RENDERINGS: Washington Avenue & Frankford Chocolate Factory, Ready For Renovation
Late last week news broke that the former Frankford Chocolate Factory on the north side of Washington Ave once owned by the late Tran Dinh Truong is back on the market and looking for a buyer. This property has been in limbo for a number of years, as Tran Dinh Truong's personal life was anything but standard. So colorful was his life, the New York Times featured him in a recent story. Before his death Tran Dinh Truong spearheaded plans to develop a mixed use space at this chocolate factory at 2101 Washington. This is the case for its conversion via rehabilitation and adaptive reuse.
To live in the area around this property has meant seeing tremendous change in the last decade. Graduate Hospital, perhaps one of the most awkardly named neighborhoods in the city, began changing 20 years ago. There was a time when it was said one shouldn't leave the "tree streets." That is to say if you lived in the area around Rittenhouse or Fitler Squares, venturing further than Pine Street was considered risky, and not just by a privileged eschelon in Rittenhouse. Even the eyes of long-term residents of the neighborhood were once so fixated on crime and the perception of safety in public spaces that the original plans for Julian Abele Park drawn up by the Community Design Collaborative a few years ago were scuttled by long-term residents in part due to the way they felt the design enabled crime. Looking at Julian Abele Park today and the surrounding neighborhood, those concerns seem foreign.
Though Graduate Hospital lays claim to being the home to some of the most gifted African Americans Philadelphia has ever known like contralto Marian Anderson and Philadelphia Art Museum architect Julian Abele, the neighborhood's black middle class began evaporating as the city deindustrialized and fell on hard times with the waves of social change and suburbanization that swept through America in the 50s and 60s.
On the north border of the neighborhood, the failed attempt to build the South Street Expressway eviscerated the once thriving business corridor. On the south border, Washington Avenue, then a series of train tracks serving warehouses and industry along the corridor fell into decline and disrepair. Beautiful architecture once graced much of this avenue. Beer production facilities, candy companies, train depots and the chocolate factory at 21st and Washington were all part of this history. Industry and jobs helped bring people here. A century later housing and proximity would do the same. As redevelopment began creeping southward from Center City displacement has occurred. Yet many older residents in Graduate Hospital remain. A neighborhood once unsafe for many has new amenities, business and public spaces that have breathed new life into Graduate Hospital.
Yet there's a certain monotony that remains. The neighborhood extends from Broad Street to the Schuylkill... from South Street to Washington Avenue. On the other side of Broad Street a comparable space is divided into three distinct neighborhoods. For Graduate Hospital it is just one, and one with a largely uniform housing stock of height and type crossing many blocks. Though there are strong commercial corridors bordering, there are no clear dominant corridors crossing through the neighborhood. The notable exception is 22nd Street, wider than the rest and once the "Front Street" of the Schuylkill. But even 22nd Street doesn't have the magnetism or density of 10th Street in Bella Vista, or the Bainbridge Green area in Queen Village.
Much of this is due to density. Though places like Bella Vista also don't have large varieties of housing height, they do have much higher density. While Graduate Hospital has block after block of single and the occasional multi-family unit, Bella Vista and Queen Village have a much higher proportion of Philadelphia "Trinities," the ultra-dense development pattern of very short lot lines with homes consisting of 3 rooms stacked on top of one of other. Graduate Hospital has longer lot lines and lower density. This at least partially explains the lower commercial density in the neighborhood.
The chocolate factory at 21st and Washington offers a potential apropos antidote to this monotony. Luckily for the party who wishes to purchase it, thoughtful plans are ready-made for the site. They were drawn up years ago when Truong was still alive and planned for a conversion of the property. The Alphonse Hotel Corporation, owned by Truong commissioned Jim Campbell of Campbell Thomas & Co, a local architect with deep ties in the neighborhood, to rethink the space. Campbell's firm (also the preservation architects for the historic buildings at Naval Square) drew up plans that called for mixed use development of the space including room for street facing businesses, housing, restaurants and office uses within the large, block-long stretch of the chocolate factory. The plans also called for demolishing historically insignificant additions to the building like the cinderblock loading docks. This included modifying the façade facing the 2100 Kimball St and fenestration more appropriate to the adjacent row house scaled buildings.
These plans dovetail nicely into the replanning process that will soon affect Washington Avenue. The Planning Commission has already been deeply involved rethinking Washington Avenue with a transformative restriping plan that will "road diet" much of the accident prone avenue next year. Community input has been solicited from both sides of Washington and the plan is nearly finalized. Yet the other part of Washington Avenue's re-planning process that hasn't yet been discussed in much detail is the remapping of parcels to bring them in line with the city's updates to the new zoning codes. Though the city once seemed to be fighting tooth and nail to retain Washington Avenue as area of light industrial use, the Planning Commission has been responding to various stakeholders in the area who wish to see the Avenue as something more mixed-use industrial/commercial/residential in years to come. Property owners and business owners along the corridor are increasingly realizing the development pressures on the Avenue and have been a strong force in making city leadership realize the area has a brighter future as commercial/residential mixed use than it does light industrial alone. Pioneers like Café Ynez, Kermit's Bake Shoppe and Springfield Beer Distributor have already laid claim to their own spaces along the corridor. The conversion of the chocolate factory will only speed this process and provide some much needed density to encourage a commercial corridor along not only Washington Avenue, but 22nd Street that flanks it on the western side.
These plans, designed by Campbell, call for a variety of unit types, denser than what flanks the factory and were already approved by zoning prior to Truong's death. The alternative of demolishing the space would not only destroy one of the few remaining industrial legacies on Washington Ave, it would also open up a developer to a lot of risk. Here's why. Tearing down the building requires capital and requires new designs for the space that would need to go through the community for feedback. Any developer for that site will seek maximum return on investment. There are two ways this could go. One is that a higher density zoning would be pursued, in the form of CMX-3 or 4 (commercial/residential mixed use land zoning for the site). This would entail possibly building higher than the site today, sure to garner NIMBY opposition. Of course the developer could try for 100% residential as well, but a good number of residents in the area support commercial on Washington Ave. Another option would be a tear down with low-density development. In order to make this work, large luxury single family units would need to be pursued to ensure costs to purchase the original lot and to demo the original structure were recouped in sale of new units. This would come at the expense of greater density and housing affordability for the neighborhood.
Building conversions have their own risks just like demolitions. Yet a conversion for this space would not only provide for greater density, it could do so without garnering as much opposition from near neighbors. The original plans for this site, which included persuing historic certification, were approved and supported by the neighborhood. Of course this was years ago and the combination of this time passed and modifications to these plans a developer would most likely want to make would mean new rounds of community feedback sessions. However, many in the area view the factory with expectation of conversion and rehabilitation rather than demolition.
Preservation and real estate development often seem at odds with one another. Preservation can limit development through height restrictions in historical districts and by bearing out more costs for the developer to restore rather than replace. Yet here at 21st and Washington, preservation and rehabilitation through the use of the existing buildings seems the best option. The Campbell plans are smart and address concerns not just on the site, but for the neighborhood at large. We hope the buyer of this site takes these plans, makes them their own and does something great here. The wrecking ball seems an unfitting and environmentally undesirable end to the Frankford Chocolate Factory.
Full Disclosure: The author is on the executive board of SOSNA. None of his opinions stated here represent official positions from SOSNA at large or SOSNA's Zoning Committee.