By Alex Shuey (B.Arch candidate) | This essay critiques Gensler’s recent design for Five City Center, a new development for Allentown, Pennsylvania’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone. It considers the pros and cons of this development in the face of nearly four decades of working class occupation within the city.
“Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we’re living here in Allentown”
-Billy Joel, Allentown (1982)
Allentown, Pennsylvania’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) has generated compliments as well as controversy since its creation in 2009. Re-development of existing buildings as well as the construction of new projects has turned the center city area into a hub for business and commerce. Developers have focused on reconnecting the surrounding suburban population to the center center, which was previously disconnected due to perceptions of crime and the lack of entertainment and commercial venues. Discussions regarding the displacement of small business owners whose property will soon be demolished in order to make room for a new arena have stirred opposing viewpoints within the community. In conjunction with the arena, City Center Investment Corp. has developed a hotel, a luxury apartment complex and multiple floors of Class-A office space.
The most recently approved NIZ project, Five City Center, is comprised of a 17-story innovation office tower, a 700 space private parking deck, and a mid-rise luxury apartment block with commercial space at street level. Residential developments in the NIZ will heavily influence the impact the revitalization projects will have on the surrounding neighborhoods. The immigration of middle class white-collar workers into the NIZ will displace the low-income blue-collar citizens that have lived there for the past 40 years. While the market-rate apartment units deny any affordable options for the area’s current residents, the arrival of new residents has the potential to support struggling businesses and impact the urban environment of the surrounding neighborhoods. Gensler, a global architecture firm, is responsible for the design of both phases of the project. Their unveiled birds-eye rendering for the project (above) shows two towers, completely clad in glass, rising above the surrounding urban fabric. For some, this is a drastic improvement to the architecture of Allentown’s center city, but this rendering hides a design that does not take crucial aspects of its surrounding context into close consideration. Focusing on the residential tower, a critical analysis of this design brings certain problems related to its scale and composition to the surface.
The scale of the housing tower is drastically out of proportion within its context. Currently, housing within the NIZ and in the surrounding area is all under four stories in height. This allows the residents to have direct visual and/or physical connection to the street. Revitalization of the center city depends on this relationship. Residents are able to actively participate in street life and can keep a close eye on the new and improved section of the city, which they call home. Allowing the first two levels of Five City Center to be occupied by commercial functions in conjunction with the excessive vertical stacking of luxury apartment units represents an architectural solution to city housing that is unwarranted for Allentown. This approach is most successfully utilized in cities where the density of buildings requires vertical expansion in order to make room for new residents. The design creates an ivory tower for the new residents of the center city and amplifies the divide between the NIZ and the surrounding neighborhood. In addition to the out of scale apartment tower, the design for the parking deck, which serves both the apartment and the office towers, furthers the divide between existing urban fabric and the redevelopment efforts.
The parking deck, placed at the southwest corner of the plan for Five City Center, sits at the edge of the NIZ. It takes up a whole block and rises five stories above the street. Directly connected to the luxury apartment tower, the roof of the parking deck provides a space for residents to recreate and relax, further disconnecting their activities from the surrounding neighborhood. Rather than being offset from the street and situated within the confines of the city block, the parking deck holds the street edge and creates a harsh condition for pedestrians at street level. Street front engagement allows people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods to become active users of the redeveloped zone. Allowing the parking deck to occupy this space prohibits the residential project from engaging with the neighborhood as a whole. A set of diagrams (above) show how a simple rearrangement of the residential building and the parking deck allows engagement with the street and would allow the current height of the residential tower to be significantly reduced. Low-rise apartments and/or townhouses with a direct physical connection to the street are more appropriate solutions for the integration of market-rate housing into the NIZ. A careful consideration of scale would allow the residences to become an essential part of street life. Changing the organization of the units will reduce the number of possible units (a nightmare for developers). Although this may not necessarily be a bad thing. Increasing the demand for housing in and around the NIZ will encourage people to move into and renovate existing townhouses and apartments if the new complexes are already fully leased.
Seen by some as a large-scale gentrification effort, the NIZ has the potential to become an island within the urban fabric of Allentown. The development of residential projects has the ability to integrate the new users of the space into the immediate community. Designs for the market-rate housing units need to be aware and respectful of the surrounding context. Gensler’s design for Five City Center fails to do so by not responding to the scale of the surrounding area and creating edges/boundaries that allow the NIZ to become a physical boundary rather than a shaded region on a redevelopment map.