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DESIGN NOTEBOOK: Remaking South Camden's Neighborhood Center

In 1913, when the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church opened its doors to South Camden, NJ's needy residents, the blocks surrounding what is now known as the Neighborhood Center bustled with industry and rowhouses. In the near-century since, the city and neighborhood have taken a well-documented slide into disinvestment, abandonment, middle-class flight and abject poverty.

The Neighborhood Center today occupies almost an entire city block, itself underutilized and outmoded, surrounded by blight and vacant land.

So it was that about 40 architects, designers and community members, convened by the nonprofit Community Design Collaborative for a "charrette," brainstormed how the Center could make its facilities more functional, greener, more welcoming and more effective  – all in a single, November day. (The charrette is a time-honored technique used by architects, designers and planners to intensively collaborate on a design problem. The name originated in the 19th century at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.)

Janice Woodcock, an architect and former Philadelphia planning director, first visited the Neighborhood Center over the summer as a favor to a friend. She saw "an incredibly big site," anchored by a handsome, three-story, Collegiate Gothic structure built in 1925 that is "wonderfully built, sturdy, reasonably well-maintained, but because of its configuration, one-third vacant." Much of the campus is similarly underused and surrounded by a foreboding fence.

Woodcock saw the potential for a charrette and made the connection with the CDC, which provides free design services to nonprofit organizations. The four charrette teams were briefed on the Center's existing services: a soup kitchen, daycare and after-school care for young children and programs for senior citizens. The challenge: remake the campus as an innovative, multi-use anchor for the community and a catalyst for neighborhood redevelopment, "a new destination for the city's underserved."

The proposed solutions, made at the end of the day to a panel that included Center staff and Camden business and community leaders, varied in the details. One team wanted to build a skateboard park; another recommended new, retail-and-residential development along Kaighns Avenue.

But it was the common denominators among the presentations that really drove home how smart design can reweave broken urban fabric.

Making the two-plus-acre campus more inviting to the neighborhood was on everyone's to-do list. "The site is the most important thing," was one team's conclusion. "It's the most obvious to the community and it requires the least investment." Thoughtful, secure circulation systems or courtyards could make it possible to minimize fencing and allow for public farmers' markets, community gardens, picnic spaces and recreational facilities, while ensuring client safety. Benches, street trees and banners could send a new message.

Environmental sustainability was also on everyone's minds. The teams suggested rainwater catchment systems, pervious paving, rain gardens, natural ventilation and geo-thermal cooling.  Urban agriculture could provide fresh produce for the soup kitchen and support job training programs.

Woodcock will continue the brainstorming as a new member of the Neighborhood Center's board. A master plan for the physical campus is planned and the charrette results will be invaluable, she says, to demonstrate to potential public and private supporters just how seriously the Center takes smart planning and design as a tool to secure its future and best serve its community as its 100th anniversary nears.

South Street Bridge: The Gift That Keeps on Giving
The South Street Bridge celebrated its first birthday in November and it just keeps getting better.

The bridge will glow in time for the holidays with the installation of its much-anticipated lighting scheme. Programmable LED lighting will illuminate the four observation towers – themselves newly complete – by Dec. 23, reports David Perri at the Streets Department.

Trees have been planted adjacent to the bridge on Schuylkill Avenue (courtesy of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia), the bike paths are freshly painted bright green and decorative banners will fly by mid-month.  

Construction bids are being reviewed for a ramp and new boardwalk (made actually of concrete) that will link the bridge to an extended Schuylkill River trail. That project, according to the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, is on the fast track for completion in 2013.

"The bridge, by almost all measures is a resounding success," says architect James Campbell, one of the key forces behind ensuring that the crumbling old bridge was replaced with one that safely accommodates pedestrians and bicyclists. "The bike and pedestrian traffic between Center City and University City has increased. With the coming connection of the bridge to Schuylkill Banks and a future west side trail, the bridge will take on even greater importance, linking north/south as well as east/west travel."

Sort of Like Brooklyn, But Not
Renovations are underway at three buildings in Northern Liberties for 3rd Ward, a Brooklyn-based, artists' co-working space set to open next summer. Two old warehouses and a church, totaling 27,000 square feet, are being fitted out with workspaces, classrooms, galleries, a cafe and event space similar to 3rd Ward's existing setup in East Williamsburg.

So why did this five-year-old concern choose Philly for its second location? 3rd Ward considered other cities, but Philadelphia's creative community and energy clinched the deal, says 3rd Ward's Jessica Tom.

But there'll be none of this sixth borough nonsense, she stresses. "(In Philadelphia) you see art all around. You see graffiti. When you see the people you almost feel like you could be in Brooklyn, but we don't want to be a rubber stamp," she says.

3rd Ward will adapt its offerings to the Philly market, Tom says, but look for classes and workspaces with tools and equipment for disciplines such as wood- and metalworking, photography, jewelry making, painting and screen-printing. There will also be a media lab and open-to-the-public gallery shows, networking events, even barbeques. "Our business, first and foremost," says Tom, "is creating a community."

ELISE VIDER is a writer, editor, observer and advocate for economic development and design excellence in Philadelphia, her adopted hometown. Send feedback here.


Marvis Mills, Jr. and Veronica Fossie, looking at the drawings at South Camden's The Neighborhood Center

Brainstorming drawings from different architecture groups attending the event

All photographs courtesy of the Community Design Collaborative

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