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South Philly’s BOK building, known for its rooftop bar, is carving out space for creatives

When COVID-19 hit, developers of the Bok building absorbed some costs for tenants who struggled to pay rent, and it paid off, its leadership said, with increased interest from new tenants.

The BOK building, a former vocational school in South Philadelphia, is being transformed by the development and urban design company Scout into a hub popular among creatives.
The BOK building, a former vocational school in South Philadelphia, is being transformed by the development and urban design company Scout into a hub popular among creatives.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Amy Novinski had taught ballet for 10 years, but she just came up on her first year of teaching it all online.

She, like others, didn’t have much of a choice as the coronavirus swept through communities. From her apartment in Brewerytown, where she set up a compact barre, she guided her students on Instagram, coaching them through graceful pliés and pas de bourrée and peppering humorous TikTok videos between rows of technique how-tos. Eventually, she moved her lessons to Zoom. And then, when one of her employers decided it didn’t want to continue to teach virtually anymore, she was left largely without a job.

Feeling the pressure mount, she opened her own ballet studio — a 795-square-foot space — in the BOK building, a former vocational school in South Philadelphia that the development and urban design company, Scout, bought for $1.75 million and repurposed in 2014 into a hub popular among creatives.

What the building might be best known for, says Lindsey Scannapieco, managing partner at Scout, is its rooftop bar, which typically attracts 75,000 customers each summer. It was closed much of last season because of the pandemic but just announced a 30-week season for 2021 beginning April 15.

Absent the droves of beer-drinking patrons, BOK quietly persisted, drawing in more interest from possible tenants than usual. There were more inquiries for available space this past February than a year ago, Scannapieco said.

Some of that could ostensibly be attributed to people who felt crammed working at home but couldn’t necessarily return to the office, said Liz Maillie, Scout’s director of leasing and marketing.

“We have seen more and more inquiries coming from businesses and organizations that are moving out of Center City for one reason or another,” she said.

The 340,000-square-foot Edward W. Bok Technical High School, which opened in 1938 but closed in 2013, has become a go-between, particularly for homegrown creatives who didn’t have the space or resources to work at home, and whose current setup could lack such necessities as heating.

“I’ve always looked to the BOK as this sort of beacon of what I’d like art in Philadelphia to look like,” said Novinski, who signed a three-year lease for her studio and moved in three months ago. “ ... the vibe is similar in that you’ll walk down the hall past someone painting this 8-foot-tall portrait, and in the next room you’ll pass someone working on jewelry, or something culinary, or recently there was a children’s gymnastics program in what used to be the school’s gymnasium. The vibe is alive and inspiring. I like that each space can infuse the other, versus a stand-alone studio which can sometimes feel isolated in the city.”

Unlike traditional office space, class A or otherwise, the BOK building has developed a reputation for being unfussy. It rents out for as little as six months and leases as much as an entire floor (10,000 square feet) or as little as 72 square feet for a jeweler who said that was all she needed for her and her tools — and who later designed Scannapieco’s wedding ring.

Homegrown creatives are “really critical to a city,” Scannapieco said, noting that she spoke last month at a Philadelphia Arts + Business Council event about the role of art and development.

“One of the questions was, ‘What value does it provide and what’s the best way to incorporate it into development?’” she recalled. “Art shouldn’t be precious. I think there’s a time and a place for precious art and high-quality art.”

The diversity of art within a city overflows, she said. “It’s a bit messy and has a lot of different scales and lot of people doing different things. ... You kind of need small-scale spaces for that type of messiness to exist.”

During the pandemic, BOK absorbed some of the costs of rent to keep tenants, providing what Maillie called “rent relief,” as well as rent deferments. Scout has assumed the cost for some tenants’ rents, either fully or partially, since last April, Maillie said — “no strings attached.” Of 118 applications, Scout was able to provide “some level of support” to 94% in an effort to maintain its 200-some tenants. Scout itself received $138,800 in coronavirus Paycheck Protection Program funds last April, according to federal data.

“We came out pretty intact because of that,” Scannapieco said, noting that she then began to see interest from potential new tenants. Currently, about 70% of their tenants live in the neighborhood, she said, and 52% of BOK’s businesses are owned by women.

The BOK is unabashedly hodgepodge; a salad of businesses and nonprofits and small hubs where people sometimes go just to make things for themselves. In mid-March, the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition, Philadelphia Fight and Sunray Drugs held a coronavirus vaccination clinic there.

Remark Glass, a recycled glassblowing studio in the basement, opened a second business during COVID-19, a glass recycling enterprise called Bottle Underground. While glass is inherently recyclable, it often isn’t when it’s dirty, and instead ends up in landfills, said Danielle Ruttenberg, a trained glassblower and cofounder of Remark. Bottle Underground takes glass, whatever form it’s in, and repurposes it.

“So much of business is labor,” said Ruttenberg, who founded Remark Glass in 2016 with Rebecca Davies and Davies’ husband, Mark Ellis. “We’re taking trash literally straight off the street. Sometimes it’s clean and sometimes it’s not.”

Above ground, Christina Griffin had started her own COVID-era business, too: cutting colored gemstones and making fine jewelry under the name Christina Griffin Fine Jewelry.

She began renting her spot in BOK in mid-June — “a very small room,” just big enough for her to work and meet as many as two clients at a time, she said. It was a step up from her previous approach of meeting clients near her home, or at their home, or simply talking online. She had developed a base of customers from other states but lagged locally.

Her new studio, she envisioned, would help her attract more Philadelphians.

At the beginning, she said, business was slow. “After that, it was busier than normal because I feel like because people can’t travel, they’re turning to more traditional gifts, I guess, or ways to mark milestones. And then people decided to get engaged.”

Novinski, a classically trained dancer who trained at the Tulsa Ballet Academy and Colorado Ballet Academy before graduating in 2008 from the University of the Arts, is still putting together her ballet studio.

She needs a subfloor installed, she said, and a special floor covering. She is still teaching over Zoom, where she has attracted a global base of students who call in from countries including Japan, Tunisia, Switzerland, Romania, Brazil, and Ecuador, as well as the U.S. Her students — even those who live too far away to visit — have donated to her crowdfunding campaign to complete the studio.

She’s planning small, in-person “pop-up” classes soon, and once she has WiFi at her studio, she will begin to teach her Zoom classes from there. At some point, she’ll introduce hybrid lessons.

“Opening a business is a really intimidating idea, especially a dance space in Philadelphia,” Novinski said, calling it a pretty specific niche. “And so I knew it needed to be an organic process for my life, something that happened because it didn’t make sense not to.”