Friday, February 28, 2014

City Planning

Ross Brightwell -
I recently received a comment from Ross Brightwell on a previous post about Stu Bykovsky's article, A King in the wings.

Instead of being elated that someone so notable actually read my swill, I felt like a kid with my hand caught in the cookie jar.

Perhaps that's the only thing I was right about.

City planning may be the dream job for SIM City nerds, but it's a harsh position facing harsher scrutiny. If you're successful enough to be as revered as Ed Bacon or Ross Brightwell, you become an inadvertent politician, hated for your failures and forgotten for your success. For every Gallery at Market East and Vine Street Expressway, planners are responsible for dozens of public spaces like LOVE Park and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Ross Brightwell was visionary as a city planner and remains a visionary. Saddled with the reality of grim funding, boring sidewalk improvements, and hipsters demanding more trees, it's rare to find city employees so dedicated to their position that they still find time to dream.

Philadelphia's current city planner isn't a household name. In general, our planner is a commission. With so many undereducated activists ranting from their keyboard - myself included - planners wrestle with NIMBYs and approve buildings designed by others. If Brightwell's tenure is unappreciated, that lack of appreciation comes from looking at history through the glasses of 2014.

It's unfortunate that the city's most influential city planners - love them or hate them - were employed in an era when so few, save the planners, actually cared about Philadelphia.

They gave the 1970s I-95, the 90s a complete Vine Street Expressway, and replaced a catastrophic Market East with the Gallery, and we curse them for it. Why? Because we don't remember what happened to Philadelphia when we lost the population of Miami. It's easy to hate so many mid-century developments until you consider the fact that Society Hill was an iffy neighborhood when the Gallery was built.

While we enjoy a Philadelphia so refined we can demand more bike lanes, city planners in the 70s and 80s were faced with competition from King of Prussia and Cherry Hill and a population that was having a love affair with driving. Developers like Ed Bacon and Ross Brightwell saved Philadelphia from a city that could have easily become Cleveland or Detroit, and we have their visions, dreams, and passionate dedication to one city to thank.

It's that optimism that's absent in the bureaucratic nightmare of today's urban planning process. Whether or not planning czars have a place in a 21st Century city that plans itself is a valid question. Comcast, CHoP, and the Mormons are transforming our city on their own dime, relinquishing the need for government dreamers. But it's important to remember - important for me to remember - that the planners that gave us a handful of white elephants also saved one of America's most astounding cities from demise.

Southstar Lofts

Southstar Lofts at Broad and South is nearing completion and it looks okay. In fact, okay is exactly how it looks.

It's not a head turner, but it may be a turning point in one of Philadelphia's most passionate developer's portfolio. Despite harsh criticism for Carl Dranoff's ambitious Symphony House and 777 South Broad, he probably won't hear a lot about Southstar. For one thing, it's too simple and bland to really warrant critique, but he also transformed a troublesome corner, a community "garden" on a prime corner that many in the community didn't want.

It's unfortunate that Southstar didn't bring the same edgy design as its neighbor, 1352 Lofts, but once it opens with panoramic views of the Avenue of the Arts, Dranoff is set to bring his A-game with the SLS Hotel on the site of Philadelphia International Records.

Southstar Lofts helps fill South Broad's patchwork of vacant lots and suburban chains, carrying passengers towards 777 South Broad. If Bart Blatstein finally transforms the massive lot at Broad and Washington, we may finally see a cohesive stretch of urbanism connecting Center City and South Philadelphia.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stantec's Tower Back to the Drawing Board

Brickstone Realty Corp's proposed residential tower behind Lit Brothers was sent back to the drawing board by the city's Historical Commission. While Stantec's design was deliberately bland, not to take attention from Lit Brothers' historic façade, it was too bland for the Historic Commission.

While Brickstone's tower is deliberately boring, it's hard to know what the commission expects. The commission is notorious for green lighting the demolition of Philadelphia's historic landmarks despite its namesake. It may be sophomorically attempting to diffuse blowback from decisions at the Church of the Assumption and the Boyd Theater, hoping for a tower behind Lit Brothers that echoes its aged façade.

Fortunately the commission has no issue with the height considering Market East's lagging development. As one of the area's few historic landmarks, Lit Brothers deserves the utmost historical consideration, but Brickstone's bland tower may have been its most respectful.

The Historical Commission's unfamiliarity with the architectural history it's charged with protecting may be reflected in this decision, in that this tower is behind Lit Brothers, not on top of the historic landmark.

House of Comcast

Philebrity was quick to point out the ripeness emanating from the latest pile of shit heaped on the internet from the House of Comcast. Netflix has entered into a multi-year agreement with the cable (now content) giant and "have established a more direct connection" between the content and the cable provider.

Can you smell that?

While Comcast is obviously trying to diffuse the controversy surrounding the death of Net Neutrality by appearing to play nice with its competitive content, this is exactly what the internet gatekeepers had hoped to accomplish by defeating Net Neutrality. The fair market is dead in the virtual world of the internet, and Comcast can now legally extort millions from its content competitors like Netflix. 

If this were truly a valiant effort on Comcast's part that was in any way intended to improve your viewing experience, Hulu would be included in this alleged improvement. But this is just a way for Comcast to grab a bit of your $7.99 Netflix bill, remember Comcast already owns 32% of Hulu.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Art Commission Blasts Revolution Museum

Philadelphia's unusually quebecois weather seems to be taking a toll on our critics and Robert A. M. Stern's firm has become their punching bag. Shortly before the Inquirer's architecture critic Inga Saffron eviscerated the LDS's 1601 Vine Street apartment building, and their Mormon Temple and community center, the Philadelphia Art Commission sent Stern back to the drafting table with his Museum of the American Revolution.

While Stern claims the museum was intended to be a flattened Independence Hall, it seems to echo the neighboring customs house with its hackneyed cupola. That cupola, easily eliminated, seems to be the source of the building's greatest gripes. But because it's been unseasonably freezing since December, those who hold the museum's balls in their hands aren't content with handsome classicism in a handsomely classical part of town.

While the building does provide a blank wall on Chestnut Street, it replaces a brick fortress entered midblock with an entrance facing the corner of Third and Chestnut. Devoid of its cupola it's a fine building befitting its neighbors and its collection. It won't architecturally rival the new Barnes Museum but it's not an art museum. When classicism is employed on the National Mall it's applauded, so why is a museum dedicated to history criticized for echoing history in Center City's most historic part of town?

Philadelphia has found itself in an interesting place. We haven't developed much in the last five years so we've demanded the best of developers who've managed to secure the funds to work.

That's good.

Now that we're faced with a building boom rivaling the early 2000s, critics are treating the bevy of development like a kid on Christmas morning: it has to be perfect. Stern's design for the Revolution Museum isn't amongst the best in the city, but neither is the museum's content. Its architecture befits its collection. We shouldn't expect less, but with skyscrapers blooming along the nether regions of the city, Philadelphia has joined the ranks of Chicago and New York, where not every new project is vying for an award.

Family Court's Kimpton Hotel

Caught up in the exciting skyscraping proposals along Vine Street, the Schuylkill River, and other nonsense, I completely missed Kimpton's plan to renovate Philadelphia's Family Court building as a boutique hotel, solidifying an iconic corner of our landmark Logan Square.

With plans for a highrise apartment at 1601 Vine and Chinatown's Eastern Tower nearing reality, and the LDS's Mormon Temple and Goldtext Apartments under construction, dreams of capping the Vine Street Expressway as a means to entice investors seem to be stepping aside for developers who don't see the canyon as an obstacle.

Truthfully it isn't. From Portland to New York, many cities have highway crevasses cutting through dense neighborhoods that have succeeded without a Big Dig. If skyscrapers flanked the banks of the VSE, crossing it would be akin to walking across an inner city boulevard. It's no wider than the Ben Franklin Parkway.

While Vine Street seems to be organically evolving into such a grand boulevard, one headache still stands in front of Kimpton's Hotel Family Court, right in front of it. For years, Food Not Bombs has provided free food for the homeless atop one of the VSE's caps, a should-be handsome park facing Logan Square and the Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul.

Things are about to change.

Food Not Bombs has to apply for a daily permit from the city to provide the picnics. If they've been going rogue and evading the city, Kimpton will make a case of it. If the picnics are on the up and up, permits in place, Kimpton can apply for the same permit. If they beat Food Not Bombs to the punch for a month or two they'll frustrate them into relocating.

Of course that may not even be necessary. If Kimpton invests in renovating the park, and being the hotel's "front yard" they'd be eagerly willing, the city may give them preferential treatment. That route isn't entirely ethical, but neither is Food Not Bombs' admission of using the hungry homeless to advance causes that have nothing to do with hunger or homelessness in Philadelphia.

Friday, February 21, 2014

CHoP Expands Across the River

I can't keep up with Philadelphia's potentially changing skyline. It's like 2003 again, and it's awesome. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has outgrown University City and is expanding to the east side of the Schuylkill River. In what will be a phased development along Schuylkill Avenue consisting of four highrise and midrise towers, CHoP is prepared to break ground this summer on its 375 foot 700 Schuylkill Avenue.

The project will enhance the growing Schuylkill Banks providing a public park and waterfront promenade. Like Cira Centre, the complex is being designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli and Ballinger.

Last Minute Miracle...maybe?

In what may be a last minute miracle, Friends of the Boyd founder Howard B. Haas seems to have an anonymous buyer willing to match iPic's $4.5M offer for the beleaguered Boyd Theater. 

Still, the fact that the offer comes just a week before Live Nation's (current owner) hardship hearing with the Historical Commission and the anonymous nature of the donor, things seems fishy.

Who is the donor? Where has he or she been for the last two decades? Was Friends of the Boyd holding this card until it was absolutely needed? If that's the case, will the investment end at $4.5M ensuring that it continues to sit, or will the potential owner invest in its restoration, reopening it as the grand movie palace it once was?

These are all questions the Historical Commission will consider before it decides the fate of the historic building. Simply ponying up $4.5M so that it can be managed by an advocacy group could prove to be the iconic theater's worst case scenario, particularly if it requires just as much money or more to open the doors as a profitable venue.

Can Classic Design Ever be "Good" Design?

Inga Saffron, Philadephia's architecture czar and one of my favorite journalists, has some choice words for the Mormon's developing Vine Street, and she's not holding back. 

Starting with "It's hard not to wince when you first look at the renderings," I can't help but wonder if she's just having a bad day. This is the critic who can't get enough of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's Cheesecake Cube at 15th and Walnut. If you wince at any building that is more stimulating - for better or worse - than a glass box, should you be critiquing architecture?

I don't know anyone who winced.

The projects along Vine Street being developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints include the Mormon Temple currently under construction, a small community center, and a highrise apartment building. Saffron referred to the collection as "one of the weirder ensembles produced in 21st-century America outside of Las Vegas."

That just seems uncharacteristically harsh

She claimed the meeting house looked like it was "dragged across town" from Society Hill, despite the similarly scaled Quaker Meeting House just three blocks away. She went on to call the church itself is "a snow-white, double-spired, French classical Mormon temple." 

Okay, now I don't think she's having a bad day. I think shes drunk.

Gracefully respecting its surroundings, Philadelphia's Mormon Temple reflects the classical architecture of its neighbors. Should every new building be innovative, groundbreaking, or an "exciting" glass curtain, even our most sacred places?

The apartment tower and community center are designed by Robert A. M. Stern. I appreciate her frustration with Stern's safe designs, but he designs handsome buildings. Saffron cites his Museum of the American Revolution a an example of his flaccid designs. The museum is no exception and it's not an exceptional building, but despite its odd cupola it's a fine building befitting its neighborhood and its collection. 

Saffron almost seems relieved that the Art Commission has criticized the design, yet she has said little of the museum since her first critique in 2012. It's almost as if the commission's decision was her cue to say, "look, I'm not crazy."

Saffron did take time to speak to Tom King who manages real estate investment for the LDS Church, appreciating the urban design of the space and the church's investment in an undesirable part of near-Center City. Parking will be underground and no walls will be blank, even those facing Vine Street and the expressway's cloverleaf.

But when it comes to the design, Saffron has no patience for what she says "belongs in the past." While developers with the LDS Church will likely move forward with the proposed design, it exists solely in two dimensional renderings, yet Philadelphia's top architecture critic has already relegated it to the bowels of the city's worst, with Dranoff's "Nightmare on Broad Street."

The LDS Church's apartment building doesn't just offer all residents unique views of the city, it's widest wall faces Vine Street's unsightly cloverleaf, blocking it from those who'd rather forget it's there. Unlike Cira Centre that flanks its western banks with modern design that defines University City's identity as unique, Stern's tower reaches across Vine Street and shakes hands with Center City's history, integrating Vine Street with the rest of the city as if it had always been there.

Its apartment tower offers more than nostalgia. Instead of facing Center City flatly, giving half of its residents a skyscraping view and the others a view of North Philadelphia, its narrow edge faces the city, offering all residents a compromising, angled view of the skyline with half facing the Parkway and the others facing the Ben Franklin Bridge. 

Beyond all the artistic rhetoric and intellectualism that only the schooled understand, it's not a dull building. It's not groundbreaking, but it doesn't need to be. It's crowned with upper floors gracefully tiered like The Drake or Rockefeller Center. Assuming developers don't skimp on materials it will be appreciated by those passing by and the general public, those that really matter.

As for the Mormon Temple and community center, they may appear to echo fanciful fairy tales or princess palaces, but they're not bland historic interpretations that attempt to fade into the shadows. Like the Basillica of Saints Peter and Paul across the street, the temple is bold. What makes the Mormon Temple look like a scene from Wizard of Oz is our local unfamiliarity with Mormon architecture. To an equally unfamiliar eye, Catholic architecture is just as bizarre. 

Developers with the LDS may not be attempting to elevate architectural design or art theory, but unlike Mac cubes and glass curtains that art critics continue to applaud for their absent presence, these projects along Vine Street offer something pleasant, classic, and lasting.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Kenney's LOVE Park

Between bringing drag queens to the Mummers Parade, massive legislation that could make Philadelphia the nation's most LGBT friendly city, and his attempt to minimize the penalty for marijuana possession, it might seem that Councilman Jim Kenney couldn't get any cooler.

You'd be wrong.

This deserves recognition.
With Councilman Clarke's wild pitch for seven restaurants within a newly landscaped LOVE park, and every rational Philadelphian's anxiety over a Sbarro on the park, or worse, seven For Rent signs, Councilman Kenney has recognized the park's historic place in the annals of skater lore.

I'll admit, I was never a skater despite growing up in the 80s and 90s. With my flannels and Nash board, I was a poser at best. But I'm very familiar with the history behind Paine's Park, and the long road and blind optimism that led to its reality. Despite LOVE Park's reputation amongst skaters, Paine's Park deserves every ounce of that reputation and then some.

Still, just a few short years after Ed Bacon skated across LOVE Park it deserves its recognition. Kenney's pitch to reserve a portion of the park for skate boards might be far fetched, but considering the reverence for the space amongst skaters it's a unique proposal, much more innovative that an inward facing food court.

Paleopolitical Pennsylvania

Former Representative Babette Josephs
Babette Josephs served the Pennsylvania House for fourteen terms, from 1985 to 2012. Not content to retire at age 73, Babette plans to challenge the wildly popular Brian Sims. Sims hasn't just shaken up Harrisburg by challenging the cronies who long for days when Babette Josephs was relevant, shattering the stereotype of the ineffectual freshman, but is quickly becoming a household name in national politics.

Sims is what's right with Pennsylvania's future. Josephs' inability to relinquish three decades of service with dignity - for whatever good she may have done in her time - is indicative of a past that too many Pennsylvania's are terrified of severing. 

Representative Brian Sims
New political blood is a rare treat in a state where prominent newspapers offer up retired mayors as the most hopeful solution to future problems.

As bad as it is that so many Pennsylvanians cling to the dinosaurs in Harrisburg, replacing Sims' fresh potential with Babette Josephs' fossil is a mistake even the most immutable Pennsylvanian can see. If Sims is leaving the Pennsylvania House anytime soon, it's for the Governor's Mansion or Washington.

MIC Tower

Philly Bricks usually breaks out in song anytime a developer dares exceed 200 feet. But the proposed Mellon Independence Center Tower near Market East barely elicits a "meh." The 429 foot mixed use tower designed by Stantec Architecture will be reviewed by the city's Historical Commission next week. You know, the guys who green-lit the demolition of the historic Church of the Assumption and Boyd Theater.

Let's step back though. I'm not mongering fear. Despite the fact that this is being wildly described as a tower above Lit Brothers, it's anything but. The Lit Brothers isn't a building, but a block of buildings tethered together by a century of bureaucracy. What we commonly refer to as "Lit Brothers," its iconic iron facade, will remain untouched however the commission rules.
In fact, Stantec's design is deliberate. Setback from both 7th and Market streets, it will remain largely unseen to pedestrians.

Renderings show the MIC Tower from an angle most can't access. To pedestrians on the sidewalk, the tower will only be visible on Filbert Street.
It's absent presence is evident in the tower's design as well, devoid of detail and color it is intended to fade into the shadows of better buildings. What makes the MIC Tower great is the fact that it isn't. Reminiscent of some of the latter Penn Center towers, it could set a precedent for new highrises in a desolate part of Center City. But hopefully it will also bring with it the adjacent - and better - architecture that masked how awful Penn Center really looks.

Of course Captain Obvious would point to the eight surface parking lots within a block of this site as a better location to build...anything. Unfortunately the politics of parking in Philadelphia is so complicated it has its own TV show.

Union Smack Down

After decades of terrorizing any developer, private or pubic, who dare screw in a light bulb without consulting a union, the city has remained silent. Despite public opinion, the region's trade unions reign is formidable and elected officials have routinely allowed them to operate within their own unofficial City Hall.

The Feds have another opinion. After ironworkers allegedly torched a Quaker construction site last year - you read that right, Quaker - the FBI has arrested ten members of Local 401 including its leader Joseph Dougherty.

The media is having a field day with the group which apparently referred to itself as "the helpful union guys," or T.H.U.G.S. But don't let journalistic romance, and its readers' short attention spans fool you. This is huge. The arrests coincide with the completion of Post Brothers' Goldtex Apartments, which succeeded despite an absence of union labor and leaders unwilling to compromise.

Federal attention on Philadelphia's notoriously difficult unions could be promising to a slew of proposed projects which otherwise intended to deal with the demons of doing business here. While developers in New York and Chicago are often backed with the funds to face unions, Philadelphia and Rust Belt towns are left with sensible proposals at the mercy of union extortion.

If the Mafioso tactics often employed by unions, allegedly or otherwise, are reigned in by the Feds, cities like Philadelphia could enjoy the growth Southern and West Coast cities continue to see despite a lack of pharmaceuticals, universities, and Comcast. Just imagine a Philadelphia skyline that plays by the same rules as Atlanta.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Divine Lorraine Will be Residential petitions have become the white noise of armchair activists, so it's no surprise that Eric Blumenfeld was taken back when asked him about Caryn Kunkle's online petition to convert his Divine Lorraine into a modern art space. 

In fact what he sayed was, "I'm shocked this is news." What might be more shocking is that Eric Blumenfeld was even aware of the petition. But Blumenfeld wasn't just familiar with the petition, but Kunkle herself. He offered her space inside the former Metropolitan Opera House, another landmark he's redeveloping. She declined, opting instead to seek twelve stories of free space in a government seized Divine Lorraine.

Her knowledge of economics may be as dim as her understanding of property law, suggesting on her petition, "Rather than condos which will be impossible to make profit from due to the crippling costs of repair..." 

Using profit as part of the argument is irrelevant. It's obvious Kunkle sees the space as a non-profit, perhaps even government owned public space. However, even if the city did take the petition seriously, pointed out she has no business model.

She also ignored the fact, or was perhaps unaware, that Blumenfeld plans to start renovations at the Divine Lorraine this year in conjunction with other North Broad improvements that include restoring the Metropolitan Opera House.
Rather than condos which will be impossible to make profit from due to the crippling costs of repairing
Rather than condos which will be impossible to make profit from due to the crippling costs of repairing
Rather than condos which will be impossible to make profit from due to the crippling costs of repairing
Rather than condos which will be impossible to make profit from due to the crippling costs of repairing

Friday, February 14, 2014

Michael Nutter's Love Letter to Comcast

It's Valentine's Day and Mayor Michael Nutter celebrated by kissing the boots of those who apparently run City Hall. Gushing about Comcast's potential acquisition of TimeWarner Cable, Philebrity posted the mayor's entire letter here, so I'll just list the gems.

"This transaction will provide millions more consumers with increased content and viewing opportunities."

I don't know if you've been to Hulu Plus lately, but I noticed recently that you're now required to log into your cable television provider to watch a bulk of its premium content. I'm no lawyer, but there is something about requiring me to pay for content three times - subscribing to cable television, internet, and Hulu Plus - has to be illegal. It's not surprising that Comcast owns a large stake in Hulu, and that this restriction is applied to Comcast affiliated content owned through NBCUniversal. Acquiring TimeWarner will put the vast majority of television in Comcast's hands, requiring all of us who've cut the cable cord to pay for this triple-dip to watch anything online.

"They deserve our gratitude and the City’s appreciation for pushing this great corporate citizen farther into the areas of technology and communications..."

Now I know Nutter is a politician and not a software engineer, but what - aside from a creative knack for avoiding anti-trust suits - has Comcast actually innovated?

"I am enthusiastically supporting this acquisition as I believe this is the ultimate triple play – great for consumers, great for the company and great for our city."

How do you write a really loud kissing sound?

Poop Slope

It looks like something you might expect to see in Oregon or perhaps the sequel to Gataca I'm still waiting for, but Scott Allen and Kristina Buller of Perkins + Will want to build a futuristic incineration plant on the Delaware River, one that would take all of Philadelphia's waste...and they want you to live in it.

It wouldn't just take all of the city's 200,000 tons of waste to power its own residential units, it would also provide power to 26,000 additional homes.

Center City's Final Frontier

Reviewing past proposals for last night's blog revealed an overwhelming number of failed projects in Center City's first, yet final frontier: the Delaware River.

The wild success of the Schuylkill River continues to defy local convention with endless projects coming to fruition, and developers eagerly sidle up to the river. Why not the Delaware? Had the waterfront's industrial infrastructure not been demolished for Interstate 95, would it be an extension of Old City today? Perhaps, but we'll never know.

America's favorite billionaire gas bag and comb-over enthusiast, Donald Trump, didn't bring its A-game to Philadelphia, neither in location nor style, particularly when compared to those in New York or Chicago.

But even without a sunken highway separating Penns Landing from Society Hill, the Delaware River has some ills that have nothing to do with Philadelphia's grid.

The truth is, the Schuylkill is the perfect urban river. It's conveniently sailed and kayaked, it's narrow enough to stroll across one of its many bridges, and most importantly, whichever bank you're on, there's something on the other side.

Mark Mendelson's Liberty Landing was one of the Delaware River's wilder proposals, claiming to be a city in itself residents would never need to leave. Pitched around 2002, it surfaced at an overwhelmingly optimistic time.

If the banks of the Delaware were lined with its post-industrial port environment, it would likely be Old City on the river. It would be a neighborhood, still detached from Philadelphia's core by a wide boulevard. It would be packed dense with lofts and nightlife, but with little room for recreation. Had that been its fate, it would be of no concern. Joggers would take to the Schuylkill Banks and the Parkway for their daily runs, just as they do today.

Varenhorst proposed relocating a restored SS United States at Penns Landing.

Penns Landing's debacle is two fold, and its cyclical problems continue to reaffirm themselves. Developers propose condos and apartments, then walk away because the moderate development that exists doesn't succeed, leaving it desolate for future developers to do the same. Dockside and Waterfront Square attempted to bring life to the Delaware River, buy isolated themselves behind suburban landscaping, offering no way for future development to interact. The Hyatt is Penns Landing's best attempt at urban design, yet despite its height, relationship with the sidewalk, and access to one of the interstate's best caps, its guest treat it like a suburban Hampton Inn, opting to drive to Society Hill for dinner.

The waterfront's absent development isn't its only obstacle. The Delaware River itself is massive, post-industrial, and intimidating. The Race Street Pier brings some of the quaint manageability that recreationalists seek in a park, but the bank's vast nothingness stares across a wide river at even less. As it is, it just isn't a pleasant place to be. Will landscaping change that or simply paint the nothing green?

Hargreaves Associates' latest proposal for Penns Landing caps a sizeable portion of Center City's I-95, carrying a large lawn to the water. But the most important component is residential.

Parks are typically a reaction to these dire situations, but successful parks and born from demand. As much as I enjoy the outdoors, Philadelphia already has some of the best urban parks in America and many are easily accessible by foot. Although developers continue to prove they see the Delaware River as a risky investment, the best solution for Penns Landing would be to replace the built environment that was lost.

The most important component in the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation's latest proposal will be residential as it brings its own demand for public space. Fortunately it was included in the plan, but requiring private investment, it will be the hardest component to sell.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The View from the Death (of competition) Star

If the federal government agrees to the merger, Comcast will be buying TimeWarner Cable for $45 billion dollars, or roughly the GDP of Costa Rica. Prepare you Dr. Evil pinkie. If you were wondering how Comcast pushed it's proposed CITC through City Council unchecked, we have our answer. Perhaps now we can look forward to Comcast's next architectural contribution, a Death Star hovering above the Schuylkill.

Philadelphia's Next Building Boom

Philadelphia seems to be experiencing its second building boom of the 21st century. While at the moment it exists as a series of renderings and proposals, the architectural excitement of a dramatically altered skyline is beginning to feel like a real possibility.
Looking back there are a lot of parallels. Some proposals that followed the Roaring 90s were better left on the drafting table such as Carl Marx Real Estate Group's World Trade Square, but others like Richard Meier's refined, world class Mandeville Place were unfortunately lost when the bubble burst.
Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center is obviously the most notable proposal today. With starchitect Norman Foster designing what will be the tallest building in the U.S. outside Chicago and New York at 1121 feet, Philadelphia's skyline will be dominated without convention.
Comcast Innovation and Technology Center
This isn't the first supertall proposed for Philadelphia. KlingStubbin's Center City Tower was proposed for the cleared One Meridian Plaza site. 1050 feet, at the time it would have surpassed any U.S. building outside Chicago and New York. 

Center City Tower

Liberty Property Trust hired Kohn Pederson Fox to design American Commerce Center for the current site of Comcast's ITC. At 1510 feet, it would have been the tallest building in the U.S. Unfortunately, neither proposition came with a tenant.
American Commerce Center
The architectural attempt to rebrand Philadelphia's corporate image in the early 2000s wasn't confined to Center City. Cesar Pelli's Cira Centre was the first phase in a master plan that would have put four crystalline towers on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, with more potentially capping the Amtrak tracks north of 30th Street Station.
KMCA Architecture's view of a complete Cira Centre
Although The Grove at Cira Centre South deviates from the master plan, FMC's proposed tower on Walnut Street, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, remains largely unchanged. At 656 feet it will easy be the tallest skyscraper west of the city's core.
FMC Tower at Cira Centre South
Carl Marx Real Estate Group's World Trade Square would have placed a massive corporate and residential complex on the Delaware River near Northern Liberties. Not the most exciting proposal save its mass, it's a plan that refuses to vanish.
World Trade Square
Waterfront Renaissance Associate's Alesker & Dundon Architects designed Renaissance Plaza shares its concept, although at 292 feet, less ambitious.
Renaissance Plaza
One of the most lavish proposals in this vicinity, and perhaps one of the city's most unusual ever, was Agoos/Lovera's 749 foot Bridgeman's View Tower. At the time, Bridgeman's View stood to anchor a new urban space, flanked by nearly a dozen midrise proposals. The newly developed neighborhood would have been an addendum to Northern Liberty's successful transformation, perhaps even serving as "Downtown Northern Liberties."

Bridgeman's View
Yet most of these never materialized leaving us with the worst of the bunch: the incomplete, gated Waterfront Square and SugarHouse Casino's sprawling suburban complex lacking its promised hotel towers. While SugarHouse plans to expand, it's expanding horizontally like a gussied up stripmall.
When the state expanded the Pennsylvania Convention Center, callously demolishing at least five landmark buildings, it promised an overwhelming demand for hotels we have yet to see. That didn't stop developers from hiring architects to give us an insight into what this could mean for the countless surface lots surrounding the center and City Hall.
An amazing W Hotel was proposed for 12th and Arch. Unfortunately we all know how that turned out.

W Hotel

W Hotel
But that hasn't wavered Starwood's interest in Center City. While a Waldorf-Astoria was once proposed for 15th and Chestnut, today it's the site of Brook Lenfest's W/Element Hotel proposal. At more than 550 feet, it could be the tallest hotel in the city.
Waldorf Astoria
Waldorf Astoria
W/Element Hotel
Around the corner at Broad and Spruce, Carl Dranoff has received approval to begin developing the SLS International Hotel, a hotel and residential complex at the site of Kenny Gamble's Philadelphia International Records. The historic temple to the Philadelphia Sound was destroyed by a fire and will be demolished, and a neighboring vacant lot will be transformed as part of the project.
SLS International Hotel
Developers are finally beginning to dip their toes into the untested water just north of Center City. The success of Tower Place, Goldtex Apartments, and Callowhill's burgeoning Loft District is beginning to prove that this post industrial wasteland is a valuable resource incredibly close to the city's core.
Once considered Franklintown, the corner of 16th and Vine has seen its share of visions, including several incarnations of a proposed Intercontinental Hotel. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, currently developing their temple next to the city's Family Court building, has hired Robert A.M Stern to design a 350 foot apartment tower at 1601 Vine Street. Echoing Stern's 10 Rittenhouse, the classic apartment tower is befitting a lush park. Although it faces the Vine Street Expressway, it also faces unrivaled panoramic views of the Center City skyline.
Apartment tower at 1601 Vine Street
Intercontinental Hotel
LDS Church apartment tower at 1601 Vine Street
Although developers opted for cheap materials at 10 Rittenhouse, using panels of preformed brick, the LDS Church's penchant for quality, knack for working with the city's trade unions, and endless stockpiles of cash, their apartment tower will likely be fit for the grand boulevard Vine Street may one day become, bookended with KlingStubbin's 282 foot Eastern Tower at 9th and Vine.
Chinatown's Eastern Tower
Once the site of Castleway Property's Castleway Tower, Toll Brothers has recently purchased the vacant lot at 1911 Walnut near Rittenhouse Square.

Castleway Tower
Meanwhile in Society Hill, Toll Brothers is prepared to transform the site of H2L2's proposed Stamper Square into something a little more subdued. Although Toll Brothers' development is finely scaled and likely won't ruffle any feathers, it reflects Toll Brothers corporate interest in satisfying their shareholders' bottom line. Simply put, the project is okay.
H2L2's Stamper Square
Toll Brothers' Stamper Square
Carl Dranoff's love for Philadelphia might not be completely visible in his work to date, but with two large projects on the table, it's evident in his ambition and continuous effort to leave his mark on the city. Despite the fact that architecture critic Inga Saffron continues to eviscerate his crown jewel, Symphony House, much of its ills lie in shoddy construction and cheap materials. At the time of its proposal, Symphony House was exciting, a grand apartment complex befitting a bygone era. The renderings showed another tower, one that complemented the Drake. Despite the cost cutting measures that left South Broad with a towering soap opera set, Dranoff's desire to bring luxurious amenities back to Philadelphia's elite is evident in Symphony House's heart.
Dranoff proudly continues to charge headfirst at his criticism, and his passion for Philadelphia's built environment is reflected in his reactions, writing op-ed pieces, while run-of-the-mill developers ignore criticism knowing very well they're only concerned with profit, and building crap. Whether one likes Symphony House or 777 South Broad, Carl Dranoff invests in the city he loves.
One Riverside
Dranoff's One Riverside lacks the creativity or uniqueness of his Broad Street projects but, much to the dismay of park enthusiasts, the heart is in its location. Contrary to what the NIMBYs may say, Cecil Baker & Partners' 294 foot One Riverside won't be burning tomato plants and blocking the sun, just redeveloping an ugly parking lot and offering tenants views of the river and University City's emerging skyline.
Of course One Riverside can't compare to Richard Meier's Mandeville Place, perhaps Philadelphia's greatest architectural loss from the Great Recession. It's 607 feet rose above the Schuylkill River like a sail. 
Mandeville Place
On West Market Street, the vacant lot once meant to be the site of the G. Fred DiBona Jr. Building's twin, 1919 has been untouched since the 90s. Brandywine Realty Trust has proposed Pennoni/Barton Partners' 1919 Market apartment tower at 367 feet, the last in a serious of enumerable proposals.
Finally, in the world of weird, Goldenberg Group has been vetted by several politicos as the choice for the city's second gaming license. If their Market8 Casino is approved and delivers its hotel component, it will exceed 450 feet, redefining Market East's less than desirable image, for better or worse.

Market8 Casino

Of course who can forget, the historic Gimbel's department store was razed for Disney Quest, Disney's failed attempt to bring indoor amusement parks to America's inner cities. While none remain and no renderings were ever delivered to Philadelphia, Chicago's proposal shows us what we would have expected to see at 8th and Market, albeit today, it would be faded and vacant.
Disney Quest