New phase of housing authority’s Sharswood project wins positive review

Plans for North Philadelphia’s Sharswood neighborhood could include brick-clad rowhomes, ranging from one to three stories, with surface parking and open green space behind the units.

The Civic Design Review (CDR) committee, a volunteer group of architects tasked with reviewing large projects, put their stamp of approval on this phase of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s Sharswood redevelopment plan. Architect Lyle Suess, of Barton Partners, told the CDR on Tuesday, that the housing authority wants to reflect the “local flavor” of the surrounding neighborhood.

Last year PHA demolished its highrise Norman Blumberg apartments, along with hundreds of privately held buildings seized by eminent domain, to make way for a half billion dollar neighborhood revitalization plan which will be rolled out in phases.

This phase—which the housing authority terms “Part 2A”—creates 83 residential units on a site bounded by Oxford, Jefferson, 22nd, and 23rd Streets.

The buildings are between one-and-three stories instead of having a uniform height across the entire block. The housing authority promises to build brick-clad homes facing the surrounding streets. Many of the units are stacked with, for example, two-story two-bedroom apartments on top of one-story one-bedroom units.

The vote on Tuesday ends the Civic Design Review process for the development.

“I like the faux streetscape look,” said Leo Addimando, managing partner of the Alterra Property Group and a CDR member.  “I think it’s nice. I prefer that to having a single cornice line across the entire block.”

The rest of the committee members offered a variety of criticisms, although none were serious enough to compel the advisory committee to exercise its one power—asking applicants to return the next month.

CDR chair Nancy Rogo Trainer said that the community center PHA plans to build felt suburban in character, in contrast with the rest of the project’s recreation of an urban streetscape.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Dan Garofalo critiqued the fact that the green space behind the units wouldn’t be divided into individual yards. The housing authority wishes to keep the space undivided and undefined to allow for a diversity of uses. It will only be open to tenants of the housing complex, not to the general public.

“It would be great to dedicate some of the green space to the units, something more like a backyard,” said Garofalo.  “I know this is a property issue for PHA and they want the property all maintained in a unified manner. But I think that would be a real amenity for the people living here in a way that the most generalized green space is not.”

The CDR committee also recommended finding a way to introduce more shade trees to the site, to add definition and character to the undifferentiated green space behind the units and in the tree pits in front of the units.

The most contentious part of the meeting came when Cecil Baker, a renowned Philadelphia architect and CDR member, asked Suess if he would ask the housing authority to pressure the Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) to do a better job hiding their gas meters.

“As a member of the architectural community, I’m asking you to help all of us,” said Baker. “Some developers try to take great trouble to hide their meters but we aren’t getting our point made to PGW. Someone like PHA on the other hand could make the argument for us.”

Suess appeared confused, and contested the idea that the placement of meters is a problem.

“They are ugly as sin,” insisted Baker. “Your client has power. If you can’t help us with that we’re helpless.”

But Suess did not make any promises.

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