torti gallas andpartners, silver spring, md.

Tom Gallas remembers the first meeting he had with the residents of Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, a set of high-rise public housing towers in South Philadelphia. It was 1995, and his firm, Torti Gallas and Partners, had just won the commission to revitalize the project under HUD's HOPE VI program. “I've got to tell you, this was not easy for the residents to get behind in the beginning,” he says. “It wasn't a wonderful meeting—there was no trust.” The best way to earn their confidence and start improving their community, he reasoned, would be to get to know them better. So the firm hired 20 residents to go door to door throughout the towers with a detailed questionnaire. The survey asked people what they liked and disliked about their current living situations as well as what design features their new homes would ideally contain.

The answers to those questions helped form the basis for a comprehensive re-imagining of the towers and the surrounding neighborhood —an effort that won MLK, as the project is known, a share in residential architect's 2006 Project of the Year award. “The architects were listening to how people want to live,” said one judge.

After the local housing authority decided to demolish the high-rises, Torti Gallas embarked on a plan to replace them with a mixed-use, mixed-income community of row houses and low-rise apartment buildings. But the residents who wanted to return to MLK outnumbered the units the firm could fit within its New Urbanist scheme. So the architects expanded their vision beyond the 6-acre tower site, designating nearby abandoned row houses and lots for further redevelopment. They integrated the new buildings into the existing streetscape, carefully keeping to the scale and materials palette of the original urban fabric. “It's not trying to be flashy new architecture,” another judge said. “Architecturally it's not pushing the envelope, but it's not about that. It's about revitalizing a neighborhood.”

Urban designer and master planner Cheryl O'Neill studied Philadelphia's historic housing stock for guidance on everything from proportions to land planning to window patterns. She and project manager Patrice McGinn devised a kit of contextual building parts that would allow substantial differentiation along the streetscape—varied detailing, color schemes, and building heights—without breaking a tight budget. “A variety of unit types across the façade was a real part of that neighborhood, because the original builders were small,” O'Neill explains. The street layout she designed follows the typical Philadelphia grid of major and minor streets with either off-street or alley parking. “The project is doing something to help the city and its people,” one judge observed. “This is great urban design.”

principal in charge: Tom Gallas, Torti Gallas and Partners
urban designer / land planner: Cheryl O'Neill, Torti Gallas and Partners
project manager: Patrice McGinn, Torti Gallas and Partners
developers: Ziaur Rahman, Philadelphia Housing Authority, and John Rosenthal, Uni-Penn, Philadelphia
general contractors: Rick Dyer, Domus Construction, Philadelphia, and Steve Riotto, J.J. DeLuca Co., Springfield, Pa.
project size: 960 square feet to 1,400 square feet per unit
site size: 7.3 acres
construction cost: $126 per square foot
sales price: $72,000 to $310,000 per unit
units in project: 244
photography: Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing Photography