Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What's Lacking in Philadelphia's New Condos

The condo boom hasn't brought much good new architecture to Philadelphia, but one of the nice surprises is the clean, elegantly understated '23,' the refurbished AAA garage on 23rd Street, south of Market Street. When I first saw developer John Turchi recoating the red concrete garage with white stucco, it seemed like a waste of a good muscular loft building. But Cope Linder Architects hit the right balance, preserving the building's industrial integrity while luxifying it (if I can use that word). The exterior is now a layered progression of limestone on the lower floors, and stucco, composite panels and stainless steel trim. Because of the large floor plate, the architects cored out the center of the building, creating a remarkable light-filled and serene garden space. Only about a third of the 83 units have been sold, but the project should have a huge impact on this little no-man's land of Center City, just around the block from one of Philly's last surviving porn theaters. With the conversion of the After Six and the old Daily News (aka Belber) buildings to residential, and the construction of the Murano tower at 21st and Market Streets, the gap between the Rittenhouse and Logan Square neighborhoods is shrinking fast. The new residences promise too help bridge the unpleasant gulf between Center City, 30th Street Station and the West Philly universities. All good.

What's not good, though, is Turchi's decision not to include any retail at street level in 23 and to devote the entire space to parking. The ground floor has room for 102 valet-parked parking spaces - way more than is required or needed for 83 units, especially when you consider the availability of surface parking next door, the Philadelphia Parking Authority Garage across the street and one of America's greatest urban transit hubs two blocks away. When I visited 23, there was a food cart strategically parked at 23rd and Chestnuts and it was doing a bang-up business. The line was around the corner, with workers from Kling, Greenfield School, the Design Center and the area's many offices. One reason people have to stand in line at a cart to get lunch is because developers aren't providing the retail lots for tax-paying businesses.

John Turchi isn't the only developer who'd rather not bother with retail. If you go to the new Tivoli condos on 19th Street, near Whole Foods, you find the same situation. The Tivoli overlooks Buttonwood Square, which must be one of Philadelphia's ugliest parks, but could become the Rittenhouse Square for the blossoming neighborhood once the Barnes and the Library expansion are complete. But again, the ground floor is blank and dark.

And it looks like the story will be the same if Toll Bros. goes ahead with its project to convert the old Graduate Hospital garage on Gray's Ferry Avenue to loft condos. The streets around the Odunde triangle there have been filling out nicely with shops, so it makes sense to put retail in the side of the building facing Gray's Ferry. But with local residents clamoring for a special parking deal from Toll, the developer was only too happy to not to wade into retail. The same thing happened at the Murano garage. The developer agreed to a neighborhood request NOT to include street level retail in the tower's garage at the request of the neighborhood group. If greater Center City is going to be a denser, more varied place, with more high-rise living, people are going to need convenient shops and services. Those businesses also make the city more walkable and nicer for everyone. Seems like it's time for the newly aggressive city planning department to take up the issue.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is unquestionably a serious issue. People clamoring for more parking spaces should think about how people would get to ground level retail if there was more of it available, attached to these large new buildings, within close distance.


4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Question for anyone experienced in condo development:

What does it say about the market to learn that this building (which is just about finished, right?) has about 1/3 of its units sold at this point? Is that good, bad . . . or on par?

I don't know the answer but I'd be curious as to what experienced folks have to say. Thanks.

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the above question: While I agree that sales of condos are probably slow, I would not judge this building's numbers as the market. First, 23 is extremely overpriced for the neighborhood. Igna points out that this building will eventually bridge the gap between neighborhoods- however, it does not have a true neighborhood of its own. When I looked at the building, I found it cold and isolated. The architecture is definately an improvment, but nothing to write home about. It looks like a boring warehouse from the sides. All of the other buildings in its price range (assuming they get built) are smack in the middle of an established neighborhood .

23 is a great place for a condo, but not at the price range offered

6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point about placing retail at street level is valid. Here in Tampa, the downtown is just now getting its first residential towers. However, they are all perched above massive above ground garages. They only succeed in pushing the lived-in portion so out of view, there in no contribution to a sense of vitality or neighborhood.

7:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

who are these "neighborhood groups" asking developers for no retail? and how do we neuter them? nimbys are fricking idiots.

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The NIMBY fools who reside in Philly want to obviously stay in their isolated towers, condos or townhouses. Take a look at the Spring Garden neighborhood...lots of residential density, good wage earners to afford to live/rent there but an anemic amount of quality restaurants and shops. How can a neighborhood as attractive as GV in NYC or Georgetown in DC have such little retail? Easy they get in their cars and drive elsewhere. How boring, why not live in Cherry Hill or Ardmore.

10:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, very good point, the neighborhood groups are really inconvenient.

Neighbors should not be allowed to organize. Better yet, this city would be alot better off without any neighbors. And what's with all the women and children? Who do they think they are anyway?

We should just have real estate developers. They're a very nice bunch.

10:12 PM  
Blogger mhawf said...

woo hoo Go GEORGE! Published on Inga's blog, I love your chicken souvlaki. But Yes this is quite the no man's land, that is why I have frequently the forementioned cart so often. I believe developers will learn the lesson of density ie, interwoven live retail/commercial when one looks at the condo projects that sell and those that stay on the market.

11:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't be so sure. If they didn't learn in Tampa, the atr museum area or the other neighborhoods listed, whay would they learn in center city or G-Ho?

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is truly amazing when developers fail to produce the best design for the whole city. They shoot first for their own bottom line, because, they are after all in business. It's just so endlessly irritating that their finished product is a component of the built environment, and therefore seen by everyone for all time following. They spend all that money, time and effort, and to leave a dead space above ground garage at street level that doesn't contribute positively to the urban fabric is just annoying. When they execute buildings in that manner, it reduces structures to commodities, and they are trite upon close inspection. Their only real value may be that they help create 'skyline'. Skyline is good for folks in cars on I-95 whizzing off to Jersey. If you happen to be living, shopping, working, visiting, clubbing, whatever in the city, there's no benefit.

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take a look at Jersey City, New York, Hoboken...plenty of retail in the new condo buildings going up. Look at manayunk, although they are probably only apts above the stores..the 'yunk certainly puts Spring Garden Street to shame.
Is there any hope for Fairmount Ave as it redevelops?

10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good neighborhoods do not come overnight, but Inga is right to point out the problem. Developers put in garages because they make financial sense. The market will eventually demand more retail at which point retailers will be willing to pay enough for leases that will make it worthwhile for building owners to convert the ground floor spaces. Then we'll have great new palces to walk around. It always takes Philadelphia years to catch up with commom sense.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It does not always take years for Philadelphia to catch up. You've probably been living here for all your life, hence the mentality you espouse.

I just moved here and think Philly is a pretty progressive city. The people are decent and nice, have a general respect. There is much good going on EXCEPT for naysayers who diss the city. There's absolutely no reason...and yes i'm being defensive.

Wow, I actually took the time to "blog"...what a dumb word.....humph.

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the City believes the public interest is best served by retail on the ground floor, then it should amend the zoning code to require this in whatever part of the City deemed appropriate.

This would be a very simple thing . . . of course we need to find some elected officials with the b@!!s to actually pass laws that are in the public interest.

Guess how much money real estate developers pour into local campaign coffers?

This City's government is a joke. Until we find and elect honest leaders we will not solve any of these issues.

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question of retail in these develoments is not just about the larger impact on the neighborhood but also on the viability of the condo project itself. In many condos, the retail provides ratables for the condo association. In the future, should the association need to provide upgrades or investment in the building, these ratables give the association the necessary equity to leverage money for the work. Without retail or other ratables, the association must fork over the money without the benefit of financing. Developers who don't take this into account are very near-sighted.

9:20 AM  
Blogger moritz said...

as a developer currently working on projects similar to 23 I have to say that I absolutely agree with Inga Saffron's assesment. I would go farther, however, and say that developers actually shoot themselves in the foot by not including ground-floor retail of some sort when they build large projects in emerging neighborhoods. Establishing a link between the island of housing and the larger urban context is vital to imparting a sense of place. And it is this sense of place which ultimately justifies the sales price.

10:41 AM  

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