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CHOP’s new bird-proofed skyscraper will focus on vaccine and genetics research

Justin Blumgart - Philly Inquirer

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is planning to expand its footprint on the east side of the Schuylkill.

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is growing its footprint on the east side of the Schuylkill, adding a second high rise next to the 20-story Roberts Center for Pediatric Research.

At 14 stories, the new Schuylkill Avenue Research Building will provide a complement to the existing tower by offering a distinct form of research space. CHOP is searching for a sponsor to christen the structure, as the Roberts family of Comcast fame did for its neighbor.

The new building will add 250,000 square feet of “wet lab” space, a term for laboratories used to research biological or chemical subjects. Across its real estate holdings, CHOP already provides 800,000 square feet of wet lab space, but the Roberts Center is focused on administrative and meeting space as well as “dry labs” that are more focused on patient trials and computational or policy work.

“At this campus we will be looking at opportunities for new cell and gene therapies and ways to develop vaccines or target the immune system to promote health,” said Sue Furth, CHOP’s chief scientific officer. “It’ll be a next-generation research campus totally dedicated to improving the health of children. Philadelphia is really up and coming in this area, just after Boston.”

Less parking, more retail space

The building comes as Philadelphia is making big bets on the life sciences, an employment sector that has proven more resilient to the growing trend of work-from-home than traditional office space during the pandemic. Biomedical and pharmaceutical work cannot be done from home, and the market has been growing in University City, the Navy Yard, King of Prussia, and even downtown.

CHOP believes this new work setup will continue to result in fewer workers in its buildings at any given time, as evidenced by the fact that the Schuylkill Avenue Research Building will not include any new parking. There are already 404 parking spaces on site and that is believed to be sufficient even after the new structure is completed. CHOP did not offer the precise number of workers it expects to be based out of the new building.

“The density of research is not the same as an administrative building,” said Donald Moore, CHOP’s senior vice president for real estate, facilities and operations. “It will be less intense than what we have at the Roberts Center right now [in terms of the number of people coming to the building].”

The building will include 33,000 square feet of office space and 6,500 square feet of retail space, with an eatery or cafe planned with an entrance near the South Street Bridge. The Roberts building currently hosts an establishment called the Waterfront Cafe that is open to the public, but CHOP acknowledges that its existence is little known to those who don’t work for the institution.

They hope the new cafe, which will be visible from the street, will prove a boon to the public, add more amenities to the surrounding residential area, and provide a space for collaboration for CHOP workers.

“If you consider the dearth of food service amenities in this particular community, and the amount of foot traffic that goes past our site on a daily basis, it should be a very attractive offering for someone,” said Moore.

The plan for the new structure was created by the international architecture firm Cannon Design and it won plaudits when presented to Philadelphia’s Civic Design Review board, a municipally appointed team of architects and planners who review large real estate developments.

The Schuylkill Avenue Research Building will look similar to the Roberts Center, but with darker materials and lighting. The designers drew from lessons learned from the previous building about the toll that glassy skyscrapers can take on avian life. Ornithologists believe that between 350 million and a billion birds die each year in the United States because the reflective glass confuses them, and they fly into the buildings at top speed.

“We’ve taken a lot of time and effort to try and address the fact that many of the high rises along the Schuylkill River migratory bird path are magnets for migrating birds,” said John Roach, office engineering leader with Cannon Design. “In our cladding choices and brick patterns, we’ve tried to take proven measures to help reduce the incidence of bird strikes here.”

Hurricane Ida also offered a lesson to CHOP, as last year’s flooding created elevator and parking issues at the Roberts Center. Although Moore couldn’t provide immediate details, he said the institution will be convening an expert panel this week to discuss how to protect the new building from 100-year flood events that are expected to be ever more frequent.

Unusual neighborhood support

The general plan for further construction on the site has been anticipated for some time. The foundation of the Schuylkill Avenue Research Building is already in place, which community groups cited as an example of CHOP’s neighborliness — construction is expected to be less disruptive because the site was prepared for a new building years in advance.

Unusually, for a building of this size next to a residential area, it has enjoyed a rapturous reception by near neighbors and community groups.

“If the first one was a salt shaker, the latest is like a pepper shaker, they go so well together,” said Murray Spencer, zoning chair for the South of South Neighborhood Association.

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