Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Financing a Vision

GroJLart at Philaphilia is quickly becoming my favorite "architectural nonsense" blogger in Philadelphia. His latest rant about the dead Bridgeman's View proposal for the waterfront got me reminiscing about a time long ago when we were still building houses we couldn't afford, buying gas guzzling SUVs we didn't need, and openly challenging the country's 1% to transform city skylines around the globe. The year was 2007, a distant memory filled with shopping sprees, cosmopolitans at the latest Steven Starr incarnations, and nights full of unapologetic laughter.

Oh, how I miss the laughter.

Perhaps that's what's so refreshing about GroJLart. Sure, his snarky rants probably trigger your kid's parental controls, but his dark humor applauds our wealthy developers for their inspired visions while berating them when they sell out. No nonsense, no politics, and when a building is just plain ugly, he says it's just plain ugly.

In the enlightened era before smart phones and a pantheon of reality television dedicated to the children spawned by the Jersey Shore, Bridgeman's View went beyond the conventional skyscraper and attempted to maximize what could be done with a glass curtain. In fact, it's unique coiled design might have been better suited to the shores of Dubai than the banks of the Delaware.

Bridgeman's View was more than another skyscraper. Had it been proposed for West Market Street we might be looking at it right now. But Bridgeman's View was an concept and offered a vision beyond occupying another vacant lot.

While it would have housed million dollar condos, it also sought to anchor a new neighborhood. Surrounded by projects that undoubtedly relied on the confidence of Bridgeman's View to turn a forlorn stretch of Delaware Avenue into its own urban core, it was surrounded by shopping, restaurants, bars, and may have encouraged SugarHouse to be more than an uninspired slot barn. 

In a way, the opposing community organizations were correct in their assumptions that Bridgeman's View wasn't concerned with their neighborhoods. It wasn't designed to complement Northern Liberties, but to liberate it from itself. Developers may have underestimated our community organization's relentless reaction to change. In an area arguably even assigned to any neighborhood, developers were forced to rationalize a skyscraper that rationally didn't belong.

In a city full of artists and creativity, we limit the right to be a visionary to those who can't afford it. While many in the surrounding communities might like to claim defeat over Bridgeman's View, the economy was its most vocal opposition. Had the contingent development surrounding the tower been afforded the ability to play out, Bridgeman's View might be pointing its middle finger at the neighbors that tried to squash it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Temples of Learning

The crown jewel of the University of Pittsburgh's main campus is the 535 foot tall Cathedral of Learning. Begun in 1926 at the height of the country's architectural opulence, the Cathedral of Learning still stands as the tallest education facility in the western hemisphere, and for the time being, the second in the world.

Designed by Philadelphia architect Charles Klauder, the 34 story Gothic Revival high rise towers over Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood offering views of downtown and the Allegheny Mountains.

Although the campuses differ dramatically, and it's not clear if the Cathedral of Learning was its inspiration, but in 1930 Temple University broke ground on a similar endeavor, the Temple of Learning.

Temple's urban campus on Philadelphia's dense North Broad Street core left little room for its students when not in the classroom. Part of the tower was constructed by way of "Unit 2," now known as Carnell Hall which was opened in 1929. It's hard to say if the economy played a role, but had it been proposed a few years earlier Temple may have had it's own Cathedral of Learning.

Philaphilia wrote about this back in October.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Philadelphia Houses of Moderate Cost

The homes comprising the 4200 block of Spruce Street, designed by Kimball, Hewitt, and Hewitt Architects in the late 1800s, were describes as "Philadelphia Houses of Moderate Cost." Built at the height of America's Gilded Age, it's hard to say if that label was used to sell Philadelphia as a place where those with moderate means could live in the lap of luxury, or if at that time, these homes were truly considered "moderate" by comparison. West Philadelphia's streetcar suburbs are some of the country's most complete and preserved examples of American Victorian architecture, and the 4200 block of Spruce is no exception.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Chinatown Community Center

This is hot. No, it's downright sexy.

Whether or not the neighborhood north of Vine is historically part of Chinatown, its influence is evident.

With Callowhill pushing for the conversion of the Reading Viaduct into a park, Chinatown is the only neighborhood in this enclave attempting to bridge the expressway's divide.

Uninspired caps bridge most of the divides at each intersection, but a beautifully landscaped park has already been installed on 10th Street two blocks north of Chinatown's newly restored gate.

The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Community now plans to build a 23 storey tower including residences, offices, and a community center just above the expressway.

The center will include a parking garage, and although zoning requires 100 spaces, the developer will apply for a reduction. Given the number of parking spaces available in the vicinity, the developer should try to get an exemption.

The Perfect Storm

A turf war is brewing in the neighborhood north of the Vine Street Expressway between Philadelphia's Chinatown community and Callowhill's loft-living yuppies. The s***showdown has spawned so many rumors and so much hostility from both sides, it's impossible to determine what exactly was proposed and where we landed. The only thing that seems to be clear is that it has nothing to do with money and everything to do with marking territory.

The Philadelphia Inquirer lauded Maria and John Yuen for going up against the Callowhill neighborhood and successfully blocking a proposed Neighborhood Improvement District. The NID would have added a 7% tax to the residents in the Callowhill neighborhood in exchange for maintenance services.

Or was it for the maintenance of the proposed but uncertain Reading Viaduct Park? Or did it exempt the park? Both sides are spewing so much propaganda, it wouldn't be clear to anyone signing a petition.

The problem at the center of the entire debate seems to be the park which was used to sell the NID to Callowhill residents, and used to oppose it to Chinatown residents. It's likely the NID would have passed if the park had never been proposed in the first place. Whether for or against to the park, neither side seems willing to admit that it's highly unlikely we'll see the viaduct redeveloped in any way anytime soon.

What is clear is that the Inquirer's headline is misleading if not downright wrong. Callowhill NID Foes Went Up Against Powerful Forces and Won. Obviously the powerful forces at play were those opposed to the NID if they managed to gather enough signatures to kill it.

In NIMBYism on top of NIMBYism, Maria Yuen even created NOVA, the North of Vine Association, to represent the same neighborhood that the Callowhill Neighborhood Association already represents instead of joining the CNA to work with them.

Some opposed to the NID have even claimed the area north of Vine to be historically part of Chinatown that was cut off when the Vine Street Expressway was built. In fact, Vine Street had divided the two neighborhoods prior to the expressway's construction. Historically the neighborhood north of Vine was known as the Tenderloin. Before the expressway divided the two neighborhoods, Chinatown was exponentially smaller. Opposition seems to be attempting to rewrite history to make its case. Chinatown's growth is great, but the direction in which it would have grown is irrelevant to history.

Unfortunately, the reluctance of both sides to compromise will ultimately harm this area. I don't think the NID is the way to clean up Callowhill. We already pay enough taxes, and there's no reason to add another layer on top of federal, state, and city taxes. The money is there to clean up all of our neighborhoods, we just mismanage it. Many in favor of the NID seem to be confusing their property value with how much it costs for it to exist. A NID may raise the resale price of their home, but unless the NID makes some dramatic improvements, the increase will be to cover the new tax, not because their property is more valuable.

Even if we want to create an Improvement District, other neighborhoods have Business Improvement Districts which tax businesses, not residents. Callowhill lacks the business for this to make any realistic impact.

I don't agree with the way this NID was defeated. Was it Democratic? Yes. Did both side abuse the hype over a pipe dream to make their case? Absolutely.

Philadelphia doesn't have to be expensive to be clean. We all want our property value to go up, but we want it to go up because it's more valuable, not more expensive. Unfortunately the voice in Callowhill seems to confuse the two. At the same time, the voice on behalf of Chinatown is willing to engage in the Democratic process, but unwilling to engage in our Capitalistic process, and the conflict at Vine Street seems to be brewing the Perfect Storm of American Ideology.

Divine Mess

Mayor Nutter has been discussing the renovation of the Divine Lorraine on North Broad Street with Daryl Clark. Unfortunately, in the hotel's long bizarre history, none has been more detrimental to the architectural and cultural landmark as its last ten years.
After a Dutch developer gutted the habitable structure preparing it for luxury condos, the economy tanked. Instead of converting it into affordable apartments, a simple task after it was sold by the International Peace Movement Mission, the Dutch company ripped it apart with vague plans, and ultimately wound up in a battle with the district's Councilman, Daryl Clark over the topic of affordable housing.

Nutter said nothing of the financial situation surrounding the property that is now little more than a shell other than "it's complicated." He failed to address the owner's current property tax situation or whether the city would consider putting a lien on the property. As it stands, the property owner seems content to let it sit vacant until the city intervenes.

Clarke is doubtful that anything can be done to the property without funding from the city or state. Considering the current condition of the building, he's absolutely correct. What Clarke doesn't mention is that he directly created the current situation by crushing the developer's plan to convert the Divine Lorraine into condos, after the building had already been gutted.

As it stands, it looks like the best hope for the landmark would be subsidized housing or assisted living. It's true that something is better than nothing when it comes to such an astonishing building so close to demise, however if history shows us anything, if this becomes city operated property there is little hope that it will ever meet its full potential.

2021 Chestnut Street

Considering the conversations surrounding The Boyd, the new skyscraper at 2116 Chestnut, and  the residential renovation of the nearby 2040 Market Street, it's worth mentioning a smaller project taking place in the vicinity.

Although its proximity to Rittenhouse Square should make the western end of Center City's Chestnut and Market streets desirable locations for any developers, they're still home to a number of underutilized property, including the vacant building that currently stands on 2021 Chestnut.

The 12 storey building has been proposed by Aquinas Reality and groundbreaking is scheduled tentatively for the spring of 2012.

More Complaints for Kennedy House

An exciting midrise residential development has been proposed for the surface parking lot at 1900 Arch, directly across the street from the lot that could have been home to the country's tallest building.

It will be interesting to see what residents at the Kennedy House have to say about this if it breaks ground. At 162 feet it isn't as tall as the Kennedy House, and the project has been tiered as not to block the views of its neighbor. Still, as history shows, many of the residents in the co-op next door don't offer the most logical arguments against neighboring development, yet they somehow manage to halt a lot of progress.

The 14 storey mixed use project will top two storeys of parking, as well as contain 26,000 square feet of retail and office space.

Varenhorst designed the property.

New Life on West Market Street

2400 Market Street is under construction at the former AAA mid-Atlantic headquarters. The 1968 office building is getting eight new floors and 282 apartments. This will give the residents of the Murano some company on this otherwise 9 to 5 stretch of Market Street. It is being developed by PMC Property Group.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

South Street Bridge

I was on a road trip this weekend that took me around the Capitol Beltway and across the D.C. area's new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. I don't want to sell Philadelphia short and I'm leery of drawing comparisons between such a massive, federally funded endeavor and a localized project like the South Street Bridge.

I also loathe giving D.C. credit when it comes to architecture, especially when compared to Philadelphia. Sure, the Nation's Capitol is home to some seriously impressive monuments to the gods of Democracy, but in a lot of ways the area's transient nature has littered the metropolitan area with uninspired developments for those who call D.C., Maryland, or Virginia a bed and not a home.

While our Center City is home to a few Soviet style blocks of apartments, apartment blocks like the Kennedy House and those along City Line Avenue are the norm in D.C., even in today's construction. It's actually ironic that a city that governs one of the largest capitalistic Democracies in the world looks more like Moscow in the 80's than a bastion of consumerism like New York or Chicago. Without going on a political aside, I'm sure it has to do with the fact that much of the area is built with government money and not private investment.

While the improvements over its predecessor include a bike lane and sidewalk, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is in itself about as exciting as an Annandale McMansion (not to mention it shares the South's obsession with long, concrete spans in lieu of sky scraping suspension bridges), the drawbridge's control tower is absolutely beautiful. Finished in a sepia toned brushed aluminum, the glass and metal tower is turned like an Art Deco era Hudson facing the wind head on with no hesitation. In fact, the only thing about the control tower that isn't completely flawless is the fact that it's designed isn't echoed in the rest of the bridge.

When I crossed the bridge, I immediately thought of the four towers that stand atop the new South Street Bridge and what could have been. While I don't think the South Street Bridge is terrible, the Woodrow Wilson control tower demonstrates how, with just a little more creativity, it could have been so much better.

Obviously South Street's towers do not need the structural elements that Woodrow Wilson required. But by comparison, the materials and angles use on South Street just seem lackluster. Our lighting scheme is at least interesting, but architecturally, spotlights should be used to highlight great design, not replace it.