Minnesota Street Project to Provide Affordable Art Space in Dogpatch

Construction is set to begin this summer on a Dogpatch arts hub that will give gallery owners, the latest casualties of San Francisco’s booming real estate market, a bulwark against skyrocketing rents. Dubbed “Minnesota Street Project,” a warehouse at 1275 Minnesota Street is being converted into affordable space for 10 permanent galleries, a large, open atrium for rotating exhibitions, classrooms for an arts nonprofit and ground floor retail.

Jensen Architects is redesigning the 35,000 square foot warehouse—most recently used as a furniture repair shop—into a contemporary art space. Potrero Hill already bears the architect’s imprint; Jensen designed the California College of the Art’s Graduate Center, an aluminum scrim and corrugated steel façade that’s intended to blend with the area’s industrial flavor.

Eleanor Harwood is one of a handful of gallery owners who’ve signed onto the project. “It’s a smart move in the sense that things are moving there and decentralizing,” she said. Harwood curated Adobe Books’ backroom gallery for several years before opening her own space at 25th and Alabama streets in 2006. “We’d love to stay in the Mission, but there just aren’t buildings like that in this area,” she said. Harwood isn’t being pushed out. Rather, she’s drawn to the benefits of a “readymade” community taking root at Minnesota Street. “Sharing resources and gallery space with other arts organizations creates an economy of scale that makes it cheaper for everyone,” she explained.

The project’s success hinges not just on the largesse of its philanthropic co-founders, Andy and Deborah Rappaport, but on a flexible business model in which galleries rent small permanent places while sharing access to a large flex-space. Like a house-share, the complex’s cooperative nature will help keep costs down to half or even a third of market rate. That, coupled with three-year leases with annual caps on increases, amounts to a kind of voluntary rent control.

Dogpatch’s industrial legacy—much of the neighborhood is still zoned production, design and repair (PDR)—also helps keep costs down. PDR zoning allows for arts uses, but “specifically excludes most tech company office uses, although there is no zoning police and there are currently many violators,” Andy Rappaport explained in an email. “So while PDR real estate is far from cheap, it is still meaningfully less expensive than properties already zoned UMU (multi-use),” he said.

Zoning rules aside, the Rappaports’ goal is simple: they want galleries and arts organizations, which they believe make a vital civic contribution, to stay in San Francisco and be self-sustaining. They’re not looking to turn a profit, but hope that the project breaks even over the long-term. It’s a novel investment in the arts and, if it works, could be a patronage model adopted in other expensive cities where galleries are being priced out.

Rena Bransten, Themes and Projects – formerly Modernbook – Toomey Tourell Fine Art and Jack Fisher galleries have signed on. They’re among a long list of galleries that have left, or are in the process of leaving, 49 Geary. Once synonymous with the City’s downtown art market, 49 Geary has struggled to retain dealers, who have to compete with growing tech companies for precious commercial real estate. After fleeing 49 Geary in 2013, Jack Fisher Gallery resettled along a micro-gallery row on Potrero Avenue. Fisher now wants to open a satellite site at Minnesota Street.

San Francisco Arts Education Project, a nonprofit that rents instructional space in more than 20 San Francisco public schools, will move some of its operations to Minnesota Street. “The way the real estate market is; it’s not friendly to us,” creative director Emily Keeler said. “The Rappaports wanted to have a nonprofit in their space. They realized that they wanted someone like SFArtsEd. And as talks progressed they decided, maybe it should be us.” Keeler enthused about the exposure to the art market that students will get at Minnesota Street. “The project is almost entirely for galleries. We’re going to be the only nonprofit. The rest of the people there are going to be in the business of selling art works,” she said.

In a cultural climate in which capital-intensive technology is often perceived as being adversarial to artists, the Rappaport’s intervention could signal a new relationship between the two camps. Andy Rappaport made his fortune investing in tech companies with the Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm August Capital. The retired empty-nesters moved to San Francisco from the Peninsula a few years ago.

The Rappaports have backed progressive causes and raised funds for center-left political candidates. Deborah, an art collector, serves on the boards of the Berkeley Art Museum and Headlands Center for the Arts. Andy has waded into trendier waters, lending his support to Noise Pop, an indie rock festival that was headlined by the New Pornographers this year. The Rappaports’ own art collection includes works carrying a social or political message and, fittingly, “works that explore how new technologies can be used for artistic expression,” according to Andy. Much of the work in their collection is by local artists and was purchased from Bay Area galleries.

Minnesota Street Project grew out of conversations the couple had with Catherine Clark, a personal friend, whose eponymous gallery on Utah Street anchors the Hill’s micro-gallery row. A member of the San Francisco Art Dealers Association, Clark has facilitated connections between the Rappaports and would-be Minnesota Street gallerists. Though her own gallery is staying put, Clark is spearheading efforts to organize the arts-rich neighborhoods of the Mission, Hill and Dogpatch into a combined arts district. “When we landed in Potrero we felt like it was important to come together by branding the neighborhoods as an arts district, despite the various real estate jurisdictions.”

The name DoReMi, which takes two letters each from Dogpatch, Potrero Hill and the Mission, remerged from a brainstorming session of art professionals. Southside San Francisco now abounds with galleries, murals, arts organizations and museums, including Southern Exposure, Galeria de la Raza, Eleanor Harwood, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco Center for the Book, Workshop Residence and the Museum of Craft and Design. When completed, Minnesota Street Project would be the “crown jewel” in the DoReMi topography, according to Clark’s vision.

But with venues spread out over terrain that’s interrupted by highways 101 and 280, it won’t feel like a typically compact gallery crawl. Clark, who also owns a gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, is undaunted. “The highways are only perceived to be barriers because we’re a fairly car-bound culture,” she said. “It’s more of a psychic change.” To prove its walkability, Clark, wearing six-inch heels, led San Francisco Chronicle reporter Sam Whiting on a walking tour starting from 16th and Utah streets that covered all three neighborhoods, crossing a footbridge slung over 101 and pausing to gawk at murals along the way.

Art and real estate have long had an ambiguous relationship in San Francisco.  Arts organizations are often identified as the harbingers of gentrification rather than its victims, especially in the Southside neighborhoods. As activist Rebecca Solnit pointed out in her 2000 book, Hollow City, construction of the Yerba Buena Arts Center effectively banished the last vestiges of the working class from South-of-Market when it was finally completed in 1993. The live-work lofts that proliferated in SoMa, the Hill and Dogpatch during the late-90s dot-com boom were another flashpoint of controversy. Though nominally geared toward retaining artists in those deindustrializing neighborhoods, they were actually targeted at upscale buyers. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned new construction of live-work units in 2001, but not before hundreds of Trojan horse “artist lofts” too expensive for the creative class to afford had come onto the market, hastening the gentrification of those neighborhoods, according to Solnit’s analysis.

Clark didn’t hesitate to implicate artists as the “first wave” in the classic gentrification narrative. But conditions have changed. Now galleries, and even nonprofits, are on the defensive. “Yes, artists are a part of the gentrification process, they’re the first wave. But they’re also the last line of defense.”

The irony isn’t lost on Andy Rappaport, either, but he emphasized the need to act fast to retain and strengthen the existing art scene. “We actually had the reverse concern when we started: that Dogpatch has already seen so much cost increase that it would be too late for us to do what we are doing there,” he said. “Our fervent hope is that our work will inspire other like-minded investors to purchase or lease PDR properties with the express purpose of keeping rents sufficiently low for arts uses.”

High rents aren’t the only threat to the future of galleries. In recent years an explosion of art fairs that attract international crowds of buyers, notably Art Basel in Miami, have siphoned sales away from traditional, brick and mortar galleries. “[Art fairs] have become a vehicle for putting work in front of a wider audience than any one gallery can put together in a specific geography,” Clark said. “I’ve often remarked that we’re writing our own eulogies” by participating in art fairs.

Then again, like the Rappaports, Clark is banking on the lasting appeal of the gallery experience. “Art fairs aren’t the same as the gallery experience. And thank God for that. That experience will sustain us through all kinds of disruptions in the industry.”



Life in the Folds by Henri Michaux

June 5, 2016

While John Waters was promoting his book, Role Models, he often riffed about what might have become of him had he not found in filmmaking an outlet for his obscene predilections. Would he have shaved his head and joined a murderous cult, like Leslie Van Houten, the former Manson girl still serving a life sentence for crimes she committed as a troubled teenager? Unlikely, considering Waters’ self-possessing nature and talent for getting people to buy into his subversive vision. The director of Multiple Maniacs and his crack team of collaborators may have stopped short of murder, but Waters apparently found the Manson family’s early antics—they got their kicks breaking into suburban homes, rearranging the furniture and leaving without taking anything—sympathetic enough to form the basis of an enduring friendship with Van Houten, on whose behalf he regularly advocates. Waters, too, desired to have his revenge on a square world that tried to saddle him with its tyranny of good taste and puerile taboos on sexual expression. Except, of course, he didn’t kill anyone. Well, there was that old man he ran over, but the guy literally threw himself in front of his car. Fortunately for Waters, a police officer witnessed the whole thing and so spared him the headache of having to defend his character (and aesthetics) in court.

In “Satisfied Desires,” a prose poem from Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds, the speaker confesses, “I haven’t done much harm to anyone in life. I’ve only desired to. Soon I no longer desired to. I had satisfied my desire.” He no longer desires to crush the skulls of his enemies because he’s devised a way to do so in his mind, as often as he wants, to his exact specifications, and at no risk to his personal liberty. He’s found what you might call an outlet. The piece falls under the section called “Freedom of Action.” It ends with an uneasy truce, or is it a taunt? “My heart periodically emptied of its spite opens up to goodness, and you could almost trust me with a little girl for a few hours. Probably nothing unfortunate would happen to her. Who knows? She might even be reluctant to leave me . . .” The choleric humor signals that the speaker isn’t to be taken too seriously. Sure, he’s villainous, but at least he’s honest. Of course humor is often used by bad people with bad ideas to disarm and deflect. (I’m thinking of Donald Trump ‘refusing’ to say the incendiary thing he’s just blurted out, because he “always insists on being politically correct.”) You’ll be relieved to know that Michaux is as viciously funny and incorrect as Donald Trump is, but infinitely smarter and, it goes without saying, more refined. Here’s an example of what I mean, from “Advice and Response to Some Requests for Advice”:

“Should I pin up the babies?” writes J.O. No, I’m not going to respond to this insidious question. I no longer feel safe, and were it just about a butterfly, I still wouldn’t respond, even if it were flying in a singularly irritating manner, that “Here I come, here I don’t” sort, and displayed on its wing a gaudy, overly conventional decorative art, no, you won’t expose me on that either.

The Belgian-born poet of psychic discomfort dispenses with his adversaries (as well as his misguided admirers) with mordant wit and, he assures us, “with the requisite care and disinterest (without which it isn’t art).” Without which, I would add, these studies of impotent rage and vindictiveness taken to absurd lengths would be alarming and sad only. Our anti-hero invents ingenious ways to get even with his perceived enemies. There’s the sausage cellar for pompous military officials, plaster for loudmouths, apartment thunder for noisy neighbors, the skewer for dinner guests who’ve outworn their welcome and, my personal favorite, the man-sling:

Yet it’s difficult to shoot them far enough. Quite frankly, they never get shot far enough. Sometimes they come back forty years later, as you’re thinking you can at last feel at ease, when they’re the ones at ease, returning with the even step of someone in no hurry, someone who could have been there five minutes ago and was to return right after.

This Monty Python-like combination of absurd analytical rigor and shocking violence—deftly translated by Darren Jackson—never fails to make me laugh. But the playful mood doesn’t last very long. In the sections that follow, Michaux turns his powers of invention squarely against himself, starting with the destruction of his body. A body besieged by abstract assailants, a barely self-contained body on the brink of “subjectless horror” is no laughing matter. The pieces that make up “Apparitions”—the longest part of the book—read like the diary of an experienced psychotic gamely weathering another mental break. The ‘patient’ finds himself on the receiving end of a succession of strange and invasive surgical procedures involving buzz saws, sabers, and flesh-sculpting lasers. For variety there’s the constellation of pinpricks, the demolition workshop, and the sea of breasts. These bad trips suggest a fetishized view of the body as a mere repository of suffering, filled with organs that can and will revolt. Yet it’s not the pain itself but the potential for pain—amplified by runaway reason—that plagues the subject of “The Danger of the Association of Thoughts” and “Circulating Through My Body”:

So I circulated through my panic-stricken body in anguish, provoking shocks, arrests, groans. I woke my kidneys and they hurt. I woke my colon, it pinched; my heart, it unsheathed. I would undress at night and, trembling, inspect my skin, waiting for the pain that was going to pierce it.

Michaux’s ideas about the permeability of the body and the physical manifestations of psychic discomfort find their purest expression in “Portrait of the Meidosems.” Written in the style of an otherworldly travelogue, it describes the dismal lives of a group of ectoplasmic beings called Meidosems. The Meidosems inhabit a nightmarescape which barely permits their existence. To move about is painful, and they are never allowed repose. This kind of material is amenable to facile symbolic interpretation, so I’ll try to do it justice. A Meidosem is about as corporeal as a bundle of nerve endings. At any given moment a Meidosem might take the form of a mesh of live wires, or a waterfall, or fire. As in a dream, these transformations are as deeply felt as they are inexplicable. Despite their alien appearance, the Meidosems do exhibit a range of recognizable emotions: fear, vexation, greed, hope, and, occasionally, satisfaction. They cling desperately to whatever form they have, hoping alternately for liberation and resigned to their suffering. In the world of the Meidosems (and their indifferent onlookers) suffering is the cost of living, of having “substance,” of moving about, and of wanting to transcend this interstitial condition. “What meidosem landscape is without ladders?” our guide asks. In the last passage the Meidosems finally take to the sky. Many of them fall to the ground and die, but many more of them take flight. Their flight is flight itself, hard-won and cautiously optimistic: “Wings without heads, without birds, pure wings of every body flying toward a solar sky, still not resplendent, but fighting to be resplendent, drilling a path through the empyrean like a cannon-shell of future bliss.” Look up. There they are, on their way to becoming pure symbols.

As nebulous and fantastical as the Meidosems are, their existential condition is consistent with that of the more familiar humanoids haunting this volume. In a poem from “Apparitions,” a four-legged animal, “more sand than man,” struggles to walk upright until it acquires, through painful exertion, a pair of stilts with which it can move freely and gracefully. “The infernal effort to always remain a man, and here I am liberated from it,” the sandman exclaims in disbelief. When Michaux’s avatars express joy—as infrequently as that is—it feels unexpected, almost begrudging, and it always has to do with freedom, a certain levity of carriage. Life in the Folds shows that Michaux had it, that ability to float above the carnage, and then he lost it, abandoning humor for the horrors of too much introspection. At least he never killed anyone.


In West Philly, Redemption for a Strip Mall

November 10, 2015

The Methodist Episcopal Church at 40th and Sansom Streets in University City will soon meet its maker, to be replaced by a one-story glass box anchored by a Dunkin Donuts. In contrast to the house of worship it supplants, the new structure will undoubtedly flaunt its strict utility, claiming fidelity to none other than the cheap materials with which it will be constructed. Its proponents will lean on the tired aesthetic theory of “less is more” to mask a dearth of ideas and mere cost cutting.In the Pennsport neighborhood of South Philadelphia, St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church was recently leveled to clear the way for a subdivision of four-story townhouses. They’ll look like all the other new homes cropping up in Pennsport with algorithmic consistency.

Most of us accept this proliferation of sameness at the loss of architecturally significant buildings as an inevitable outcome of the city’s redevelopment process. Yet contemporary architecture can also be employed to reverse this process, as the newly consecrated University City Chinese Christian Church, built on the ruins of an unfinished strip mall in West Philadelphia, attests.

Spanning the northwest corner of 45th and Walnut Streets in the Spruce Hill neighborhood of West Philadelphia, the elegant geometry and muted color palette of the UCCCC’s low-slung new home stands in stark relief to the richly embellished Association of Islamic Charitable Projects mosque–the former St. Andrews Methodist Church–opposite it on 45th Street. A white cross splits one section of the church’s façade into asymmetrical polygons, giving it the illusion of dimensionality. Aside from this abstract niche, a flat awning suspended by cables is the only other element that breaches the building’s flat profile.

Dr. Philip Siu, a church elder and practicing pediatrician who played a pivotal role in acquiring the building, explained with a laugh, “It’s not simplicity by design. It’s simplicity by default.” When the church outgrew its former home in Chinatown, Siu went in search of a building that could accommodate the growing congregation of Chinese students and recent immigrants. The unfinished strip mall, built on the site of a former gas station for a cost of $1.1 million, would do. The cinder block box had languished on the market for years and was a source of much anger and frustration in the neighborhood.

The UCCCC consulted with brownfield redevelopment experts and conducted soil testing to obtain a clean bill of health for the site. They obtained permits to add a second floor with 10 residential units and a mezzanine level overlooking the ground floor sanctuary. In two months they raised the funds to purchase and transform the building.

After meeting with the Spruce Hill Community Association, church officials agreed to enlist a congregant, architect Fan Zhang, to enhance the façade. The architect favored clean lines and subtle variations of grey and beige. The whitewashed interior, also designed by Zhang, rivals the church’s exterior for laconic grace. In lieu of frescos and stained glass, there are white acoustic panels and exposed ceiling beams. But for the wooden crucifix, tables and lectern, the sanctuary could be mistaken for a “smart” lecture hall, replete with projectors and stacking chairs.

That it took a church to add the subtle accents and architectural enhancements that make this new construction a welcome addition to the neighborhood approaches irony, were it not for Dr. Siu’s earnestness. Although some churches have been lost to new construction, many religious communities in West Philadelphia are in fact thriving, thanks in large part to immigrants willing to repurpose bland commercial spaces and storefronts into places of worship, challenging the notion of a tidy zero-sum game between the old and sacred and the new and profane.

During the week, the sanctuary doubles as a cafeteria for a parochial school that rents space for its 60 middle-school aged students and community groups hold meetings there too. On the upper floor there are church offices and housing for visiting scholars, partly subsidizing the church’s operations. The church’s simplicity may owe more to budget constraints and happenstance than to any architectural theory, but the overall effect works for the UCCCC’s collegiate congregation. Perhaps coincidentally, it echoes the Lutheran policy of eschewing frivolous ornamentation.

Members of the church are drawn from the roughly 5,000 Chinese living in University City, a number that doubled between census years 2000 and 2010. As one group of students returns to China, credentialed and imbued with the faith, another wave of students arrives to replenish them. This fall, Drexel University alone counts 700 Chinese students among its incoming class, Dr. Siu estimates. Young families and seniors make up the rest of the 180 congregants.

At first glance it would appear that the church of hard angles and the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects mosque across the street have little in common. Designed in 1907 by prodigious local architect Clarence Eaton Schermerhorn, the mosque’s windows alone span two stories, their frames richly contoured and painted a deep green. Huge decorative braces secure the central building’s pitched roof. The house of worship began its life as St. Andrews Methodist Church, changing hands a few times over the years before it was nearly lost to a fire. The AICP rehabilitated the burned out church in 1991 and established their North American headquarters there. Since then, the AICP has served as a hub for the polyglot of Muslims who live nearby; the mosque’s presence and rigorous programming have helped stabilize this once-blighted stretch, making it attractive to UCCCC. Like the UCCCC, the AICP houses daycare facilities and a parochial school. Mosque members opened Manakeesh café in a vacant bank across the street.

As UCCCC grows and engages with the diverse community around it, one expects its congregation to have a similarly salutary effect on the neighborhood.


The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse by Pascal Bruckner

French cultural critic Pascal Bruckner has made a career out of diagnosing strains of psychic weariness in Western life. In The Tyranny of Guilt, he warned that excess levels of guilt over past atrocities had hamstrung Europeans, rendering them incapable of confronting the problems of the present. In a seeming departure, Perpetual Euphoria found Bruckner questioning the shrill consumerist imperative to pursue happiness at all costs, making a case for the right to be maladjusted, even downright unhappy. Unlikely as it seems, there is a loose thread running through both of these books: Neither suffering nor happiness can form the basis for action. Both must be subordinated to freedom. With his latest book, Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Bruckner has teased out another strain of inertia tugging at the Western conscience: ecological catastrophism.

We’ve been groomed by unthinkable calamities like Fukushima—reinforced by Hollywood disaster flicks, or vice versa—to see cataclysms looming on the horizon, and to filter anything less compelling. Bruckner calls this the “seductive attraction of disaster.” Like the threat of nuclear annihilation that previous generations grappled with, the threat posed by global climate change is so vast in magnitude that it can paralyze us with fear. Put another way, climate change is a panacea, allowing us to trade a multitude of lesser fears for one all-encompassing fear. Here we find ourselves in the same territory as Tyranny: saddled with guilt for having incurred nature’s wrath, unable to formulate concrete solutions. In the case of climate change, the correctives on offer—consuming less, renouncing growth, retreating from science and technology—at best merely staunch the bleeding and at worst, turn us into irrational ascetics.

Bruckner isn’t skeptical of climate science, per se; if anything, he argues for a more rigorous form of scientific inquiry. Rather, his polemic takes aim at two broad follies attaching to the problem of climate change.

The first is the folly of enforcing a strict moral boundary between the natural and the artificial. The paragraph heading, “Nature is not our guide,” telegraphs Bruckner’s unsentimental view of nature. He belabors the point in Hobbesian fashion: “The whole human adventure is a merciless struggle against the physical, biological, and psychological fatalities imposed on our species.” So much for the original affluent society of hunter-gatherers. Moreover, human intervention has had a salutary effect in some places. He cites the role of the human hand in shaping and cultivating the hyper-fecund forests of the Amazon: “The parts of the forest transformed by human presence have a richer variety of flora and fauna than the virgin parts.” Nonetheless, Bruckner recognizes the beauty and intrinsic worth of the vast, protected open spaces of the American West. A compromise: “We have to protect nature, but we also have to protect ourselves against nature.”

The second folly is that of rich nations already enjoying the comforts (and delicacies) of development preaching austerity—a strict carbon diet—to the poorer nations of the global South. Such an asymmetry amounts to a denial of human potential and civilization itself, defined for Bruckner’s purposes as “a multiplication of desires.” If this sounds like a defense of the status quo, it is. “Luxury and refinement are indispensable for the blossoming of any great civilization,” Bruckner proclaims, with an echo of the French colonial administrator.

But Bruckner goes further. Each new technological advance is an enlargement of ourselves, granting us new powers and redefining our very nature. In perhaps the creepiest passage in the book, he claims that “the future human being will be prosthetic or he will not be at all.” Communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek made similar remarks for the documentary film, Examined Life: “We need more alienation from our, as it were, spontaneous nature. We should become more artificial. We should develop a much more terrifying new abstract materialism.” Zizek shares Bruckner’s conviction that the way to confront the threat of ecological catastrophe is more, not less, faith in technological work arounds and abstract management of natural systems.

Fanaticism isn’t all polemic and provocation. There are mordantly entertaining asides that showcase Bruckner at his best, skewering the fashions of the day. One section in particular reads like Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, or Teju Cole’s update, “In Place of Thought.” See, for example, the entry on EQUITABLE:

When a product is simultaneously ethnic, ethical, and equitable, it accumulates the maximum of meaning and justice. Adding ‘eco’ and ‘bio’ to any word is enough to sanctify it. What is sought, through the proliferation of abbreviations, is neither more nor less than absolution. The nomenclature has a purifying aim.

Thus absolved by the arbiters of fairness, we may go about buying and consuming with a clean conscience.

Pope Francis recently chastened that we have “slapped nature in the face,” and that “we may have exploited nature too much.” It would appear that ecologists, whom Bruckner attacks for their latent religiosity throughout Fanaticism, and the oldest religious institution in the West, the Catholic Church, have reached common ground, united in their condemnation of the ravages of consumerist capitalism and crimes against nature. Bruckner frames the argument as a choice between the self-imposed poverty of religious types and insatiable, market-driven consumption—a false choice—casting his lot definitively with the evangelists of perpetual growth and novelty.

Should we be skeptical of Bruckner’s cool head in the face of probable ecological collapse, rejecting it as a cynical disavowal of the real threat at hand? Skeptical, yes, but not to the point of fanaticism, for there is much generosity and nuance to be found in Bruckner’s defense of the French humanist tradition and Enlightenment ideals, not easily written off as cynical stalling. In a paradoxical twist, he muses, “Perhaps the Old World is better adapted to change than the New, to the extent that its ideal of competition is less ferocious, the cult of work less frenetic, and the ability to rediscover slowness and sweetness—that is, new uses of time, new intoxications with the minuscule—more firmly anchored.” Bruckner finds much to be optimistic about. From an “age of gluttony,” floated on credit and violently punctured by the economic crash of 2008, we may be entering an “age of duly considered desires.” The world hasn’t ended. Perhaps that is enough to be optimistic about.


In Kensington, Developers and Architects Confront The El

October 7, 2015

When an elevated train rolls through Kensington you not only hear its low rumble, you can feel it. Windowpanes rattle. Streetlights flicker. During peak hours a Market-Frankford train passes every four minutes, punctuating conversations in its wake. The El’s imposition on the visual landscape is as daunting, its studded steel support beams straddling either side of the street like a thousand-legged Behemoth overwhelming anything in its way.

In fact, even in the best of times it isn’t easy to live or do business under the El. But five decades of economic decline has only heightened the destructive impact of the train line. Between Girard and York along Front Street–and certainly well beyond there along Frankford Avenue–there are nearly as many vacant lots as there are active business operations, used car lots, and row houses.

Yet the El is also convenient. A decade or so after the difficult rebuilding of tracks and stations was completed, it is a critical asset to the mending river ward neighborhoods it passes through. Service is improved, ridership is up, and certain stations–notably Girard and Berks–have become vital neighborhood hubs. Developers are beginning to respond to the reversal of fortune: what was seen as repellant is now attracting eyes, investment, and new ideas. And for their part, Kensington civic groups would like to see Front Street under the El flourish as a commercial corridor while retaining some of the factory neighborhood’s historic feel.

Recently, a few of these developers have teamed with architects on the vanguard of sustainable, place-making design to begin shaping some of the rugged real estate. In 2009, the Philadelphia School District enlisted SMP and SMK Architects to design the handsome LEED Platinum-certified Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Front and Norris Streets, by the Berks station. This month, the developer Peter Crawford and Interface Studio Architects revealed a striking design for a four-story mixed-use building near Front and Master.

Both these projects demonstrate that building in the shadow of the El presents challenges and necessitates inventive design approaches as well as sensitivity to context. Several other projects that have been proposed or are in the works fail this test, though not for lack of public engagement. Examples of unremarkable projects include the Tower Investment’s 30 townhouse development at Front and Girard on the border of Northern Liberties and Kensington, and the now canceled low-income residential development that would have replaced two historic textile industry banks at Front and Norris Streets. In both of these cases a neighborhood group—the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association and the East Kensington Neighbors Association, respectively—intervened to foster a better outcome (the future of the Front and Norris banks remains uncertain as the Norris Square Civic Association reviews a new set of proposals for the site).

A further challenge is what to do with the remaining textile mills whose workers the El once served. While adaptive reuse projects have not kept pace with the alarming rate at which fires have destroyed so many of these factories, a handful of former factories have been, or are in the process of being repurposed.

At Front and Master, the Mulherin’s Sons building has seen slow motion renovations–and a change of owners–over the last few years. Eventually, the former whiskey distillery will house a ground floor café or restaurant, as indicated by the orange liquor license in the window, and residential units on the upper floors. It has lost none of its historic character, retaining its high arched windows and much of the handsome woodwork within.

At Front and Palmer a former barrel factory was converted into an industrial chic catering hall, complete with 35 foot ceilings, exposed beams and chandeliers made from repurposed bedsprings.

As Hidden City’s Nic Esposito reported earlier this year, the original Bromley carpet mill adjacent to the York-Dauphin El stop will be converted to mixed use apartments and retail, if its owner Jesse Muñoz has his way. Muñoz’s plan for the historic mill–a progenitor of Kensington’s textile economy–however is still a long way from coming to fruition. The response from the EKNA has been lukewarm, as neighbors question Muñoz’s capacity to meet the design challenges of building apartments smack up against the El.

Muñoz could learn a thing or two from Interface Studio Architects, the boutique firm with an appetite for tight constraints, whose design for Peter Crawford’s four story mixed-use building will feel like an organic response to the environment. ISA cut its teeth on the 100K house, a proof of concept that green home building can be done cost effectively–the single-family prefab house cost around $100,000 to construct and is LEED Platinum certified. The mixed-use building will include two stories of offices or another commercial use, coming nearly level with the elevated tracks before plunging downward at an acute angle and sloping back up and away, with terraces embedded in the sloped, metal-faced wall. Double stud wall construction, a tight building envelope, and triple-glazed windows will help abate noise from the El, improving the building’s energy performance as well.

ISA’s principal architect Brian Phillips says such an approach, including double stud construction and careful air sealing “can be done at a reasonable cost.” However, at the hearing earlier this month where officials from the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the project, the developer’s team argued successfully that the costs associated with building desirable residential units next to the El constituted a hardship, meriting the zoning variances they requested.

At that same zoning hearing, another developer made a similar appeal for hardship. Her plan for a project near Front and Montgomery called for six brick-faced townhouses divided into triplexes, with no commercial use and parking in the rear. Other than setting the houses back 20 feet from the curb, the developer did not propose any additional noise abatement measures.

This proposal has the advantage of filling in a half-empty row of row houses and stores, adding eyes on the street across from the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. But it was not clear from the developer’s presentation how the units would be priced or to whom they would be marketed (a decision on the project was held by the ZBA pending some missing paperwork). In fact, the question of the market for residential units under the El afflicts both these new construction proposals and Muñoz’s plan for adaptive reuse of the Bromley Mill.

Chris Somers, a realtor who works largely in Fishtown and Kensington, says most people would rather live a few blocks to the east or west of Front Street, benefiting from proximity to mass-transit without the noise and “stigma” associated with the El. Somers recently marketed Norris Point, a ten unit townhouse development, incidentally designed by ISA, on a relatively quiet block a short walk from the Berks station. But he also says that innovative projects like Crawford’s will lead to more infill development. For now, residential units are a risky proposition, and easier to rent than sell.

One El stop south, at Front Street and Girard Avenue, a large-scale residential development designed by JKR Partners may be an indication that the stigma associated with living under the El is dissipating. The fire last July that destroyed the L.H. Parke coffee roastery cleared the way for Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments to build 30 townhouses and mixed-use buildings there. One row of houses, framed and sheathed at the time of this writing, will front on Hope Street. Another row of mixed-use buildings with commercial space, not yet begun, will press up against the El.

JKR Partners’ residential projects tend to be self-contained, sometimes gated, and they usually provide one-to-one parking. Despite the proximity to the El, this project will unfortunately not depart from that scheme; parking will be placed in the center of the parcel, surrounded by the residential and commercial buildings. But had it not been for the NLNA’s input, it’s likely the project would have been even less responsive to the site than it is. The civic group recommended the mixed-use side of the project maintain an industrial look, a nod to place, and take the El into account. JKR Partners returned with a design that moves the hallways to the east side of the 10 mixed-use buildings facing the El, creating a buffer for the living spaces further in.

Lauren Eckberg, the architect on this phase of the project, says she is still mulling noise abatement approaches for those buildings.

The standard for context-sensitive, energy efficient design along the Market-Frankford line was established with the construction of the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Front and Berks. The school’s large, double-glazed windows allow for ample daytime lighting. None of the windows face the El, a good portion of the building is set back from the curb, and classrooms are situated in the rear of the building, a design strategy that–to be fair–would not work for a mixed-use project with retail offerings.

But it is the building’s energy efficient envelope that really keeps out the noise. “Something goes by every two minutes. Before the building was sealed it was so loud,” says Jane Rath, SMP’s lead architect. “People don’t really notice it now.” Moreover, the laminated glass that the School District requires for safety, performs better at noise abatement than double-glazed windows alone would have. “There was no way we could ignore the El,” Rath says.


Theater Of The Undead

When the Roxy Theater went dark around this time last year there were no sweeping pronouncements on the death of cinema. That would have been a bit histrionic in this instance: by the time of its closing the small two-screen theater operating out of two row houses on the 2000 block of Sansom Street had fallen into disrepair, both physically and existentially, screening easily digestible big studio fare better served up in one of the many multiplexes ringing the city. But a third-rate cinema is still cinema in a city with precious little screen space.

Enter the Philadelphia Film Society, whose annual Philadelphia Film Festival, ongoing now, showcases independent and buzz-worthy international films for ten days each October in a patchwork of theaters spread across the city, with plans to turn the cinema into a film center. Now, a year on, with structural renovations and new digital equipment in place, PFS at the Roxy is a month from its official opening, on November 15.

This past weekend film-lovers got a glimpse of the $200,000 renovation still in progress. The finishing touches will come later; the PFS plans to be screening films in its new home even as the dust is settling.

Under the Film Society’s stewardship, the undead cinema has added a digital projector, bigger screens, and a surround sound system. The sweetest part of the deal for film nerds: the Roxy will retain its 35mm projectors and reel to reel system for repertory programming—as well as keep a variable speed projector on hand for screening silent films at the right speeds, the Roxy’s new manager, Alison Silverman, explained. Perhaps the new incarnation of the Roxy holds out the promise of the resuscitation of film culture in Center City. Cinema may have been pronounced dead, but somehow it refuses to die.

Owing to its small capacity, the PFS can afford to take some curatorial risks. “It’s not a huge venue. I think it’s ideal for showing art house fare, documentaries and experimental films,” the Society’s president J. Andrew Greenblatt told the website Geekadelphia earlier this year. The Film Festival’s reputation for quality and occasionally challenging programming goes a long way in building confidence in the new venture. Besides being the new home of the Film Festival, the Roxy will also anchor the PFS’s diffuse year-round activities. They’ll look to screen midnight movies, retrospectives, and host a monthly series called Filmadelphia, a grant-funded platform for emerging local filmmakers to showcase their work.

Like the revamped theater it houses, Sansom Street is something of an anachronism in the tidily groomed Rittenhouse neighborhood. The 2000 block of Sansom Street in particular harbors the kinds of businesses that are often relegated to the outskirts. Long in the Tooth specializes in new releases on an old medium: vinyl. Fat Jack’s slings comics, and the Classical Guitar Store sells, not surprisingly, six-stringed things of the wooden variety. There’s Helium, a comedy club just intimate enough to ensure that no heckler’s remarks go unpunished. The Adrienne, home of the InterAct Theatre Company, is also small, perhaps even cramped, and it fills up. (A performance space, though, can only benefit from tight quarters.) And if you look close enough you’ll find, tucked between an architect’s offices and a meditation center, the elephant on the block: the Adonis Cinema and Sansom Street Gym, a cruising ground hidden in plain sight.

Of course there are restaurants and juice bars as well, but every neighborhood has them. “It’s the entertainment that made this block special,” says John Ciccone, who owns several properties on Sansom, including the Roxy. He has seen the block evolve over the years, and it was his strategic interventions that helped make it the thriving performing arts corridor it is today, a place to see a show, shop and dine, rather than avoid–not a distinction one often attributes to a landlord. As early as 1961, Jane Jacobs observed that the Rittenhouse neighborhood “is the only old neighborhood in Philadelphia which is spontaneously rehabilitating its edges and extending its real estate uses.” The longhairs favored Rittenhouse Square as the site of their love-ins and war protests. Flower power spread to those edges: the now vacant Rittenhouse Coffee Shop once housed a folk club that saw the likes of Arlo Guthrie and Joni Mitchell. Improbably, the Spanish Renaissance revival row house lingers on as a reminder of a time when Sansom Street attracted more of a bohemian contingent than it does today.

After the hippie flowering had faded, Ciccone recalled, the block entered into a doldrums. Urban decay had set in throughout the city. “There was a rough, tough club in there, and there was a neighborhood group trying to get them out,” he said. That’s when he made his first intervention. Ciccone bought the liquor license from the nuisance bar, opened a jazz club called Curtains, and began bringing in prominent touring acts. Crowds soon snaked around the corner to see Sonny Rollins or Stan Getz blow. (Helium now occupies the building where the jazz club had its run.) In 1981, Ciccone “set up the Wilma at the Adrienne.” The celebrated theater group flourished, eventually expanding into its current home at Broad and Spruce when it outgrew its original space.

While performing arts venues have done well, the Roxy floundered in the wake of shifting movie-going habits, but it still managed to persist as a cinema. Its nearest movie house neighbor, the Boyd on Chestnut Street, with its opulent art deco interior, did not. In their history of Rittenhouse Square, Robert Morris Skaler and Thomas H. Keels lament that “almost all of Philadelphia’s great movie palaces from the 1920s were demolished or changed to other uses within a half-century of their construction.” The Gilded Age movie palaces, paradoxically, have proved harder to revive than the modest Roxy. Unlike the Boyd, the Roxy project has not had to contend with historic preservation issues. And unlike the 1920s movie houses that once lined Market Street, the Roxy never turned to porn, a shift that usually signals the terminal stage in the life of a movie house.

Connecting the PFS with the Roxy, a relative tabula rasa of a theater, has been Ciccone’s latest intervention on Sansom Street. He recognized that the block’s profile would be enhanced dramatically with the addition of an independent theater. Bringing a movie house into the 21st century, however, wasn’t going to be cheap. A Knight Arts Challenge of $150,000, won earlier this year, pushed the project along. Greenblatt’s team staged a summer film series to raise awareness about its matching mission, and they crowdsourced another $47,776 via Kickstarter, with 479 backers chipping in an average of around $100 each.

When it made its appeal on Kickstarter in March of 2013, the Film Society had expected it would be screening films full-time by the spring of 2013. But as with any construction in Philadelphia, it hit a few snags. Due to a permitting oversight, work was halted on one of the two lots while the team reapplied to have the neighboring lots consolidated into one. Paperwork in order, the renovations inched forward. Workers blasted through walls to make one building, brought the concrete floors even with one another and raised the ceiling to make room for the bigger screens, PFS’ director of development Rebecca Cain told Hidden City. In the process, the theater lost capacity, scaling down from 140 to around 80 seats per theater, while adding new chairs (cheers!), acoustic paneling for sound isolation (muffled applause), and improved ADA accessibility (polite clapping). After the theater reopens, PFS officials will turn their attention to the front of the house, with plans to refresh the lobby, concessions, lounge and bathrooms and install a new marquee.