February 22, 2010
By Thomas J. Walsh
Infill Philadelphia, an ongoing initiative of the nonprofit Community Design Collaborative, kicked off its “Industrial Sites Design Challenge” last week at the Urban Outfitters headquarters, within the stylish, re-worked former pipe shop at the Navy Yard.
It was a fitting setting for the kind of re-use being championed by the Collaborative, wherein abandoned or underused industrial buildings and sites around the city are retrofitted for modern use. That includes new homes and apartments, office space, and retail shops – but also new industrial uses.
Though Philadelphia is often referred to as “the former Workshop of the World” for its many shuttered factories and long-gone shipbuilding facilities, one out of every five jobs in the city is still within the industrial sector, said John Grady, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC).
“We’re a city that has balance,” Grady said, adding that “understanding the markets that you’re in” is the key driver for current economic development. Philadelphia, for example, is a city with 105 industrial parcels that have more than 20 acres available. That’s important for modern industry, which seeks out wide spaces for one-story manufacturing and easy access for shipping and trucking.
Grady was a speaker and a panelist at last Tuesday’s event, which unveiled three projects to “serve as prototypes for bringing new industrial sectors and production formats into the city in ways that are sensitive to neighborhoods.”
Other panelists were Paul Sehnert, director of real estate development at the University of Pennsylvania; Eva Gladstein, executive director of the city’s Zoning Code Commission; and Nina Rappaport, a New York City architectural critic, professor and the publications director for Yale School of Architecture Books.
“I, as a New Yorker, would like to say that this is a very innovative proposal for mixed-use industry,” Rappaport said. “It’s something that many planners are interested in.
“In New York lately – well, two years ago – they were primarily interested in turning our former industrial waterfront into ‘gold coast’ housing, without any understanding of what you can do with light industries. What is happening with this Philadelphia plan should be very forward-thinking and a model for other cities.”
Grady said PIDC’s long-awaited Industrial Market and Land Use Strategy report is due by Spring, and that the industrial sector belongs in the same breath as “eds and meds” (education and healthcare) when it comes to speaking of the city’s growth job markets.
The firms involved in the Industrial Sites Design Challenge will present their final presentations in May. The challenge and the “Retooling Industrial Sites” on exhibit at the Arch Street AIA Philadelphia space through next month are part of the Collaborative’s third phase, focusing on industrial spaces, in partnership with PIDC, Drexel University, Temple University and Penn.
The three sites selected by nine jurors are volunteer projects from firms and nonprofits, including the quasi-governmental PIDC, and involve neighbors and community organizations. Separated into small, medium and large categories, they include the re-creation of a wing from an old factory to be used as space for artisans, a mixed-use project within a multi-building manufacturing plant, and the development of a parcel along the Schuylkill River in Southwest Philly.