By Kellie Patrick Gates
Six Cornell University students won the 4th annual Ed Bacon Student Design Competition with a proposal to turn the Grays Ferry Crescent brownfield site into a neighborhood with homes, green jobs, and classrooms that is tied both to nearby communities and the Schuylkill River.
Soil contaminated by the area’s industrial past would be cleaned and re-used on site. A learning center would rise on stilts above the floodplain so that people could learn about brownfield remediation and the effects of soil contamination on communities. The Crescent’s past would also be honored with an Industrial Heritage Museum.
High-rise office buildings and residences would take advantage of river views. Some buildings would have green roofs. Others have blue ones – they collect water and feed it to cisterns, so that it can be used in the buildings’ plumbing and for irrigation.
The paved surfaces connecting buildings would be permeable. And the new neighborhood would be connected to the Schuylkill River Trail by a green swath that would serve both as a public promenade and a natural storm-water filtration system.
The students’ plan calls for the next generation of jobs in the Crescent to be much greener: They propose building a waste management research and development facility.
The contest was open to teams from any North American University. The 23 entries were judged by Elinor Bacon, President, E.R. Bacon Development, LLC; Anthony Bracali, Friday Architects/Planners, Inc.; Gerard H. Sweeney, President and CEO, Brandywine Realty Trust; and Joseph Syrnick, President and CEO, Schuylkill River Development Corporation, Acting Chairman, Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
Why did the judges pick the Cornell entry? “They thought it was a really sensible approach to what could go on this site, and a really good urban design,” said Greg Heller, Bacon Foundation president. The submission is also very visually appealing. But those things are true of other entries as well, he said. “I was really impressed with the quality of entries. I felt it escalated significantly this year – it’s at a whole new level,” Heller said. That meant a tough time for the judges – especially when it came to deciding first, second and third place.
What put the Cornell team over the top was the inter-disciplinary approach the team took, Heller said. Not only was there strong planning and urban design aspects to the proposal, but team members from other disciplines, including real estate, provided information about project feasibility.
Judge Elinor Bacon, a developer and daughter of the competition’s namesake, said her dad would have liked the multi-disciplinary approach the Cornell team brought to the competition, the strong connections their project made with the river, the density of the development and the large public park and bike/walking trail.
Ed Bacon would be pleased to see the design includes housing for people with various incomes, his daughter said. “You may not know this, but he was against the idea of low-income developments that concentrated low-income people in one place,” she said.
The judges did not know the competitors’ names or which schools the entries arrived from until after they selected the winner. But Elinor Bacon also imagined her father would be pleased “that students from his alma mater won.”
Full implementation of the Cornell team’s plan would cost an estimated $820 million. They will share a $2,000 prize. A team from Notre Dame took second place and won $1,500; students from McGill University in Montreal took third and $1,000. Teams from Florida State, The University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Toronto/Ryerson University each received $500.
This year, the Ed Bacon Foundation partnered with the Center for Architecture on the student competition. A joint committee, which included principals of architecture firms and development companies, talked about “hot” areas of the city where the students might focus their skills.
“This one made the most sense,” Heller said of the Grays Ferry Crescent. “It is for sale right now. It’s been a fenced-in industrial site for, like 100 years. And it’s been separating Grays Ferry from the river as long as anybody can remember.”
Everyone is sad to see DuPont and its jobs going, he said. “But since that’s a given, this is an opportunity to connect a major neighborhood to its riverfront in a very real way.”
Heller was intrigued with the suggestion because not a lot of people are talking about the possibilities for the Crescent yet, he said. He hopes the ideas all the teams generated will jump-start discussion around the city. The winning designs will be put on display, he said. And once someone buys the property, Heller said he’ll make sure he or she is aware of the ideas generated by the contest. But he doesn’t think he’ll have to work to hard at that. Property owners in areas looked at by past student competitions have contacted him, he said.
It’s all about long-term impact, he said. “It’s very much in keeping with the competition’s name sake, Ed Bacon, who did think long term. I’m hoping that if we keep this up, in a number of years, the visions from the students will start to impact the dialogue as we rethink important civic spaces.”
In addition to the student competition, the Bacon Foundation honors a professional each year with the Edmund N. Bacon Prize. This year’s recipient is Maurice Cox, an architect who has been mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia and is now the director of design at the National Endowment of the Arts.
In the keynote address Tuesday evening, Cox spoke about the concept of “design for all.” He uses the term broadly, to cover ideas and actions as diverse as the creation of attractive affordable housing and the establishment of city government-sponsored public workshop spaces where non-planning professionals can learn what the jargon really means and see how design impacts their neighborhoods.
Cox described how Charlottesville citizens were brought to embrace new transit and higher density. He also detailed a program the National Endowment runs to educate non-planner mayors about planning.