Jan 23, 2015 by


Chinese Puzzle

Goldtex Building – high end housing comes to old Chinese neighborhood 

Courtesy Joseph G. Brin 2014

You don’t have to wrack your brains when a completed puzzle box image is your guide. No one has any idea what the newly assembled urban puzzle of Philadelphia’s Chinatown will look like, yet three big pieces, seemingly mismatched in size, shape, and purpose, have emerged.

Walking the city from one puzzle piece to the next, you begin to grasp the challenge. Connections between these geographically separate pieces are genuine and promising, yet more conceptual than physical. Their power to catalyze and unify must be born out in time.

In October, DesignPhiladelphia 2014 revealed in a public forum that, starting this year, a puzzle comprised of a community center with housing (The Tower), a derelict alleyway (The Alley/Pearl St.), and an old railway viaduct (The Rail Park) will begin to dramatically transform and, in ways preserve, an ethnic neighborhood dating back to 1870.

3 public realm projects to launch in 2015

Courtesy Friends of the Rail Park

The Tower: Eastern Tower Community Center beckons across a concrete gulf

Vine St. Expressway dividing Chinatown into North and South

Courtesy Joseph G. Brin 2014

You can’t miss Chinatown South’s massive, ornamented Friendship Gate commanding the entry to 10th  St. It’s an exuberant burst of color in the relatively monochrome Center City. Glistening, amber-colored barbecued ducks are arrayed in the neon glow of shop windows. Pungent smells of fish and fowl waft the air as you weave the thronging crowds.

The Gate leads you north to the sunken Vine St. Expressway that forcibly bisects Chinatown into north and south segments. Those territorial fragments were once bridged by the now truncated Reading train viaduct. Chinatown North is a cultural desert, a mix of non-ethnic, nondescript commercial and industrial buildings. Change is afoot, though. Older buildings are being converted from blight into housing for the privileged.

The affordable, mixed-use housing Eastern Tower Community Center is also scheduled to break ground in 2015. The Tower’s design is steeped in Chinese sensibilities and feng shui principles, its facade reminiscent of a Chinese wood puzzle. Programatically, it includes community and recreation spaces, primary and outpatient healthcare (in association with nearby Hahnemann Hospital), retail outlets, parking, and mixed, affordable and market-rate housing.

Eastern Tower Community Center

                                                               Courtesy PCDC

The 23-story Tower will be situated next to an overpass on the northern banks of “the river” of the expressway. Below, commuters barrel through while eighteen wheelers roar and rumble around the clock. The Tower’s striking presence, poised between Chinatown North and South, signals a bold attempt to redress the permanent divide of the Vine St. Expressway.

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