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Navy Yard sheds ‘Cocoon’ after thousands of visits, as art becomes commercial development catalyst

Managers of the South Philadelphia Navy Yard are using outsized art installations to draw visitors as they look toward their next phase of redevelopment for the former base.

Tape Philadelphia: Enter the Cocoon, an art piece made of tape, lured members of the public to Building 694 at the Navy Yard, in Philadelphia.
Tape Philadelphia: Enter the Cocoon, an art piece made of tape, lured members of the public to Building 694 at the Navy Yard, in Philadelphia.Read moreBAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer

Building 694 at the Navy Yard once served as a storehouse for the vast South Philadelphia military base.

But last month, the long-vacant building became a gallery for a single work of outsized art: a 128-foot-long series of connected pods made of packing tape that was lashed 18 feet in the air to the structure’s steel pillars.

By the time the free attraction closed Sunday, about 6,400 visitors had lined up in the vast industrial space to ascend a ladder into the Cocoon, as the artwork was called, so they could spend an allotted five minutes crawling over its smooth, bouncy interior.

Thousands more viewed the long translucent blob without entering it, according to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., which manages the publicly owned former barracks on the city’s behalf.

In other words: mission accomplished.

With its first two decades of managing the Navy Yard almost behind it, PIDC is looking toward its next phase of the property’s redevelopment, a plan that would for the first time allow for full-time residents at the former base, while turning nearly 100 acres of unused land into an extension of its existing business-and-research park.

It’s an effort that will require more people to see the onetime barracks — even its disused industrial portions, like the one occupied by Building 694 — as a viable place to live or work.

That’s where the art comes in.

“We feel pretty strongly that the more people visit the Navy Yard, the more people will fall in love with the Navy Yard,” said Prema Gupta, the PIDC’s vice president for the former base. “We’re trying to give people more excuses to come down here.”

Art and commercial development have long been linked in Philadelphia, thanks at least in part to the city’s 60-year-old “Percent for Art” funding mechanism.

Claes Oldenburg’s giant Clothespin sculpture greets visitors to the Centre Square office complex across the street from City Hall, and murals and sculptures were commissioned for the Fashion District Philadelphia, as the former Gallery at Market East shopping mall is now known.

Some real estate developers, such as Arts & Crafts Holdings, which is active in central Philadelphia’s northeastern neighborhoods, also have become patrons of the city’s Mural Arts program.

PIDC’s art strategy is also a twist on the type of “placemaking” — as urban planners call it — that seeks to spur revitalization by setting up such temporary amenities as beer gardens or ice skating rinks in underused areas that can benefit from more foot traffic.

The approach has found success in such places as Center City’s Delaware River waterfront, where Spruce Street Harbor Park has been a harbinger for the planned redevelopment of waterfront tracts to the north and south to accommodate residential towers and mid-rises.

And in University City, the Porch at 30th Street Station had become a popular hangout for the area’s growing population of workers and residents long before Brandywine Realty Trust announced plans for its nearby Schuylkill Yards high-rise district encompassing offices, dwellings, shops, and hotel rooms.

But such tactics might not work for out-of-the-way locations such as the Navy Yard, because most cities have so many more convenient places to sip a coffee or nurse a beer, said Molly Casey, chief curator at Nine Dot Arts, a Denver-based consultancy that pairs developers with artists.

It’s far harder to find, say, a giant packing-tape chrysalis to climb into without making a special trek.

“People realize the power that art has as an attraction,” she said. “You’re getting a completely new experience you can’t get anywhere else.”

A large-scale — and very large-budget — variation of the approach can be seen at the Hudson Yards development in New York, which unveiled a 150-foot-high sculpture of interlocking geometrical stairways topped by a viewing platform as a $200 million-dollar draw for the still-under-construction office enclave on the western edge of Midtown Manhattan.

In Las Vegas, meanwhile, the Fisher Bros. real estate group is adopting a comparable strategy at its Area15 retail and entertainment complex in an industrial section of the city away from the tourist zones.

Art of the sort that will be featured in the 200,000-square-foot development — including a pattern-shifting projection-mapped skull sculpture and a Road Warrior-esque race car made of chrome bars — has been on exhibit at the office where the project is marketed to potential tenants.

Even more work will be on display in an open-air gallery outside the structure when its first sections open for event-space rentals in February as an initial stage in the project’s phased opening, said Fisher Bros. partner Winston Fisher.

The art “creates that unique vibe that’s very hard to replicate,” Fisher said. “It creates anticipation of what’s coming next.”

The Cocoon at the Philadelphia Navy Yard was commissioned on PIDC’s behalf by a team of art world denizens who call themselves Group X. It was a follow-up to last year’s sea monster sculpture, a jumble of inflatable purple octopus limbs reaching out the windows of another abandoned warehouse, which was also commissioned by Group X and drew about 60,000 visitors.

The building that houses the Cocoon was constructed as a military warehouse in 1943 and later used by an export-packing service called Atlantic Packaging Inc., according to archival records and photos.

It’s about three-quarters of a mile northwest of the Corporate Center business enclave at the core of the 1,200-acre property, which is home to such companies as pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC and asset manager FS Investments.

The PIDC’s Gupta declined to share a budget for the cocoon installation, which was funded through revenue from the agency’s business of hosting events at the property.

Its creators, an art-and-design collective called Numen/For Use with principal members in Berlin, Vienna, and Zagreb, Croatia, used 21.5 miles of packing tape to build the network of translucent tunnels.

The group has designed similar installations for cities including Paris, Tokyo and Moscow. A version also had a four-month run two years ago in a Des Moines, Iowa, art museum.

“You crawl through that thing and you feel like a kid,” Gupta said. “We’re trying to reinforce the Navy Yard as a place that’s creative and magical and worthy of exploration.”