The Community Design Collaborative launched Infill Philadelphia, a five-year initiative to develop design solutions to revitalize urban communities by giving new life to underutilized buildings and sites, inspiring neighborhoods, and fostering an understanding of design among community leaders and developers. The CDC strived to mend the frayed pieces of the urban fabric by focusing on three specific urban infill initiatives: affordable housing, commercial corridors, and food access. Each initiative paired three different community organizations with three local architectural design firms in “design challenges” that had a real site, mission and community that would benefit.
The CDC selected food access as an initiative because of its significant impact on community health and well-being. Low-income neighborhoods may have 30 percent fewer grocery stores per capita than higher income neighborhoods, according to its website. The lack of access to fresh food and produce can limit diet options, inflate food prices, and increase the likelihood of health problems.
KSS Architects partnered with Chester’s Community Grocery Co-op, which currently borrows a 500-square-foot space once a week to sell fresh produce and food in Chester, Pa. Its rapid growth and popularity have led to its need for a larger, permanent space to increase its inventory and days of operation. For years, Tina Johnson, the president of the CCGC, has led the search for a new site for the co-op. The co-op has been considering a four-story, 32,000 sf former furniture store and warehouse on a prominent intersection at the Chester Central Business District, and is currently in the early stages of planning and capital fundraising.
For nearly four months, KSS worked with CCGC to develop an engaging, pragmatic architectural design that would allow the co-op to grow into its large site and warehouse in phases. The partnership has been a valuable experience for both parties.
Starting with just 13 member families in 2006, the CCGC has since grown to more than 100 families. Plans to grow to 300 families will overwhelm the capacity of its current facility. The co-op wanted a new home in which to provide the fresh, high-quality produce and groceries enjoyed by its members, and also better serve the Chester community at large. Specifically, its goals for its new home, just a few blocks away from its current site, are:
- Expand access to produce and groceries. Recent studies have correlated good health and access with fresh, high-quality produce. The last grocery store left the city more than 17 years ago. Residents had to leave the city for fresh food or settle for the limited, low-quality, high-priced groceries in local convenience stores.
- Build a healthy Chester community. Good health begins with access to good produce and groceries. The CCGC must expand community-building beyond its member constituency to the Chester area at large with the goal of educating the community about the benefits of improved food access and good nutrition.
• Improve the sustainability of food access. For local residents, driving outside of Chester is only the start of a costly and often unrewarding grocery shopping experience. Time constraints and the cost of fuel limit shopping opportunities. In addition, support of larger suburban, chain grocery stores generally reduces access to locally grown produce. The CCGC wants to improve the sustainability of food access by promoting local produce and providing simple, direct pedestrian access to their goods.
In support of the Chester Community Grocery Co-op’s mission and goal to move into a new facility, a four-story, 32,000 square-foot former furniture store and warehouse, KSS identified three primary design strategies to guide the development of detailed plans for the improvements that will support the co-op’s mission at its new home:
- Create a readily identifiable home for the CCGC. Just renovating the existing building will not create an identity for the CCGC. The project must help define a CCGC identity and, in essence, establish its brand.
- Integrate the new CCGC facility with the surrounding urban fabric. To be a part of the community, the facility must become integral to it. It must become a part of the pedestrian shopping experience along Avenue of the States and in the Chester Central Business District.
- Provide a unique, engaging and sustainable grocery-shopping experience. As a co-op, the CCGC requires its members must not only shop there, but also work there, fostering a sense of ownership and creating a shopping experience much different than any other. The proposed design of the retail floor should express this unique characteristic.
As part of Infill Philadelphia, the design firms presented their ideas to their client in a mid-review. Mayva Marshall-Moreno, who led KSS’ design team, said the review was a great opportunity for the team. “They had positive feedback for us, but also made suggestions that helped the design further become what the community wanted.” KSS initially centered the co-op’s entrance on its front elevation along the road. The co-op suggested moving the entrance to the corner of the road intersection, which would relocate the gateway to the redeveloped district to a more visible corner that was also closer to a busy bus stop. The early designs also deemphasized parking to encourage pedestrian access and alternative transportation modes, but the co-op said parking was critical because of the prevalence of driving, desirable or not, handicap accessibility, and for ease of transporting groceries for members.
KSS and the other two architectural firms participating in the food access initiative presented their final designs before a public forum of about 100, which included a jury of local architectural and community leaders at Philadelphia’s Center for Architecture.
KSS’ proposed design for the renovation of the CCGC features a large, visible mural and signage on the warehouse’s north facade that defines the north edge of Chester’s main shopping street and highlights the co-op’s brand. A sign bearing the co-op’s logo sits prominently on a green metal panel skin, which clads portions of the building’s exterior to announce the CCGC’s presence and facilitating repair of the most deteriorated portions of the existing facade. The metal skin wraps around the building storefront, highlighting a large glass opening and extending to the atrium inside. The balance of the facade will be restored and repaired to facilitate the leasing of top, third floor space in the building not associated with the co-op.
A sawtooth roof canopy and site structure emanating from the building’s metal skin promotes the co-op’s outdoor activities as well as other common-mission community events, and places the CCGC at the active center of the Chester Community. The bold green color of the structure, identical to that of the new metal skin, promotes the association of these outdoor events with the co-op and facilitates the active use of the open space south of the building. Johnson said she liked the idea of an open green space at the building’s entrance. “The design shows the site’s potential for the space to become an active and not dormant space,” she said. “It helps us see the potential for the site to become incorporated with the downtown area.”
Perhaps most exciting is the design’s large south window that serves to connect both visually and symbolically the sale of fresh produce at the co-op with the actual growing of produce on the adjacent site. Co-op members and community participants will see firsthand the food source, its growth, harvest, and eventual sale. The relationship of these spaces–the interior of the co-op’s grocery and the vegetable garden at the exterior–also promotes a highly efficient, sustainable approach to food access.
The CCGC’s grocery store is proposed as a two-story space that combines the retail floor of the grocery with community spaces on the second floor. Both have immediate access to the large double-height glass wall facing the garden to the south. Inside, the green metal skin of the low wall of the atrium helps define these spaces as part of the CCGC and reinforce the brand. “The atrium opens up the [main] floor and makes it cohesive between the two floors,” Johnson said.
The co-op’s retail floor design promotes community interaction. Co-op member shoppers will enjoy low shelving that opens up the space and allows views across the retail floor. Produce bins will move on and off the floor from cold boxes at the rear of the grocery. Members will have easy access to service points and community program spaces on the second floor. A cafe will sell baked goods and other items that may be consumed in seating areas indoors or outside under the sawtooth structure.
KSS designed every element of this project to support its ultimate goal of integrating the renovated building and site into the Chester community retail fabric. The CCGC benefits as the focus of that renovation, but the real beneficiary is the Chester community, which will soon have access to fresh, sustainably produced food in educational, supportive and inviting atmosphere. Though some designers may have incorporated extravagant design flourishes and details, KSS thoughtfully and strategically balanced innovation and creativity with pragmatism and reality: The CCGC does not have unlimited resources at hand and the project is already on its way to fruition.
“The design supports our goals and ideas of what the site will be,” Johnson said. “It’s always good to have something to see and in your hand so we can envision what the site could be and make it into reality. It must be realistic for the people and represent how our members want to the site to be.”
The project is a great example of how architecture can support a mission. The design emphasizes the connection of the grocery store to the gardens in which goods are grown, and to the community it serves. The mission to make fresh food and produce accessible to an urban community is what drove our design for the project.