Sunday, March 30, 2014

Development Along the Schuylkill River

In recent years the success of the Schuylkill Banks and plans for additional improvements have inadvertently called residential developers into action. The Banks is an urban Cinderella Story. Historically industrial railroad space, few ever thought the flood plain two stories below Center City would ever find itself as a role model for urban parks.

But architecturally, the Banks poses a challenge. Through most of Center City, the Schuylkill River isn't graded with the city's built environment, it's recessed well below. Particularly between JFK and Walnut, it's recessed more like the Chicago River than a place ever meant for cyclists and joggers. In fact many early master plans for JFK, West Market Street, and 30th Street Station envisioned the river's east bank looking a lot more like its west. Rightly, developers are eager to offer residents a piece of the river, but it's not as simple as building condos on Miami Beach.

How do developers best ferry their elevated tenants to the park below without alienating recreationalists and hurting the peaceful setting the Banks provides?

Recently, three towering proposals have called this into question. In the heart of the city surrounded by skyscrapers, towering apartment buildings along the river won't diminish the park's experience in their own right. However being on a flood plain, these projects must be elevated to the streets above. Each of these proposals has remedied that obstacle by putting their tenants atop a parking podium. Unfortunately, that puts the least desirable element, a parking stump, face to face with the Schuylkill Banks.

Many have come out against these projects, namely due to the vast concrete walls that will face the river. Are foes of these projects simply echoing the the media, or should these developers be sent back to their drawing boards?

Is it possible to address the architectural need to elevate these towers without distracting from the pleasures of the park? Is there an alternative? If there is no alternative, is sending developers elsewhere for the sake of a park worth abandoning the benefits these projects offer the city above?

But really, are these parking garages that different than the built space that already faces the Banks? The park still sits on an industrial artery, beside and below railroad tracks. Anyone who's spent time on the river knows that the Central Banks often peer into the dark recesses of the city's underground.

2400 Chestnut and the PECO Tower already sidle up to the Banks, offering as much or less to the river than the recent proposals. Neither diminish the park's experience, but simply remind recreationalists that the Banks is a very urban park. Where were those agitated by the inevitable residential interest in the river when critics were gushing over the proposed Mandeville Place? The vistas offered along the Schuylkill River are directed at University City's growing crystalline skyline, but Center City's presence is incidental and always will be.
The Schuylkill Banks will not be abandoned because of a series of parking podiums, only find an increased demand by the tenants in the towers above. Perhaps more importantly, these projects will help bridge the cognitive divide between Center City and University City, creating a much greater urban core.


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