Changing Skyline: Food for thought on supermarkets

Posted: September 26, 2008

If we are what we eat, then it follows that our cities are shaped by the buildings that sell what we eat. In that case, we're heading for trouble.

After a long absence, the neighborhood supermarket is making a comeback in urban places like Philadelphia. Only the new arrivals don't look anything like the friendly local grocers we once knew. In quick succession, a gang of boxy, suburban-scaled cornucopias has moved into the thick of Philly's rowhouse neighborhoods. They've laid claim to whole blocks at 56th and Market, 52d and Parkside, Columbus Boulevard in Pennsport. And more are coming.

You might assume that the more stores that sell fresh food, the better - especially given that Philadelphians struggle with their collective weight, at least according to certain out-of-town list-makers.

The problem is that these new supermarkets tend toward obesity themselves. It's hard to overlook all that bulk when the chains dock their flagship boxes in a marina's worth of parking. And once you breach the store's solid walls, you could as easily be in Fairbanks as Fairmount.

So a competition to encourgage architects to think outside the supermarket box comes in the nick of time. The Community Design Collaborative asked three Philadelphia architects to come up with more urban-friendly structures for our modern hunting and gathering.

To keep the exercise from devolving into the abstract, the collaborative identified three sites that have already been targeted for food stores, two in Philadelphia and one in Chester. It also partnered the architects with real clients. Even if none of the three gets built, the design exercise provides the food retailers with alternatives they can chew on.

The most exciting concept was developed by Interface Studio Architects, which pulled the most ambitious of the three projects. The firm was asked to design a new full-service supermarket for developer John Westrum at 31st and Girard, in the Brewerytown neighborhood.

Westrum had been trying to bring a supermarket to the three-acre triangular lot ever since he completed Brewerytown Square, a townhouse project. But it's been difficult because the site has only the tiniest bit of frontage on Girard Avenue, the area's commercial street. The property also sits on a steeply sloped bluff overlooking the east side of Fairmount Park and the Schuylkill. You can practically see the Philadelphia Zoo on the opposite bank.

Panoramic views are nice, but what supermarkets really need is to be able to broadcast their presence to passersby. The usual box, set behind a welcome mat of parking, would be nearly invisible to motorists and pedestrians traveling on Girard Avenue. In any case, that highway model is unworthy of a grand urban street that is still a mix of townhouses and independent stores.

Interface, led by partner Brian Phillips, solved the problem in a way that goes beyond just reimagining the utilitarian supermarket; its design has real architectural heft. The proposal clicks because it acknowledges the supermarket's dual nature as a car-oriented business that happens to be located in a multifaceted pedestrian neighborhood.

Since there is so little frontage on Girard Avenue, the designers bent the main commercial structure into two angled sections that wrap their wings around the corner of 31st and Girard. The section closest to Girard would provide small retail spaces for things like a bank, and the northern portion would house a midsize supermarket.

Though their angular form breaks from Philadelphia's street-wall tradition, it compensates for the deviation by offering the neighborhood a substanial plaza that works as a pocket park. At the hinge, where the two wings come together, the plaza slides down under the buildings, providing sight lines and walking ramps to the parking lot at the low end of the slope.

Because of that sharp incline, the supermarket floor would be below the level of 31st Street. Interface turns the problem into a virtue. An all-glass facade would enable arriving pedestrians to see into the store, while a sequence of switchback ramps would move them gently down to the store entrance. Since the parking lot is at the entrance level, customers who drive would have easy access.

This jaunty arrangement solves the site's problems in one stroke. The designers use the level change to screen the parking lot from the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the swooping roof becomes the building's can't-miss sign.

And by splitting the commercial structure into two sections, Interface avoids the bulkiness of the box. With their glass facades, the structures resemble park pavilions, which is what they are, since they overlook Kelly Drive.

Like Interface, the other firms that participated in the design exercise, Agoos Lovera and KSS, recognized that supermarkets are about more than just food. They're neighborhood anchors. Interface included housing at the north end of its site. The supermarket's sinuous roof winds around, jumping onto a third structure that would contain loft apartments.

Because the other projects involved retrofits of existing buildings, there was less opportunity for the designers to reinvent the supermarket form. Nevertheless, in its three-stage scheme for turning an Ogontz Avenue rowhouse in West Oak Lane into a satellite for the Weavers Way food co-op, Agoos Lovera sketched a plan that includes a meeting room, a demonstration kitchen, and a community garden. KSS came up with a nearly identical program for an old furniture store on Chester's Avenue of the States, purchased by a Chester food co-op. In the future, they believe, food stores will be community hubs.

At the moment, most people see supermarket shopping as a necessary chore. But who knows? If these designers can open the eyes of store operators, we just might start to look forward to the weekly shopping trip.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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