Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Residential Development and the Status Quo

Carl Dranoff is no stranger to scrutiny. It's not surprising. While his designs are often unassuming and sometimes ridiculed, his firm is also synonymous with Philadelphia residential development.

While many have criticized the bland tower that rose from the site of the Sidney Hillman Medical Center, few have dropped the name of its developer, the John Buck Company, because it isn't a household name.

But both developers share the same struggle: appeasing lots and lots of tenants.

Dranoff's proposed One Riverside Park won't win any awards. Even in the design phase, we know it never will. Dranoff's bland designs are deliberate. Symphony House and 777 South Broad are his most unique, but they still echo tested design.

He's not a visionary, he's a businessman. Instead of hiring award winning firms that design iconic buildings, he hires ones that design buildings that rent quickly.

Heaving the weight of this reality on Dranoff's firm isn't entirely fair. There are plenty of developers in Philadelphia scarring our city with lesser architecture, or worse, bulldozing our history for parking lots from their mansions in New Jersey.

Dranoff is just the most visible because, perhaps, he's the most ambitious.

He's leaving a legacy on the city he loves. Respectably, he stands behind his properties in the face of criticism, deserved or not, and most of his buildings aren't significant enough to be ugly.

Dranoff is no Frank Furness, and perhaps that's where people get confused. He isn't an architect. He's a developer catering to families and suburban refugees looking for comfort and amenities, the kind of people we see jogging the Schuylkill Trail at 5am as we weirdos return from the all night clothing optional rave in Baltimore.

His demographic might cock their heads quizzically at the unique architecture popping up around University City, along New York's High Line, or even the Murano or the Residences at the Ritz. They're easy to appease, but easily turned off by the unfamiliar.

Basically, his market has a conservative eye. But that's where the money is. Dranoff knows this, and instead of trading potential tenants for unique design, he plays it safe and caters to the broadest market possible. Right now in Philadelphia that's the upper middle class ex-suburbanite who wants a home near the park, ample parking, and to live in something that blends into the background.

It's easy to call out other cities in comparison, but even New York is still churning out plenty of boring rectangular cubes to accommodate the status quo. New York and Chicago simply build so much that they have more gems to stand out.

Still, Dranoff's projects and weak design aren't entirely excused by this vast demand for the ordinary. Hilton Home2's developer citied construction costs to excuse his architectural disaster and he couldn't have been more knee-deep in bull ****.

It's true, it costs a lot to build in Philadelphia, but turning a building on an odd angle, adding unorthodox materials, or selecting a unique color palette doesn't up the construction costs.

Philadelphia is saddled with cost prohibitive situations, but that lies in construction, not design. There is no architecture union in Philadelphia that I'm aware of, and if there is, H2L2 and Erdy-McHenry aren't working against each other to produce the lowest common denominator.

Edgy and interesting design doesn't have to be cost prohibitive when it comes time to build, and Dranoff has the money to hire an architect with an eye for the unique. We know this because Post Brothers hired a firm to design a much more interested renovation at 12th and Wood and proved that Philadelphia's costly prohibitions aren't in themselves requirements, just a daily headache.

However Dranoff seems uninterested in ruffling the feathers of the city's unions. Post Brothers' renovations at the Goldtex, while visually unique, aren't structurally unique.

Dranoff could easily employ an edgy design firm to help him adorn the Schuylkill River, but that isn't what he does. Dranoff's reluctance to build an iconic high rise on the Schuylkill Banks is marketing, and a business move to sell his beds as fast as possible.

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