Friday, July 17, 2009

Moving over to

Starting today, my blog moves to's main blog site, which should make it easier to find. Wish me luck with the new posting format - It's the blog of 10,000 steps.

You should be able to find it here:

You can also read my regular Friday newspaper column on-line here:

Please write me at if you run into problems.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Out of the Pool: It's not just about race

If there was ever a story to push Code Red on our cultural buttons, it's the news that a private swim club in posh, suburban Huntington Valley (photo) decided to boot out a group of Northeast Philadelphia summer campers because of their race. This troubling story plays into several other narratives, and race is only the beginning of it.

It's worth remembering why the summer camp, Creative Steps, Inc., contracted with the Huntington Valley Swim Club in the first place. The answer, of course, is that Philadelphia was only able to open a token number of its public pools this summer because of the nation's devastating financial crisis, which has hit cities especially hard. The reduction in pool operations is just one more example of how America's fifth biggest metropolis is unable to provide its citizens with the sort of quality-of-life amenities that suburban dwellers take for granted. Not that anyone would have ever confused Philadelphia's no-frill public pools with those lush suburban oases like Huntington Valley, where the Olympic-size basins are surrounded by lawns and shade trees.
Inferior as they were, Philadelphia pools at least gave urban kids a small sense of what a normal, lazy summer is supposed to be like - the flapping around in the water, the pool fights, the shivering, the rush for the towel after your lips turn blue, the warmth of the sun. Now, without a neighborhood pool to cool off in, city kids have one more way to feel cut off from the mainstream of American life. I can't help wondering why the Nutter Administration didn't lease the city pools to private operators this summer People would have had to pay to use them, but the price could have been subsidized for the poorest of the poor, and the pools would have stayed open. Lots of suburban residents pay a fee to use their town pools.

But the fact is, it's gotten to the point where if you're an urban resident - black, brown or white, it really doesn't matter - you just accept it as your fate that your services won't be as good as your suburban neighbors. In the last few months, we've seen our firehouses closed, our park programs suspended, our branch libraries threatened and their hours reduced. The city has slashed funding for our great cultural institutions and for our beloved parades, which are so much at the core of our Philadelphia identity. It' not that suburban towns haven't suffered, too. It's just that most have a lot more resilience than the city, not to mention private resources. In places like Philadelphia, public amenities are often the only amenities.
Perhaps because this crisis has been so fast and deep, the long-standing inequities between city and suburban life stand out more sharply than before. Cities like Philadelphia bear huge cost burdens than the suburbs don't have to worry about. They spent a significant proportion of their revenue trying to deal with collateral costs of poverty, which leaves them with less and less for general municipal services. Meanwhile, suburbanites get to play for free in Fairmount Park which the city bankrolls. They file civil cases in Philadelphia law courts, which the city funds. They ride SEPTA, which receives its largest contribution from the city (And, remember, suburban risders pay the same fare for a long bus ride as city riders do for a short one).
So no wonder we're outraged when Philly kids pay their own hard-earned money to use suburban pools and then get thrown out. Even if the pool club's actions weren't racist, we know something is very wrong when there are some towns with big beautiful pools and others with none at all.

Rage Against the Dying of the Street Lights

This week, Changing Skyline goes into that good night and finds some nice lights. For an alternative point of view, take a look at this blog post. Only in University city!

By Inga Saffron
Inquirer Architecture Critic

The right lighting does wonders for an old city like Philadelphia. Just look at Baltimore Avenue, where a column of new street lamps is positioned among the fledgling sidewalk restaurants and secondhand shops. Come nightfall, the aspiring hipster hangout is dusted with a fairy glow that makes even the vacant storefronts look good.

Baltimore Avenue is the latest of Philadelphia's traditional shopping streets to win the battle with the automobile by ripping out the harsh highway cobra lights and replacing them with the cozy luster of pedestrian-scaled sidewalk lamps. The University City District, which raised $1.1 million to relight two blocks of the avenue between 48th and 50th Streets, staged a party last month to celebrate. Mayor Nutter even came to cut the ribbon.

Neighborhoods all over Philadelphia would love to get some of that Baltimore Avenue glow. And why not? Sidewalk lights have been shown to reduce crime, raise property values, and make an evening stroll more romantic. There's a reason Gene Kelly didn't sing in the rain under the yellow glare of a sodium-vapor cobra light.

But in these hard times, it's not getting any easier for neighborhoods to rage against the darkness. The city has always been ambivalent about giving up its cobra lights, which came into wide use with the automobile, and cast their functional blaze primarily on the street, rather than the sidewalk.

When the city's commercial districts first began to demand better light in the mid-1990s, City Hall struck a compromise. If the neighborhood raised the money to buy pedestrian fixtures, it would pick up the tab for electricity and maintenance. Now, it appears the Streets Department is reconsidering the bargain because of the current city budget crisis.

Mt. Airy USA, the nonprofit that is helping to revive the retail core of Germantown Avenue, was all set to start work on a $3.5 million lighting and streetscaping project when its director, Farah Jimenez, said she was told the city might not pay the future electric bills. Those installation funds were hard-earned and include, ironically, $500,000 from the city. Jimenez said it was one thing for a group like Mt. Airy USA to tap into government and foundation funding programs to purchase lights - and quite another to take on a long-term financial obligation. "We're a small, business-improvement district, with a tiny budget," she explained. "We feel like these lights are for the public good." And besides, she added, the city is already paying to keep the cobra lights on.

Her argument may be popular in the neighborhoods, but not necessarily in City Hall, where pedestrian lights are still often referred to dismissively as "decorative lights." Mt. Airy USA intends to go ahead with the work anyway. To be fair, the city's costs go up when pedestrian standards are installed, because they are spaced more closely than cobras, so there are more poles per block. Joseph M. Doyle, the city's top lighting engineer, estimates that a block of pedestrian lights costs two to three times more to maintain than cobra lights.
But in a citywide street-lighting budget of $14 million, how much extra can a few selected commercial corridors add to the electric bill?

Doyle said there has been no formal decision to cut off groups like Mt. Airy USA. The city has also vowed to support neighborhoods where pedestrian lights are in place, like Baltimore Avenue. But, Doyle added, "the costs are rising, and this is a time in which we're having difficulties with rising costs." Like the proposed library closures, which were later rescinded, it could be another instance where the city administration sacrifices the long-term health of its neighborhoods for meager short-term savings.

The Center City District's Paul R. Levy, whose group was the first to install pedestrian fixtures on a wide scale, believes in the power of light, and says the changeover from cobras did more to improve the fortunes of downtown than almost any of the organization's other initiatives. Since the CCD installed the first batch of acorn-shaped pedestrian globes - called brown rounds - in 1996, it has lined Center City's sidewalks with 2,100 fixtures. "This, to me, was about reclaiming the evening and the nighttime economy," Levy explained. "In the mid-'90s, Center City was a 9-to-5 place." Without a doubt, taxes from new businesses and restaurants have more than paid for the extra costs of maintaining the pedestrian standards.

You can argue about the design chosen by the CCD, which has since become the default style for neighborhood commercial districts. But those oval globes are inoffensive and blend well with the city's red-brick neighborhoods. The occasional trailblazer, like Manayunk, has opted for a modern design. South Street ordered the CCD lights, but had them painted red, presumably to evoke a festive boardwalk feeling.

More of a concern is when neighborhoods blind pedestrians with too many lights. Sometimes, the city insists on retaining its cobras even after the pedestrian standards go in. Finding the right light levels is an art as much as a science. Another problem is the gloom that shrouds some key blocks. You would think that Walnut Street from Front to Sixth Streets would be a prime candidate for pedestrian standards, but it's a black hole of darkness because the stretch isn't under the CCD's jurisdiction. Old City, too, has never pursued pedestrian lights. City Hall hasn't picked up the slack.

Too bad. The proper amount of light has always helped us find our way through the dark night. But increasingly, those pedestrian standards also sustain us through dark times.

Friday, June 26, 2009

One Small Step for the Delaware Waterfront

Today's column takes us down to the river.

By Inga Saffron
Inquirer Architecture Critic

Anyone who still believes that nothing changes in Philadelphia should have attended last week's Battle of the Architects at Festival Pier on the Delaware waterfront. The public event pitted four top landscape-design firms against one another for a chance to build a city park on a wildly overgrown finger pier at the foot of Race Street.

Two things about the evening are worth noting: It was clear that any of the shortlisted firms would do a first-rate job at Pier 11. And not one had gotten this far in the running by making a campaign contribution.

Serious juried design competitions are held in cities all the time, but it's been too long since Philadelphia sponsored one of this caliber. Think back to the last time the city held a contest for one of its Delaware waterfront properties.

The year was 2002. The site, the ill-starred Penn's Landing. Creating a good public space was apparently the last thing on then-Mayor John F. Street's mind.

The nine finalists were all developers - not designers - and included a felon who did time for drug trafficking. The so-called competition dragged on for 22 months, long enough to extract campaign donations from the applicants. Ultimately, the competition was canceled after one of the jurors was indicted in the shakedown.

No wonder we're still marveling that the city's Delaware River Waterfront Corp. - successor to the Penn's Landing Corp. - is putting design first.

The Pier 11 competition is different in other respects. After three decades of trying to force Penn's Landing to lead Philadelphia's waterfront revival, the city has broadened its horizons. As the agency looks beyond Penn's Landing, its goal is simply to turn a one-acre finger pier in the crook of the Ben Franklin Bridge into an attractive park.

If the city's ambitions are now smaller, they are also more attainable. Pier 11 is all of one acre. No one expects the $3.5 million pier park to carry the whole waterfront. The city intends to select a winner this summer and open the park in 2010.

It is reasonable, however, to expect the project to demonstrate that Philadelphia is not a place where design goes to die. This park - funded with a grant from the William Penn Foundation - needs to look great and feel great. Given the city's parlous finances, the park may provide the only ribbon for Mayor Nutter to cut before the next election.

The pier should be a hipster magnet, not unlike New York's new High Line - designed, incidentally, by one of the finalists, James Corner's Field Operations. At the same time, the park needs to be a comfortable respite for walkers, bikers, and families. Right now, not a single blade of grass or soft surface can be found along Center City's stretch of Delaware riverfront.

The four finalists all seem to appreciate the pier's place in the waterfront cosmos. While they weren't asked for fully developed designs, a couple ventured in that direction. Admittedly, all that blue-skying is irresistible. Yet some may be disappointed to learn that $3.5 million doesn't go far.

The most full-blown scheme came from Philadelphia's José Almiñana of Andropogon. The firm sees the pier as a demonstration project for the latest green gadgetry, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Although you have to admire the spirit, one result is that the public spaces seem to take a backseat to the educational aspects.

Field Operation's approach sounds a lot more fun. Corner, a Penn professor who likes to incorporate the gritty detritus of the Industrial Age, emphasized that the park should be "a great place to hang out." All he had to do was show slides of crowds at the High Line to make his case. But he acknowledges its gorgeous finishes are beyond Philadelphia's means, and he's more likely to use earth formations to sculpt the park.

W Architecture of New York sounded themes similar to Corner's, but with more emphasis on exploring the pier's physical properties and history. The group floated the intriguing idea of cutting off parts of the sturdy structure, to reshape the rectangular surface and let people engage with the water. That's another great idea that sounds expensive.

Perhaps that's why Brooklyn's Michael Van Valkenburgh dispensed entirely with clever ideas and instead touted his ability to work with a small budget. Unfortunately, such a hard-nosed attitude isn't very inspiring, and that's what this pier has to do for Philadelphia's neglected waterfront.

While this project may be modest, it must set the tone for the future. The city is about to embark on a detailed master plan for the central Delaware, based on PennPraxis' Civic Vision. Parks will be a tool to populate the waterfront with people and new development.

Pier 11 is a great place to try out new ideas. Unlike Penn's Landing, Race Street is fully tied into Center City's street grid. It's an effortless walk from the Mr. Barstool showroom at Second and Race Streets in Old City. You dip under I-95 and cross Columbus Boulevard at grade, with a traffic light.

What's good about the link may be hard to see right now, with cars racing to the I-95ramps and PATCO trains clattering overhead. The problem is that the city stopped thinking of this stretch as a pedestrian realm and let it decline. Sidewalks were cut off unexpectedly. The Delaware River Port Authority was allowed to colonize the
Columbus Boulevard corner to park its machinery.

As every finalist noted, the level of pedestrian comfort in this "upland" connection needs to be restored if Pier 11 is to succeed. It won't take much - new sidewalks, some landscape buffers.

The city might even treat the area as an extension of the pier park by opening up the fenced-off space under the bridge, where an old port building sits mothballed. The photographer Zoe Strauss, who organizes an annual photo show underneath I-95 in South Philly, has opened our eyes to the beauty of the highway's arcaded columns.

These are exactly the sort of improvements for which federal stimulus money is intended.

They're also improvements that will make this discarded zone an urban place again. Until that happens, no amount of good design will rescue the Delaware waterfront.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Does Dilworth Plaza Design Have Too Much Transit?

Here's today's column: Dilworth Plaza, Take Two. This is a followup to an earlier assessment I wrote in February about the Center City District's effort to remake the Rizzo-era public space in front of City Hall. You can also read it on

By Inga SaffronInquirer Architecture Critic

Most public space projects in Philadelphia tend to stew for years, so let's give the Center City District credit for placing its redesign of City Hall's plaza on a fast track. The drawings started making the rounds of Philadelphia's various design commissions earlier this year. Now, the CCD has released its "final" design for Dilworth Plaza.

Let's hope they're using that term loosely.

There's certainly much to admire in the plaza's renderings, which show a simple lawn, a flat multipurpose area, a cafe, and two curvy transit headhouses, wrapped in a cottony pouf of trees. But peek below the surface, specifically to the underground transit area, and this $45 million design by KieranTimberlake and Olin still has some miles to go.

The CCD's vision for Dilworth Plaza, completed only in 1977, is really two projects in one. It's an effort to create a worthy public space in Philadelphia's civic heart, one that is more park and less plaza. Yet, it's also a major transit project intended to provide a gleaming gateway station for the city's underappreciated underground rail network. The problem is that the transit portion is dictating the design of the public space in ways that are good for neither.

That's not to diminish the need for better transit stations. Both the plaza and SEPTA's City Hall station are in a disgraceful state. What should concern city and SEPTA officials is the grandiosity of the CCD's proposed transit room, which would span nearly two blocks below the plaza.

Let's remember that there is already a warren of underground transit facilities in the two blocks west of City Hall, ranging from the Broad Street subway station to the Penn Center concourses to Suburban Station's regional rail platforms. Is another big transit space below Dilworth Plaza really going to make this mess cohere?

Admittedly, a dank, winding corridor already exists under Dilworth Plaza, linking the city's Municipal Services Building to South Broad Street. It was created by Philadelphia's late master builder and planner Edmund Bacon as part of a then-innovative scheme to integrate transit, government services and the workplace.

Bacon imagined Philadelphians streaming into Center City by rail to pay taxes and obtain permits at the MSB's underground counters. Without stepping above ground or crossing a city street, people could follow the concourse to shops or a job in one of the interconnected Market Street office towers.

If the scheme was a bit utopian then, it's definitely outmoded today, since people increasingly pay bills and access city services online. We also understand now that people prefer to go about their business up on the sidewalks, in the light of day.

The CCD's Paul Levy recognizes that the concourse needs help. His organization, which is funded by downtown businesses, recently took over maintenance and has greatly improved its cleanliness. That experience is partly what got his private group interested in redesigning Dilworth Plaza.

The area, both above and below, is unnecessarily complex, with cumbersome changes in levels and inexplicable twists and turns.

Levy's initial concept was to simplify: Smooth things out on the plaza. Create a straight corridor below from north to south. Olin's simple, almost minimalist, plaza design acts as a welcome low-fat side dish to City Hall's ultra-rich facade. So far, so good.

But the transit portion has taken on a life of its own. Instead of just straightening out the underground passage, Levy and the designers now propose a large "transit room" - a full-size train station, really - that would provide a centralized entry for underground rail. For the first time, entrances to the city's two subway lines would face each other in one space.

But the proposed room is so vast that Levy is already talking about installing graphic panels to liven things up, perhaps with historical details about the construction of City Hall. "We think of them as one more reason to come down and take transit," explained Levy, the CCD's president.

Hmmm. Anytime history panels are needed to make an architectural space interesting, alarm bells ought to ring.

They're a sign that the transit room is overscaled. Subway riders don't linger in a station in the same way as suburban commuters, whose trains may depart only once an hour. It's also worth noting that more than 75 percent of riders now access underground rail from the area west of 15th Street. That's where the Market Street office towers are.

This is important because the centerpiece of the redesigned plaza would be two swooping glass headhouses leading to the proposed transit room. Designed by architect Richard Maimon of KieranTimberlake, they are very elegant structures, suggesting in their curves a giant circular frame for City Hall. But does Philadelphia need them?

I suspect that transit dominates the two-prong design because that's where the money is. Since the plan would provide SEPTA's subways with much-needed elevator access, Levy hopes to tap into federal transportation funds for at least a third of the $45 million cost, with the state and the CCD picking up the rest.

There may well be a case for making Dilworth Plaza the city's central train station. You can argue, as Levy has, that the city's subways should be more welcoming to tourists, who will be spending more time on Broad Street once the Convention Center shifts its main entrance there.

But to be convincing, you can't look at the plaza in isolation. The city needs to understand the role played by each of the three squares in this municipal plaza-land, as well as the plaza space in front of the Penn Center and Centre Square towers.

Every one of these spaces has a transit entrance. Perhaps Dilworth Plaza would be better off with different structures. A real restaurant pavilion would be nice, not just a cafe.

The city is belatedly forming a committee to look at the bigger picture. Meanwhile, the Dilworth Plaza redesign keeps chugging along, collecting city permits. Next up, the Art Commission on July 1.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More Paving on the Delaware

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation replaced the do-nothing Penns Landing Corp. only a few months ago, but already it seems to be succumbing to the same temptations. Chief among them: Paving over the Delaware.
As Jennifer Lin reports in today's Inquirer, the board of the new corporation is busy negotiating a lease with the yet-unbuilt Sugarhouse Casino that would give them the right to use the former incinerator site at the foot of Spring Garden Street for "overflow parking." That 11-acre site, which includes the adjacent Festival Pier, is one of the most marketable properties in the corporation's portfolio. Just a block from the Spring Garden stop on the Market-Frankford El, the waterfront site has the most potential to be integrated into Center City's fabric. So what gives with the casino lease?
Andy Altman, the departing Commerce Director and City Hall's champion of waterfront development, told me in an interview yesterday that the lease will only go into effect if SugarHouse decides to build a garage on its waterfront property, located a few blocks north near Girard Avenue. It will need to shift parking during the garage construction.
Right now, however, the casino operator isn't aiming that big. It plans only to build a slots barn and a very large surface parking lot on its 20 acres. But assuming business takes off, the operators say they will eventually build a 5,000-car garage. If that does happen, Altman insists that the incinerator site will be used for SugarHouse's overflow parking for, at most, 14 to 16 months. Meanwhile, the waterfront corporation earns a few bucks (a number to be determined, Altman says) from the lease.
There are a few problems with all of this. Most obviously is the symbolism of using the Delaware waterfront's prime development site to park cars. Haven't we had enough of this already? Especially when Mayor Nutter's Greenworks plan calls for 3,200 paved acres to be made porous to solve a different kind of "overflow problem" - water runoff. (See column immediately below) Then, as one corporation board member remarked to me, "I've never seen a surface lot disappear." That may be a slight exaggeration, but once a public agency discovers it can make money off parking, it's hard to let go. How hard will the DRWC try to market this parcel when it expects revenue from SugarHouse? The market may be in coma now, but it's bound to revive in a year or two. Will DRWC be stuck with SugarHouse's cars?
I did a little time-line calculation based on current expectations for SugarHouse and the implementation of the city's waterfront goals. In the best case, SugarHouse would open its slots barn in April 2010. Let 's say it takes another year to decide that the business warrants building a garage. If it starts construction in April 2011, the garage won't be finished until August 2012. That's being optimistic.
Compare that with DWRC's schedule: It hires a waterfront master planner this summer. The planning work wraps up around December 2010. Based on the recommendations in that plan, the city begins to solicit developers for the incinerator site shortly after the plan comes out. Say that takes a year. That brings us to December 2011.

What happens if the SugarHouse cars are still parked there? More likely, SugarHouse won't have started its garage by December 2011. The city says that if it has a developer for the incinerator site, it will find another site for SugarHouse's overflow parking.
The point is, all that is pretty far down the road and there are many unknowns. So why the rush to negotiate a lease now with a casino operator who hasn't even installed a single slot machine?
(Painting "SugarHouse and the Divide" by Noel Hefele )

Friday, June 12, 2009

Philly's Need for Green Acres

Here's today's Changing Skyline column:

Changing Skyline: Attacking asphalt
By greening its playground, Greenfield School is fighting back against the damage that gunk-laden storm water does in a paved city.

By Inga Saffron
Inquirer Architecture Critic
No matter how many times we've heard Philadelphia described as William Penn's "greene countrie towne," we know the reality is rather different. Cities are cities because once-verdant land is relentlessly paved and covered over time. That's how we civilize our world.
It's also how we mess it up. Every time the skies let forth a deluge, as they did with particular intensity this week, the city's asphalt-sealed streets and parking lots become churning torrents. The rain cascades to the nearest sewer outlet, picking up salts and oils along the way and overwhelming the underground system. As in many of America's older cities, Philadelphia's treatment facilities are incapable of handling the watery rush hour, so the overflow is released into the Delaware River, sewage and all.
The Philadelphia Water Department has been struggling for years to solve what it delicately calls "the overflow problem." One approach is to get people to consume less water, so less goes down the drain. No wonder the agency cheered a few years ago when Comcast announced it was bucking the powerful plumbers union and installing waterless urinals in its new skyscraper.
But reducing runoff from storms may be even trickier than negotiating with the well-connected plumbers. You can't simply unpave a city.
You can only try.
On June 26, the appropriately named Greenfield School will take a leap into a green new world when it begins ripping out its asphalt schoolyard as part of a Water Department pilot project. The hot, noisy, hard-surfaced schoolyard has been a staple of urban childhood, the scene of countless rounds of Double Dutch and tag. Now, the Water Department believes, it's time for the asphalt to go.
In its place, Greenfield, a public elementary school at 22d and Chestnut Streets, will plant a wide border around the perimeter of its schoolyard, nearly equal to half the playground's total surface. The green areas are designed to let rain percolate gently into the ground, cutting the schoolyard's contribution to the city's overflow problem by more than 80 percent.
Don't worry. Greenfield won't have to ban recess to help save the environment. The new schoolyard design - a joint effort by SMP Architects, Viridian Landscape Studio, and Meliora Environmental Design - reserves an island of asphalt in the center so kids can play basketball and other games. The remaining play areas will be resurfaced with a rubbery, porous material that absorbs runoff.

The unpaving effort, which is called "Greening Greenfield," was launched by a group of parents led, not surprisingly, by two local architects, Lisa Armstrong and Brett Webber. Initially, they just wanted to soften the school's harsh schoolyard, typical of so many Philadelphia schools.
But as they explored the options, they realized that the asphalt playground wasn't just a problem for Greenfield; it was bad for the whole city.
Others in Philadelphia were coming to the same conclusion. During his campaign, Mayor Nutter vowed to make the city a greener, more energy-efficient place. With the release of the administration's Greenworks plan in April, his ideas were translated into a real strategy.
Among its goals, the plan calls for the city to convert 3,200 acres of asphalt into fully pervious (that's the favored term) land by 2015. It may sound like a big number, but not when you consider that 67 percent of pre-World War II Philadelphia is covered with buildings and pavement. Rain simply rolls across all that surface to the nearest drain.
There are other ways to prevent a storm-water rush from overwhelming the sewers and polluting the Delaware River. The Water Department could construct huge underground cisterns, or catch basins, that would temporarily hold the water generated by a big storm.
But not only are such underground cisterns expensive, they need to be "the size of ball fields" to make a difference, says Howard Neukrug at the department's Office of Watersheds. Tearing up asphalt lots can be done cheaper and faster, and the new green acres have the side benefit of helping to cool the city's air temperature.
So why doesn't the Water Department start with a really big expanse of asphalt, such as the city-owned South Philly sports complex, where fields of parking spread out virtually to the horizon? A half-acre schoolyard hardly seems like an obvious choice for such a groundbreaking effort.
"We're looking at every square foot of surface area in Philadelphia and asking, 'What if?'," explains Neukrug.
That includes streets and sidewalks, too. But he argues that schoolyards are a good place to start because the greening does double duty, providing kids with shadier, healthier play areas while capturing runoff.
Actually, the Water Department is about to add another big incentive: a storm-water tax. In 2010, the agency will charge its nonresidential customers for the runoff their sites generate. The tax will be based on the amount of impervious surface, using GIS satellite technology to determine what's paved and what's green.
So, for instance, the owner of a fully paved, one-acre parking lot could see monthly storm-water charges rise from almost nothing today to as much as $400. Schools will be taxed like everyone else.
Although the Water Department gives schools a discount, the tax will be another burden, especially for public schools such as Greenfield. The new tax provided Armstrong and Webber with an argument to persuade the school that it was worth reducing its asphalt footprint.
It helped that their group was able to raise money for the project entirely from private sources. Greening Greenfield has collected $300,000 so far, enough to complete the west side of the schoolyard. Next year, the group expects to finish the east side.

SMP's design incorporates materials salvaged from recent construction projects at the Philadelphia Zoo and the Art Museum. They're also sculpting the new landscape with mounds that can be used as an outdoor classroom.
Both Armstrong and Webber believe it's not enough just to transform the schoolyard environment. They also want to change school culture by incorporating ideas about sustainability into the curriculum. Students will help plant trees in the new borders when they return in the fall. Ultimately, Armstrong and Webber hope to tap into federal stimulus money to install a green roof on the school, complete with a greenhouse.
Neukrug believes the project will inspire other schools, not to mention private landowners, to turn paved surfaces green. But until then, it remains an asphalt jungle out there.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Fantasy Towers Make the Biggest Noise

Put away the violins. Reading today's story in the Inquirer about how the would-be developers of the World Trade Center on Delaware Avenue were supposedly thwarted by the city's big bad bureaucracy and recalcitrant neighborhood groups, the inclination might be to mutter about Philly's never-ending cluelessness.

Actually, it's the developers who seem pretty clueless, if not outright disingenuous. After 17 years of pursuing this mega office project on the far side of Center City, I wonder if it's occurred to them that the real problem with their project is that Center City still has plenty of good office sites that go begging - and those are located just a few steps from the transit nodes at Suburban Station and 30th Street Station. Yes, this site sits at the foot of Callowhill Street, close to the Spring Garden stop of the Market-Frankford El, but getting there would still require an extra transfer for people coming in by regional rail. The fantasy workforce of 13,000 can't all arrive there by car.

Before the WTC-Philly becomes more than a gleam in the developers' eyes, it's likely we'll first see the construction of 1) a second Comcast building at 18th and JFK 2) some version of the wildly overscaled American Commerce Center at 18th and Arch 3) Brandywine Realty's mixed use office tower at 31st and Walnut. 4) a companion for Blue Cross at 20th and Market. 5) Some clever office tower to replace the one-story retail space-holders at 17th and Chestnut. 6) modest office development at the Navy Yard.

That is - if America's cities weren't already stuck with an oversupply of office space.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Lower Merion has waterfront troubles too.

June 5, 2009 - Philadelphia's struggle to coax walkable, urban neighborhoods from the fallow land near its two rivers is a much-told tale, filled more with disappointment than triumph. But it's a mistake to think this is a uniquely Philadelphia story. Lower Merion's got waterfront troubles, too.

If you're having difficulty picturing a Lower Merion coastline - other than the Gold Coasts of suburban Gladwyne and Penn Valley - it's probably because you've never had reason to venture down to those bottomlands on the Schuylkill. Downstream from the Flat Rock Dam, the banks were dominated for more than a century by the smoking furnaces of steel fabricators. Later, I-76's rumbling viaduct cordoned off the area from Lower Merion's manicured residential enclaves.

But just like Philadelphia, Lower Merion is now beginning to see its 20th-century industrial zones give way to new 21st-century neighborhoods. O'Neill Properties, the developer of the Riverwalk complex on Conshohocken's Schuylkill waterfront, is seeking township permission to build a 580-unit apartment complex at the end of Righters Ferry Road, on a 13-acre site that sits eyeball-to-eyeball with Philadelphia's Manayunk neighborhood.

This project could be transformative, not just for Lower Merion, but for that ambiguous bit of geography we call the Schuylkill Valley. There probably isn't another spot on the lower Schuylkill where two such urbane neighborhoods have a chance to bracket the narrow river channel so tightly, effectively completing it. There are two existing footbridges just waiting to take residents over to Manayunk's towpath and its Main Street restaurants.

Altogether, Lower Merion has almost a mile of undeveloped coast, including a 10-acre site owned by the Penn Real Estate Group. As the first development on Lower Merion's side of the river, the O'Neill site cries out for a plan that goes beyond the standard box-in-a-parking-lot model. Its architecture and open spaces need to forge a single urban space with Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, developer Brian O'Neill's proposed scheme is Riverwalk-redux, a barely improved variation on the atomized boxes that litter his section of Conshohocken's riverfront. The collection of apartments and offices, which are being rebuilt after a devastating fire last summer, are barely conscious of the Schuylkill's existence or, for that matter, the existence of the hilly streets of the old town.

Given the large site that O'Neill had available in Conshohocken, it's also bizarre that such a high proportion of his units have no water views. That's not just poor planning; it's poor business.
At least, the Lower Merion structures would all face the water. The plan calls for five U-shaped buildings, each one five stories tall and set on stilts over an open parking level. Roof height is 70 feet.

Orienting the buildings to the river isn't enough, however. Not only do those U-shaped apartments look like something O'Neill picked out of a pattern book, but they would actually be stranded in a lake of asphalt, containing 807 surface-parking spaces.

Why is that so many riverfront developers insist on paving over their verdant wetlands? As O'Neill's plan is now configured, there's barely enough space on the site for the township-required walking trail and "public gathering space." Believe it or not, O'Neill is trying pass off a small parking area at the trailhead as the public space.

The developer refused to be interviewed for this column. Both the Lower Merion and Montgomery County planning commissions already have sent up red flags, questioning O'Neill's approach. But the final decision will be made by Lower Merion's building and planning committee, which resumes hearings June 23.

One might expect that the suburban planners rejected O'Neill's project because of its high density. In fact, they applaud his effort to bring people to the river. What they don't like is the height of the five buildings: They wish they were taller.

With good reason. If O'Neill piled on more height, he could build fewer structures. Township zoning allows him to go to 120 feet, about 12 stories, in part because the waterfront site sits below a high ridge. Nobody's views would be blocked. Even better, the towers could be designed with structured parking on the lower levels, eliminating the need to pave over precious waterfront.

Taller buildings also would leave room for a more gracious walking path, which will be linked into the growing regional trail network on both sides of the Schuylkill. O'Neill's previous effort at waterfront green space in Conshohocken makes no connection to anything.

Looking at the site plan, it would appear that O'Neill's rationale for a low-rise, asphalt-heavy development is driven by short-term interests. The state building code allows structures under five stories to be framed in wood, rather than more expensive fireproof steel. Surface-parking lots also are cheaper than a parking deck.

But I'd wager that better design and landscaping would command higher rents in the long run, especially in a desirable location like Lower Merion, the most affluent town in Montgomery County and home to the some of the highest real estate prices in the state.

In an ideal world, the township would insist that O'Neill follow the same standards outlined for Philadelphia by PennPraxis' Delaware Waterfront study. Lower Merion would demand that Righters Ferry have a real street grid, with blocks and sidewalks. And instead of just requiring riverfront developers to include a walking trail,
Lower Merion would hand the builder a list of design guidelines.

But the part of the world that is Pennsylvania is far from ideal. The state does not allow its townships the same latitude as its cities in dealing with developers, complains township commissioner Elizabeth Rogan. So, while Lower Merion may weigh in on matters of use, density and safety, it is not permitted under state law to demand good urban design.

What Pennsylvania's government hasn't learned is that the boundaries between suburbs and cities are fast losing their meaning. Places like Lower Merion and Philadelphia are bound together by a common geography, the Schuylkill.

The river has shaped the region's political organization since colonial times, linking the settlements of Pottstown, Norristown, Conshohocken, Manayunk, and East Falls into the heart of Center City. The industry that formed them may be gone, but their close relationship remains just as important in the 21st century.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Where to find me....

Devoted readers of Skyline Online:

I'm hoping to resume this blog again in the near future. But in the meantime, you can find me and all Changing Skyline columns and news stories on Facebook. Please be my friend!

Inga Saffron