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Changing Skyline: Goldtex is a hard-won lift for Loft District

The scene at the Loft District's new Goldtex building couldn't have been more tranquil. Workers were wrapping up construction, patching cracks in the concrete and nestling shrubs into planters. A notice on the window of the retail space heralded the opening of a restaurant. Residents skipped down the front steps, off to their Center City jobs.

The Goldtex apartment building at 12th and Wood. (NELL HOVING)
The Goldtex apartment building at 12th and Wood. (NELL HOVING)Read more

The scene at the Loft District's new Goldtex building couldn't have been more tranquil. Workers were wrapping up construction, patching cracks in the concrete and nestling shrubs into planters. A notice on the window of the retail space heralded the opening of a restaurant. Residents skipped down the front steps, off to their Center City jobs.

It's hard to believe that only two years ago, the corner of 12th and Wood was Philadelphia's most notorious construction site. A dispute between powerful building-trades unions and two young, maverick developers escalated into an old-style, head-busting labor war that became a symbol of the divide between old Philadelphia and new Philadelphia.

But after all the drama - the blockade, the alleged safety violations, the claims of missing permits, the salacious apartment ads, and, let us not forget, the fake bomb - Goldtex is now just another upscale apartment building. A very good one, at that. If not for the protest, this would be a column about how Goldtex's mix of design sophistication and calculated grit will reset the image of the Loft District.

But back to other matters. You may recall that the protest began after the developers, brothers Michael and Matthew Pestronk, announced they would break with Philadelphia tradition and, to save money, rehab the century-old factory using a partially unionized workforce. The trade unions insisted on 100 percent, and responded by laying siege to the site. For nearly half a year, muscled men in work boots blocked deliveries and harassed the Pestronks' employees, while the city's political elite stayed silent.

At the time, Goldtex was seen by developers as the final showdown with the trade unions. They had seethed for years over theunions' chokehold on wages and work rules, complaining that construction workers here earn as much as their New York counterparts, even though Philadelphia real estate prices are far lower. With Goldtex, the Pestronks drew a line in the sand.

So who won?

Since the Pestronks succeeded in completing the 163-unit building on their own terms, you might give them the advantage. The images of thuggish-looking fellows massed in front of delivery trucks weren't exactly an advertisement for unions as a modern institution.

Still, it took far longer to finish Goldtex than the Pestronks ever imagined. Even after the unions accepted an agreement to withdraw, brokered by Democratic Party boss Bob Brady, the Pestronks struggled to complete the $38 million project, their first major development. Because of problems with the manufacturer, Goldtex's distinctive, pixelated metal-and-glass facade remained frozen in a buffer state for over a year, bandaged in unsightly strips of blue waterproofing. The installation was performed by union ironworkers - from North Jersey - but that didn't stop the snickers.

Somehow, the bruising confrontation doesn't seem to have diminished the unions' power in this town.

A lead figure in the protest, John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, head of Electricians Local 98, is more entrenched than ever in Philadelphia politics, with no fewer than five allies on City Council, including President Darrell L. Clarke. Dougherty's union gives more generously to Pennsylvania candidates than any other independent donor in the state. And he just cut a much-praised labor deal with the Convention Center - squeezing out Carpenters Local 8, his main ally in the Goldtex battle.

So I was surprised to hear Dougherty express regret in an interview about the Goldtex affair. Actually, I was surprised that Dougherty agreed to the interview at all. But there he was on the other end of the phone, affable and charming. ("We should have coffee," he suggested.)

Presenting himself as pro-business, pro-development, pro-transit, and pro-density (wow!), he conceded that the siege might not have been a good way for the unions to burnish their image with Philadelphia's growing contingent of millennials. "We wish we had worked together" with the Pestronks, he said. "We would have had more work. We would have had a cleaner, safer project and [Goldtex] would have opened two years earlier."

There must be something in the water, because Michael Pestronk says he also regrets the whole business, and won't take the same stand again.

Yes, they saved $10 million by using nonunion labor, "but it cost us in reputation and time. It made the banks less likely to work with us," Pestronk explained. "We're not in the business of being political crusaders. That's not how I want to spend my day. We want to be seen as the guys with the best apartments."

Now that the last of the green and gray panels are bolted in place, he may get that wish. The surprise is that the renovated factory emerged from the debacle with its architectural integrity intact.

Designed by the former KlingStubbins (now Jacobs), and executed by Coscia Moos Architecture, Goldtex is not a typical loft conversion. Because the concrete facade was in poor shape, the Pestronks encased it in an energy-efficient shell, giving it a vibrant, Mondrian color grid that sparkles in the sun. Jazzy and syncopated in its rhythms, it may be a little busy, but not fatally so. The panels are better quality and more eye-friendly than some similar facades now going up, like the one at 1900 Arch. Only the patchy coloration on the east facade seems arbitrary in its arrangement.

The idea of sheathing a tough old factory in slick panels initially seemed a poor choice. The appeal of a factory conversion is the authenticity transmitted by these relics of the urban past. But the Goldtex design manages to have it both ways.

Goldtex's fresh, modern skin helps reposition the lightly settled Loft District as a credible place for upscale apartments. At the same time, the Pestronks trade on, and commodify, the neighborhood's edgy past with the strategic use of graffiti. Framed samples of works by the celebrated street artist Agua hang in the lobby signage. Espo, also known as Steve Powers, provided the sharp supergraphics for the hallway signage. The Pestronks cleverly kept a rim of authentic graffiti around the wall of the spectacular roof deck, infusing the luxe space with real street cred.

What Philadelphia didn't get out of the Goldtex fight is more realistic union rules that would enable the city to build quality housing at affordable prices. Those agreements still have to be negotiated one deal at a time. That's still the Philadelphia way.