City and Regional Planning

Posted February 27, 2018
  • Development consultant and alumnus Bob Kaufman and PennDesign students at the new 40th Street Trolley Portal site

    Photo Jared Brey

PennDesign Students Get an Insider’s Tour of the New 40th Street Trolley Portal

It was just after noon on a Wednesday late last month, and development consultant Bob Kaufman (C’76, MCP’77) was standing in the cold sunshine at the corner of 40th Street and Baltimore Avenue, introducing himself to a small gathering of PennDesign students.

Across the street, construction workers were pushing gravel around and installing new bike racks at the 40th Street Trolley Portal. It had been seven years almost to the day, Kaufman said, since he and his development partner Ken Weinstein (a graduate of the Fels Institute of Government) had stood on the same spot with Prema Katari Gupta (MSHP’05), of the University City District (UCD), thinking about what the future could bring. Then, the portal was a “desolate concrete canyon.” Now it was almost ready for a new life as the 40th Street Trolley Portal Gardens, with landscape design by Andropogon Associates, a new Trolley Car Station restaurant and bar. The $2.1 million project is a public-private partnership with SEPTA, the City of Philadelphia, and neighborhood stakeholders, which will transform the busiest at-grade rail station in the city into a social space for area residents, employees, and commuters.

A lot of decisions have had to be made since 2011. Construction began last June, and Kaufman hosted an initial tour for students in the fall. He’ll host one more in the spring, right at the point when construction is wrapping up and the restaurant is about to open. His goal is to give students a sense of how a major, public-private development project moves toward completion.

“The problem with construction is, at what point is something not a moving target?” Kaufman said. “It’s always a moving target. Nothing is set in stone, so to speak.”

Kaufman said that UCD was drawn to the development group begun by Kaufman and Weinstein in 1997 because of the work it had done redeveloping Allens Lane train station and Weinstein’s initiative opening the Trolley Car Diner in Mt. Airy. A project like the 40th Street Trolley Portal, which involves publicly owned land and a lot of literally moving parts (the station is open throughout construction), requires a developer with the experience, money, and time to spend on working with a range of stakeholders, from the neighborhood level to the city. Even before work could begin, the land had to be transferred first from the city to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, then to UCD, and finally to Trolley Car Diner Inc, said Kaufman, who is working as a consultant on this development project with Weinstein.

“Part of the reason this is an exciting project is it’s such an obviously important nexus,” Kaufman said.

Crossing the street, a student noted the dearth of commerce on Baltimore between 38th and 40th streets.

“This will be a meeting spot now,” Kaufman said.

He pointed out the cypress cladding on the new two-story building that’s nearing completion next to the trolley portal. It cost an extra $15,000 over what a more common material might cost, Kaufman said, but a shared appreciation for the look of cypress tipped the scales. He led the group toward the back of the building, alongside an embankment leading up to the outdoor patio that overlooks Baltimore Avenue, which will be filled out with dining tables in the spring. The bank was steeper than they anticipated which, Kaufman explained, meant that a handrail might be needed for the comfort of patrons, even if building code didn’t require it.  There are times when operational needs of a business take precedence over the minimum requirements of building code.

“You can plan ahead,” he said. “But you still look at it after it’s built and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize it was going to look like this.’”

He took the students inside the still-incomplete building. The first floor will contain a communal table for 20 and banquette seating running along the front windows. The second floor will feature lots of room for booths and tables and reservable space for big parties, and longer views of the Portal plaza and its signature trolley loops.

In a construction trailer near the rear service entrance, Kaufman and the students huddled around a little meeting table, where it was warm. He flipped through the large-format architectural plans for the project, pointing out all the details that had to be considered and reconsidered, again and again.

“There’s a lot of creativity in real estate development,” Kaufman said, after the group had filtered out. “It’s not just cut and dried. And all the things that impinge on it: architecture, landscape architecture, representing the city and the public sphere, even banking. There are a lot of moving targets: competing influences in design, construction, financing, public policy, and how a business operates on a day-to-day basis. It’s fun and it’s challenging, both.”