Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ask for Concessions, Don't Make Demands

Out of the many dead proposals forgotten in the wake of the Great Recession, none stood to alter how we see Philadelphia like the collection of skyscrapers and high-rises that were proposed along the Delaware River near Northern Liberties. 

What we ended up with was a truncated Waterfront Square and a gussied up casino barn, both isolated from the sidewalk behind surface lots and gates. The worst played out.

Somewhere between the best - Bridgemans View - and the worst - SugarHouse Casino, was Trump Tower.

Less suburban in scale than Waterfront Square, but easily as isolated, Trump Tower was a building that would have blended in fine were it in Center City. It's design was handsome, if a bit dull, but also lacked the brassy adornments that tarnish Donald Trump's otherwise attractive skyscrapers (Atlantic City obviously excluded). 

Well, according to, it's back, sort of. If you follow Philadelphia Magazine on Facebook you saw the "get out of our town" comments begin piling up because, well, the internet, and no one can be bothered to read more than a headline. 

The Trump Tower isn't back, and it seems that, for now, the Golden Combover is done with Philadelphia. What is back, maybe, is the proposal. The land has changed hands, and the new owners want to use the Trump Tower proposal as a template. While the permit does't expire until 2016, the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association has already piped up against the resurrected proposal.

Bridgeman's View

Unfortunately, the Northern Delaware's proximity to Northern Liberties and Fishtown tethers it to nearby NIMBYs as a technicality, despite the fact that the established waterfront and its development goals could not be more at odds with the neighborhoods on the other side of Delaware Avenue. 

For decades, nearby NIMBYs have stymied development along the river, and their actions are indirectly responsible for the river being dealt the shittiest deck. Residents of Waterfront Square would do themselves a favor by creating their own neighborhood association, one that embraces the same height, panache, and amenities that would drive up their own property values. As it is, they face a dilapidated pier, one that nearby neighborhood associations seem resigned to keep. 

Unfortunately what's happening here, and is all too apparent in neighborhood politics, is a case of "if I can't have it, I don't want to see it." Waterfront Square does very little to tarnish the sight lines of the Delaware River, and an even more attractive high-rise would only enhance it. Skyscraping apartment buildings line Lake Michigan in Chicago and it doesn't hinder their enjoyment, it puts more people on the lake and makes it exciting. 

There are plenty of places in Philadelphia to escape the drudgery of the workweek, and a lively river next to an interstate and wide avenue isn't it. Dense development near the Schuylkill River finally provided a reason to invest in the Schuylkill Banks, and that investment is putting more bedrooms on that river. 

Resistant neighbors near the Delaware River are likely worried that more development, particularly high-rises, will cause development to snowball. But that's exactly what should happen if we ever expect the Delaware River to see the kind of improvements that have saved the Schuylkill Banks. The truth is, the Delaware Waterfront doesn't belong to Northern Liberties and Fishtown residents anymore than it belongs to someone from Chinatown. The voice that should be considered is the voice of those who actually live there. 

I say bring it on. If the pier's new owners want to develop a luxurious high-rise catering to Philadelphia's elite, why not? If NIMBYs are truly concerned about the fate of the river, and public access to it, they should be working with developers, not against them. Don't repeat the mistakes that gave us Waterfront Square and SugarHouse, digging feet into the sand against an inevitability, landing us with the worst. 

Ask for concessions, don't make demands. How will Trump Tower 2.0 be integrated into the neighborhood? Are developers willing to offer publicly accessible space? Are they willing to invest in street and sidewalk improvements beyond their property line? 

It's knee-jerk to assume the worst, but Philadelphia NIMBYs are notorious for doing just that. A little bit of nice can go a long, long way. But if NIMBYs are just going to shout demands and make unjust claims, it understandable why any sane developer wants to put up a wall. 

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