Saturday, January 21, 2012

Entitled Skyline

When someone moves to a city, particularly one of the biggest cities in the country, it comes with its demons. A city is a community, not just a community of people but a community of buildings, and with that community comes compromise. Accepting that compromise can drive new ideas leading to a beautifully dynamic skyline.

The problem with Philadelphia's communities, particularly those led by the more vocally oppressive community organizations, is that they primarily focus on protesting development without attempting to seek alternatives. These nagging naysayers are a nuisance to their own neighborhoods all over the city, and over the last decade their wild influence is most visible in its detriment to our potential skyline.

The city caused an uproar when it announced the new Family Court building would be taller than originally planned, yet it still won't be as tall at the Metropolitan apartment building directly across the street.

In many cities, community organizations, or NIMBYs, represent the plight of the little guy. But for some reason in Philadelphia, the little guy has managed to bully big business and developers out of town time and time again.

It's reasonable for residents of our West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia neighborhoods to be leery of high rises and Starbucks, particularly when they find their way into smaller communities. But what of Center City? Spot zoning runs rampant all over our urban core, and it's an illogical mind f*** that few developers bother to question.

I'd go as far as suggesting that this unfair process is - at least in part - responsible for our NIMBYs' mind boggling influence over big business and development. A precedent has been repeatedly set for hypocritical condo and property owners to complain about shadows and obstructed views.

Condo owners at the Kennedy House argued that an adjacent high rise would cast shadows and block views, yet this high rise cast shadows over and obstructed the views of its Logan Square neighbors when it was built.

Were visibility rights granted to the developers who built the Metropolitan in the 1920s? Given the reaction to the new Family Court building at 15th and Arch, one would think so. But there's no such thing. And for condo owners to complain about their views being potentially obstructed by a neighboring high rise proposal is entirely unjust when the residents of the Kennedy House live in a high rise of their own, one that obstructed views and cast shadows when it was built.

In the end, what is worse for our overall communities? Vacant lots or shadows? More importantly, in a community - of both people and buildings - how much influence should residents and rival developers have over adjacent development on property that they don't own? In capitalistic theory, little to none.

Whether I'm building a bar or a skyscraper, I can't rationally argue against someone building the same thing right across the street. But that's the problem with Philadelphia, and more specifically our unique system of spot zoning. It allows developers and property owners to muscle out the competition without being required to offer the razzle dazzle that a competitive environment is intended to produce. Spot zoning allows development to occur on a case by case basis, and it unfairly grants rights to developers who should instead be given an equal playing field to foster progress and growth.

1 comment:

  1. It's reasonable for residents of our West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia neighborhoods to be leery of high rises...

    Is it, though? There are quite a few pre-war high-rises in West Philly, especially near the el, and there would have been a lot more if the Great Depression, World War II, and urban decline hadn't gotten in the way. I can't really think of a logically consistent argument for not tearing down the pre-war high-rises but banning any new ones. Except, that is, for aesthetic arguments, but those should be left to architecture critics, not zoning boards.

    After all, if we'd left all private design decisions up to the government in the immediate post-war years, all of the Victorians in the city would have been torn down and replaced with sterile grass lots or brutalist towers-in-a-park.