang out for interfacing with technology or a place to shoot-the-breeze with friends, a teen space, computer lab, and a children’s library that snagged the last remaining mural by the late great author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Libraries themselves may be loosing clientele but this South Philly branch plans to serve 150,000 people each year. Out back, the DiSilvestro Playground is a testament to contemporary recreational design.

Residential construction is taking on new forms along Front Street. Architect Brian Phillips of ISA continues to experiment with townhouse design at El Chalet. | Photo: Michael Bixler

El Chalet

1312 North Front Street

ISA/Peter Crawford

El Chalet is the work of architect and Pew Fellow Brian Phillips, his firm ISA, and developer Peter Crawford. The team had strict zoning orders from the City based on the narrow, but deep land parcel that lays beside a vacant lot to the south and a home-grown one-story garage to the north. Philips designed a six-unit apartment building that blends the nuance of urban domicile with a mountain range reference brought to life in raw geometry and choice materials.

The building has an aggressive, even brutal, snarl to its face that is amplified by Fishtown’s industrial context. Does it look great? That may be a matter of taste. Still, I stand by Phillips for his breadth of townhouse development work and numerous handsomely articulated designs in the ISA portfolio. Phillips has long been experimenting with 21st century townhouse prototypes.

Phillips is a city boy and understands the things that ail us urbanites: cacophany, leaky windows, lack of well-proportioned space, and need for some semblance of outdoor space. He popped a false front onto the building’s face in order to repel the noise of the Market-Frankford Elevated. Behind that, balconies are formed by cut-outs so tenants can benefit from fresh air. The north-facing exterior wall painting, Elevation, with “El,” shaded in blue, is a nice homage to the adjacent train line. However, Philips imbedded air conditioning converters into the south wall, which gives the appearance of an architectural rash.

Athletic Recreation Center, Sharswood. | Photo: Bradley Maule

Sharswood Athletic Recreation Center

1400 North 26th Street

Community Design Collaborative/AEC Cares/Philadelphia Parks & Recreation

Cost: pro bono and donation, valued $330,000+

A century-old recreation center in North Philadelphia underwent a “blitz build” May 18 thanks to AEC Cares, the nonprofit that brings architects, engineers, and contractors together for a service project the day before the annual American Institute of Architects conference, which was held in Philadelphia this year. Some 150 volunteers worked to renovate five rooms in 12 hours, turning a dilapidated staircase into a reading nook, squelching the smell of leaking gas, applying fresh coats of paint to chipping walls, and hanging new cabinetry where the original leaned cock-eyed against the walls.

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and volunteer contractors prepared the site, ripping out and replacing old flooring and lighting. A City-based nonprofit, the Community Design Collaborative, was on hand, too, hoping to use the project as a future prototype.

The recreation center is near the Sharswood neighborhood, subject of the not uncontroversial Philadelphia Housing Authority-led The Sharswood/Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan, a half-billion dollar initiative to rebuild much of the Sharswood neighborhood. In March, the Housing Authority demolished two of the three high-rise towers in its Norman Blumberg apartment complex, which is where a lot of the kids who attend programs at Sharswood Athletic used to live. The outstanding hope is that the refreshed recreation center will encourage neighborhood children to become community advocates and future mentors.

But another hope, beyond that, is that architecture and interior design can instill behavioral shifts and attitudinal changes regarding the built environment—the things outside of us, as well as those within. Annually, AEC Cares sets the tone for paying it forward. As the Mural Arts Program puts into practice the idea that art has power to change societal actions and mores, so too can design assert progress. I believe that. Can you?

Rohe Creative took vintage luxe to a new level with their interior design overhaul at Harp & Crown. | Photo: Neal Santos, for Harp & Crown

Harp & Crown

1525 Sansom Street

Rohe Creative/Michael Schulson

Chef Michael Schulson and his wife Nina Tinari-Schulson, hospitality innovators behind Sampan, Graffiti Bar, and Double Knot restaurants and the Independence Beer Garden, have opened a 12,500 square foot stage set, Harp & Crown. This is vintage luxe on the grand scale, as imagined by the interior design firm Rohe Creative.

Once the service entrance of Center City’s Gap Outlet, and Stouffer’s, the power-brokers’ breakfast spot, Harp & Crown spreads out on two floors. Rohe Creative combined vintage material culture like early 20th century photo portraits with raw materials like leather-tufted seating, crystal chandeliers, and reclaimed wood ceilings.

The downstairs space, dubbed Elbow Lane, is perhaps the most astonishing treat: a clubby drinking space and a two-lane bowling alley for a touch of sporting extravagance to satisfy the exuberant among us. The success here lies in the organization of non-obvious relationships, a concept of “victory” expressed a century ago by German philosopher Otto Spengler. The mix is what matters—decent food, friendly, fashionable, and the feel for American home and domestic comforts that has the capacity to condense time and place into a material essence.


About the Author

Hilary Jay Hilary Jay, founder of DesignPhiladelphia, is chief investigator with her firm Blackbird Partners, dedicated to solving community issues through design thinking and implementation. She recently became a senior advisor with Econsult Solutions, a national economic policy and strategy consultancy.


  1. Jacob says:

    Great round-up!

    A lot of fantastic projects here — it’s just a shame about that goofy red 70s-looking FMC logo.

    1. Davis says:

      I kept thinking – wow what a handsome building – and then the horrible logo went on.

  2. Hilary Jay says:

    You got that right. I saw the building in full lit regalia last evening. Seems we’re having a zoo Mo moment again. Woohoo between the RED logo and the BLUE building lights I couldn’t help wondering why I felt so cold in early July – like the Fourth of July.

    1. Hilary Jay says:

      That’s Po Mo. Siri doesn’t understand design!!

    2. hilary jay says:

      I meant PoMo!!

  3. Bob Terry says:

    Wow. Reading this made me realize I need to leave my house more!

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