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Storytelling inspires infill development for Mantua

Nando Micale and Alex Bruce of LRK with Michael Thorpe of Mt. Vernon Manor CDC
Michael Thorpe, executive director of Mt. Vernon Manor CDC, is a born storyteller. His stories about growing up in Mantua were the guiding force behind an ingenious design study for mixed-use, infill development.

Mt. Vernon Manor Community Development Corporation (MVMCDC) develops affordable housing in Mantua and links residents with life-changing services. It recently renovated the 121 affordable rental units at Mt. Vernon Manor.  MVMCDC turned to the Collaborative last year to work out a strategy for its first infill development project.  We recently sat down with Michael Thorpe (Mike) and two architects from the Collaborative volunteer team who worked on the project, Alex Bruce and Nando Micale of LRK.

“I grew up in this community on 39th and Folsom,” says Mike.  "I lived in a PHA home and my mom was a single mom with six children.  If it wasn’t for affordable housing, we would have been homeless.”

He is well-aware of the development pressures confronting Mantua, located in West Philadelphia north of Spring Garden Street, east of 40th Street, south of Mantua Avenue, and west of 31st Street.  “I’m realistic. We can’t stop progress and say that everything has to be affordable.  There has to be a mix of market-rate housing, student housing, and affordable housing,” Mike says. “I’m an advocate for creating assets that are for the community, for people that are just like my Momma and just like me.”

CDC offices on the ground floor are designed to feel transparent and welcoming

Small Site, Big Wish List
MVMCDC’s goal is to transform a long-vacant rowhome and two adjacent vacant lots on the 3700 block of Wallace Street into affordable housing and CDC offices and community meeting space.

Volunteer Alex Bruce, AIA, an associate with LRK, says, “The project site has a really narrow, confined footprint… so there are a lot of constraints.”  He adds, “There were a huge list of wants, and we actually managed to work in a good amount of them.”

“A lot of what you see in neighborhoods now is that a developer will come in and build four story buildings where there are two story townhomes,” he adds.  “We were intentionally avoiding that.  We wanted something that would blend into the fabric of the neighborhood.”

The ground floor will be devoted to the CDC’s offices.  The volunteer team proposed big storefront windows and a recessed front-porch-style entrance to create a transparent ground floor.  Alex says, “We knew that there was a need for security gates… but we wanted to design something that didn’t look like a roll down security gate.”  The solution, he explains, was “a sun shading screen that rolls across the front window.  It shades the building during the day where there’s a computer lab, but still allows people to look in.  At night, the screen slides over the recessed porch. It also acts as a sculptural element that projects light out onto the street—a beacon.”

The design team also devised an office layout that allows for future expansion.  Volunteer Nando Micale, FAIA, AICP, a principal with at LRK, says, “Right now [the CDC] has a limited staff.  We designed five offices, a conference room, and flex space for programming like a computer lab.  All have flexible walls to change the sizes and configurations of the CDC offices. We meticulously thought out how each of the spaces can grow.”

MVMCDC also requested a community meeting space for up to 100 people.  Nando says, “I found the need for community space the most exciting aspect of the project. It had to go in the basement. There was no other place where we could put it, and still have the accessibility and all of the services provided on the first floor.”  He adds, “If you’re fitting that many people downstairs, suddenly you need another means of egress, another staircase.  The footprint is so small, that the stairs had to go outside.  We took the idea further: ‘If we’re digging out the backyard, let’s terrace it and give the CDC more program space.’”

Mike says, “I love the community space in the basement.  It’s that canvas, it’s a place that can be of service to this community.  For example, we have a large gathering of seniors that need a safe place to just come.  They just come and say, ‘Can we volunteer?’ Because they’re lonely being in the house.  They come to the center, and it’s a relationship: ‘I’m activated, I’m doing something even if I’m cutting flowers or distributing food in the pantry.’”

Proposed community meeting space is reached via a backyard terrace that expands program space

Finally, the project will introduce new affordable housing options. The existing rowhouse will be rehabilitated as an affordable homeownership unit. The upper floors of the CDC offices are envisioned as four rental units of accessible, affordable senior apartments with a separate elevator entrance.

“Working with Mike and hearing about how important this building would be was so inspiring that we went back to the drawing table again and again,” says Alex.  “All of us would sit down and review it together and bring in the whole team.  We’d say, ‘Oh this is fine’, and then we’d say, ‘Well, how can we get in another office?  How can we get fifty more people downstairs?  How can we give them more of their wish list?’”

Shared Values
Alex says, “After the first meeting, when Mike told us about his background and mission, and we left, and we said, ‘He needs to be president!’ [Nonprofits like MVMCDC] share the same passion about building as architects and planners.  We care about the built environment.  They don’t look at the built environment as opportunity for just profit.  They see it as an opportunity to invigorate a community.” 

Nando agrees, “There was something special about Mike’s approach. “In a lot of low-income communities, it’s only about protecting that low-income community. He recognizes that to build a healthy community, you have to know how to be inclusive and how to accept change without giving up what makes the community unique.  (Turns to Mike) You’re a storyteller, and what your story told me is how you think about your community too.” 

Visit our Mt. Vernon Manor CDC project page for more information about the project and the volunteer design team. 

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