How Rodin Square Strikes a Balance Between City and Suburb

Inga Saffron has it half-right: on the outside, it could look better. But on the inside, it’s a winner.

The Rodin Square development. | Photo: Courtesy International Financial Corporation.

The Rodin Square development. | Photo: Courtesy International Financial Company.

In her recent column on the now-open Rodin Square development, Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron gave the project a B-plus for its organization and an F for its appearance, lamenting both the suburban scale of its anchor tenant and the bland metal monotony of its residential tower.

That apartment building, whose name — Dalian on the Park — will now be what just about everyone around here will call the entire complex, could indeed have had a lot more panache and dignity. But what’s inside counts a lot, too, and as a way of squaring two circles, Rodin Square has raised the bar to a level I hope other local developers will emulate.

That’s because the line that distinguishes “city” from “suburb” is being blurred. Suburbs and edge cities all over the region and the country are adding elements of urbanity to their commercial districts. And in cities, the need to accommodate modern retail is forcing a similar blurring.

Why?

The answer lies in the way our consumer society consumes stuff.

Small, local merchants may be the lifeblood of every good urban business district and suburban downtown, but most Americans, urban and suburban alike, do an awful lot of their shopping at major national chain stores that offer either lower prices or larger selections.

Both of those depend on high volume. And to get that high volume, the chains erect large selling spaces. Where 20,000 square feet may once have been big enough for a supermarket, stores of that size now, like the Acme and Whole Foods stores that face each other across 10th Street at South, are considered too small.

I for one can quibble with that contention, especially in an era in which big-box discounters like Target are busy sprinkling cities with stores even smaller than those supermarkets. But it’s still a perception developers have to deal with when figuring out how to create viable mixed-use developments in urban locations.

And those large stores require parking, for their customers (a) won’t all walk or ride the bus to the store, and (b) will often leave with large hauls that can’t be carried home comfortably any other way than in the trunk of a car.

Putting all the elements of a large mixed-use development that offers both residential and commercial space and parking in a dense urban environment, then, is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle or stacking a set of building blocks.

“To have a true mixed-use lifestyle center, you need at least three acres, or four,” said International Financial Company chair Neil Rodin, developer of the mixed-use project at 22nd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. “You ought to have a full shopping center, then you can build something adjacent to it or on top of it.”

This is the approach being taken in King of Prussia right now, where the acres of parking that usually surround commercial developments are being replaced with residences and lanes lined with small shops, and some of the parking is going into multilevel parking decks.

But even something as (relatively) walkable as The Village at Valley Forge would look completely out of place in a place like Center City. And that’s where the building blocks come in.

The lot on which Dalian on the Park sits is just a hair under three acres. Up until last year, it was the site of a mid-century modern motel whose best days had passed. Through some skillful maneuvering, Rodin’s company managed to get its hands on the site, which, he says, several developers coveted.

That was the easy part. The hard part: getting the various parts to fit together — a shopping center, an apartment building with its accompanying community amenities, and the necessary parking and delivery-truck access.

“We wanted to make it a ‘suburban-urban’ site,” said Rodin. “We knew there would be more traffic [generated by such a site], so we wanted to figure out how to deal with the traffic.”

The answer was to get the lot rezoned from dense residential to commercial mixed-use, which would allow IFC to insert the needed elements within the lot’s boundaries. Those included an interior street that leads to three parking garage entrances — one for the Whole Foods parking, one for building residents and the third for visitors to the other shops — and the delivery docks.

The L-shaped lot also had its southwest corner cut off by the beginning of the Pennsylvania Avenue railroad tunnel. That turned out to be an advantage, said Rodin, for it gave the building five street frontages, all of which contain some street-facing commercial element. Anchoring the most prominent street face, the one along Pennsylvania Avenue, is a 55,000-square-foot Whole Foods supermarket, the second-largest in the region after the “anchor store” at Plymouth Meeting Mall. (Perhaps ironically, the smaller, 30,000-square-foot store one block away that this store replaced will become a Target.)

Also occupying street-level commercial space are a Santander bank branch and a CVS pharmacy that is now in the getting-ready-for-its-closeup stage. A Thomas Jefferson University health clinic will be the other major commercial tenant.

So how’s all this work as urbanism? Quite well. The interior street removes just about all of the additional traffic the complex generates off the streets around it, though it apparently wasn’t enough to remove the need for additional garage entrances on 21st and Hamilton streets. Even with those entrances, the street facades are fairly lively thanks to plenty of large windows, including an atrium-like one fronting the Whole Foods. The supermarket itself is raised half a floor off the street to keep the view through those windows unobstructed; the street-level space is used as a coffee house.

Astute observers might note a parallel here with an earlier commercial development in Northern Liberties, namely, Bart Blatstein’s similarly groundbreaking shopping center at 2nd Street and Girard Avenue. That development also attempted a creative approach to the problem of how to keep a big-box retail store out of the way of a lively streetscape. It did so, however, by raising the entire supermarket one floor off the ground, making it less visible and accessible to those arriving on foot. And the design of the street-level retail stores encouraged several of them to turn their main entrances not towards the street but towards the lower level of the interior parking deck. This design eliminated all possibility of that happening.

All of this is the work of Washington-based architectural firm MV+A, whose principal, Jim Voelzke, has extensive experience with assembling these multifaceted mixed-use projects. MV+A came to the project through Dalian, the Washington-based developer that put together the complex’s residential offering in partnership with Rodin. The large commercial podium is covered in sand-colored brick, cement block and sandstone, that last a material rarely used hereabouts and one that gives the entire composition a less weighty feel.

The L-shaped apartment tower, whose eastern leg bends outward just a bit to offer better park views to its residents, looks insubstantial atop that stone-clad base, and it could have benefited from some rhythmic variety, something MV+A has demonstrated it has the capacity to offer based on its Washington-area projects. But it still plays better with its neighbors than an earlier 47-story, all-residential tower would have, and the base on which it sits contains the outdoor amenities for its residents.

Functionally speaking, this project probably couldn’t have been more successful. Its internal circulation system actually takes traffic off the street, and it presents a lively face to passers-by. Aesthetically, it’s more of a mixed bag, though Rodin said that “the Municipal Art Commission applauded it as one of the best designs it’s ever seen.” It does add a touch of color and light to an intersection that could use both, though.

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