A recent site visit by Philly YIMBY has confirmed completion of construction at a four-story, 13-unit multi-family rental building at 3609 Spring Garden Street in Powelton Village, West Philadelphia. The new building replaces a stately, three-story Victorian rowhouse on the north side of the block between North 36th and North 37th streets. The construction team includes Brett Harman as the design professional and David Schwartz Construction as the contractor. Permits list construction costs at $1.4 million.
At the time of this writing, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom unit is available for rent at $2,040 per month.
On its own, the building, clad in red brick and gray panels and devoid of any ornamentation, is rather undistinguished in its bare-bones minimalism. If there is any positive note to be made about the design, it is the fact that its tripartite vertical division, distinguished by varying material use, visually breaks down the girthy mass into three slimmer portions that, at least in general scale if not in detail execution, somewhat resemble the traditional prewar rowhouses that line much of the rest of the block.
While the design is rather pedestrian, the most egregious aspect of the development is its context and what it had replaced. Until 2017, the property and the adjacent lot at 3607 Spring garden Street were home to a pair of stately prewar rowhouses. Their recessed siting, covered porches, and brick facades matched their neighbors up and down the block; on the other hand, their ornamentation such as mansard-style third floors and gabled dormers lent them individual character.
By 2018, 3607 Spring garden Street was unceremoniously demolished and replaced with a plain brick-faced, boxy building. Now, 3609 Spring Garden Street completes the one-two punch by replacing the remaining structure in the pair. Although we appreciate the increase in density and addition of much-needed housing stock to a centrally-located site (University City sits within a four-block, five-minute walk to the south), this pair of character-less buildings are a glaring intrusion onto a quaint block lined with magnificent prewar buildings, and are an affront to what they had replaced.
While the architect often (though not without reason) gets the blame for subpar, non-contextual designs, we have seen Brett Harman produce more competent work elsewhere, so a lack of architectural skill is clearly not the key issue here. A more likely culprit may be an unwillingness of the client to splurge for anything but the most basic exterior. Arguably, an even greater issue are short-sighted city planning ordinances that have completely misplaced priorities: while they are caught up in obsessing about arbitrary height limits and density restrictions, they provide virtually no incentives whatsoever to encourage developers to preserve prewar buildings and to incorporate them (at least partially, such as facades) into larger adaptive reuse projects that would involve side, rear, and vertical extensions for existing buildings.