Rebuilding Rivage from the ground up

In other, dare we say, trendier parts of Philadelphia, the Onion Flats guys are household names.

In the lately-gentrifying parts of lower North Philadelphia like Northern Liberties and Fishtown, the company founded in 1995 by Tim McDonald, his brothers Pat and Johnny, and a close group of co-working friends is responsible for some of the most talked-about residential projects on the street and on the web.

But in East Falls? Not so much. Not yet, anyway.

Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) chose Onion Flats to re-imagine the empty site where the former Rivage Ballroom once sat. The city-owned property, steps from the Schuylkill River and Falls Bridge, has been a pet project of East Falls development and PRA officials, who see it as a crucial opportunity to entice some of the walkers and bike riders up from the riverfront and into the shops, restaurants and homes in the Ridge and Midvale area.

Tim McDonald, a Penn State graduate originally from Havertown, talked to PlanPhilly about the company’s vision for the Rivage site, their other work in the city, and how the environmentally-conscious approach they’ve been using for years now is catching on in earnest.

“I feel like this is an opportunity to do what we’ve been trying to do for a long time, to really kick it up in scale and do something that will not just impact a neighborhood but the city as a whole,” McDonald said.

A green approach

A major reason Onion Flats won the job, PRA officials said, was their approach to the environment: The Ridge, as the project is called, would be wholly energy-independent. Energy for household utilities including heating, cooling, light and home hot water will be generated on site, with green roofs and a solar panel array.

“Why do buildings have to consume energy? They don’t,” McDonald said.

For Onion Flats, The Ridge presents an enormous opportunity. It will be their largest project to date, by far: 126 rental units, 8,700 square feet of retail space and the “River Terrace,” a public square area fronting Kelly Drive. It’s partly outdoor cafe space, but mostly meant to be a place to pause, rest, and appreciate the river.

“It’s pretty damn important” to the overall design, McDonald said of the River Terrace. “The amazing thing about this site is that it’s this beautiful terminus to the Fairmount Park loop, with the Falls Bridge there, and yet there’s no terminus for that activity. The cafe portion of it is important, but it’s minor. It’s really just about a place for people stop and think and take a breath.”

Connecting people and spaces 

In 2009, Onion Flats competed in a similar process for the right to redevelop a city-owned property in Francisville with townhouses and condos. They ultimately weren’t chosen, though they have cooperated with the city on other, smaller projects since. Some ever-gracious Philly.com commenters called the Francisville design “overly trendy” and “hipper than thou,” with details like a community garden and vineyard.

Some echoes of that came in a public meeting where East Falls residents heard proposals from both firms vying for the Rivage project. One feature particularly noted was the system of exterior walkways, rather than interior hallways, that connect the apartments.

Does it make The Ridge look like a motel, or does it, as McDonald said, bring a secondary use — encouraging community interaction and outdoor living — to an otherwise utilitarian space just meant to get people from one place to another?

“So it’s circulation space but also balcony — also a place to go outside and be outside. To me, anything that functions like that is always good. Otherwise it would still just be a long space, connecting a bunch of doors,” he said.

Responding to the context of a city 

As far as aesthetics, and public reaction to Onion Flats’ striking designs, McDonald said, basically, what can you do?

“All I can say is that we think we read the context of our city, and we respond to the context of our city, and we design within it,” he said.

A rowhouse is a rowhouse, he said, until you imagine it differently and consider not just shape, but how it captures light or how it fits into the rhythm of the neighborhood. It’s not about being gimmicky or repetitive, he said.

Onion Flats and the city will now work on a full redevelopment agreement, and construction could begin in early 2013. McDonald said he’s excited to see what kind of residents The Ridge will attract.

“I can imagine everything from empty nesters coming and living here to young families with kids,” he said. “I’m really curious to see who’ll be interested.”

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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