University City Preservation Tragedy: When Density Begets Dullness
One of the positive aspects of the current development boom in Philly is that long-underutilized land is being put to better use. Denser development makes the most of our great transportation infrastructure and adds more vitality to neighborhoods across the spectrum.
Of course, no good is unalloyed. Sometimes, to get the benefit, pieces of the city’s past must be sacrificed. It’s part of the natural process by which cities remain vital.
But not all new development is worth sacrificing the past for. Sometimes, the pursuit of density (and the increased revenue that comes with it) demands too high a price.
Especially when that price is the replacement of handsome ensembles of historic buildings with bland, uninspired boxes.
One such box is nearing completion on Chestnut Street just northwest of the Penn campus in University City. Some developer, who I shall not identify to protect his or her reputation but probably doesn’t deserve the protection, has demolished a pair of attached four-story 1850s townhouses at 4042-44 Chestnut Street and replaced them with a 25-unit apartment building that will be aimed at students. (Naked Philly has more details on this development and is not squeamish about naming names.)
Demolition permits have already been issued for their next-door neighbors at 4046-48. That in turn has prompted a move to save the remaining buildings in this ensemble, including 4046-48 but excluding the altered structure at 4058-60. Today, the Designation Committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission recommended all three remaining buildings be added to the city’s historic register, which buys time to save what remains of this block but may come too late for 4046-48.
The buildings are vulnerable because, with the exception or 4056, they take up only two-thirds of their lots. As the lots in question are zoned for the second-highest level of density the city allows and can have buildings cover the entire lot, there’s a powerful incentive for developers to replace these homes with properties that can house more residents and meet the growing demand in that part of the city.
But, as I noted with one unfortunate house built for similar reasons not far away on Kingsessing Avenue, just because the zoning code allows it doesn’t mean one should build it this way. The new 4042-44 Chestnut is a supersized version of the type of rote Modernist construction that has been popping up all over the city, the brick box with a pop-out square window bay. These have the advantage of being cheaper to build than more thoughtful Modernist designs but the disadvantage of deadening the streetscape, as this one does here.
Might there not have been some way to add apartments to this site without doing violence to a handsome row of historic homes? Or at least without completely destroying what’s left of the rhythm of the block?
(Granted, the time to ask this question might have been when the University of Pennsylvania Police Department built its current headquarters just to the east of this row. Its presence undercuts the argument from visual unity while strengthening the one for saving what’s left.)
Back in 1982, Pennsylvania Hospital faced a similar dilemma: where to find space for a medical office building. Its solution was to insert a completely new building inside the envelope of a dignified row of mid-19th-century townhouses on Spruce Street. Although the buildings themselves were not saved, this project remains the most intelligent façadectomy yet performed in this city, and it’s a shame no one’s managed to replicate it since. These houses offered a similar opportunity to a thoughtful builder: their rear portions could have been cut off in order to get the additional density with taller additions in the back.
But, it appears, it’s simpler not to have to think about such things. In fact, it’s simpler not to think at all.
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