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.

1 comment:

  1. Your comments are far too sweeping here. I think it's a bit absurd to think that the above building would be abandoned at some point in the future. Also, I think it's unfair to group the above building with the awfully walled-off developments they have built elsewhere. Being boring and building defenses against neighbors is a big difference.

    One of my biggest problems with those who love to critique the ones who are building is that they can sometimes have unrealistic expectations. Sure, I love ground floor retail, but if you look around, a lot of projects in the city that have provided this have a lot of empty space. While it's nice to think that they could be occupied in the future, the empty storefronts on South Broad, Northern Liberties, and East Falls are a bit more depressing.

    Boring infill is still infill. It's badly needed as it gets more people living in the city and also generates more money for the city since the ground is being used for a higher purpose.