In the News...This new apartment tower prepares Philly for a world without private cars

Published Mar 15, 2018
Mar 15, 2018

The Inquirer

By: Inga Saffron

We can’t say exactly when it will happen, but sometime in the not-too-distant future, private cars will go the way of the dinosaur. For now, however, people continue to demand, and developers continue to build, houses and apartments across Philadelphia with substantial space devoted to car storage.

So let’s take a moment to applaud the new, darkly handsome apartment building at 1213 Walnut, the first Philadelphia high-rise designed for the post-ownership era. Not only is there no automobile parking on site, the 322-unit building boasts its very own woonerf, a narrow, curbless street that serves pedestrians and vehicles equally. The space allows ride-hailing vehicles and delivery trucks to do their work without tying up Walnut Street’s already congested bus lane. The open-air passage, which hugs the tower’s west side, like a continuation of Camac Street, also makes a great pedestrian shortcut.

It’s unlikely the original project team, Omar Blaik of U3 Advisors and Enrique Norten of Ten Arquitectos, were aware of how radically the world was about to change when they first sketched the contours of the project in 2007.  Uber and Lyft didn’t exist yet. Online shopping was in its infancy. And Philadelphia was still operating under a 1960s-era zoning code that required developers to include seven parking spaces for every 10 apartments. Blaik admits he was mainly looking for a way to avoid building an expensive garage on a tight Center City site.

A decade later, their proposal seems prescient.  2007 was the year that Apple introduced its first iPhone, making all sorts of internet businesses possible. Though no one foresaw how those devices would radically alter our driving and lifestyle habits, the tower design managed to win approval from the Washington Square West Civic Association and ultimately a special bill from City Council to exempt the development from the parking requirement. But then the Great Recession hit, and the project was put on hold.

By the time it was revived in 2015, the project had been sold to the Goldenberg Group and Hines Development, and Baltimore’s Design Collective (previously responsible for the Hanover buildings on North Broad), was taken on as the architect. They wisely kept the building’s form while updating its aesthetics to appeal to millennials. The 26-story tower still has a Z-shape footprint, allowing the base to wrap around Fergie’s Pub, the classic Irish bar on Sansom Street. Officially called 1213 Walnut, many people fondly refer to it as “Fergie’s Tower.”

The passageway is still there, too, running from the middle of Walnut’s 1200 block to Sansom, which is turning into a quirky, restaurant-studded street. But the designers, Michael Goodwin and Luis C. Bernardo, eliminated the proposed roof, which was intended to give the feel of a European arcade. Instead, they exploited the site’s “funk factor.” Rather than completely hide the party wall of the 19th-century building next door, they created a perforated screen that allows glimpses of the craggy stucco, fading graffiti, and Lew Blum’s ubiquitous No Parking signs. Hanging plants are coming. Because the passage can be closed to cars, the architects envision it as the ultimate block-party setting for the building’s residents.

Painted an earthy orange, the screen also sets the aesthetic, as well as the color scheme, for the entire tower. The perforated panels turn the corner onto Walnut Street, where they form a modern frieze over the retail space. In a city where bland, all-glass skins have sadly become the default, the composition offers some welcome panache.

The two-story base is rimmed with a gray aluminum band, detailed to suggest I-beams. That purposeful dark line emphasizes the openings in the facade, allowing us to see the void as a continuous ribbon of space. It also turns the second-floor amenity deck into a modern-day loggia. Perched atop this delicate, airy base, the tower seems to float above the street. Despite topping out at 280 feet, the building avoids the heaviness of other towers that rise from the ground without any setbacks to lighten the load.

Such basic architectural care is something we should expect in all our new buildings, but especially ones inserted into the masonry precincts of Center City. The 1213 tower shares the block with a row of once-grand 19th-century townhouses and a magnificent Second Empire-style apartment building by architect Horace Trumbauer.  Though the design doesn’t rotely imitate those regal neighbors, the architects respect their proportions, scaling the base so the tower starts at the roofline of the neighboring building.

The passageway also helps modulate the tower’s presence. One of the fun touches is the building’s glass-enclosed fitness center, which spans the opening. The developers deserve props for including a second retail space on Sansom Street, making this a building with street presence both back and front. Though a similar alley won’t work for every project, architects are going to have to come up with ways to move ride-hailing services and deliveries off Philadelphia’s narrow streets.

As with the rest of the design, the shaft of the tower is superior to most of Philadelphia’s recent high-rises. The designers emphasize the unusual Z-shape by switching up the color and materials. The north and south walls are faced in the dark gray bands that resemble I-beams, and the midsection is chalky white. The weakest element is the concrete block on the east and west facades, required as a fire-protection measure. The vast blank surface makes a harsh impression, particularly when you’re approaching from Broad Street. A nicer material would have made the wall less visible.

Unfortunately, there is more concrete next door, in the form of an aging and utilitarian garage. Its presence was what helped persuade the civic association to give 1213 a pass on parking. The developer made a deal with the garage owners to lease spaces as needed. Yet, out of the 144 apartments rented so far, only 19 renters have informed the management that they have cars — 13 percent, according to Goldenberg vice president Seth A. Shapiro.

We’re not quite in the post-car-ownership era yet, but those numbers should be a wake-up call for other developers, especially those building in the dense, transit-rich parts of the city. More than a decade into the smartphone era, we need more buildings ready to function for a world without private cars.

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