Friday, December 22, 2006

River City Fantasies

I've been a bad blogger lately, and will probably get virtual coal in my web stocking. Can I plead contract-related stress at the Inquirer, and the fact that print deadlines, unlike blog ones, can't be blown off? I resolve to change my ways. In the meantime, here is the rendering of the River City proposal produced by Daroff Design for the megalomaniacally named World Acquisition Group, which was formed by the owners of Sant Properties and Patriot Parking. The rendering appeared in the Inquirer today with my column, but some on-line readers weren't able to view the image.

One little detail that I discovered too late for the column is that Sant Properties' Hardeep Chawla (the brother of World Acquisition's lead developer, Ravi Chawla, and Ed Rendell contributor) just pleaded guilty to defrauding the U.S. General Services Administration. It seems the scam involved overbilling his government tenants for property tax increases that he had successfully appealed. Since Hardeep make a plea deal with the feds, he'll do just five month's jail time.

With their love of the mega-project and their legal troubles, the Chawlas may become for the Schuylkill waterfront what Harry Eng and his Atlantis Group was to the Delaware. See my March 7 blog entry, A Penn's Landing Footnote.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Waterfront Forums Start Tonight

After today, there can be no more griping about Philadelphia's lack of waterfront planning. Tonight, Penn Praxis holds the first of three - and possibly more - citizen forums on the fate of the Delaware riverfront. This evening's event starts at 6 p.m. at Saint Anne's Social Hall, Memphis and Tucker Streets (off Lehigh Ave). If you miss that one, there will be another on Wednesday, Dec. 13 at the George Washington School, 5th and Federal Streets, also starting at 6 p.m.. The final forum in the schedule will be this Thursday, Dec. 14 at Independence Seaport Museum, Penn's Landing, 6 - 9 p.m. See the Plan Philly site for more details.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Plague Threatening Philly's Revival

It's becoming increasingly difficult to talk about Philadelphia's urban design challenges without also talking about the plague of gun violence. Never was it more true than this week.

This should have been a week to celebrate the northward expansion of Center City's development success, to the corner of Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. The Pearl Theater, a seven-screen movie house that is part of the jaunty, cobalt blue, retail complex designed by Erdy McHenry Architects for developer Bart Blatstein's Tower Investments, held its red-carpet opening on Monday night. This wasn't just another opening of another multiplex: After a dry spell of 30 years, the Pearl marked the return of first-run movies to the neighborhood around Temple University. The series of special, opening events was supposed to be a coming-out party for a newly invigorated, newly stable North Philadelphia.

But, as the Inquirer recounts today, the party was marred by an ugly teenage gun battle outside the theater, followed by a fight among departing patrons. That kind of casual gun use and teenage bravado would be chilling in any circumstances. But it's even worse when it threatens to undermine the huge effort and $100 million investment that went into the
Avenue North development, which also includes a 1,200-student dormitory. It's especially upsetting for anyone who remembers how teenage violence helped doom the Chestnut Street movie theaters in the 1980s.

And yet Philadelphia is a different, more resilient, place today than it was 20 years ago, when theaters were closing and residents fleeing to the 'burbs. Not only do more people live in Center City and the surrounding neighborhoods than back then, but there is a sense that today's residents choose to live in the city because that's the kind of life they want. The assaults on peace and civility are reason to be angry, but not necessarily reason to abandon ship. There's a "Take Back the Streets" feeling in the response that followed the incident. Not only did Mayor Street and other city leaders offer extra police protection, they vowed to patronize the theater with their families as a means of driving out the hooligans. One small conversation I overheard on the northbound No. 7 bus, which runs up 22nd Street, during Thursday's morning rush hour might provide a little perspective: Two acquaintances, who have apparently lived south of Washington Avenue for quite awhile, were talking about the amazing spike in home prices in their neighborhood.

"They're getting $250,000 for houses on my block," says the first, a man carrying a leather briefcase.

"Mine too," the second, a woman, answers. "Have you thought about selling yours?"

"No. I really, really like my house," the man responds. "And it's a good neighborhood. You know, we don't have too much shooting."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Foxwoods Investor Caught in Hen House

Philadelphia's casinos haven't even opened yet and already one of the investors has been caught straying into pay-to-play territory. As the Inquirer's Jeff Shields reports today, Peter de Paul - developer of the Dockside apartment building - violated state law when he handed out some $31, 750 to various political candidates, no doubt because he really believes in their policy agendas. Now De Paul and his fellow Foxwoods investors are going to have to pay $200,000 in fines to the state.

If you recall, De Paul was the guy who tried to weasle out of his $500,000 public art obligation for Dockside, which was built on a publically-owned pier. He complained that he'd lose his shirt if he had to shell out all that money for improving the public area of the building. Ultimately, he worked a deal with the city to built a cheaper version of sculptor Magdalena Abakonowicz's school of flying fish. The price tag ended up being a little over $200,000 - about the same price as breaking the state gaming law.

DePaul isn't the only investor to overlook the state law forbidding gambling investors to make political contributions. Dan Keating, of Sugarhouse, and Herman Wooden, of Riverwalk, also got fined for too much generosity.

There's also been a lot of fuss about a new law signed by Gov. Rendell allowing the casinos to serve free drinks to high rollers. But let's keep things in perspective: In Pennsylvania, it's often easier to give drinks away for free than obtain a liquor license from the Liquor Control Board. Take Rendell's own summer hideaway, the Lombard Swim Club. Unable (or perhaps unwilling) to go through the hoops necessary to get a liquor license, the club has happily poured free drinks for years. For some members, there's no better reason to join.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Incredible Shrinking Bridgman's View

Bridgman's View Tower is becoming one hot potato for Philadelphia. Hoping to avoid a confrontation with City Council over a proposed zoning change for the 900-foot tower, head planner Janice Woodcock paid a call to the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association last week to see whether a shorter, two-tower scheme might be a good compromise. She wants to replace the proposed 900-foot tower on Columbus Boulevard with a pair of high-rises, one 749 feet and one 420-feet. At 900 feet, Bridgman's View would rival Liberty Place in height and be the tallest residential building in the city.

While the tower site has already been rezoned for residential construction, the land for an adjacent - and essential - 1,700-car garage has not. But since the first zoning change, the Delaware's political terrain has changed utterly with the creation the Penn Praxis study group, which has been charged with ending spot zoning and producing a comprehensive master plan for the waterfront.

Woodcock and Penn Praxis have been trying to freeze the rezoning discussion until the study is further along. But it looks like the various powers are unwilling to wait it out. The problem is that the project was conceived under the old rules, when the Street administration believed in leaving the heavy-lifting of planning to the neighborhood groups. Bridgman's developer Marc F. Stein spent months negotiating in good faith with the NLNA to win their support. (He subsequently agreed to contribute $650,000 to a NLNA community development fund - not $4 million as I reported on Friday. Mea Culpe!!) Councilman Frank DiCiccio argues that it would be unfair to penalize Stein now, just because John Street suddenly got religion on planning.

This is a tough one, no doubt about it. It just seems foolish to me to launch the city's most important master plan in decades and then immediately sabotage it - especially with a building that would be a record-breaker and a precedent-setter. But in the interest of realpolitik, Woodcock is now proposing the two-tower scheme. The shorter one would include the parking. The trouble with her compromise - if you can really call it that - is that it actually includes more condo units and therefore requires even more parking space. Seems like just more of the same old, same old spot zoning. When you're on the ground, who's going to know the difference between a 749-foot tower and a 900-foot one.

The real issue for Philadelphia, I believe, is process. Will there be comprehensive planning or seat-of-the-pants planning? It's not just about Bridgman's View, mind you. It's about the entire future of the waterfront. If either the 900-foot tower, or the two shorter ones, are approved now, then that will determines the character of Philadelphia's waterfront, now and forever. It will be pre-set as a place of widely-spaced spike towers, rather than a dense row of 30- and 40-story story apartment houses. That decision will be determined by how City Council votes on the rezoning, which now seems likely to come Dec. 7. Is it really such a big deal to wait a few months to decide an issue that will affect Philadelphia for generations?

Meanwhile, Penn Praxis soldiers on. The first of its several public forums on waterfront planning is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 11 at Saint Anne's Social Hall, Memphis and Tucker Streets (off Lehigh Ave), 6 - 9 p.m. That will be followed by another forum on
Wednesday, Dec. 13 at the George Washington School, 5th and Federal Streets, 6 - 9 p.m. and one on Thursday, Dec. 14 at Independence Seaport Museum, Penn's Landing, 6 - 9 p.m. See their site for more details.