An American twist on the Italian piazza
Most of North America’s zoning and land-use regulation is fine-tuned to expedite the creation of one thing: sprawl. That’s why it is considered miraculous when a developer takes the time (which is money, at least in the world of construction) to challenge all those laws and build something better. Last week, the Piazza at Schmidt’s opened in Philadelphia to rave reviews. Here are some of the reasons why it could be the best new development in North America:
- Location, location, location. It’s close to Philadelphia’s urban core, steps from a subway station,and served by streetcars and buses galore. The development also gets points for using a brownfield, which is land that has been contaminated by past users (factories, garages, etc.). Considerable expense is involved in rehabilitating brownfields, which is a big reason why developers often like to start fresh on the edge of town.
- A tight mesh of uses. Mixed-use neighbourhoods are “all the rage” because they offer residents the option of traveling between home, work, and shops on foot, kind of like how cities were structured before cars came into play. It also means that neighbourhoods don’t become dead zones at certain times of the day; this makes them safer for all involved. The Piazza at Schmidt’s does an incredible job of balancing residential, employment and commercial uses. It is bordered on three sides with 6-storey residential buildings, all with retail on the ground floor. At one corner of the Piazza is a 35,000 square foot office building. Many recent New Urbanist projects attempt to mix living and shopping, or working and shopping, but it’s rare to see such an even mix of all three.
- Architectural excellence and density. Not only does the project work well, but it looks nice too! The rebellious developer, Bart Blatstein, set out to recreate Rome’s Piazza Navona in Philadelphia, but not to the point of copying the place brick by brick. He allowed the place a unique architectural identity, but kept the things that make an Italian piazza so great: the vibrancy, the density, the community.
- “It feels like a real place.” Those are the words of Philadelphia Enquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, and I couldn’t have said it any better. The difference between a place and – well, nowhere – is the difference between the Piazza Navona in Rome and a Wal-Mart parking lot. In the parking lot, you get the feeling that you could be anywhere: there are a thousand identical Wal-Marts and you’ve just happened upon one of them. A genuine place is distinct and memorable. What makes the Piazza at Schmidt’s so special? There’s the unique architecture, the specific mix of stores and restaurants, and the giant stage which offers the promise of daily entertainment. The coup de grace is the 16 foot by 26 foot jumbotronhanging on one side of the square, programmed to show every Philadelphia Phillies baseball game live. Not only is the Piazza at Schmidt’s a place, but it’s a distinctly American place.
Inga Saffron’s review in the Philadelphia Enquirer (Check out the photo gallery.)