Monday, November 28, 2005

The Center City Parking Debate That Wasn't

The staff at the city Planning Commission are a cowed and beaten-down bunch, so we shouldn't have been surprised when their long-awaited study on Center City parking made only a single recommendation: It boldly called for more discussion. Still, when we heard the study was going to be presented to the full commission on Nov. 22, we rushed over, hoping to hear a gloves-off exchange on the merits of such things as limiting above-ground garages, sharply raising the price of neighborhood parking permits and banning garage-fronted rowhouses.(See my Nov. 18 Changing Skyline)

After listening politely to Senior Planner Debbie Schaaf's Cliff Notes version, the commission voted unanimously to accept the study - without discussion.

But don't worry - the commissioners are earning their five-figure salaries. When lawyer and mayoral stand-in Michael Sklaroff asked for a change in the zoning law to speed along the Marina View Towers project, the commissioners plunged into a spirited, 15-minute-long discussion on the best way to resolve his problem.

As for the parking study, look for it on a dusty shelf in City Hall.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Condo Tower Becoming a Major Opus

A lot of people in Center City have been anxiously awaiting the final design of Opus East's 38-story condo building at 20th and Market Streets. Opus, a huge national company that builds everything from industrial flex spaces to housing, originally wanted to prop its tower on a nine-story parking podium. Fortunately, the Center City Residents Association stopped that clunky, anti-urban design in its tracks.

Opus, to its credit, went back to the drawing board, and the tower has gone through at least two redesigns. Opus, which is partnering with Philadelphia Management, is scheduled to reveal its latest version at a meeting sponsored by the CCRA on Nov. 29, at 7 p.m. in the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion at 2110 Chestnut Street. The renderings seem to be a closely guarded secret - not even the CCRA's point people have seen them. But an executive at Opus told Skyline that this version splits the parking garage into two parts: three levels go underground. Three remain above.

It's an improvement, but it probably won't fly with the CCRA, which is in the midst of a wide-ranging neighborhood planning study. Although the CCRA report is far from finished, consultant John Gibbons of Kise Straw & Kolodner, has been a strong advocate for requiring Center City developers to bury their garages.

Craig Guerrs at Opus complains that the existence of underground streams make it technically difficult for his company to construct more than three underground parking floors. Gibbons says that's nonsense, and notes that Opus' neighbor, the Blue Cross tower, has four parking levels below ground. The design of the parking decks is a big concern for the people in Penn Center House on JFK Boulevard. Their windows will be separated only by a narrow alley from the new tower.

I suspect that parking won't be the only thing wrong with Opus' proposed tower. The project is being designed in-house. Judging from the projects shown on the company website, Opus tends to favor clunky, bottom-line designs - more like the stuff on JFK Boulevard than the stylish Murano tower now going up one block west, at 21st and Market Streets. It will be interesting to see what materials the company proposes for the facade of the Philadelphia tower.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Gaetano Pesce Pushes the Limits in Philadelphia

Gaetano Pesce, the radical Italian-born architect/product designer/artist, will be in Philadelphia Friday, Nov. 18, to accept this year's award from Collab and inaugurate an exhibit of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Pesce is scheduled to talk about his work at 8 p.m. in the museum's Van Pelt Auditorium. Pesce (b. 1939) is one of those renaissance men who has worked in architecture, theater, film, and design, turning out functional housewares and mind-blowing art.

How 'Bout Those Lights

In case you missed ABC's camera pans of the Philadelphia skyline during Monday night's unfortunate Eagles game, check out these great photos of the artful lighting of the Cira Centre on PhillySkyline by B. Love. The Cira's LEDs put other recent lighting projects in the city to shame.

Friday, November 11, 2005

University of Pennsylvania's glamour Architects

The University of Pennsylvania has been going out of town lately to hire some big name architects. The latest coup is Fumihiko Maki, the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect. He will design an addition (pictured here) to the Annenberg School for Communication. This little glass building - four stories, 40,000 square feet - will house the Annenberg Public Policy Center, created, at least partly, to provide luxury digs for Penn's prominent political soothsayer, Kathleen Hall Jamieson. The addition, which will sit on the footprint of the former Hillel house, includes an auditorium built to specs provided by the folks who run the quadrennial presidential debates. If Penn gets the building done in time for the 2008 elections, Philadelphia may be able to bask in the national limelight, at least for a few nights.

Meanwhile, the University Museum has also started to think big. London's rising architecture star, David Chipperfield, is about to begin work on a master plan for the grandmother's attic of a museum. The University Museum, which was conceived in 1886 by Wilson Eyre as a sprawling Tuscan hill town, features some charming Arts & Craft details and fabulous domed spaces by Rafael Gustavino's tile company, but it is indeed a daunting mess for visitors trying to navigate through its halls. A Romaldo Giurgola wing in the '70s helped only slightly. If Chipperfield, who is working with Philadelphia's Atkin Olshin Lawson-Bell, can bring order to the place, more power to him.

Chipperfield is becoming one of the go-to museum architects. He won high marks for the Figge Art Museum on Davenport, Iowa's Mississippi waterfront, particularly for helping give that forlorn city a renewed sense of place. He was also hired recently to put an addition on the St. Louis Art Museum. Interestingly, no budget has been set for the Penn project.

But hiring a big name architect hardly guarantees a good result. Rafael Vinoly, who gave Philadelphia the impressively-conceived, but poorly-executed Kimmel Center, has crept back into town to design a $232 million Center for Advanced Medicine at Penn, on the former site of the Civic Center. Vinoly must have been confused about the location, however, because the building looks like something you'd find in the Great Valley Corporate Center.

Not to be outdone, Robert Stern has done even worse with his McNeil Center for Early American Studies at 34th and Walnut Streets. Designing a faux Georgian brick box is bad enough, but isn't Stern embarrassed to use those cheap white window frames when the frat house next door has real limestone lintels?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Docking on the Schuylkill River

Some days it feels as if the Schuylkill Banks (as the Center City riverfront is now called) will never be finished. Then some huge piece of machinery lumbers onto the asphalt recreation path and a new amenity appears. This time it's a pair of boat docks: One went in last month at the foot the Walnut Street Bridge, the other at Bartram's Garden. The docks are designed to handle small tour boats and pleasure craft. Sometime late next summer, after a third dock is installed at the Waterworks, you'll be able to take the Cabin Cruiser for a six-mile, round-trip spin on the Schuylkill River.

The Schuylkill River Development Corp., which raised $615,000 to pay for the first two docks, actually has much grander plans in store. Since few people are fortunate enough to keep a motorized pleasure craft tied up in Center City, they are looking to hire a tour-boat operator to run scheduled cruises. By spring, you may be able to buy a ticket for a moonlight champagne cruise on the Schuylkill, or hire a boat for a wedding reception. They also want the operator to offer daily, hour-long trips for school groups. Once people get used to thinking of the lower river as a place to play, there are any number of ways it can be used. Drop some ideas here, or send them to the SRDC.

Unfortunately, things are not exactly cruising along with the Schuylkill Banks' landscaping. You could outfit a new Rittenhouse Square faster. Construction workers were suppose to wrap up the riverfront landscaping in October. The project involves softening the edges of the asphalt path with plantings, seating and other amenities. But workers were nowhere near being done when last month's heavy rains came. The flooding destroyed the stone work at what is supposed to be the park's centerpiece - a stepped amphitheater going in near the Market Street ramp.

Now the contractor and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are haggling over who should pick up the tab for re-building the tiers of stone steps. Don't expect a fully landscaped park before next spring.

Incidentally, in case you've been wondering how to get onto the docks from the land side - you haven't lost your mind. There are no gates. They will be installed later this month. SRDC officials promise.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Michael Sklaroff: Leave Planning to the Developers.

During the last mayoral election, John Street dispatched Michael Sklaroff, the politically wired zoning lawyer from Ballard Spahr, to serve as his stand-in at a candidate's forum. Sklaroff spent a good part of the evening vigorously defending several controversial Center City garage projects. Or, rather, his defense was vigorous until he was outed by a questioner, who wanted to know why he never disclosed that he was the attorney for the developers of those projects.

Now Sklaroff, who is also chairman of the city Historical Commission, has a new crusade. He has gone on the attack in the Daily News to defend the honor of the city Planning Commission from such critics as yours truly, who have suggested that too many building projects are green-lighted without serious planning consideration. In a classic example of circular logic, Sklaroff argues that Philadelphia planners must be doing a good job because plenty of stuff is being built. "The marketplace has arrived," he chortles.

Sorry, but a strong market is not the same as planning.

The great tragedy of Philadelphia's current building boom is that it taking place in a planning vacuum, without any serious discussion of where high-rises should be located, whether it makes sense to build 40-story towers in neighborhoods outside of Center City, how to handle the increasing demands for parking, or how to protect views of the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers.

Sklaroff praises the city's "waterfront plan." But it's not a plan at all. There was a waterfront bill - introduced by Councilman Frank DiCiccio - that created residential zoning on the Delaware. It also required a 50-foot setback from the water's edge so that a recreation path could someday be constructed. Anyone who has spent any time in Vancouver, Seattle, or even in Wilmington, Del., knows that a waterfront plan needs to include some sort of financial strategy for realizing such a path. It also needs clearly articulated guidelines describing how tall and wide those new waterfront towers should be. The Planning Commission's "plan" includes no such strategy and no such guidelines.

Sklaroff's arguments - which sound good as long as he is the only guy in the room - prompted a strong rebuttal in the Daily News from architect Harris M. Steinberg, executive director of the Penn Praxis School of Design. "Sklaroff would have you believe that the development world has the public's best interests at heart," Steinberg writes.

Sklaroff argues that the The Plan for Center City, prepared in the mid '80s, provides all the planning guidance that downtown needs. Though a wise and enlighted document when it was published in 1988, that plan is terribly out of date. As a result, developers are frequently forced to seek variances for perfectly reasonable projects. And who do you think gets paid for acquiring such variances? The absence of modern planning and zoning laws is like having a license to print money for zoning lawyers like Sklaroff

All you have to do is walk past some of the new garages in Center City to see what the lack of planning is doing for Philadelphia. Powerless planners are a real estate lawyer's best friend.

The Chronicler of American Modernism Comes to Drexel

Architects like Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler and Pierre Koenig created the houses that defined California modernism, but it was photographer Julius Shulman who infused them with an irresistible glamour. His softly atmospheric, black-and-white photographs, like this one of the Kaufman Desert House by Neutra, perfectly captured the mood and the times, as well as the architecture. As anyone who has ever flipped through Architectural Record knows, few photographers are capable of conveying a whole world in a single image.

Shulman stumbled into architectural photography in 1936, and believe it or not, he is still active. Frank Gehry pressed him into service after his Guggenheim Museum was completed in Bilbao. Now Drexel University's Mark Brack, an architectural historian, has convinced him to make a stop in Philadelphia to share his photos and anecdotes. The 95-year-old photographer will display his prowess with PowerPoint at a guest lecture on Tuesday, Nov. 8 at 6:30 p.m. in Drexel's Bossone Auditorium, 32nd and Market Streets. The lecture is free and open to the public. For those who can't make it to Shulman's retrospective at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, it's a great opportunity to see a survey of his long career.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Upside of the Septa Strike: A View from Philly's sidewalks

Reading the Inquirer's coverage of the Septa strike, which appears to be written largely by automobile-obsessed suburban residents, you would think that every stranded commuter has taken to the roads and is spending two hours a day fuming and spitting inside his car. Not true!

For some, the strike has been liberating. Instead of the morning roller coaster ride on a Septa bus, this commuter and her 12-year-old daughter have been enjoying invigorating two-mile walks to school and work. You can't ask for better strike weather than the last three days, and the sidewalks have been filled with legions of other commuters-turned-pedestrians. Today, we took a pleasant bike ride along the Schuylkill River path to school. Of course, the ride became somewhat less pleasant once we exited onto city streets and encountered long lines of strike-stressed motorists. Why do bicycles make you invisible?

Still, we know the weather isn't going to stay this lovely forever. You would think that some elected official - Mayor Street? Gov. Rendell? - might be concerned that a major metropolis of 1.5 million is paralyzed by a mass transit strike. But not yet. They've been taking a strangely laissez-faire approach to the Septa walk-out. Street assured us in this morning's Inquirer that he would get involved at "the appropriate time." Excuse us, but isn't that, like, now?