Wednesday, April 2, 2014

CHoP Chopped by the Design Review Committee

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission's Design Review Committee echoed the mainstream media's opinion about CHoP's proposed research facility on Schuylkill Avenue near the South Street Bridge, asking the hospital to come back with a better design.

CHoP, likely expecting the request, plans to address the Commission's bullet points that can be addressed, but also noted the architectural constraints that the location presents, as well as the unconventional requirements within the facility itself.

While many of the Commission's requests are understandable, the hospital's predicament is equally understandable. Like many former developments along the Schuylkill River, the flood plain requires CHoP to elevate its property. Likewise, the density of the space requires parking. The solution to both is placing the tower atop a parking podium. While the Commission asked CHoP to be less "auto-centric," one can imagine the exact opposite request had CHoP provided less parking, urging its employees to take public transportation. Nothing fires up residents like workers taking up their street spaces, and if CHoP hadn't provided enough parking in its design, that's the fire we'd be feeling.

But CHoP isn't immune simply because of the difficulties the river presents. Despite the fact that this will be a research facility, not a care facility, it's being developed by an organization versed in hospital development. University City's hospital region looks like a modern, dense city from the expressway, but on the street it's what you'd expect of any densely packed group of hospitals. It isn't urban and completely detached from the residences that surround it. CHoP likely intended to carry that across the river to Schuylkill Avenue, and neighbors are understandably skeptical.

CHoP did try to appease neighbors by proposing removable panels along its fa├žade for future retail, but how deep are those spaces, what actually exists behind the panels, and why hasn't CHoP attempted to field retail tenants itself? Well, the spaces are probably about as shallow as the undesirable retail spaces along the Convention Center, and like the PCC, hospitals aren't versed in dealing with retail tenants on the street. In other words, as is, don't expect picking up Chipotle along the east incline of the South Street Bridge.

Truthfully, better design isn't great design, but CHoP's isn't just better than what's there, it's better than anyone is willing to build now or in the future. Any developers would face the same obstacles posed by the flood plain, the bridge, and the CSX tracks, but CHoP can afford to tackle them in some way, perhaps the only way modern technology allows.

In the end, CHoP may provide an asset to several struggling neighborhoods. Toll Brothers' Naval Square has been a financial success to Toll Brothers' shareholders, but its residents still remain largely fortressed behind private gates. They've provided little foot traffic, foot traffic that CHoP can provide. CHoP's presence in University City may not provide its own ground floor retail or uan rban experience you'd want to find in a city, but its employees aid businesses surrounding the grid of hospitals.

CHoP may never open its sidewalks to retail, it may offer its employees a dining hall like most corporate facilities, but that won't change the fact that thousands of employees will sometimes look for a lunch that isn't provided by Aramark and stick around after five for happy hour. That will easily drive business south of South Street into the neighborhood surrounding Naval Square, incentivizing retail development in space that isn't owned by CHoP, and adding street life to a neighborhood that needs it.

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