Onion Flats releases updated plans for former Rivage site

Plans for a mixed-use apartment complex at the former Rivage site in East Falls continue to evolve, with a name change and a new layout meant to maximize the community’s natural light and green space.

Tim McDonald, president of green developer/builder Onion Flats, appeared at Monday’s meeting of the East Falls Community Council to update residents on the latest plans for 4324 Ridge Ave. Onion Flats hopes to receive formal developer designation from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in June to proceed with its plan for 123 apartments and several small retail spaces on the 1.7-acre site at Calumet Street.

It’s now called Ridge Flats, a slight change from earlier working title The Ridge, branding the development more closely with Onion Flats’ other projects. More significantly, the project’s footprint has shifted from clusters of one- and two-bedroom apartment groupings, to a main U-shaped building with a smaller free-standing strip of apartments in the middle.

Also, there are now three-bedroom units included, with the largest at about 1,200 square feet. The overall amount of retail space is up slightly, from 8,700 to 9,000 square feet, but the units will be smaller and flexible. One audience member asked whether the developers intended chain-store retail and fast food outlets, but McDonald said the average unit space would purposely make that unlikely.

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It’s similar in thought to the retail components at Bart Blatstein’s Piazza at Schmidts, McDonald said. That complex has several small storefronts leased almost entirely to small, local startups like a magician’s shop and custom handbag crafter.

The new configuration allows for a larger central green space in which residents can garden, spend time outside and otherwise interact, McDonald said. For the public, the patio area and rain garden fronting Kelly Drive, meant to draw foot and bike traffic up from the riverfront, remains unchanged.

Parking for residents stands at 139 spaces, with an additional 16 new spaces created on the street, meant for retail customers.

Reception among East Falls residents and the EFCC has so far been generally positive, though some have expressed misgivings about the aesthetics of the design. The final design details are still works in progress, McDonald said, but Ridge Flats will likely retain their overall look due to Onion Flats’ preferred aesthetic and their modular building techniques.

Neighbor Vickie Sedman told McDonald she wished the look of the project had a more classic, natural look in keeping with the Falls Bridge area.

“You’re putting a building on this beautiful, natural river,” Sedman said. “It should be subtle and related to the environment, and not these post-modern boxes.”

The original designs showed some brightly-colored facades in shades of orange, with exposed metal walkways rather than interior corridors. The latest renderings show more muted tones and screening on the walkways, but keeps the balconies and common spaces that project out into space.

The design is meant to maximize natural light — because the apartments aren’t built on a central hallway with units on either side, they have windows on more than one facade, McDonald said. Also, cut-throughs that extend vertically through the five-story buildings will provide interior light, key to keeping the complex completely energy self-sufficient, he said.

“The only way we get to net-zero [energy consumption] is with everything about its orientation around the sun,” he said.

A previous attempt at redevelopment fell through after complications in financing, so residents have been curious about whether Onion Flats will be able to make their plan happen.

McDonald said they hope to get some financing through a federal department of Housing and Urban Development program meant for multi-family, mixed-use developments in urban centers.

“We won’t have it secured until we go to settlement at the end of the year, but it’s moving forward,” McDonald said.

If the PRA designation comes through in June, McDonald said they would then go to the zoning board of adjustment for needed variances, then hope to start year-long construction in early 2013. Much of the fabrication of the building units will take place at Onion Flats’ factory in Pottstown, greatly reducing the number of materials trucks and disruption at the East Falls site.

Still, with about half the job — including demolition, site work and foundation construction, and putting the building pieces together once they arrive — done in East Falls, it will make for local employment opportunities, McDonald said in response to an audience query.

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