Monday, January 09, 2006

Demolition on 18th Street

This is how the four doomed 18th Street townhouses looked on Sunday morning, a day after Hal Wheeler began demolishing them to build a 33-story (397-foot-tall) condo tower designed by Robert A.M. Stern. Even though I've known this was coming, it's still a shock to see the old gents fall.

But it appears at this moment that the demolition is LEGAL, since Common Pleas Court Judge Matthew A. Carrafiello issued a ruling late last year supporting the developer. Although the project's opponents - Gersil Kay and Stuart Rosenfeld of Save Our Square - have appealed in Commonwealth Court, they never obtained a stay to prevent the demolition. Therefore, the developer was legally entitled to seek a demo permit.

I've always felt conflicted about this project. While Stern is a first-class hack architect, I don't buy the opponents' claims that his tower is too tall for the square. The tower is surrounded by tall buildings. Sure it's painful to loose buildings with real texture, like the four on 18th Street, but Stern's tower will be set back 15 feet along 18th Street and then replaced by new four-story structures. That means the scale of the quirky street will remain the same. And let's not forget that this project actually works for the cause of preservation by saving the facade of the beautiful Beaux-arts Rittenhouse Club. It's far more important building than any of the others. Unless staunch preservationists accept that cities need to accommodate intelligent change, they start to sound like luddites and lunatics.

I'll be writing more on the subject in Friday's column. But please feel free to vent on the issue here and now.

17 Comments:

Blogger Atrios said...

Agree with you. It could be a better building, certainly, but the project overall just isn't the objectionable and deifnitely not for the reasons the SOS people are against it.

11:50 AM  
Blogger eselba said...

I'm happy to see this addition to Rittenhouse Square. I just wish it didn't happen in such Philly fashion. You know...demolition by neglect a al Sam Rappaport...pre-dawn demolitions of facades on a Saturday morning, etc. I agree though that saving the building on Walnut Street was by far the most important piece of this process...

1:19 PM  
Blogger pjustind said...

"While Stern is a first-class hack architect..." i love it Inga...glad to have you back blogging again. missed you over the last few weeks.

1:48 PM  
Blogger mark said...

Cities that don't adapt die. We aren't Williamsburg, this is a living breathing huge city that needs to constantly reinvent itself and find means of revenue.

It's unfortunate that the 4 buildings of Rindelaub's row are being demolished and I personally have no burning opinion good or bad about the design of 10 Rittenhouse.

I do know that the economic spinoff on this new condo tower will be immense, it will also bring in dozens and dozens of millionaires from outside the city. Who knows, perhaps one of them just may be a fortune 500 CEO from the suburbs or NYC who decides to bring his business into the city with him.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Walnut said...

Blah, blah, blah. Philadelphia must adapt, evolve, etc. Right. This is what they said in the 1960s when we needed more parking.

Maybe the massing will be fine on the new buildings. Maybe we can't expect things to stay stuck in amber. But there is no question that demolishing these buildings changes the function and texture of 18th.

It seals moves the streetscape from the 19th Century (small individual buildings, small shops) to the 21st Century (larger, chain retailer, big, slick building). Function and character change even if the massing stays similar.

My $.02.

10:07 AM  
Blogger mark said...

If you are so fascinated by 19th century streetscapes move to Paris. This is 2006 and urban cities in the USA have a hell of alot more to worry about than quaint streetscapes.

Philadelphia has about 500,000 people living near or below the poverty line. A pizza shop, bike shop and corner hardware store are not a necessity.Conversely, A $200 million dollar condo project that will bring hundreds of construction + hospitatlity jobs, and house 200 millionaires( who will pay at the very minium 4.3% city wage tax) is a necessity for this city, at this particular time.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Walnut said...

We can't have our cake and eat it too?

Some great moments in progress from the recent past:

Get rid of streetcars. They block traffic.

Build more parking so the suburbanites will have an easier time shopping in the city.

Build a highway on the waterfront so that regional traffic can get to Delaware faster.

Is there some truth to these arguments. Sure. But they don't tell the whole story. Streetcars moved far more people than the motorists inconvenienced. Getting rid of them made traffic worse, not better. Building parking lots resulted in fewer buildings, and the city was never able to compete with plentiful suburban parking. Retail declined anyway. A highway on the waterfront has great regional utility. But it is the bane of waterfront development, which in most cities is worth billions of dollars in real estate.

Is it a mistake to tear down four buildings off the square. Maybe, maybe not. But skepticism can be healthy in Philly, where so many decisions are made ad-hoc rather than as part of a careful plan and strategy.

Move to Paris? Very sophisticated suggestion. I might as well tell you to move to Tokyo to experience the full glory of life 2006.

I have nothing against condos. On the contrary, I am involved in building more of them. But I would like to see higher density spread a little more towards the fringes of Center City in order to attract amenities to those areas.

Also, the wage tax taxes wages, not capital gains. How many people in this tower will get most of their income from capital gains? How many are retired? I have nothing against multi-millionaires, but I do wonder whether this tower will do much to improve life in Gray's Ferry.

6:02 PM  
Blogger amusing said...

Hey mark, the issue is not "quaint streetscapes" -- those streetscapes make a city feel livable, make a block part of a vital urban fabric, link past and present, lure tourist dollars. Philadelphia is a rarity in the 21st century -- a "walking city" and scale of buildings and parking garages with no sidewalk contributions (900 block anyone?) detract from everyone's experience of the city. And if you want to bring jobs downtown, then some of the larger, more complex issues to look at might be issues like mass transit (to bring workforce in and out), city wage tax and the groan-inducing business privilege tax.

As for Stern and hack-rate work -- have a look at the truly wretched Stern building just completed on the greensward at Penn. Sigh. What a wasted opportunity. I don't understand the siting. And the design is post-modern blah. So, I guess I'm suggesting Stern's the go-to guy for great post-modern blah.

6:34 PM  
Blogger Overbrook said...

I for one am glad to see this project finally start. It has been discussed for about 7 years. This is the type of building we need in Center City. Those buildings on 18th street were not worth stopping a project of this magnitude.

6:47 PM  
Blogger davidtraub said...

Inga, you assert in you article of
1/13/06, that historic districts
"don't freeze a place in time; their role is to control change."
No city should be frozen in time, even eternal Rome,which is one big
historic district,is not frozen, but nowhere in the historic district ordinance is it written
that its purpose is to "control change". That is more the function of a city plan. Such an
an understanding of the ordinance
is a distortion
The purpose of a historic district
is to preserve the overall historic
character and ambience of the designated section of the city.
Indeed,there are legal mechanisms
contained within the ordinance for
allowing exceptions, but allowing
exceptions must be carefully
considered by both the community
and the courts if the integrity
of the historic district law is
to be maintained.
You mention, different categories
of historic buildings in your
article. Yes, the ordinance does speak of "significant and "contributing" buildings, but the "contributing" buildings, in their aggregation, are just as important as the "significant"
ones like the Dilworth House.
Tear down the "contributing" buildings and all you have left is a few "significant" buildings
standing isolated in an unrelated
context, be it a complex of new
structures or a surface parking lot. Even historic districts like
a contribution.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Chips said...

Quite

12:21 AM  
Blogger Chips said...

Quite

12:21 AM  
Blogger Arthur J. Petrella said...

I can't imagine that no one challenged Mr Brownlee's assertion that building booms don't produce good architecture. Surely in Philadelphia the 1850s, 1920s, and 1980s contradict his dictum. To use the PSFS building as the only standard is sactamonius, pompos, acedemic dribble. The most modern skyscrapers of the late 1980s are much more interesting and trilling than the squat rectilinear boxes of the 1970s.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Arthur J. Petrella said...

Trump Tower/Parking Podium

A high rise building whether residential or commercial that sits on the street grid with it's base serving as a parking facility is in every way an affront to the nature of the street and the pedestrian who passes by it. But we shouldn't be to hasty to apply this criticism to the proposed Trump Tower. This building site is much like a suburban space that exists independantly from the dense 18th and 19th c. street grid which makes up most of Philadelphia. How it got that way isn't at issue but at this point in time it may make sense to treat it like one would an Atlantic City casino which one appraoches only by auto.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Arthur J. Petrella said...

Brownlee Comments on PSFS

PSFS was not a product of the depression but was deigned, planned and financed in the years from 1926 until nov 1929 when ground was broken, coincidentially a week after the stock market crashed. It's architecture at it's greatest comming out of the 1920s building boom!!!

7:22 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I'm from the Buffalo area currently, but I lived outside of Philadelphia from 1989 to 1997. My family and I enjoyed that area and were very sad to leave. I just want to make a comment about protecting our past.
In Buffalo, it seems like every building is being saved from being taken over by a company or a real estate group trying to make the plot usable. Instead Buffalo is dotted with hundereds if not thousands of older buildings that are sitting there rotting. The older the building is the harder it is for someone to make adequate changes for business and for living. That is why development is so parse in the Buffalo area.

While it is sad to see Rindelaub's Row go, it just can't serve the city like the new plan is. I have to say I like the design of 10 Rittenhouse and the fact that they are going to rebuild the store fronts means that the area will serve more of a purpose.

So, it's not only for the sake of progression that something like this happen, but its also to ensure that your city doesn't experience what Buffalo is. There are still plenty of older Buildings, especially in Old City Philadelphia.

2:29 PM  
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10:35 PM  

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