Thursday, October 18, 2007

Of Parking, Plans and Planners

During Tuesday's strangely schizoid Philadelphia Planning Commission meeting, it was interesting to watch the members veer between rejecting the whole notion of planning on the Delaware River, and demanding more serious planning on the Schuylkill River, where Brandywine Realty Trust is seeking City Council permission to build an $800 million mixed-used development. One moment they were threatening to derail Brandywine's transformative Cira Centre South project because the developer hadn't completed a traffic study. Next, they were grilling Penn Praxis' Harris Steinberg because the Delaware waterfront study will offer some strong ideas about traffic and parking.

There's no doubt that traffic and parking are big issues for Cira South, which includes a 2,400-car garage (above) sandwiched between a proposed 50-story tower on Walnut and a 25-story tower on Chestnut. As part of the project, which I wrote about Monday, Brandywine will overhaul the 30th Street post office, designed by Rankin and Kellogg - architects of the Inquirer Building, among other things - for 5,000 employees of the Internal Revenue Service now housed on Roosevelt Boulevard. You don't need to be a traffic engineer to know that means Cira South will draw an awful lot of drivers from the Northeast, who will arrive at their jobs after fighting their way off the I-676 ramps. So, members of the planning commission were absolutely right to zero in on the traffic issues.

The problem was the ways they flailed at the issue without really having any sense of how it might be solved. If the Street Administration had bothered to employ a transportation director, or if actually attempted to implement the parking plan it completed last year, the commission might have had policies in place that would have enabled it to give Brandywine guidance on the issue. Instead, all they went around in circles - like a motorist searching for a Center City parking space on Saturday night - on the subject of whether a 2,400-car garage was too big or too little.

Perhaps if they did have a clear parking policy, they would have instead talked about more progressive measures than simply building a bigger garage. What about instituting van pools from the Northeast, providing remote parking at Septa stations, and staggering work hours to ensure that all 5,000 IRS workers do not descend on the Cira South garage at the same moment? Solving the parking problems in Center City isn't about providing more parking; it's about finding ways to keep cars out of the center.

As I wrote on Monday, Brandywine is promising that its project will help fill the void between Center City and the universities, and create a new neighborhood on the west bank of the Schuylkill. It's an exciting concept. But I'm not sure they can deliver with this plan, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli. For one thing, Brandywine is counting heavily on PennDot and other highway agencies to pay for the desperately needed sidewalk and street improvements. But the bigger issue is the moat in front of the garage, which overlooks Amtrak's Northeast Corridor tracks. Until that big gap is decked over, this project can never fulfill its claim to be a connector. But you didn't hear the auto-obsessed planning commission members discuss those kind of pedestrian issues. They're just not on their radar.

Which reminds me of another reason Philadelphia needs the Penn Praxis vision study. Plans help you define the issues worth caring about and provide a road map for finding solutions to complex urban problems.

22 Comments:

Blogger Charles said...

Is parking really going to be a problem for commuters at a building 2 to 3 blocks from the regions major train station?

If people from the suburbs are really going to drive to this building which has some of the best public transit options around, they deserve to sit in traffic.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is an excellent reason two projects need immediate attention. Connection of BSL and regionial rail in N. Phila and the BSL extension to the NE.

There is no reason to build that much parking at the nexus of Septa/Amtrak!

11:28 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Has Brandywine looked into sinking the parking below the road deck? I don't believe there are rails under where the parking garage is going to be located...only under the "gap" between the building and Schuykill Ave. I think it would be a disgrace to have a 10 story garage 2 blocks from the nations second busiest train station and overlooking the river.

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alex, there may be some serious water table issues with the addition of an underground parking lot.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The article does not mention if the project is approved. Is it?

3:26 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

It wouldn't be an underground parking lot, it would be "under" the road, which at the site is actually elevated. For example, the change in height is very evident between Walnut Street (which is elevated) and the former Postal Lands (which is ground level. My suggestion is to place the parking between the ground level and the road level (probably enough for two levels of parking.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's say Nutter is hired and re-zones our archaic zoning laws. Is it possible that we can have Cira South (and other developments in the future) WITHOUT a parking garage? Now, it looks the the sketch is a decent parking garage (*gulp*) with what looks like ground store retail.

But GIVE ME A BREAK WITH ALL THE PARKING GARAGES!!!! Penn designed this city to be walkable. People want to feel safe. Safe = people. There is relatively no foot traffic around a parking garage. It's closed off, turns itself away from the street...you get the point, I could go on and on, and I'm sure we all could.

So instead of the "next great city" we have sidewalk cutouts and this city is .5 parking lot and .5 buildings.

Hopefully Nutter can change this.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where does Penn stand on this issue? Should not they demand an urban plan that favors pedestrians and act in a true sense as a connector between U City and Center City. This was Penn's vision all along from the time the prior administration bought the 24 acres. As Dr. Gutmann reaffirmed that vision when she announced her plan "Penn Connects". One can only wonder how is that vision possible with an 11 story parking garage at its gateway? Penn should connect, parking garages do not!

8:16 PM  
Blogger circleinasquare said...

The disaster of non human scale non walkable cities and neighborhoods has been amply demonstrated over the past half century; it's no longer just theory but clearly (and sadly far too often) established fact.

So how is it that the members of the planning commission have so little understanding of basic urban planning principles? The failure of Philly to make the leap into greatness will rest squarely on poor decision making at the local government level.

Have other cities been in this predicament? Were they able to find ways to educate and enlighten officials to the understanding that the greatest long term economic benefit and best overall growth potential comes from creating walkable cities?

What can citizens do to make this happen?

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To 5:17 - Your are exactly right. Parking garages are always sold as 'necessary' and 'beneficial'. I say #$&**@# that. Garages deaden cities while they fatten wallets of developers. What's shocking is that most people haven't the degree of concern enough to even discern between crap and truly urban-enhancing projects. I see garages popping up in cities all over and they are just killing off the chances of creating urban vitality. Just as you pointed out, more garages = more curb cuts = more difficulties for pedestrians = less foot traffic = less urban vitality.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

I agree, I'm sick of all the parking garages!! This project is literally blocks from 30th street station!! There is no reason that anyone should expect all 5,000 employees to drive there. There is ample parking at the Frankford Transportation Center, and room to add more in fact. Not to mention the fact that even that shouldn't be necessary if they would extend the broad street line up the boulevard. It is utterly insane that every single development in this city needs to have its very humongous parking garage! This site more than any other in the city can be built without a garage!! This project is shiny and pretty.... but is lacking any meaningful connection to the city, and certainly with that garage, is not a very responsible urban development...

12:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe we should be promoting mass transit. I'm a San Diego transplant.
There, they charge $2 at the "Park and Ride", which is discounted from your paid transit fare. Of course for this to happen in Philadelphia, would mean SEPTA would be forced to raise their base fare.

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The simple fact of modern American life is that people don't want to take trains and walk a few blocks, especially Septa trains. I mean would you rather sit in your own car for an hour or sit on a dirty train with rude employees and even finer clientele for an hour. People would rather get in their car, go through the McDonalds drive through, and then sit in their own car. I mean, if you live in the suburbs and can make just as good of time driving as you can on a Septa train, and money were no significant difference, which would you do?

If Septa were not such a pathetic mass transit institution, I think more people would take trains. But, until either Septa seriously improves or until traffic gets so bad that you actually make better time on a train than driving, don't expect to see a mass exodus to Septa anytime soon. Until then, demand for parking will probably only increase.

People like me who don't want to put up with either Septa or driving, well, we move to the city and walk to work.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous andrew said...

some thoughts surrounding cira south:

overall, i think this project will do great things with the vacuum between center and university cities - as a frequent walker across the walnut street bridge i can attest to the darkness that exists between the rite aid and world cafe. bringing a hotel in is huge too. our airport is surrounded by them, but none surround our train station.

i until very recently was a devout follower of the 'F-&*^ cars get them out of my downtown' faith. but you cannot plan as if cars do not exist. a monstrous garage sucks. but we do need to account for the fact that a lot of the irs employees will drive to work no matter what. the lot size needs to be that perfect size that is large enough to supports those commuters, but not too large to encourage more drivers.

also,
do we know if brandywine even owns the plot of air above the tracks in front of where their parking lot would go? i would imagine amtrak or septa or some consortium thereof would own it.

it was cool i thought, on a side note, that the rendering had the buildings under this ominous evening sky as opposed to the typical dawn/dusk setting.

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hello.. is anyone thinking of the 'residential' aspect of this project??!! With condos being sold, you're gonna need dedicated parking. You know condo owners need to get to your pottery barns, crate&Barrels, Nordstroms on the weekends and those stores are not in CC philly and they ain't taking the Septa to get to them! The parking is an added benefit for the buyers of these new condos yet but I wouldn't want to live on top of major US interstate.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In downtown Tampa, every single new condo or hotel project sits atop a huge, whole-block garage. These garages are typically 8 - 10 levels. They do add in token retail spaces at street level, but it's a small space here, a small space space there. They are separated by huge gaping access openings to the garage for cars to go in and out, of course. But there are also big vents and other operational type structures in the walls along street level, further diluting any pedestrian-friendly retail.

Anyway, as expected, these new gleaming highrises are dismal at street level. They are so utilitarian in nature - bare concrete, etc. Now image two of these enormous garages facing each other along a street. Add in all the existing huge garages built during the previous commercial booms of the 80's and 90's. Driving (or; gulp, walking) along these streets becomes just running a gauntlet of garages.

Philly is so very fortunate to have so much of its urban environment dating from 'BG' - Before Garages. Imagine your beloved Walnut St. lined with big concrete garages rather than shops and hotels and apartment buildings.

I know garages are just too damned economically required to make a project work. As pointed out, mass transit is lacking, which forces more into driving. I also look at garages and think 'there's another cheap cop-out to true urban development'.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The garage part of this plan is ridiculous. Put it under ground, there's plenty of room because of the strange bi-level nature of those city blocks. The water table argument is ridiculous. In other parts of the world, modern engineering has enabled new man-made islands with skyscrapers and airports on them, but in Philadelphia, building things at ground level next to a river is simply impossible. Just like having a building without a parking garage is impossible.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I look forward to the end of the age of the automobile. All these garages are going to make great loft spaces! Huge windows and very soundproof, I can practice with my band whenever I want!

Meanwhile back in reality, this project is still very good, even with the garage. The point about Penn asking Brandywine for more connectiveness than this seems to provide is well made, however.

Also keep in mind that this is, as described, a 20 year project. Penn may be thinking that there will be time to sew up any gaps which remain after they see what this project looks like / acts like when finished.

It is a good start. It is not perfect. This first phase of commercial and residential deveoplment is symbolic and hugely important to create buzz. These towers are shocking (in a good way) for Philadelphia. They scream modern, thier shiny reflective blue is such a hugely dramatic contrast to 30th st and the post office, which feel more stoic, classic, stubborn and, well, Philadelphia. My opinion is that they are total opposites, and seem to complement each other perfectly.

Dont forget that there is a western side to this project as well. It will very easily draw people from the Sansom St nightlife scene a bit closer to CC when the shops and cafes open at the west end of this project, and along the other side of the street. I dont think it will finish the job of connecting, but it is only a first step, and it is a first step which brings us closer to what we want.

3:16 PM  
Blogger LiberaL said...

It's kind of depressing to realize that Chicago (with Wacker Drive and the Chicago River)did exactly the kind of development we need here, more than 100 years ago. There, the city flows effortlessly across the river at all points. Is Daniel Burnham, or his ghost, still available?

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The IRS will be operating later than the trains run, keep that in mind.

Yes, other cities have dealt with this, including Chicago...a city that also has problems with inept local government AND ground level parking garages.

10:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to disagree here with Inga about the tracks. What's more important is bringing life back tot he 30th St station area...not capping the tracks. The immense cost of capping the tracks would be better put towards expanding transit (for example, extension of a line into the northeast). Capping tracks ill eventually happen if developments like this actually happen. As for parking, peopel can and do take trains (SEPTA's regional rail ridership is up 10%) but the point is well taken that they would do so more if SEPTA were a decent company. However, it is not unreasonable to expect people to take the train here...and with the traffic that will result from this that should be all the motivation they'll need.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A new parking garage so near 30th street station will attract people parking to use the train services out of Philadelphia!
The Philadelphia Museum of Art suffers daily from people parking in their lot.

12:56 PM  

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