Factory Town

Factory Town

One of the three sites, on America Street, for Infill Philadelphia:Industrial Sites.
Courtesy Community Design Collaborative

To anyone riding Amtrak from New York to Philadelphia, the demise of the former “workshop of the world” is evident in the crumbling brick stacks and punched-out windows of factory relics. But while other cities have all but given up on attracting new industries, Philadelphia has embarked on conceptualizing a revitalized manufacturing future.

A clutch of factories on America Street seeks a new purpose as part of the project.

Sponsored by the Philadelphia Community Design Collaborative with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), Infill Philadelphia: Industrial Sites kicked off its latest phase on February 16 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where a panel discussion (in which I participated) introduced the centerpiece of the project: the designation of three sites—along with three design teams—to serve as test cases for reinventing run-down factory buildings.

To an audience of over 200 people, Beth Miller, executive director of the Community Design Collaborative, outlined the context for the initiative, emphasizing ways that new industry types in Philadelphia—such as smaller green industries, furniture makers, or apparel manufacturers—could be incorporated by partnering with local stakeholders. The keynote speaker, William Struever, president of Baltimore-based developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, offered lessons from his firm’s projects, showing how industrial buildings could be adaptively reused with real clients and local businesses who are committed to community revitalization.

Focusing on local initiatives, John Grady, vice president of the PIDC, discussed the group’s redevelopment of the 1,200-acre Philadelphia Navy Yard with light manufacturing and corporate offices for companies such as Urban Outfitters and Tasty Baking Company, while maintaining Navy-based research in the historic buildings. Together with the City Planning Commission, the group has launched a study to provide new data on industrial land-use, and to look at how rezoning sites for new, clean, high-tech, open-source, and flexible industries could provide jobs in local communities.

Another site, long abandoned, on the Schuylkill River.

To test these ideas, design teams will investigate ways that old manufacturing sites can be reimagined to sustain industries. Three volunteer firms—SMP Architects, DIGSAU, and Charles Loomis Chariss McAfee Architects—have joined forces with community-based groups and manufacturers on specific sites with the owners’ consent.

The initiative—funded by the William Penn Foundation, the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development, and others—will be unveiled in May, as will the city’s zoning studies. The exhibit Retooling Industrial Sites, on display until March 26 at the Community Design Collaborative, featured renovations of former industrial buildings across the country, and suggested a multitude of strategies for transforming industrial sites.