Philly Architecture Firm Embraces Affordable Housing

March 21, 2024 | by Stacia Friedman

Saint Rita Place & Cascia Center at 1148-54 South Broad Street. | Michael Bixler

Most architecture firms have their particular niche: luxury condominiums, market-rate residential, commercial, or industrial. CBP Architects is an exception. The firm are committed to designing affordable housing with the same attention to detail as its work on a penthouse overlooking Rittenhouse Square or a trendy factory conversion in Kensington. This is why Saint Rita Place & Cascia Center can easily be mistaken for the upscale condos eating up South Broad Street, when, in fact, they are the opposite.

“The Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia initially wanted to use their vacant lot at Broad and Ellsworth for a community center, planning a one-story building,” said CBP project architect Nora Bergsten. “But area residents were not enthusiastic so they worked with Catholic Housing and Community Services to form a joint effort with funding from the PHFA [Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency].”

The resulting five-story, mixed-use building provides 46 one-bedroom apartments for low-income seniors at St Rita Place and 7,500 square feet on the ground floor for community events. The building opened in 2021 and not only answered the neighborhood’s need for more affordable housing, but solved a tricky design problem. How does one create a 21st century building that complements a 1907 church next door?

A view of the entrance of Saint Rita Place & Cascia Center. | Photo courtesy of CBP Architects

“We were very cognizant of the site. This is a prominent location right on Broad Street next to a beautiful, historic church,” said Bergsten. “For the front facade we used two materially different elements, brick and a masonry material called Arriscraft, which complements the church. It’s an intentionally quiet exterior and the upper floors facing south do not have any windows so as not to compete with the church’s ornate limestone facade,” she explained. Meanwhile, Bergsten said the use of red brick was a nod to the neighboring rowhouses. There is a courtyard between the two buildings with trees and benches, which serves as entries to both the residence and the center. Bergsten also had to meet all of the green guidelines included LED lights, a storm water system, and energy conservation. The resulting design received a 2023 Award for Excellence from the Urban Land Institute.

“CBP became involved in this project after working with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on another affordable housing project in 2016, the St. Francis Villa in Kensington,” said Bergsten who worked on Project Home, which is also in Kensington. “We took a 1901 school of nursing that had been vacant and renovated it into The Inn of Amazing Mercy, which addresses the needs of the homeless and those suffering from addiction. Bergsten credits CBP managing partner, Nancy Bastian, with the firm’s commitment to provide high quality design for affordable housing. “That is part of our philosophy, regardless of the budget. All buildings should have good design,” she said.

CBP’s dedication to affordable housing and civic projects like Engine 37, a firehouse in Chestnut Hill, echoes the work of one of Philadelphia’s most famous architects, Louis I. Kahn. Training at the University of Pennsylvania under Paul Phillipe Cret, Kahn went on to hold the first Cret Professor of Architecture position at the University of Pennsylvania. When he opened his own office during the Great Depression, Kahn focused on low-income housing for the Philadelphia Housing Authority and used designs influenced by Le Corbusier. Although he went on to design the futuristic Salk Institute in La Jolla, California and the monumental National Assembly Building in Bangladesh, he also worked on more humble projects during his career.

This photograph from the 1950s shows a stretch of low-rise housing that was part of the Mill Creek Homes complex. | Photo courtesy of West Philadelphia Collaborative History, University of Pennsylvania

In the early 1940s Kahn partnered with Modernist architects Isaac Stonorov and George Howe on several wartime housing projects including Carver Court in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and Pennypack Woods in Northeast Philadelphia. In the late 1950s he designed the Mill Creek Homes in West Philadelphia, which was demolished 2003. The complex included three 17-story towers and a cluster of low-rise houses. In 1949, he designed prefabricated affordable housing in Israel for the Palestine Economic Corporation. Kahn had a deep sense of social responsibility and was very interested in providing low-cost housing.

Today, the need for affordable housing in Philadelphia is at a tipping point. The average wait time for public housing is 13 years. Imagine how that impacts young families and the elderly. According to data from the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services, 18 percent of the city’s homeless population is living without shelter. While it is exciting to see vacant factories and empty lots transformed into market-rate housing, it is important to remember that creating “luxury” residential units, fancy restaurants, and boutique shopping for the upwardly mobile changes the socioeconomic dynamics of neighborhoods and pushes out low-income residents who often have lived there for generations. Suppose every Philly developer willingly designated a portion of their residential units for affordable housing, which would make their projects eligible for federal and state tax credits. Sounds like a win-win for Philly.


About the Author

Stacia Friedman is a Philadelphia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and Los Angeles on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, Broad Street Review, and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history, and vibrant arts scene.

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