Civic Design Review to CHOP: Progress made, more work needed on Schuylkill Ave. proposal

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s proposed office and research complex on the east side of the Schuylkill River at South Street has been improved, members of city planning’s Civic Design Review committee said Thursday, but concerns remain that the huge project is too car-oriented.

The committee largely echoed representatives from neighborhood civic and business organizations by praising CHOP for a firm commitment to building a bridge from the project over the CSX tracks and down to the river in Phase I, a pledge to seek zoning that would allow more commercial activity on the ground floors, and changes to the lower wall of the building facing the train tracks and river.

They also appreciated CHOP’s extensive neighborhood outreach.

But CDR representatives urged CHOP to try harder to eliminate one of two curb cuts on South Street, as bicyclist and pedestrian safety remain top concerns.

See CHOP’s latest proposal here and the original CDR application here.

Presenting for CHOP, Donald Clinton of Cooper, Robertson & Partners said changes had been made in the way the project will connect to the river, its neighborhood and the city as a whole.

Last time around, committee member Cecil Baker said he was “troubled” with the large, mostly blank wall facing the Schuylkill. Clinton said the shape of the lower portion of the Phase I tower has been altered so it curves with the rest of the building. He showed an illustration with a potential solution, a wall with more visual variety that would still meet CSX’s safety requirements, in the case of a train accident.

Baker said he saw improvements, but still worries about the wall. “I’m hoping and praying the materials at the base of Phase I as it goes down to the river are as rich as the materials above the plaza … so it feels like the building really comes down and meets the river,” he said, adding he knew glass could not be used, due to safety issues.

CHOP had previously pledged to try to include more active commercial space on South Street. The “try” was only because current zoning on the site doesn’t allow non-accessory commercial uses, Clinton noted, but the community was skeptical. This time, Clinton said CHOP has replaced the proposed solid, punch-out panels where future retail would go with glass windows. It’s a milk-glass of sorts, because the future retail remains uncertain. But this change was enough to leave community members and planners feeling like CHOP really means it. (Note: Since the civics, busienss groups, CDR, city planning and  City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson support active commercial on the site, chances seem mighty good that CHOP could get a zoning variance.)

CHOP is open to future retail facing Schuylkill Avenue in the next phase of development, but has focused its energy on South Street, Clinton said.

Current zoning allows a cafe – sized to meet the needs of the people who will work on site, and Clinton said this cafe will be open to the public, and will be a community amenity especially during nights and weekends.

In addition to reaffirming its committment to building the pedestrian bridge across the tracks and down to Schulkill Banks, CHOP lowered the level of its proposed river promenade to the lowest grade it could be sited without interfering with CSX, Clinton said. CHOP is still working on the necessary permissions from CSX.

Baker urged CHOP to create a master plan for future phases of development. Vice Chair Daniel Garofalo said Phase II needed to be fully designed before many of the community and CDR concerns can be fully addressed.

CDR Chairwoman Nancy Rogo Trainer said CHOP’s drawings need to more clearly illustrate what they plan to do, especially those that illustrate conditions along project edges.

Clinton said CHOP was still in discussions with the Streets department about some changes to address bicycle and pedestrian safety. The committee suggested CHOP do what it can to finish those discussions before the May 20 planning commission meeting at which CHOP is slated to present to the full commission.

Tuesday afternoon’s meeting was the second and last time CHOP will appear before CDR; the committee’s advice is meant to better-prepare CHOP for the full Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

VIDEO GUIDE, from top to bottom: Donald Clinton of Cooper, Robertson & Partners explains the changes CHOP made to its plans in response to earlier comments from CDR and the public. City Planner Jack Conviser presents staff comments on the changes. Local residents and representatives of civic groups, business organizations and the Design Advocacy Group address the changes and make further suggestions.

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