Urban Land Institute Honors Five Amazing Philly Projects with Willard G. Rouse Awards

Plus, two from the suburbs.

FringeArts project by Wallace, Roberts & Todd | Photo credit: Halkin Mason Photography

FringeArts project by Wallace, Roberts & Todd | Photo credit: Halkin Mason Photography

Back in 2014, the Urban Land Institute in Philadelphia had its first Willard G. “Bill” Rouse III Awards for Excellence, a prize ceremony intent on recognizing the area’s best real estate projects within the last five years. This week, the organization held its second annual award ceremony, which resulted in wins for five Philadelphia applicants and two from Allentown and Norristown. They are as follows, per the press release:

  • 3737 Science Center (Philadelphia) — $119 million venture between the University City Science Center and Wexford Science + Technology. 13-story, 334,000-square-foot facility for clinical, research, and office programs on a former brownfields site. Supports STEM/STEAM initiatives for low-income secondary school students. (They seem to make a good team, don’t they?)
  • Allentown Arena Complex (Allentown) — Multipurpose arena and entertainment complex with mixed-use commercial development and within “a pedestrian-oriented infill site incorporating two historic buildings.” The development has served as a catalyst for adjacent new residential and commercial redevelopment and has enhanced Allentown’s image.
  • Chestnut Square (Philadelphia) — $100.7 million mixed-use development at Drexel University. Two 8-story buildings with attached 19-story residential tower with luxury amenities. Creative partnership allowed developer “to achieve the University’s mission while limiting its balance sheet exposure, and the use of efficient building systems and materials is significant.”
  • FringeArts (Philadelphia) — Semi-abandoned historic pumping station near the Ben Franklin Bridge adaptively reused into a premier venue for the Fringe Festival. Includes 15,500-square-foot performance space, 225-square-foot black-box theater, rehearsal studio, office, gastro-pub, and outdoor plaza with picnic-style outdoor dining. Pictured above.
  • The View at Montgomery (Philadelphia) — 14-story student housing building at Temple University’s main campus. Designed by Wallace, Roberts and Todd, it features 238 units, street-level retail, and sustainable storm water management and immersive recycling. Student amenities include study and computer lounges, fitness pavilion, two acres of green space, and street-level restaurant sourcing environmentally-friendly ingredients.

As for the the two other 2015 winners, we had the opportunity to speak with them and got a first-hand look at how their respective projects were shaped and the subsequent effects on their neighborhoods.

“We approached it from three different directions,” says Stacey Humphreys Blankin, an Associate at Strada Architecture, the firm recruited by the Food Trust to help with their Fresh Corner Store Showcase Conversions pilot project. The program had for its goal the conversion of five corner stores in challenged neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia into safe, accessible, and health-promoting spaces.

“We looked outside and tried to figure out how to brand these stores, but also developed a palette because we realized people wanted to personalize them.” Awnings, lighting, and planters were features used or considered to spruce up their facades, which were repainted, “the idea being that we wanted to brand them as ‘fresh’ because one of the biggest problems is those stores have trouble acquiring fresh produce,” she says.

Following the exterior enhancements, Strada moved onto the interior, where the Food Trust already had a health-conscious set-up in place. “We built on that by creating a hub and came up with a kiosk with signage; the hope was that once you went over the threshold, you’d know where to go.” This was important, Humphreys notes, because many corner store clients are young and have limited nutrition options. With this in mind, they added shelving units, reach-in fridge, a chalkboard, and a demonstration space, which the Food Trust uses to inform clients of healthy meal options.

The Food Trust’s efforts, then, combined with the stores’ spruced up appearance made for a unique space not typically found in the neighborhoods: “The way it all worked together; using simple materials, lighting to promote safety, and having things be visible, offered a calming space.” The stores, essentially, created a “backdrop that would accentuate the [healthy] products.”

As for the takeaway from the project, Humphrey’s says there’s still much to work on: “They still have to figure out a way to bring the cost down. The Food Trust paid for all the changes, but it’s still expensive. However, it’s shown that these changes can go a long way.”

Indeed, despite the tight budget for the enhancements, the converted stores saw sharp increased in sales of fresh produce and low-fat dairy products. The press release adds that community engagement, customer traffic, weekly profits, and adjacent property values all increased after the stores’ improvement.

Meanwhile in Norristown, the Arbor Heights project, developed by Progressive Housing Ventures, also saw recognition from the Urban Land Institute’s Bill Rouse Awards.

Arbor Heights consists of twelve stacked townhomes grouped into “two buildings from previously vacant or burned-out structures.”

“It had a blighted look for ten years,” Progressive Housing Ventures Founder Sarah Peck tells us, noting how people would react with skepticism upon hearing about the project. “They would shake their head and couldn’t understand why you would build something so beautiful here.”

Fortunately for her, the municipality had approached her with the project to begin with, so the process was less arduous than one might expect. “It was strategically important to revitalization,” she says, but “did require a zoning variance and some hoops to jump through to make the design possible. The municipality was a partner in this and wanted to see the project succeed, so they helped me along the way.”

Even with the municipality behind her, however, there was still disbelief from locals who saw it as a potential failure. “It was a leap of faith that it worked,” Peck admits. Fortunately, area residents did start buying the homes–”they were pioneers who insisted the neighborhood turn around,” she says of them–, which in turn “bolstered their confidence.”

The project went on to have 35 units per acre and high energy-efficiency. All the homes were sold, and the development went on to attract new private investment to the neighborhood. Creative financing included $1.2 million in public grant funds and reduced mortgage requirements. Peck says her latest development, Arbor Mews, is the sequel.

“Last year, the jurors could not get over the quality of projects that were being done here. Really, the amount and quality of the projects,” says ULI Chair Christopher Hager. That’s saying a lot about recipients, as there is little to no room for biases: the panel consists of 12 or so experts in the fields of real estate and community development from all over the country, save for the Greater Philadelphia Area. That’s quite a number of out of towners to impress, but these area projects did.

Any recent developments you think have a chance at the next Willard G. Rouse Awards?

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