Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Plan Now, Build Later

The rezoning request for Bridgman's View, a 900-foot-tall, hotel-and-condo tower that aspires to be the tallest residential building in Philadelphia, came up for discussion again today at the meeting of City Council's rules committee. As I argued in my Nov. 2 post, Council needs to send a clear message on this one: It must inform the developer that there will be a moratorium on all zoning changes for the Delaware waterfront until Penn Praxis completes its comprehensive waterfront plan. Yet, for reasons that defy logic, Councilman Frank DiCiccio, who played a key role in setting up the Penn Praxis study, urged the rules committee to put the rezoning up for a vote by the full council.
DiCiccio seems to feel that, because Bridgman patiently negotiated the zoning change with the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, it would be unfair to stop them this late in the game. But Harris Steinberg, the executive director for Penn Praxis, who testified to the committee today, did a good job of explaining what's at stake for the city. Here's the full written statement that Steinberg submitted, with some key points boldfaced by me.

Good morning Madam President and members of the Rules Committee, my name is Harris Steinberg and I am the executive director of PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania. I am also a member of the Faculty of Architecture of the School of Design at Penn.
I am here today to testify on Bill No. 060731 which was introduced by Councilmember DiCicco on 28 September 2006. Bill No. 060731 rezones a 1.2 acre parcel of land located in an area bounded by Canal Street, Laurel Street, Delaware Avenue and Lewellen Street from a zoning designation of “G-2” General Industrial to a zoning designation of “C-5” Commercial.
PennPraxis was authorized by executive order on 12 October 2006 to work with the city and the citizens of Philadelphia to create a “civic vision for the Central Delaware Riverfront that balances the public good, access to the waterfront, open space and quality urban development.” The vision for the people’s waterfront will be based on a robust civic engagement series of public forums that will inform world-class design talent who will translate the goals and aspiration of Philadelphians into a 21st century roadmap for development of the Central Delaware from Allegheny Avenue to Oregon Avenue and from the river to I-95. The process is anticipated to take one year to complete.
Philadelphia is at a crossroads and developers are flocking to our city. This is something to celebrate and support which we do. In order to ensure that the physical city is well designed, beautiful and healthy, contributing to the quality of life of all Philadelphians, we must look at building designs and zoning in the framework of the city and the region. In this instance, Council is being asked to grant Central Business District land-use status to a single parcel in one of the most historic and sensitive areas of the city. Furthermore, we believe that making zoning changes on a parcel-by-parcel basis (a practice commonly referred to as “spot zoning”) is not in the best interest of the city.
Earlier this month we requested additional time before you move on Bill No. 060731 so that the people of Philadelphia could do their work to envision the future of the entire Central Delaware Riverfront. We noted that the Bridgeman’s View parcel will play a critical role in the transformation of Philadelphia’s waterfront from an industrial relic to a vibrant part of a cutting-edge, competitive city in the new knowledge economy. We invited the Bridgeman’s View development team to become active members of the planning process, taking a leadership role in working with the citizens of Philadelphia to create a world-class vision for the waterfront.
Following the hearing in early November, we met with the developers, the Planning Commission and Councilman DiCicco and expressed our concerns that the then-1700 car proposed garage would be situated across from one, and possibly two, 5000-car casino garages. We strongly urged the team to use the opportunity of the Central Delaware planning process to develop a comprehensive and holistic understanding of the impact of the increased traffic from Bridgeman’s View and other proposed development on Delaware Avenue. We noted the traffic problems on South Columbus Boulevard which resulted from the unintended consequences of unplanned development and cautioned the team to think beyond the specifics of their site.
In our outreach on this project to date (15 civic association meetings, three public walk-and-talks, meetings with port-related entities, developers, lawyers, Council, state representatives, and more), we strongly heard that current and anticipated traffic along Delaware Avenue is the primary concern of all stakeholders. Despite the wealth of proposed development along Delaware Avenue (15 condominium towers along with the casinos), there has not been a single comprehensive study that addresses the development impact on existing traffic and transportation infrastructure.
To begin to address this critical concern, Praxis reached out to one of the country’s leading traffic engineers. We are in the process of engaging them to assess current traffic conditions from Oregon Avenue to Girard Avenue coupled with anticipated traffic from new development like Bridgeman’s’ View as well as the casinos. We expect to have a preliminary analysis completed by December 20th in time for the announcement of the state casino licenses. We are working on this with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
We will continue to use the opportunity afforded by the Central Delaware planning process to hear from and report on the concerns of the people of Philadelphia and use our position to connect appropriate governmental offices and resources to address pressing issues. We urge Council to take the impact of increased traffic on Delaware Avenue seriously. In order to ensure that the Central Delaware becomes a vital contributing part of 21st century Philadelphia, all development along Delaware Avenue must be viewed as part of a larger design and planning system. Traffic and transportation, in particular, has a definite and serious impact on the quality of life for near residents and visitors. It must be carefully studied and traffic management plans must be put into place so that Philadelphia reacts responsibly and intelligently to the challenges that quality development brings.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

First the Youth Study Center. Now Family Court.

If there ever were a justification for building a juvenile prison on the elegant Ben Franklin Parkway, it was the proximity of the Family Court building on Logan Square. But now with the Youth Study Center destined (Janine Blackwell, permitting) to move to West Philadelphia, it comes as no surpise that court operation is planning to relocate too. The Daily News' Jill Porter suggests, and my sources confirm, that the court's operations will be consolidated on three upper floors of the former Strawbridge & Clothier store on Market Street. The federal General Services Administration already has floors 7 through 11. Family Court is supposed to take 4 through 6. That leaves just the lower three and the concourse levels up for grabs. According to very informed-sounding anonymous caller who left a message on my voicemail, Preit - which owns the Strawbridge building and the Gallery - has closed a deal with Boscov's, at least for 1 through 3, with the future of the concourse level unknown. The same anonymous caller also claimed that Sears is headed to the Gallery.

There will be lots of important details to resolve. Will participants in family court dramas crowd into the same Strawbridge elevators as GSA employees? Or will Preit attempt to create yet a third, segregated entrance to the building? What will happen to Strawbridge's Corinthian Room on the Sixth Floor(Photo courtesy of Howard B. Haas)? Will Boscov's be able to treat the first three floors with the respect they deserve?
Next question: Who will get control of the Family Court Building, a 1939 building by John T. Windrim that, along with the Free Library, is one half of Logan Square's Francophone duo? Will it become the world's most elegant condos? A museum location? A new way to realize the Free Library's expansion? A parking garage to serve the parkway's cultural institutions? (Attention: joke!) Let's hope for a smart civic use.

I've always found it mind-boggling that Windrim produced Family Court's neo-classical palace, as well as the equally stuffy Franklin Institute, after Howe and Lescaze had already designed the ground-breaking PSFS tower, America's first International Style skyscraper. The best things about the Family Court building are the stained glass windows, by Philadelphia's D'Ascenzo Studios, and a series of paintings on themes of family and childhood by nine Philadelphia artists, all produced under the Depression-era Public Works Administration. The architecture itself seems too caught up in its own importance. But the possibility that the courthouse could have a new, more hopeful, civic purpose is nice to chew on.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Death of the Pink Flamingo

It's the end of an era. The Massachusetts's factory responsible for propagating legions of plastic pink flamingos has ceased production of the lawn ornament. Luckily we're in the season of Santas and elves, otherwise it would be too painful to think about all those naked lawns. Of course, those of you have kept your bird out of harsh sunlight and extreme weather are sure to profit when they become collector's items.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Gross Hospital

When Thomas Jefferson Hospital announced last week that it would ship off one of Philadelphia's great civic heirlooms, The Gross Clinic, to - of all places - Arkansas, unless the city came up with $68 million, it wasn't the first time the institution had held its hometown for ransom. Jefferson has been expertly extracting favors from the city for years.

Prior to the latest shake down over Thomas Eakins' landmark painting of surgeon Dr. Samuel David Gross - shown coolly and methodically demonstrating a difficult bone operation to his medical students - Jefferson applied considerable pressure on city officials to obtain a package of zoning variances that allowed an otherwise prohibited mega-garage on the 900 block of Chestnut Street (left). At the time, Jefferson and its development partner, Lupert Adler, assured credulous city officials that the garage would do wonders for Center City's vitality, along with solving the hospital's parking problems. They promised that the design, by BLT Architects, would
magically restore the retail continuity on this blighted section of Chestnut Street - which Jefferson itself had helped destroy with developments such as the Gibson Building. (right) Rather than bother renting the ground-floor shops in the block-long medical building, Jefferson had converted those spaces to offices and papered over the windows, leaving the block on life supports. Even as other Chestnut Street blocks began to regain the thrum of activity in the last five years, the Gibson block, between 10th and 11th, has remained a black hole of nothingness.
All that was supposed to change once Jefferson's garage opened, according to an elaborate plan prepared by Wallace Roberts & Todd for the hospital. But it's been half a year since motorists began filling its decks and all six retail lots in the garage remain vacant. The windows are covered with dust - and a forlorn For Rent sign. Jefferson doesn't appear to be expending much effort to make good on its promise to lease the Gibson Building's spaces to active users, either. The hospital did remove one of the floor-to-ceiling posters of healthy, smiling people, but replaced it with a floor-to-ceiling poster for Commerce Bank, to advertise a new cash machine in the lobby. I wonder how long it will be before more smiling faces cover the shop windows in the ground floor of the garage?

Philadelphia isn't the only place that Jefferson has held hostage. In 2004, Bryn Mawr Hospital, which is part of the Jefferson health system, informed an entire neighborhood adjacent to its campus that it intended to acquire all the homes so it could build the next "Bethesda" - a complex of high-rise offices, parking garages and condos. Any neighbor who refused to sell their early 20th-Century, Craftsman-style home to Bryn Mawr Hospital would just have to get used to living cheek-to-jowl with garages and office buildings. Some residents tried fighting the hostile take-over of their neighborhood, but ultimately virtually everyone in the modest neighborhood - one of Bryn Mawr's few affordable districts - succumbed to the hospital's pressure tactic.

Residents of Washington Square West know all too well what it's like to live next door to a territorially ambitious and imperious institution. Over the years, Jefferson has gobbled up a slew of old commercial buildings on Chestnut, Walnut and Locust Streets. More often than not, it has replaced the varied, textured mix of small scale buildings with hulking fortresses like this student center by Kling on Locust Street. (right) Unlike other buildings that take part in civic life by facing out towards the street and offering window glimpses on their inner workings, the hospital's architecture tends to shun the city. Jefferson is in the midst of putting up yet another inward looking building across the street. It's part of a shamefully sketchy master plan that is intended to guide the hospital's development. The $400 million expansion plan is the supposed basis for selling off Eakin's 1875 masterpiece.

Eakins didn't decide to paint Dr. Gross removing a diseased thigh bone from a young patient simply because he liked the blood and gore. Gross' rational, scientific approach to medicine, which was radically altering the profession in the late 19th Century, meshed perfectly with Eakins' approach to art. He, too, sought a rational, scientific approach to painting human and animal forms. Together with the photographer Edweard Muybridge, Eakins produced an historic series of photographs showing exactly how people and animals moved through space. Eakins transferred that knowledge to painting, to make his figures more accurate. He was famously dismissed from his teaching post at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts because he insisted on having all his students - both women and men - draw from life, including nudes of the opposite sex. No wonder Eakins found intellectual kinship with Gross' bold, systematic instruction. That's why he includes a self-portrait of himself, pencil and sketchpad in hand, among the medical students watching Gross from the gallery. The painting is so important to Philadelphia because it celebrates the city as a place of technological and intellectual innovation.

That kind of innovation can't take place in fortified ivory towers cut off from the surrounding world. Jefferson's campus is interwoven with a city, a place and a history. For better or worse, Jefferson is part of Philadelphia and Philadelphia is part of Jefferson. Mayor Street deserves kudos for moving quickly to designate the Gross Clinic as an historic object , to keep Jefferson from amputating the painting from the body of Philadelphia. Big institutions like Jefferson, Penn and Temple, will always have uneasy relations with their urban surroundings. Intellectually, they know they need to protect the environment that nurtures them. Yet, it's their nature to think first of their own growth and glory. It will take leadership from both inside the institution and out to understand that neither can survive without the other.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Condos Without Cars - In Portland

If Portland, Ore. can build downtown condo towers without any parking, why can't Philadelphia? Our transit system is superior and our downtown is denser. Could it be that Portland isn't under the thumb of by a zoning czar who believes there there is never enough parking? Read an interesting account of the growing no parking trend in the New York Times.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Trouble Ahead for National Product's Tiles

In his excellent book about the complexities of preserving memory and history, The Same Axe, Twice, Howard Mansfield provides a little background to explain the title. He tells the story (which may be apocryphal) of a crusty New Hampshire carpenter who still uses his grandfather's axe, which he claims dates to the 19th Century. The blade has been replaced a couple of times, as has the handle. But the carpenter maintains that it is still an historic object. It's just "the same axe, twice."
Mansfield goes on to ponder what's more important in historic preservation: the original fabric of a building or object, or its continuing usage.
Now the same issue has come up with Philadelphia's National Products Building on Second Street in Old City. Four years ago this month, the city's Historical Commission took the unprecedented step of historically certifying the 1950s-era facade, a funky mid-century modern composition of square orange tiles, zig-zagging canopies and stylized stainless steel signage. All that stuff had been pasted onto a much older - and less distinctive - brick warehouse building. It was the first time the commission honored this kind of vernacular, commercial modernization, and many in the preservation community applauded the decision as a major advance for preservation. After all, cities don't just want to save the buildings of the rich and powerful, but those that that reflect all layers of society.
The designation came in the nick of time, too, because developers were salivating at the prospect of obtaining the National's huge Old City site for condos. But once the building had its historic imprimatur, the developer was obliged to incorporate the facade into the design.
Okay. Fast forward to last week. Developer Steve Patron appeared before the commission's architectural subcommittee. It seems the 1,600 oranges tiles are cracking at a rapid rate, partly because of a manufacturing flaw. According to his consultant, Sam Harris, a respected preservation consultant, the original glaze wasn't extended around the edges of the tiles and now water is seeping between the joints. Patron wants permission to demolish the wall. In exchange, he vows to commission an entire set of new tiles and rebuild the historic facade exactly as it looks today - the same wall, twice.
The architectural sub-committee accepted the argument. Very likely, the full commission will affirm their decision at today's meeting. That will enable Patron to erect the multi-story condos and the new wall simultaneously. No doubt, it's a much easier way to build than having to prop up the tile wall.
Why don't I feel assured by all this?
For one thing, the commission has no budget to hire experts to check on the accuracy of Patron's assessment. For another, Patron hasn't produced any samples of the replacement tiles. He has hasn't even said whether the manufacturer still exists, or whether it still possesses the chemical formula for that particular, mottled orange tile. At the very least, the commission should demand written confirmation from a manufacturer that an exact replica is possible. And then the commission staff needs to examine samples BEFORE a single tile comes off the building.
The good part is, even if the demolition is approved today, it will be what's called an "in concept" approval. That means Patron won't be able to go ahead until he has submitted all the design details to the commission staff and they've signed off. The same National Products Building, twice might be okay, as long it's really the same.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Coming Events

Philadelphians will probably have to wait years to see the restoration of the Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street now that Live Nation has put down its hammers. So, in the meantime, they can keep their spirits up by visiting a theater that was successfully brought back to life. Friends of the Boyd is organizing a Dec. 2 field trip to Hershey's refurbished, Golden Age movie palace, which was designed in 1933 in a Venetian style. The bus trip, which includes a tour and lunch, costs $75. See details here.

The Woodmere Art Museum has inaugurated an interesting series of "dialogues" on decorative arts. Next up, on Nov. 15, historian George Thomas discusses 12 important Philadelphia landmarks. He'll be followed on Nov. 29 by Susan Glassman, director of the remarkable, but little known, Wagner Free Institute of Science. She'll talk about the need to preserve entire neighborhoods, not just buildings. The series culminates Dec. 4, when Frank Furness biographer Michael J. Lewis gives a talk with this intriguing title: From Furness to the Fountainhead: Ego and Architecture in Philadelphia.

The last bit of news is actually a past event. Thanks to the huge success of Nathaniel Kahn's film, My Architect, in America and Europe, the documentary just had its official release in Estonia, where architect Louis I. Kahn was born. The Estonians went all out for the September premier, staging a series of events it called "Kahn Days." As part of the festivities, Kahn's daughter, Alex Tyng - a painter and daughter of architect Anne Tyng - unveiled a portrait that will be hung in the Kuressaare Library on the Island of Saaremaa, Kahn's childhood home. Here's Alex (left) with the mayor, Urve Tiidus, and said portrait.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Watch Out For Moving Signs

Keep on Moving? Keep on Living? Well, yes. I'd very much like to do both. But I don't know that I actually need a sign exhorting me to those accomplishments. And what about the "but" part. Do I move, but live? Do I have to move to live? Or will I eventually die anyway, no matter how much moving I do? The sign went up yesterday at the Locust and Race Street crossings to the Schuylkill River park. Presumably what the authors - CSX -are trying to convey to us is that it's very stupid to climb over and under stopped train cars, since you never know when they might start up again.

It's a perfectly sensible warning. But couldn't they have said it a little more directly , like "Danger: Do Not Cross the Tracks When Trains are Stopped."

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.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Day 1 of Philadelphia's Riverfront Planning

It was quite a sight for 8 a.m. on a Monday morning. Some 60 or 70 city policy wonks and neighborhood activists crammed into the big meeting room in Philadelphia's One Parkway building - all of them free associating about their "hopes and dreams" for the seven-mile stretch of the central Delaware River. There were three state reps - Marie Lederer, John Taylor and William Keller - managing director Pedro Ramos, Center City's Paul Levy, the RDA's Johnny Doc, Councilman Frank DiCiccio, PennDot's Rina Cutler, city planning director Janice Woodcock, and representatives from at least 15 river ward neighborhood groups.

But unlike the typical meeting attended by such muckety-mucks, these people were being participants - rather than deciders - at the Central Delaware Riverfront Planning Advisory Group's first meeting. With the help of MC Harris Sokoloff who did a similiar job facillitating for the Penn's Landing Forums, the group was asked to imagine the kind of waterfront environment where they would like to spend time. The brainstorming was the first step in a year-long planning process being overseen by Penn Praxis, the U of Penn group that has been assigned the task of rethinking Philadelphia's long-neglected central waterfront.

Although the participants obviously have their own agendas, it was nice to see them in the role of ordinary citizens. The "hopes," which were typed into a computer by Janice Woodcock and projected on a screen, included what you might expect from anyone: a clean, safe, accessible waterfront with recreation paths, public amenities, housing development and room for the remaining waterfront industry to thrive.

There will be several more brainstorming sessions, all open to the public, before Penn Praxis hires professional planners and designers in January. But these sessions are crucial to articulating the assignment that will be given to the experts.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Great Beaches of Upper Sandusky, Ohio

So, not only did thinktank-thumbsucker Julia Vitullo-Martin describe a Center City that no longer exists in her Oct. 20, Wall Street Journal opinion piece(see post below), she describes an Upper Sandusky, Ohio that NEVER existed. She praised the "sheer excellence" of the city's port. Turns out the place is landlocked!

For your enjoyment, here are the rebuttal letters that appeared in the Journal on Wednesday. (For the record, the Sandusky mistake was corrected in Vitullo-Martin's on-line version on the Manhattan Institute site.)

Are You Sure You Were Really in Philadelphia When You Wrote That?
November 1, 2006; Page A19

In her Oct. 20 essay "A Tale of Several Cities1," Julia Vitullo-Martin is so anxious to recycle Digby Baltzell's 25-year-old thesis about "Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia" that she trashes Philadelphia in a way that bears no resemblance to reality (Taste page, Weekend Journal). She writes that "Downtown Philadelphia seems to be a bleak postindustrial landscape" with "the few good buildings that are still standing routinely visited by street people begging at their entrances." I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that her zeal for literary license, combined with her ignorance of Philadelphia, made that colorful language too good to pass up, true or not.

Here's an offer, Ms. Vitullo-Martin. Take the train to Philadelphia -- from your cocoon in New York it's less than an hour and a half trip, even without spending the extra money for the Acela -- and I'll give you a walking tour of Center City. We'll start off with some new office buildings and public spaces, and some existing "good buildings still standing." But mostly we'll concentrate on all the burgeoning neighborhoods with both gorgeous old homes and new apartment and condominium buildings, going for prices that would not have been dreamed about in Baltzell's time. These neighborhoods are bustling at all hours with both visiting suburbanites and a resident population that has grown remarkably in recent years. (Sort of like the Boston neighborhoods that you said "look like Hollywood's idea of a hip, fabulous place to live.") That's the real downtown Philadelphia, and I look forward to showing it to you.

Darryl May
Wynnewood, Pa.

What an absurd description. Yes, there are street people begging here and there in Center City Philadelphia, as there are in all large cities. But Ms. Vitullo-Martin must not have been in Philadelphia for many years. As a resident of a nearby suburb, I go to Center City once or twice a week because it's a great place -- restaurants, coffee shops, book- and music-stores, cinemas, public squares and other green spaces, wonderful fountains, churches, historic sites, etc. The place is booming! It's full of people day and night and, for better or worse, with much new construction going on. I cannot imagine what Ms. Vitullo-Martin was thinking.

David M. Barrett
Political Science
Villanova University

I suggest that a hurried walk to just one neighborhood cannot possibly give anyone a clear view of what is happening in this great city. Anyone who has been to our city, which National Geographic Traveler magazine recently called "America's Next Great City," knows this city is hot. That's why so many people are moving here, from the young professionals coming down from New York and elsewhere, to empty nesters moving into our hot downtown condo market. Come see for yourself. We believe you'll love what Philadelphia has to offer.

Stephanie W. Naidoff
City Representative and Director of Commerce
City of Philadelphia

Ms. Vitullo-Martin's article gives praise to the "sheer excellence" of the harbor in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Ohioans are justifiably proud of the acclaim but hope that Wall Street Journal readers don't all flock at once to our 38-acre, man-made reservoir. If you find our single- launch ramp too busy, you might consider the other Sandusky, downstream (and hence lower) at the mouth of the Sandusky River. The Sandusky River, like the Nile, flows south to north. That puts the Upper Nile south of the Lower Nile and Upper Sandusky south of the Lower Sandusky. The other Sandusky's little harbor (miles across), minor facilities (many marinas and dockage for Great Lakes boats), and dregged channels (for the freighters) may accommodate the overflow. However, if you do choose Upper Sandusky for your boating pleasure, please respect the "electric motors only" regulation.

David L. Skinner
Fredericktown, Ohio

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Are We Planning Yet?

There have been moments in the last few weeks - since Mayor Street named Janice Woodcock as the Planning Commission's executive director and assigned PennPraxis the task of crafting a master plan for the Delaware waterfront - when I've been tempted to think that - hallelujah! - the smart people are finally in charge of the city's physical future. And then there are days when it looks like the same old let's-make-a-deal culture still runs things.
Take yesterday. There's Councilman Frank DiCiccio sitting in front of the City Council rules committee, urging them to re-zone a site at Delaware Avenue and Poplar Street to make way for the tallest condo tower in town - the 900-foot-tall Bridgman's View, a skyscraper that would be less than 60 feet shy of One Liberty Place. The tower has been debated among residents since March (See my blog entry and March 31 column). The design, by Agoos/Lovera, has been extensively negotiated with the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association. There are lots of good things about the project, including an a sculptural tower and lots of ground-floor retail. But that's not the issue anymore.

Since PennPraxis was put in charge of the river, the ground rules have changed. With the non-profit taking a fresh, comprehensive look at the waterfront, what's the point of approving one more ad hoc, unplanned zoning change? Why not just wait a few months until the group finishes a draft of their master plan, before making a permanent change to the city code? Harris Steinberg, the head of PennPraxis, tried to explain to the committee that re-zoning site now, before his group's study is even started, would completely undermine the effort.

You would have thought that Philadelphia's elected officials could have grasped that basic policy idea. Instead, they spent a good deal of time fretting that the developer would think that Philadelphia is anti-business if they turned down the re-zoning request! Sure a delay is annoying for Bridgman's developer, but, hey, lots of things get complicated when you're building a major project. In the end, the committee tabled the request for a month - but for the wrong reason. They said they wanted to give the developer time to meet with PennPraxis and explain the project.

But the issue isn't whether this one particular tower is well designed or not, or whether it's good or bad for Philadelphia. The issue is whether Philadelphia should continue its self-destructive habit of looking at each development proposal in isolation - or whether it should start to see all of these development proposals in the context of a larger, neighborhood-creation exercise. It's not an either/or situation. Good planning will be beneficial for both business and city residents. Maybe a month's delay will give the rules committee time to figure that out.

Meanwhile, PennPraxis keeps plowing ahead. It will hold its first open meeting on Monday, Nov. 6 at 1515 Arch Street, 18th floor, at 8 a.m., and welcomes all comers. If that's too early for you, see their site Plan Philly for upcoming events.