Monday, April 17, 2006

A Window on Better Philadelphia High-Rises

Most architecture firms that get a coveted, month-long gig in the AIA Bookstore's shop window tend to use the space as a vanity exercise, with pretty renderings of their latest projects. Sandvold/Blanda, which occupies the mini-gallery until the end of April, has instead chosen to turn the window into a soapbox. From its stage at 17th and Sansom Street, the firm has issued a call to arms for planning reform in Philadelphia, to help cushion the arrival of the skyscraper brigades. "We call for an open discussion of planning in order to create an articulate, thoughtful zoning policy," they declare in the text that accompanies a display of three architectural models.

The Sandvold/Blanda window is yet more evidence that Philadelphia's planning crisis is now out in the open. Just last week, Paul Levy, of the Center City District, told a Union League crowd that the city needs to start treating urban planning seriously again. Levy has often argued the point privately, but his remarks were the first I've heard him speak so frankly in public about the debased state of the Planning Commission. I've written dozens of columns talking about how the Rendell and Street Administrations have muzzled the planning staff in the name of fostering a friendlier business climate in the city. Now all sorts of city leaders - from the heads of neighborhood associations to city council members - are beginning to question City Hall's laissez-faire approach to zoning. There's even hope that planning and zoning reform could be major issues in the next mayoral election.

Sandvold/Blanda don't just complain about the situation, they offer alternatives. Their window display includes three models of multi-story buildings, starting with a mid-rise and moving progressively into skyscraper territory. These prototypes are meant to show that every new tower doesn't have to be a variation of Symphony House, a big cheesy slab balanced atop a blocky parking garage. Unlike some opponents of the skyscraper invasion, who are still waving the flag for keeping Philadelphia a low-rise, rowhouse city, Sandvold/Blanda don't object to tall buildings; they simply want them to respect the city's traditional building values. That doesn't mean dressing up the new towers in historic costumes, like Robert A.M. Stern's Park Avenue Revival design for Rittenhouse Square. Philadelphia's greatest architectural legacy is its human-scaled, walkable urbanity. In their manifesto and their models, Sandvold/Blanda argue that forthrightly modern buildings can carry on that legacy, so long as they follow the five "rules of development."

So, here are The Rules, according to Sandvold/Blanda: New towers should come to the street line. They should have clearly demarcated cornices to acknowledge their shorter neighbors. They must have active ground-floor uses such as retail. The towers should step back at strategic points to preserve light, air and views. The towers should be topped with a sculptural "party hat." Even though their models are intellectual exercises meant to demonstrate how the rules work, each one feels like a richly textured and carefully detailed building. You can see renderings of two of the models here. For the full effect, walk over to the AIA Bookstore. Given the gorgeous spring weather, what other excuse do you need?


Anonymous HospitalityGirl said...

Kudos to someone in the architechtural/building community finally forcing this issue to the fore, and into the big M word--the "M"ayoral campaign. Inga has done her part to beat the drum about planning, and the lack of it in Philadelphia (one of the benefits of a free and open media), and it is time for others to see the merits of this issue. I will take a walk by this window to study it. It is time for the politicians in this city to see that planning and revitalization go hand in hand. Planning doesn't kill the City. Now, about the BPT and NPT...

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Kurt said...


4:39 PM  
Blogger Stealth43 said...

Yeah excellent work all around, its a pity no one outside of these circles is listening, or for that matter cares about the future more than the almighty short term buck. This really does need to be dealt with, but I just dont see any of our lovely little poli- blood sucking creatures being willing to handle the hot potato.

Nice column Sunday btw Inga.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Rienzi said...

I saw the window the other day and found myself longing for one of the chipboard models to be a real project being built in the city.
It is about time someone addressed this issue in such a way. Here's to hoping a groundswell of opinion can foster some real change. I can dream, can't I?

10:11 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Great post. Equally as interesting are the actions of Governor Rendell declaring a moratorium on waterfront development on state-owned land (Rendell Halts Philadelphia Riverfront Projects, Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/18/06). Hopefully the idea of a thoughtful discouse regarding planning issues will reach a critical mass, making it impossible for the Street administration to ignore.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a planner. I attended Levy's forum that you reference. One of the main reasons that the Center City District held this forum was to invite feedback Instead, a paltry TWO questions were taken from the audience after over 1 hour of presentations (one dealt with East Market and the other questioned all the "CEOs" that allegedly are living in Center City)and both of those questions were completely skirted-over and basically left unanswered before an abrupt call from Levy to "have food". One Levy-statistic that was mentioned: 18% of Center City commuters take PATCO. Levy used this as justification for extending PATCO to West Market and 30th Street Station. No mention was made at all of the 70%+ Center City commuters who use SEPTA - don't they deserve improved and extended services, too? As for high-rises - City planners DO review those proposals and...are you sitting down?...we actually DO make suggestions for improvements! The greatest problem - and perhaps the one that the public realizes least - is that there is no legal mechanism to FORCE any of our suggestions to either the Administration or developers.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Lawrence said...

As you have quite often, you emphasized the street-level consequences of new work (often dire), which are key to the quality of life in the city. Maybe your column should be called "Changing Streetscape".

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Edward said...

Thanks for bringing our attention to this window Inga. I went and took a look at the display for myself. I was impressed with the simple beauty of the models and their sculptural qualities.The Architects present such a rewarding concept--that a highrise can be like a jewel that beautifies the skyline and the streetscape. If only these projects were ready to be lived in--I'd be writing the check now!

11:41 AM  
Blogger amusing said...

Thanks for highlighting important issues in a positive way. What the politicos don't seem to understand is that smart planning makes the city more desirable to business -- not less. Look at Portland (pre passage of the recent measure that guts all the good that's gone before). Strong planning rules made it one of the "hottest" cities in the country.

Must confess thought, that I found the scariest thing in your post to be that A.M. Stern is loose in Philadelphia again. On Rittenhouse, no less. Oh dear. Will have to go look into that one -- unless you are planning to post more detail and images soon?

8:50 AM  
Blogger Ruby Legs said...

As for planning, isn't there something we can do about the crappy construction that passes for rehabs in this city?

For starters, a rehabbed townhome should be disqualified from the benefit the 10-year tax abatement if the new front door is one of those vinyl jobbies with the craptastic glass inserts bought at the Home Depot.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inga, Yer AWESOME!

Keep up the good work...

That's it.

5:41 PM  

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