Changing Skyline: Planned tower may be a game-changer for Philadelphia's Chinatown

Posted: October 13, 2012

If you look at the whole of Philadelphia's architectural output over the last two decades, it becomes clear that much of the effort was about repair and recovery. Neglected neighborhoods were rediscovered, dilapidated houses were renovated, empty lots filled in.

The most intensive repair has already occurred in Center City's neighborhoods. Downtown is now in such good physical shape, and has so few vacant building sites left, that the reclamation has shifted to the ring of neighborhoods beyond Philadelphia's traditional core, to places such as Graduate Hospital and Northern Liberties. There are stubborn pockets of resistance, though: Chinatown North is one of them.

It has been nearly 30 years since Philadelphia's Chinatown began dreaming of expanding its boundaries and linking up with the scattered outposts around Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church, perched along the north rim of the I-676 canyon at 10th Street. But the crosstown expressway always proved to be a formidable barrier.

It looks like Chinatown's southern half is finally ready to leap the great divide of that submerged highway. A neighborhood group, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., is putting the finishing touches on a design for a 23-story apartment tower and community center at 10th and Vine Streets that would go a long way toward stitching the two Chinese neighborhoods together. With most of the financing for the $70 million project in hand, the agency is just waiting for word from the state on an $8.5 million grant.

Almost any new apartment house would be a nice, incremental addition to the city. But this tower, in this location, promises to be a game-changer.

Let's begin: The project, which would include 144 apartments, shops, offices, a banquet hall, and a public rec center, will begin to restore the frontage on Vine Street and reestablish it as a walkable city street. That can only help spread Center City's success more deeply into North Philadelphia.

The tower site became vacant in the late 1980s when a swath of Vine Street was clear-cut to make way for I-676. PennDot didn't just condemn land necessary for the right-of-way, it flattened whole blocks on either side. Its land grab created an immense chasm between Center City and parts north that impedes development to this day.

Chinatown bitterly resents the highway, which opened in 1991, says Andrew Toy, who is managing the project for the Chinatown Development Corp. The road separates the neighborhood from one of its most important civic institutions, the Holy Redeemer church and school. While the complex was spared demolition, it was left sequestered in a sea of blight for two decades.

The area has lately begun changing for the better, as Chinese American entrepreneurs migrate north of I-676 to establish warehouses and workshops. A decade ago, the development agency built a group of rowhouses near the church, and in 2006, the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures charter school opened at 10th and Callowhill Streets, a block from the tower site. Meanwhile, the Loft District, in the old factory buildings near Broad Street, has been gathering strength and pushing east.

The two neighborhoods will meet with the new high-rise, which is being called "the Eastern Tower." The building lines up at the same latitude as the Goldtex building, the former factory now being converted to apartments by the Pestronk brothers. KlingStubbins' Tejoon Jung is the architect for both.

The two towers bear more than a sibling resemblance. As a new building, Eastern Tower is a more refined design, but Jung uses strong lines to carve up both facades into manageable visual bites. Eastern Tower has been designed as a jigsaw of interlocking glass boxes - some vertical, some horizontal - that evoke a Chinese puzzle box. The sections are roughly the size of the four-story buildings typically found in Philadelphia's Chinatown, so the form makes a connection to the old neighborhood.

Jung, who is collaborating on the project with Lisa Armstrong of AK Architecture, is hoping the tower can serve as a skyline gateway to Chinatown, in much the same way that the traditional carved gate at 10th and Arch Streets does at ground level. The problem was how to convey its Chinese character without resorting to stereotypical motifs, such as pagoda tiers or dragons.

Jung decided to accent the modern puzzle-box sections with wood eaves, suggesting the slatted underside of Chinese courtyard houses. These accents promise to add depth and texture to what might otherwise be a bland glass facade. The three-story podium at the base, which will house a new community center, also uses strong lines to call out its features, such as the two-story-high combination basketball court and banquet hall. Since 22 percent of the units will be subsidized for low-income residents, the center will also house social-service agencies.

A busy highway may not sound like the most desirable location for an apartment house. But the architects think about the environment as a landscape, with the expressway as a fast-flowing river, says Armstrong, who spent time in China as a child. Feng shui, a Chinese practice historically used to orient buildings, favors locations facing water. In placing the community center in front of the tower, the architects also treated the high-rise like a mountain backdrop.

Above all, the goal is to create a destination that will extend the activity of Chinatown's main street - 10th Street - across the expressway. Last year, the community refurbished a pocket garden on the overpass to muffle noise and make the walk more appealing.

Chinatown has traveled far to get to this point. If it can raise the rest of the funding for the project, the community will have at last arrived.


Contact Inga Saffron at isaffron@phillynews.com or 215-854-2213, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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