Rivage proposals unveiled to East Falls community

Two very different development groups, presenting two very different plans for re-visioning the Rivage site in East Falls, made their pitches to a well-attended community meeting Wednesday night.

Onion Flats LLC and FCP-East Village PA are the two finalists hoping to be appointed by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority as developers of the city-owned site, which sits at the gateway to East Falls on the corner of Kelly Drive and Calumet Street.

Tim McDonald, president of Onion Flats, presented their plan for The Ridge, a blend of 126 one- and two-bedroom apartments with 8,700 square feet of retail space in a project designed to be “net-zero energy” — the entire complex would generate much of its own heat through extensive use of green roofs, a solar array, and other building techniques.

Onion Flats, which is actually a group of locally-based companies that do everything from design work to manufacture of many building components, also developed Rag Flats and Thin Flats, residential projects in other parts of the city, using similar principles. This would be their largest residential effort in Philadelphia so far.

“We are a composite and a series of seamlessly integrated companies,” McDonald said, “all the same people, with the ability to control the process.”

Because part of the property lies in a floodplain, making underground parking a risk, The Ridge puts parking at street level behind a row of retail along Ridge Avenue. Then, it raises the entire project above the parking, creating a “second ground” of garden landscape on the second level of the site. If they won approval from the RDA at its December meeting, McDonald said, they would project about a year to complete purchase of the site, with construction finishing in spring, 2014.

ONION FLATS PROPOSAL: http://www.eastfallscommunity.org/pdfs/ONION_EastFallsinfo.pdf

The night’s second presentation came from David Stubbs and Brian Davis, representing another group, FCP-East Village PA. In 2007, Stubbs and Davis were part of another group that won the right to redevelop the site into a project called East Village. After several extensions, they were unable to secure funding and complete the purchase of the site, and they eventually withdrew their plan.

Given that, much of their presentation focused on what they say is a strong development group this time around, with a solid financial backing through Federal Capital Partners, a $500 million real estate portfolio looking to make inroads into the Philadelphia area.

As for the plan itself, the new version of East Village is similar to the last one, with some adjustments in the number of residential units. The latest plan calls for 163 one- and two-bedroom units, eight live-work units, and ground story retail with two buildings.

The most intriguing part of their plan was what they called Gustine Walk, a 45-foot wide public space that goes through the interior of the site. It would feature retail uses along the sides with public space in between, reminiscent of a “green” version of Liberties Walk in Northern Liberties.

The Onion Flats proposal, by contrast, puts most of its public space along Kelly Drive in a public patio space meant to draw walkers and bicyclists up into The Ridge, but the residential community itself is more self-contained.

EAST VILLAGE PROPOSAL: http://www.eastfallscommunity.org/www.eastfallscommunity.org/R-East_Village.html

Gina Snyder, director of the East Falls Development Corp., said to keep in mind that designs weren’t final, so the plan chosen could change to incorporate changes the community asks for.

After the presentations, members of the public were allowed to submit comment cards with questions for the developers.

For both, the first question asked was why the plans didn’t include an upscale supermarket “like a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s” — unlikely at the Rivage site as the 1.6-acre parcel isn’t big enough for either and would put a supermarket, however nice, on a showcase property steps from the Schuylkill River bank.

Overall, crowd sentiment from about 100 people who packed into a classroom on the Philadelphia University campus seemed to favor the Onion Flats plan, described by several who attended as “imaginative,” “different” and forward-looking in its approach. Several neighbors who spoke said they thought the Onion Flats plan would attract a desirable demographic of young, hip, environmentally-conscious residents.

“I don’t think you can overlook the hipster quotient in East Falls,” said Deborah Thorp.

The East Village proposal, on the other hand, was described as less original and backward-looking — in slides, it appeared almost interchangeable with some of the developers’ other projects, in Washington, D.C. and Durham, North Carolina, from the first-floor retail design to the mansard roofs on the apartments above.

The Onion Flats design calls for staggered stacks of five-story buildings with exposed exterior walkways and a post-modern aesthetic, with apartment units connected by 20,000 square feet of community garden spaces. While even some architects and designers who attended the meeting praised the design, there was some concern that what looks like a bold, striking design today could look dated and out-of-place in 20 years.

From here the RDA will collect feedback and consider both proposals through an evaluation team that includes Snyder and Meg Greenfield of the East Falls Community Council.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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