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Philadelphia’s new generation of mid-rise apartments come with every amenity except the one that counts | Inga Saffron

There's a name for the look-alike mid-rises that are popping around Philadelphia: fast-casual architecture. And it's not pretty.

With its shiny metal panels and patchwork design, Lincoln Square's architecture falls far short of the project's urbanism.
With its shiny metal panels and patchwork design, Lincoln Square's architecture falls far short of the project's urbanism.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Lincoln Square, the new mixed-used development at Broad and Washington, incorporates almost every feature that a density-loving urbanist could want. At nine stories, it is tall enough to hold its own at that busy Center City intersection. Shops and restaurants (including a Target) ring much of the ground floor, which hugs the edges of the site in traditional urban fashion. The developers also managed to incorporate a historic train shed into the mix and give it a first-class renovation. They even made room for a generous outdoor public space, one that really does welcomes the public.

There’s just one thing missing: the architecture.

In that deficiency, Lincoln Square is by no means unique. As Philadelphia neighborhoods start to overcome their fear of density, we’re seeing clones of Lincoln Squares appear all over town, blocky structures that diligently check off the urbanist boxes but treat the architecture as an afterthought. Some may turn out slightly better (Hanover North), but most are even more utilitarian and dispiriting than Lincoln Square (1200 Washington, 1900 Arch, Rodin Square). And now they are defining the look of our city.

There’s even a name for these look-alike mid-rise boxes. Writing in City Lab, Kriston Capps dubbed them “fast-casual architecture.” They’re just like those restaurants where your meal is assembled from premade, precut ingredients. You might be able to get an acceptable salad there, but not one that is any way memorable or rooted in local traditions.

Blame the economics of modern housing construction. As cities have repopulated and the demand for new apartments has grown, developers have turned to the mid-rise because the rectangular boxes can be built quickly and cheaply, often using wood, rather than the more expensive steel and concrete, to form the structure’s skeleton. Those apartments are now a commodity, with strict models for producing financial returns. Increasingly, it’s accountants, rather than architects, who dictate form and materials.

As Lincoln Square demonstrates, that material is, more often than not, aluminum panels. Unless there is a deft hand shaping the design, those boxy mid-rises can end up looking like oversized tin cans.

In theory, architects can try to give the building a more elegant profile by shaving off the corners for setbacks or carving terraces into the facade. But because developers are intent on maximizing the square footage inside their buildings, they are generally loath to allow such cutouts, which reduce the amount of rentable space. And so, in what amounts to an act of desperation, architects reach for the crayon box and try to jazz up the design by varying the panel colors.

That’s the approach taken by Lincoln Square’s designers, BLT Architects. The facade is a patchwork in shades of gray. Perhaps if the design had more conviction, the checkerboard might have been be fun. Instead, it’s just busy.

To their credit, the developers, MIS Capital and Alterra Property Group, allowed the architects more leeway than usual in the hope of injecting some life into the design. BLT was allowed to pop out some of the panel sections by about a foot to give the facade some depth. There are also a few strategically placed terraces. On Broad Street, the facade hinges at the midpoint, creating a slight bump. Yet for all that effort, the deadening flatness remains, especially along Washington Avenue’s relentless, 400-foot-long wall.

The architects didn’t just struggle to meet the developer’s budget; they also had to satisfy the demands of suburban-minded chain retailers. That Washington Avenue facade would have been even more blank, according to BLT principal Michael Prifti, if the architects hadn’t convinced Target to include a few windows on the second floor. The firm did less well with PetSmart, which insisted on walling off the 15th Street entrance to its doggy day care and papering over its shop windows.

Mediocre architecture on a side street is bad enough. But Lincoln Square’s prominent location makes the poor design even more of a blow to the city. Despite the degradation that Broad and Washington has experienced over the decades, it remains the gateway to South Philadelphia and is still dominated by weighty masonry buildings like the Marine Club Apartments. Even the Rock School, housed in old car dealership that was given a postmodernist hat by Dagit/Saylor in 1988, looks good by comparison.

For all its weaknesses, Lincoln Square shows just how much Philadelphia’s developer community has evolved in recent years. The deal for the property was put together by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., the same agency that gave us Symphony House, another BLT design. Completed in 2007, that tower sits on a massive garage podium that is accessed from curb cut on South Broad Street.

This time, both PIDC and the developers were determined to avoid having the garage dominate the project, which includes 322 apartments. Although Lincoln Square does include a 420-car parking deck, it is hidden behind the apartment building and accessed from 15th Street.

Getting rid of the curb cut sets the stage for Lincoln Square’s best features. The building is fronted by a wide, urbane sidewalk that is lined with stores: Chase Bank, Starbucks, Chipotle, and a small vestibule that leads to Target.

The arrangement also gives pride of place to the historic train shed, built in 1876 as a freight terminal by the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. The handsome shed, with it deep eaves and trefoil brackets, had languished since the ‘60s. Renovated by Kelly/Maiello, the light-filled terminal is now home to a small supermarket, Sprouts. The free-standing shed was set off from the apartment building by a shady walkway. Best of all, the developers created a generous plaza entrance at the corner of Carpenter Street.

So far, Sprouts has been using the open space for seasonal displays of pumpkins and firewood. But once the restaurants open, the operators will install cafe tables along the edge, where a cluster of trees has been planted.

The mix of urban form, generous public space and historic preservation shows that the developers of Lincoln Square have mastered the basics of urbanism. But at this stage in Philadelphia’s real estate boom, the city deserves more than the basics. Architecture isn’t a frill. It’s just as essential to the lifeblood of a successful city as sidewalks, retail, and open space.