Adaptive Reuse & Collectivism in Philadelphia with Lindsey Scannapieco
Updated: Jul 17, 2020
Lindsey Scannapieco is the Managing Partner of Scout and an urbanist at heart. She purchased her main project Building BOK 2 years after the 8-story vocational high school closed, with hopes of utilizing the existing space as a place for local creators and businesses.
I met Lindsey earlier this year when planning for an event. I had been to the rooftop bar at BOK a few times over the past 3 years. I really got an in-depth look at the scope of the project when we walked through building.
In our conversation, we talk about adaptive re-use, Building BOK, their new community-driven events, how it takes time to build trusting relationships with community partners, what it means to be an ‘accessible’ space, frustrations with individualism in the U.S., and really looking at Philadelphia as a hub of opportunity.
You can listen to or read the Q&A. Thanks, Lindsey!
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TATIANA SWEDEK: Lindsey Scannapieco, tell us a little bit about yourself.
LINDSEY SCANNAPIECO: I’m from Philadelphia. I was born here in the Arts Museum area before it was half as nice as it is today. I primarily grew up in the suburbs – a very typical Philadelphia experience. I went to school and studied the classics of real estate finance in Undergrad and then I did a Graduate degree in city design and social science which is really where I started to get interested in Urbanism, historic renovations, adaptive reuse, community lead development. That degree was part social science but was really looking at how the built environment can address social inequities, social challenges, social connections of space and how space is used by people.
Through that, I ended up working a bit in the public sector in the UK for a number of years and then starting Scout. We basically started out as an urban design consultancy. We did a few pop-ups and community engagement projects. We looked at how some underutilized buildings could be re-used. I kind of applied that real estate finance and design background and put some models into how they could actually work or how much subsidy would be required from the government. Some of those projects happened. It was fantastic to watch them come to life. Some of them didn’t because of either a change in the direction of the wind, a change in a politician. So many great projects end up on shelves. So many great strategies end up on shelves.
Somebody said ‘why don’t you just go out, buy a building and do this.’ I said ‘well, I can’t afford a building.’ Around that time my parents and few friends from Philadelphia were pestering me to come back to the city. And I said ‘well, what would I do there?’ And somebody sent me this totally terrifying website which was PHLschoolsales.com. It had 28 schools for sale on it.
I knew BOK, had a cousin who went to BOK and grew up in South Philly. It was a bit bigger than what we were looking at but thought we’d learn something from this process. The idea was that we’d use what was already there in the building. It was a vocational school so it had equipment and infrastructure in it for vocational training, whether that was a culinary classroom or a wood-shop or hair dressing classroom. Those things existed. We said ‘you know, there’s a lot of people who are actually looking for spaces like that. We submitted a bid. I was terrified, shocked and a bit excited when we found out that we were the highest bidder. At that point, I was really terrified. I was the only female bidder and youngest bidder. I thought that maybe I just didn’t know something that everyone else did. That’s what set us out on this adventure. We’ve owned the building for 5 years this month.
TS: Aw, 5 year anniversary!
LS: That’s right. Last year we threw a little dinner party for all of our staff for those who had been there from the beginning and those who had maybe moved on to different jobs. It was great. Not this year, unfortunately.
TS: I remember when you and I walked the building probably in January, maybe?
LS: It was cold.
TS: Yeah, I remember it being cold. You were talking about the history of BOK and I thought it was really interesting that there’s so much left over desks and paraphernalia and things like that which you incorporate into the space. But you do it subtly. It’s not kitschy, which I appreciate. I’m sure that probably comes from your background in urban design and re-using spaces. How do you pay homage to that space in particular..
LS: Closing schools is not something that anyone wants to have happen in their community. They have a lot of memory associated with them and a lot of history associated with them. It’s quite traumatic when a school closes. So, from the beginning, all of the stuff we had from the school, to be honest, was headed for the dumpsters. You can google this: it’s terrifying actually, the school district just throwing things away. That’s where we said: ‘wait, wait, wait if it’s just going to the dumpster just leave it and we’ll figure it out.’
We really wanted to figure out ways to acknowledge the past of the school. It’s always going to feel like a school. We could change everything about it but the building is always going to look like a school. But, we should also acknowledge it’s not a school anymore. We need to accept that ourselves and try to present the elements of the old school in that context. Just really, honestly, for what they are and not have it ‘school themed.’ It’s part of the infrastructure. Those desks, you know, people use them as their work spaces. It’s not because they’re cool, it’s because they were free. That’s a really important distinction.
COMMUNITY-DRIVEN SPACES & BUILDING TRUSTING RELATIONSHIPS
TS: As a buyer of that property and, in particular being the youngest bidder and only female bidder, it’s very impressive. Especially when it comes to approaching local investors. You referred to them as ‘the suits’ you walked through the building with and the were questioning like ‘how is this thing going to run? How is going to make money?’ You decided on the rooftop bar and f&B space as being the anchor.
Fast-forward to now: hospitality as been completely disrupted. You’re holding off on re-opening the restaurant itself. But you have some unique events lined up. Can you talk a bit about that?
LS: One of the questions in the wake of everything that’s happened in the last couple months is: how can we use our platform to support others? I hope that’s on everybody’s minds. It’s definitely what we’ve been asking ourselves. It’s hard to think about how people can gather when we’re not allowed to gather and how we can gather safely.
Here we have probably one of the largest outdoor spaces in Philadelphia. Pre-COVID, it’s over 500 person capacity. On a busy weekend we see multiple turns of up to 2,000 people. We said: ‘alright, we’re not going to see those types of numbers and nor should we. How can we allow this to be a platform for others? To share their work, maybe make some money and just get out of their house?’
We’ve developed a really, really, really robust events program. The first month, we have over 65 events in the first 30 days. It’s an event almost every single day. They really range in collaborations with musicians and artists; whether it’s a workshop or class. There’s a category called MOVE that’s about fitness or movement. We have an intro to break dancing this Saturday night. Also, food entrepreneurs.
Every 2-4 days, the chef changes at BOK Bar. The first week we had Neighborhood Ramen pop-up. They’re someone we absolutely adore in our neighborhood. They run a pretty small shop which makes it hard for them to practice social distancing there. We worked with Barkley’s Barbecue from West Philadelphia which is a food truck that does barbecue food. Right now we have Sate Kampar there who recently had to close down their shop on Passyunk Avenue.
The idea is really supporting those around us. Over 50% of the chefs are either Black or Minority-owned restaurateurs. I think over 50% are also women chefs. For us, it’s about saying ‘okay, we have this space so how can we help amplify the voices around us?’
TS: That’s very timely and moving, too. Since especially the devastating murder of George Floyd, it caused a lot of people to re-evaluate. A lot of brands, especially. But who are we serving? What do we stand for? How are we going to do more than just putting out a statement and take action. There have been a lot of brands that talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. I definitely appreciate the thoughtfulness behind the programming you’ve put together.
LS: We also need to do a statement, too. Somebody asked us about that recently. We’ve just been working. We have statements out but not a clear like ‘these are the 10 things we’re going to change.’ For us, wherever we see an opportunity it’s like how are we checking ourselves? How can we do this better and better serve those around us?
In many ways, BOK is a community-driven building. 75% of our tenants live in South Philadelphia. It’s a very entrepreneurship and creative hub. 15% of our businesses are non-profits. We have a huge non-profit opening in the Fall which is a collaboration with Jefferson and SEEMAC which works specifically with the Southeast Asian community of our neighborhood, is opening up a wellness center that’s geared at the needs – both a cultural and language standpoint – of the immigrant and refugee community here. Really amazing things.
I did some research in the wake of George Floyd’s murder: in Philadelphia, 44% of our population is Black. 2.5% of the businesses in the city of Philadelphia are Black-owned. At BOK it’s 8.5%. But that is still an atrociously low number. It’s unacceptable.
TS: That brings me to another thing I wanted to touch on. This has been on my mind for a couple months now. The idea of public space and shared space and who it’s actually for.You can think of this in both an urban planning sense and a commercial real estate sense. How do we create environments that are made for everyone and welcoming to everyone? Is the answer to un-design these spaces in order to re-design them?
Especially in a lot of mixed-use spaces, including Hospitality. And I only bring up Hospitality because of my own background. But, they’ll brag about being there for the community but they often fail to do so. I think these spaces have so much potential for being a hub of progress. What are your thoughts on that and how can these spaces really be there for the community and the city that they’re in?
LS: There has to be openness, right? There has to be openness in every sense of the word. That means openness in terms of someone feeling like that space is accessible. Openness in terms of inviting somebody into that space. Those are actually two different things in my mind. I think really for a space to feel owned by many it has to have a bit of wildness to it and a bit of unknown.
When you were talking about that like what are the spaces that diverse communities can really gather in? What are our most democratic spaces? I think about parks. I’m spending a lot of time in the park for my mental and physical health. They’re used by everyone: all ages, all races, all backgrounds, all income levels, all education levels. It’s because you can do whatever you want in the park. We talk about this at BOK – it’s a building where you can do a lot of things. We’re there to help people make their dreams come true. That’s something we talk a lot about. There’s businesses there that I never ever knew existed. We said ‘ok, do you use this? Do you use that? Is this illegal? No? Ok, this is a great place.’ I think being open to a diverse city of use is really important to achieving that.
We talk a lot about clean office vs. dirty office. Dirty meaning a place you can get paint on the walls. Even that openness isn’t something that exists a lot of places. A lot of buildings that I see who walk about a ‘creative community’ don’t actually have those types of businesses in them. They have maybe a branding firm, who is a different form of an artist potentially, but that dirty work ends up typically being on the fringe or buildings that aren’t code compliant. We’ve had a couple people reach out to us who were previously in unheated spaces, which blows my mind. That’s the reality: these community driven organizations and these real artists are price sensitive. For us, it’s about giving them space to be able to create, build and grow. And being open to how they do that. Making sure it’s safe and not an ‘anything goes’ environment. If it’s in these parameters then it is anything goes.
TS: So you said something, and I may totally screw this up, but you said there’s a difference between having a space that is specifically made for someone and then having a space that is welcoming to someone.
LS: This idea of when we talk about an ‘accessible space’ goes back to one of the things you said which is ‘to whom and how?’ Just because something is near you and therefore accessible, is it something that you feel comfortable approaching? No matter how much I say it’s accessible – is it something that YOU feel comfortable coming in to?
I will tell you that there was a lot of our community that would’ve said ‘no’ to that answer to BOK. It has taken us really working with community partners. For example, SEEMAC – we hosted their elders’ breakfast in the building for the last three years. That isn’t a demographic that would’ve come into the building. They wouldn’t know what’s going on there, they maybe would just pass it. Now that they come to the building once a week, or did pre-COVID, they understand it or may be more willing to come to other things.
But that takes years. It really takes years for people to actually feel like ‘hey, this is a building I can actually come into.’ And I don’t think we talk enough about that. We say ‘oh, our doors are open so we’re open.’ It actually goes a lot further than just opening a door.
TS: Absolutely. I think you have to have this sense of trust there.
LS: And I think for that we do have to rely on people who have those relationships. They take a really long time to grow.
PHILADELPHIA: HUB OF OPPORTUNITY & CIVIC-ISM
TS: I completely agree. Another thing I wanted to talk about is that, you know, I’m very vocal with my own frustrations with Philadelphia. I often say ‘it’s stuck in it’s ways.’ I’m actually currently re-reading a sociological book published in 2000 which is called Philadelphia: Neighborhoods, Division, and Conflict in a Post-Industrial City. It’s crazy how what I read still resonates today. There’s a quote in there from 1927 that, to me, still resonates today.
LS: What’s the quote? I’m curious.
TS: Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to get back to you on it. It’s from Francis Biddle. He’s talking about City Hall. But, you know, Philly is this city of neighborhoods, right? There’s so much beauty to that. I’ve lived here for almost 10 years. A lot of the money goes to the Center City District. How can you be the ‘city of neighborhoods’ but just focus on the economic growth in center city. And perhaps Fishtown, because it was already white to begin with so that was really easy to gentrify, right? On top of political corruption that’s still present and racial disparities. As a resident and entrepreneur, you can touch on Philly or the U.S. as a whole, but what are your own frustrations? What does a better future look like in an ubran environment like Philly to you?
LS: I agree and there are days of frustration. I think that Philadelphia, for all the challenges it does have, I don’t think there’s another city in the U.S. I’d actually want to be in.
LS: I actually think there’s real opportunity for change here. I could never have done this project…well, I guess in a Detroit. In a lot of other cities it would’ve been entirely out of reach for somebody like me, to be totally honest. I do think there’s a level of opportunity. I do think there’s a real civic engagement. I hear this when my friends come and visit. It’s funny because I’ve become slightly blind to it. They’re like ‘ oh, all of your friends are really involved in Boards, their civic association or their neighborhood garden.’ They come from cities like New York or L.A. and there like ‘you know, we don’t really do that.’
I do think there’s this real civic-ism in Philadelphia that is really great. We obviously have some challenges, but I think we have more opportunity than a lot of other places. There’s great food in Philly, there’s great accessibility…
TS: It’s the best city. Anyone who has lived in Philly or is from Philly, you hate on it because you love it so much.
LS: Yeah, 100%. There’s a great quote like ‘Philly isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.’
TS: Yeah, something like that.
DOWNFALLS OF INDIVIDUALISM
LS: I’m pretty terrified about this period in the world. Just the moment generally. But I’m also excited for what may be ahead. That’s my feeling for Philadelphia.
This country, I definitely feel more pessimistic about. A lot of us are feeling this. The fact that we still tie our healthcare to our employers - in a situation when so many people are facing unemployment – is appalling. The way that the virus as been handled here. The way that Race has been handled here. Things that our President has been allowed to say, or does think. All the levels of it. It’s really angering. As a whole, the U.S. was very much built on individualism. That’s birthed an entrepreneurship culture that is really, uniquely American in many, many ways. We’ve seen the positives of that in some ways. I think we’re really now seeing the negatives of that. This idea of just ‘because I have health insurance, it doesn’t matter.’ It makes every part of my body boil. The fact that we’re not thinking collectively, I find disappointing and frustrating. It doesn’t necessarily feel like we’re on a path to get better. I hope we do. I think we could. There’s some really divisive language and we’re really divided as a country.
TS: Yeah. It’s definitely troublesome. A lot of this stuff is absolutely nothing new. It’s just coming to the forefront and is very blatant now. On some levels, things seem like they’re getting worse but they’re really just the same. People are more open about their bigotry, how the country is run and the negative effects of this individualistic society, right? Now I’m going to be positive. Any time anyone feels negatively about something I feel like I have to be positive. So, here we go. It’s going to be sh*t for a while, right? For years. It’s all bubbling up and getting to this point where enough is enough. I don’t have an answer. It’s far beyond me. We kind of have to get rid of this individualism and come together in order to solve the problems at hand. Can we do that? I don’t know. I don’t know what five years looks like from now, right?
LS: I was talking to some friends who live in Australia. They’ll pay for IVF treatment but at a certain age the government isn’t paying for it because the cost is high. And we’ve decided collectively to use our resources – I think the cut off is 33, it’s actually quite young. Regardless, you could see something like that causing outrage here. But you’re also like yeah, think about all those people who could use that resource whereas today that’s something that’s really only accessible to a small percentage of a population.
LS: I just think about my mother being told she can’t go see a specialist. I’m like ‘wow, we’ve got work to do.
TS: I agree. Especially on the healthcare front. Pretty insane. Is there anything else top of mind for you that you’d want to touch on.
LS: The big thing is I’m curious to hear how people are dealing with it. To be honest, I think it’s really, really tough. So many businesses are struggling. Everybody is struggling. Everybody is struggling personally, physically, emotionally, financially. So many people have been impacted. It’s a really hard environment to work in. It’s stressful. At the same time, the stakes are high. Every business is really pushing to try and stay afloat and that definitely takes a toll on individuals, founders and the team. I’ve been really trying to think about how I can do a better job with that. It’s really tough. People’s level of comfort is so different. It’s a really challenging space to navigate and a really challenging space to motivate in. You know, when we’re all sitting at home instead of together. We can’t even get together. It’s really challenging. I don’t know what the solution is but I’d love to hear anybody’s ideas of how they’ve been generating community and togetherness of their team. We’ve definitely had great moments of it through this. On an individual level, not even getting into the work stuff, it’s hard. I think also just acknowledging that everybody is kind of fighting their own fight right now. Everybody comes at this from different places of comfort, different levels of being able to weather the story. People have so many things that have been impacted by COVID. Whether that’s summer camps, weddings, funerals or just routines which are really important to people. Just acknowledging that and trying to be more conscience of that. At BOK, our neighborhood is struggling, our tenants are struggling, my team is struggling, I’m personally struggling. Those might all be very different extremes but we all need to acknowledge that. I think it requires a lot more patience. Things aren’t working the way they did before, it’s different. Ultimately, that’s a good thing. We just entered, what? Month 4? Month 5?
TS: Yeah, I think we’re on month 5.
LS: So, we’re approaching half a year is what somebody said to me this morning. At the beginning, I was cooking from home, I was trying to learn how to make bread, you know? There have been things through the process which are like ‘this has been fun’ or ‘this is a silver lining.’ Then there are other days where there really isn’t one.
TS: It’s hour by hour, too. I truly appreciate your honesty. It’s very refreshing. I think a lot of people want to put on a happy face and be like ‘oh, no we have it together. We’re opening this and everything’s good.’ And it’s not. The best thing that you can do is be honest and be like ‘I am human, too.’ We’re all going through this, we may be going through it in different ways. We need to open communication and support one another.
LS: Yeah, it’s really hard to do that when you’re not physically around people, right? For me, it’s harder to do. We’re all going to get new skills out of it, to say the least.
TS: For sure.
THE BEAUTY OF ADAPTIVE RE-USE
LS: Oh! We were also going to talk about adaptive reuse and buildings – which I had just one thought on. I love talking about positive things right now; it feels very encouraging. I do think adaptive reuse in these big old buildings that don’t have a very clear reuse are actually the most exciting spaces in this country and in this world. When you don’t have a space that is really valued – and I mean that primarily financially valued – then it can have more creativity and openness in it. I think that is where our most interesting spaces come to life.
Going back to that question of ‘how do you include the community and diversity’: I think working with cities who are creative and able to support younger developers or non-traditional approaches, I think that’s really going to be an interesting space. Every city’s got them. That’s the reality. The joke is that when we travel, we always have to go visit a re-purposed school. There are really cool examples about how civic buildings are being used throughout this world. I’m encouraged by the possibility of openness that those buildings hold.
TS: I agree. To your point of when you were talking about the parks and that these spaces have to have this wild factor almost. I definitely agree with that. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Yes, shared space but also adaptive reuse. Quite honestly, a lot of real estate is going to come on the market. More often than not, it’s not going to be new construction. It’s up to the developer, it’s up to the management company, and it’s up to the lender to be flexible and creative. I definitely think multi-purposed spaces are the future. It’s going to be the savior. You’re not just going to bet on one aspect of that space. It’s going to be a lot of work to incorporate different aspects: whether it’s hospitality, co-working or a hotel. Whatever it is, it’s a lot of work. But it’s going to pay off in the end.
LS: 100%. Can we get the entire industry to think that way? I’m not sure. But I totally support it. The highest and best use from one person’s perspective probably isn’t from somebody else’s. I need to keep that in mind. Particularly in terms of gentrification and displacement. Especially with so many people at risk right now because they don’t have jobs. A bit of a downer note to end on…..
TS: For sure. You know what? I did find a quote from Francis Biddle which is actually a more positive one about Philadelphia. So I’ll read this one. It’s from the same book that he wrote but:
“You could be critical of your city and laugh among yourselves at its quaintness, its political corruption, its provincialism, its charming, absurd, easy-going conservatism, its heat and dirt, its faint enthusiasms dying so easily before the stouter longing for pleasure…..but you mustn’t let an outside laugh at it. For, after all, Philadelphia was an aristocracy compared to the polyglot barbarity of the new New York; cosmopolitan against the gauche provincialism of Boston; rich in flavor where Washington was thin and spiceless.”
LS: That’s amazing. I love that. That’s the thing: to Philadelphians, we can say ‘oh this and that and the other thing.’ There’s definitely frustrations. But I think it’s a city of huge opportunity. You find people doing things here that they really couldn’t do in another city. I find that so inspiring and encouraging. I find people in Philadelphia, all of the businesses at BOK and what they’re doing. Even just their approach in how they’re handling this crisis. They’re people that get it done. It’s a really special place, it is.