Friday, September 2, 2011

Karma can be ugly...and it's covered in vinyl siding

In what now seems to be the age of Yore and Yesteryear, in 2008 Philadelphia's architectural development was booming. So much so I actually had stuff to write about. Neighborhood associations were brutal, and slammed the iron fist of NIMBYism on a potentially new skyline.

As irrational as some of their arguments against Mandeville Place, Bridgemans View, and dynamically planned entertainment and casino complexes may have been, none were more perplexing than the Society Hill Civic Association's opposition to H2L2's Stamper Square.

Center City's most picturesque neighborhood is hoarding an ugly truth behind its mahogany doors. Tucked behind 200 years of history and decades of blue haired entitlement sits a concrete slab that has been eyed by developers since the small tourist mall New Market was torn down 20 years ago.

After H2L2 proposed an interactive, midrise hotel for this trash strewn lot, some residents were relieved. Many more were stractching their heads wondering where exactly this site near Headhouse Square actually was.

What seemed most certain was that Stamper Square had the green light. And why wouldn't they? H2L2 not only designed an engaging complex with ground floor retail at scale with the history of the neighborhood, developers were reaching out to the community, altering design after design to accommodate even the most absurd requests.

Then the SHCA decided on behalf of this entire neighborhood, one that belongs as much to every Philadelphian and tourist as it does those who live there, that we were all be better off with a vacant lot. And they won.

Well, in spite of a bad economy, some developers still manage to thrive, and this ugly lot is still on their radars. Unfortunately for the SHCA, and Philadelphia, the developer is nationally renowned McMansion designer Toll Brothers. Not only is Toll Brothers proposing a gated development at this undeniably urban location, but they have the weight of a massively powerful public company to make it happen.

The SHCA isn't happy, and reasonably so this time. I'm no fan of the McMansions that now rise above the Virginia farm I grew up on, and I certainly don't like the prospect of them taking up valuable real estate in Philadelphia's most iconically Philadelphian neighborhood.

That said, how many opportunities should the SHCA be allowed to dictate what happens in a lot it doesn't own? If Toll Brothers moves forward with this project, it wouldn't be the first time the SHCA dragged its feet to secure the status quo.

When developer John Turchi bought Dilworth House, planning to restore the home and make it his private residence, the SHCA demanded this vacant home be restored and turned into a museum. Turchi then applied to have the home demolished. It still stands - for now - but what could have been a beautifully restored Colonial reproduction on one of our city's most beautiful squares, it still sits vacant.

How much weight can these neighborhood associations reasonably demand? It's one thing to request compromising details: brick, trees, store fronts. But allowing them to demand a compromising developer hit the road with no alternatives in sight, allowing them to keep a valuable piece of property vacant and unused for two decades neighboring some of the city's most prominent addresses, that's irresponsible.

Well, SHCA, here's your silver metal. And unfortunately for all of us, the economic climate is no longer affording the kind of idealism that keeps lots vacant.

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