Sunday, February 24, 2013

Toll Brothers and Irresponsible Urban Design

In a recent Philadelphia Real Estate blog, Toll Brothers has come to their own defense. Toll Brothers, long loathed by Philadelphia urbanites for its isolated, suburban designs, is no stranger to criticism. In fact, architecturally, they are frequently excused from any discussion because their designs simply aren't worthy of critique. In other words, they're projects aren't good enough to be deemed "bad architecture."

That said, Toll Brothers is a wildly successful development firm, and more importantly, local. According to Toll Brothers Vice President, Brian Emmons, that success is bent on appeasing shareholders and neighborhood organizations through safe design. Private developers can take risks with lots of their own cash, whereas Toll Brothers needs to guarantee a prompt return on their investments. But a prompt return for investors isn't a long term investment in the city.

Proposed Toll Brothers project at the former New Market complex in Society Hill

Toll Brothers claims that market research indicates luxury consumers like parking, and even a detachment from retail and business. That's a tough assertion to swallow when the bulk of Toll Brothers' market live in the McMansions the firm helped invent. The claim also becomes a bit of a self fulfilling prophesy when you deliver your market exactly what they think they want. That's the kind of conservative approach that turned The Learning Channel into a nonstop Honey Boo Boo marathon.

People won't want more if architects - artists in their own right - don't deliver them something new. That is until you've completely dumbed down the supply so much consumers become absolutely sick of it. Like reality television.

While Toll Brothers' urban market might echo the suburban market's desire for parking and isolation, and delivering that might provide a profitable return, giving the New Money exactly what they want won't change the fact that they'll tire of the urban ills they're trying to avoid behind a gate or garage.

Anyone seeking isolation in neighborhoods as densely populated as Society Hill and Graduate Hospital, as desirable as the proximity to theaters and restaurants may be, will and have been exhausted by the poor schools, crime, and taxes that tenured residents integrated into the fabric of the city are willing to trade for the urban experience.

A city is more than a portfolio of independent properties, it's a complicated algorithm of its parts. Emmons has cited private developers struggling to attract retail and tenants at the Murano and Piazza, but both examples are responsible cogs in a broader collective effort to terraform emerging neighborhoods. They weren't designed to provide an exponential return on the investment, but to provide a lasting infrastructure.

Toll Brothers might not employ artists when it comes to design, but they're masters at business. I have to respect them for that, but it's an art more responsibly reserved for the suburbs. The Murano and Piazza may be struggling to attract tenants, but that isn't unheard of, especially in neighborhoods like Market East and Northern Liberties.

A decade from now the Murano and Piazza will have established their purpose, while Toll Brothers' projects will, at best, be dull infill. Worse, these pockets of suburban isolation could outlive their usefulness when their market realizes they didn't want to live in the city after all, leaving them to be discarded like a disposable suburban stripmall.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

South Broad's Armory to be Redeveloped

The large armory at Broad and Wharton, vacant since 2003, will likely be demolished to make way for developer Michael Carosella's six story apartment building, designed by Vincent Mancini of Landmark Architectural Design. With its 50 units and Broad Street entrance leading to a surface parking lot of 52 spaces, it sounds a lot like Carl Dranoff's 777 South Broad.

The armory is currently owned by Tolentine Community Center and Development Corporation which has allowed the property to fall into a state of purported disrepair, a claim made all too often in Philadelphia.

What's interesting in a neighborhood that frequently objects to developments along its major corridor, those at a zoning meeting held by the South Broad Street Neighborhood Association seemed to welcome the demolition and redevelopment.

With obvious vested interests in the building's demolition, Mancini and Carosella pitched their proposal to the crowd, citing logistical problems with the building's relationship with the street and impossible restoration. Both the developer and the architect ceded that the only way to redevelop the property would be to bring the building down.

But where was the objective party? And more perplexing, where were the vocal NIMBY members that routinely question the motivation behind any project pitched for their neighborhood?

It's easy to argue that the armory's relationship with the street can be cold, but not only is this the case of any successful warehouse conversion in Callowhill and Northern Liberties, it's Carosella's job as an architect to fix that.

Mancini and Carosella stand to profit more from the demolition of the armory than its renovation and conversion, and there may be nothing wrong with that. But as bias partners claiming that the building must come down - which may very well be true - why has no one questioned that claim?

The answer is likely: Parking.

Unfortunately residents of this densely populated part of town are, through no fault of their own, very dependent on their cars.

It's easy to stereotype Passyunk Square and South Broad as chock full of fixie riding hipsters, but it's even easier to forget how massive South Philly actually is. Even in this particular part of South Philadelphia, there are many more households dependent on their cars than not. And honestly you can't blame the residents, even those that live near the Broad Street Line.

While bike lanes, buses, and the subway are convenient to those working in Center City or University City, the public transportation available to South Philly is not at all convenient to New Jersey, the suburbs, or the farther reaches of the city. The fact that the PPA is forced to ignore thousands of illegally parked cars on the Broad Street and Oregon Avenue medians, and even more parked cars blocking intersections, indicates any project that would add residents will need to provide parking.

If the armory does need to come down to provide this necessary evil, Mancini and Carosella should responsibly provide smart parking. Surface lots stain this city, but residents at the armory site will need to park somewhere. Instead of isolating the residents cars in another asphalt prairie, provide parking underground, or better, in a large garage respectfully designed to interact with the sidewalk and provide additional parking for not just residents, but the cars littering the Broad Street median.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hilton Home2 Suites

Perhaps one of the worst architectural trends to emerge from the second half of the 20th Century is corporate branded design. Not only is it a cheap way to reuse blue prints, but the design is underwhelming, not just because it's cost effective, but because consumers remember simplistic design easier than good architecture, and recycled facades serve as their own advertisements.

To add insult to injury, corporate design is impossible to reuse. When my hometown decided to expand its county offices, a vacant Safeway was chosen as the site. Even though it was rebuilt complete with a clock tower, Safeway's signature Quonset Hut roof can't be ignored. And who hasn't seen at least one 80's era Bonanza serving as a Chinese buffet? 

While many upscale hotels, at least in large urban cores, have chosen to occupy historic office buildings, many others have carried their corporate branding far beyond signage, sharing the same approach as roadside Super 8's. Hilton Home2 Suites at 12th and Arch is no exception.

Not only is Home2's design scene only design in the most technical sense of the word, worse, it doesn't care. It's ugly, deliberately ugly. And why shouldn't it be? People are brand loyal, and for anyone loyal to the Home2 brand, these abominations are impossible to miss. Surrounded by gracefully reused Marriott properties and the respectfully preserved Loew's PSFS Building, Hilton isn't even pretending to care about Philadelphia.

It's irresponsible. To those residing at Home2, it's conveniently located across the street from the Pennsylvania Convention Center and Reading Terminal Market. But those residing at Home2 aren't Philadelphians and will rarely consider that this building is nothing but a middle finger to our portfolio of historic and modern architecture.

The choice of Hilton's executives to use branded design becomes even more insulting when you consider the fact that this was the site of a proposed W Hotel that was (and I never use this world lightly) fabulous. You have to wonder if Hilton's corporate architects even visited the site. But again, this building wasn't designed for Philadelphians, or even with Philadelphians in mind, so why bother? In almost any case, anything is better than a surface parking lot, but perhaps not here.

The W Hotel, once proposed for 12th and Arch.

Community activists routinely protest handsome residential developments, pushing local developers out of town. Yet when a billion dollar corporation decided to drop this bomb at a major intersection, a corporation that can afford to employ better design, our voices were silent. The fact that a parking garage that recently opened chose to grace its fa├žade with an ounce of pizazz is all you need to know to recognize that this hotel is an absolute disaster.

Casino Craze: Part Deux

Bart Blatstein resurrected the Great Casino Debate with his proposed entertainment complex at the Inquirer Building which, admittedly, I think is a bit too Vegas for Center City. Not the casino itself, mind you, but the Tiny Town he proposed building on the roof of the building.

With a little excitement behind the second leg of the debate (and a lot of resistance), developer Ken Goldenberg has thrown his name into the casino hat with a proposal at a much more logical location: Market East. More specifically, the abhorred Disney Hole. Of course it's easy to dub this proposal Disney 2.0, but the same could be said for any entertainment project of this scale.

The preliminary rendering is vague at best, but pretty sleek. Backed by Campus Apartments and Deutsch Bank, the promise of investors are just as exciting as a destination attraction on our forlorn Market East.

Called Market8, Goldberg is off to a good start claiming the entertainment complex will only "happen to have a casino." The venue would offer numerous restaurants and retail, and best of all, underground parking.

Bye-bye, Disney Hole.

Hey, I'm a dreamer.

The multi-faceted approach isn't just the best way to pitch a casino, but the city should have required the approach all along.

SugarHouse was one of the city's biggest planning debacles. The proposal was grand, but phased, and the first phase called for a slot barn and a parking garage.

It's funny how the city decides to exert its muscle. They micromanage parks and condos, but when it came to SugarHouse, there were no caveats.

For the record, I'm all for casinos. Not personally. They're trashy, tacky, and for me, a waste of money. However, the same could be said for City Council itself.

But Philadelphia is big enough to provide plenty of entertainment for everyone. A lot of people sell the city short, not the least of which are those who rabidly charge themselves with saving Market East. Those activists have cost the city millions debating benign improvements to this part of town.

Philadelphia is chock full of quaint Colonialism, but we aren't Williamsburg and Market East isn't the place to preserve history, particularly when its few historic properties are already protected. Give the Capitalists their playground.

With that said, the State and City missed the mark with SugarHouse, and we have a second chance to work hand in hand with private developers to mark drastic improvements to our city's core.

I will never understand why the city didn't grant SugarHouse a casino license only contingent on better development. SugarHouse's proposal had plenty of competition. They would have done anything to get that license. The city missed an opportunity to get a lot of free improvements. City Council could have gotten more than just the dynamic casino complex SugarHouse originally proposed, we could have gotten a free Delaware Avenue lightrail.

At this point SugarHouse can likely claim that it's not profitable to expand it's non-gaming oriented entertainment or hotel. I doubt that's true, but the city put no requirements on them to expand, so they're content. If the city required a hotel and convention space as part of SugarHouse's "Phase 1" the project would be a lot more exciting than it is.

If Market8 has a chance at becoming a reality, the city should seize the opportunity to not just require more than a casino from Goldenberg's venue, but ask him to flip the bill for some of the improvements this corridor desperately needs.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It Could Be Worse: Washington's Windowless Apartments

Philadelphia has it's problems, but when it comes to the supply and demand for housing, a healthy balance leads developers to offer the public some exciting architecture. In other words, people want to live here, but they won't just buy or rent something simply because it exists.

My former home, the city that rents $3000 a month "English Basements," has lowered the bar once again, not only allowing the development of windowless lofts, but touting them as trendy, and even affordable.

Adaptive reuse is a wonderful thing. It saves resources and history. But there is no history or significance left at what is now a Harris Teeter grocery store in Washington D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Transforming this attic roller rink into lofts is Douglas Development's cheap and thoughtless attempt to maximize space. What's worse, it sets a precedent for irresponsible residential development in a city that houses a bottomless pit of uninspired and overpriced apartments.

There are no legal accounts of windowless apartments in the developed world. None. There are cheap hotels, hostels, and slum lords renting unregulated rooms without windows, but there is not one record of a legitimate developer providing a new, windowless unit as a legitimate apartment. Not one.

If your Google skills are better than mine, please feel free to let me know. I can't find one.

The Citadel Apartments will provide 31 apartment units, with 8 occupying the center of the domed space. Of course it doesn't take an architect - or a genius - to suggest a better use for this space.

A respectful developer would open the roof to provide outdoor space for the 23 windowed units. The size of the 23 outer units could be expanded, placing the kitchens and living rooms in the center so that windows could light the bedrooms. Even if the developer wanted to reasonably maximize the space, lowering the roof and ceiling of the outer ring could allow for elevated windows in the center apartments.

Instead, architects at R2L provide sun to the center units by way of skylights 20 feet above. Most architects would call this a chimney. L&I would call it a firetrap. 

This isn't even interesting experimental design. Experimental design can be used to maximize space, but primarily benefits the space's audience: the tenant. Instead of providing additional engineering to improve the quality of space in the central units, the only experiment employed here maximizes profit. What's astonishingly devious in this case is that the space is just a bonus to the developer, an unused attic at an already profitable site.

I guess what I'm trying to sum up in this rant is, however many vacant lots we have, while we struggle to improve the property value in our struggling neighborhoods, limited space paired with ample income can be a very, very dark combination.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Southstar Lofts

After years of contentious - and ridiculous - arguments over a prime piece of real estate at South and Broad, Dranoff's Southstar Lofts appears to becoming a reality.

For decades, the Garden of the Arts occupied the northeast corner of the intersection, overgrown with weeds, inaccessible to the public, and loosely controlled by unnamed neighbors who waged an online war to preserve this little bit of Old Philadelphia nonsense.

Reason finally won out.

It may not be the most exciting design, particularly for such a prominent corner, but it's friendly relationship with the street will mark a vast improvement over its predecessor.

At its worst, Southstar is a generic condo building, supplemental infill, complementing the award winning theaters sharing its street. At best it will increase the value of South Broad's many parking lots, meadows, and suburbanized strip malls, fostering the density that should occupy our city's core, sending a message to developers that South Broad is ready for more life.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Grove at Cira Centre South

Previously circulated as Cira Centre South, a University City proposal expanding on the crystalline skyscraper complementing 30th Street Station, Campus Crest Communities, Inc., Brandywine Realty Trust, and Harrison Street Real Estate Capital will be building a 33 story, $159M, student housing highrise called The Grove at Cira Centre South

Campus Crest Communities, Inc. is based in Charlotte, NC. The highrise will be located at 2930 Chestnut Street, across from the recently renovated IRS building along the Schuylkill River. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Delaware River Debacle

PlanPhilly just reported that engineering will soon begin on a new eight acre park capping I-95 and extending to the waterfront, and the rendering looks pretty fantastic.

Unfortunately, the headline is a bit of a misnomer, and the rendering a bit misleading. By "engineering," the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation will be performing a $400,000 study to determine a master plan and to begin discussions with private developers.

Sound familiar? That's because it is.

The DRWC has been engaged in multiple studies in the ten short years I've lived here. In fact the city has been trying to solve the Delaware River debacle ever since it cut it off from the city in the 1970's.  

A quick Google search brings up countless "Master Plans" and fantastically grand renderings of a new Penn's Landing brimming with condos, amusement parks, museums, even an aerial tram carrying Philadelphians across the river to Camden's waterfront, which inexplicably remains more successful than ours.

Why the DRWC continues to tease Philadelphians with these master plans and exciting proposals (if they can even be called that) is a mystery to me. Part of me wonders if the powers that be at the DRWC want to see how long they can keep getting paid to push paper.

After all, any amateur architecture nerd with a laptop and Photoshop can put together a lavish rendering of a new and lively Penn's Landing. That gets passed around the local blog circuit, excites and pisses off neighbors, while those employed by the DRWC get paid to watch the show. A few months later, the DRWC passes off a new "engineering" effort to PlanPhilly and spends the next year working on the next master plan.

Thirty years later, we still aren't asking why?

We've managed to put tens of thousands of recreationalists on the Schuylkill River in the last decade, and while it's a much smaller river with fewer logistical obstacles, the city has been actively struggling with Penn's Landing much longer. In fact, given Philadelphia's historic reputation for pipe dreams, the successful changes on the Schuylkill River are mind boggling.

Part of that success might be in the piece meal approach taken on the Schuylkill River. Instead of an overall master plan requiring billions of dollars and speculative investment, Boathouse Row, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Waterworks, the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, the Friends of the Schuylkill Banks, and the Schuylkill River Trail are all working on smaller, individual projects and seamlessly wove them together into an organic and unintentional master plan that no CAD hack ever saw coming. 

It's true that those investing in the Schuylkill River are working with existing assets that the Delaware River lacks, but that doesn't change the fact that the approach that's failed the Delaware River for the past thirty years still doesn't work.

In fact that lack of assets is what the DRWC needs to target, not tax funded improvements to a burden no one wants to walk to. Pedestrianization and interstate caps are great, but they're supplementary improvements at best.

Parks are rarely destination attractions. The Schuylkill River's proximity to Center City and the PMA serves as its own destination attraction while the Delaware River sits isolated and sparsely populated. We need to bring Center City's built environment to the Delaware River, not just its sidewalks.

Without new residents and shoppers on Delaware Avenue, any master plan is only going to inhibit the organic creativity on the part of developers and architects who have a shot at bringing those people to the water.