Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Amnesia Sweeps Society Hill

I suspect that if someone from Burkina Faso or Lapland happened to read Harry K. Schwartz' letter to the editor in today's Inquirer, they might assume that Society Hill was some kind of village of small houses. He writes to take issue with last week's column , in which I conclude that Stamper Square's carefully modulated massing won't destroy the neighborhood. Indeed, I believe there is a good chance that the plan for a luxury hotel, a park that continues the beloved St. Peter's Way path, and outdoor cafe might boost the neighborhood's elegant ambiance.
Yet, residents are so fixated on the height of the project's 15-story, asymmetrical towers - which top out at 166 feet - that their memory banks seems to have been wiped out.
They've con- veniently forgotten about the presence of three 31-story skyscrapers by I.M. Pei just up the block, which are probably twice as tall as the proposed replacement for the NewMarket. (I shamelessly stole the photograph here from Brad Maule, who has a good analysis at PhillySkyline.) They've also forgotten about the rather bulky Abbott's Square, right across the street from the NewMarket site. Harry seems to have completely blocked out that his Society Hill Civic Association allowed in the 1970s-80s the construction of two 25-story towers at Independence Place, which, of course, are located across the street from the 35-story Hopkinson House! And wasn't it just a couple of years ago that Society Hill Civic approved Will Smith's 112-foot W Hotel without any of the sturm and drang we're seeing today. Hardly an unsullied low-rise enclave.

Society Hill-ians, who will vote tonight on the project, are immensely proud of Society Hill Towers, which jump-started the neighborhood's landmark revival, and frequently point to that design as a model. While the project is certainly important historically, it's hard to overlook the designs serious urban flaws. For starters, there is the towers-in-a-park layout and the separation from the street grid - two mistakes that should not be repeated in Philadelphia. One of the very good things about the layout and massing of Stamper Square is that it connects with the grid in multiple urban ways. It also pushes those two, now modest, mid-rise towers to the far edge of the site, so they hardly interfere with the blocks of low-rise townhouses. They will overlook the broad openness of Front Street, with I-95 and the Delaware River in the distance.

In arriving at this massing and layout, the architects at H2L2 have essentially articulated some useful, basic rules for siting tall buildings in Philadelphia:

1) Bring the buildings to the street line

2) But make sure the massing responds to the urban context on the edges

3) Place tall structure on big streets, facing parks or other broad expanses

4) You can never be too rich or too skinny. Tall, skinny towers are usually better than short fat ones. Rich articulation beats large, under-detailed expanse.

5) Include public open space, but avoid anti-urban setbacks from the street line.

I'm sure there are other rules that could be added to the list, and I'd love to hear suggestions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, was shocked by today's letter to the editor. He did indeed forget Society Hill Towers and other high rises.

The proposed development, as you've described it, does seem fine.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Degenerate said...

I can't for the life of me understand where he is coming from. This development would be an incredible addition to that neighborhood. Opposition is senseless, and the argument given, historically baseless. This would be wonderful for the neighborhood and Philadelphia at large.

10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding to that silly letter. The project in question looks handsome and more than appropriate for the neighborhood. Society Hill's qualities are in no danger.

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It should also be noted that
Mr. Harry K. Schwartz LIVES in Society Hill Towers!!! I guess he does not want to lose his million dollar views since his unit faces the proposed Stampers Sq.

11:55 AM  
Blogger mickeytwin said...


I would add that newer structures should respect the integrity of the materials used in surrounding buildings, but don't neesd to necessarily incorporate them.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Davis said...

I agree - silly letter.

I do question the generally accepted "wisdom" of bringing tall buildings to the streetline. I just don't get why one wants to make such an impact - sometimes - with buildings which are out of the general scale of the surroundings. That's one reason the "Towers" are so successful.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kevin, I think you better watch making accusations as I would not want to be in your shoes saying that.......

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Said there is a chance. The other parts were from paper. No acquisitions made.

Thanks for threat though... nice touch.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kevin's comments are excellent examples of why the city is hiring expert planners, expanding the planning department in general, and re-writing the zoning code. The days of "arm chair planning" done by neighborhood civic associations will hopefully soon be over. This "Kevin", I wager, is not a planner has probably never read or studied anything about contemporary city planning and doesn't intend to. Steve Weixler is quoted on as saying in regards to the planning process in Philadelphia, “This underscores the need for government and serious planning to step up in this city… Government needs to stop this process.”
( The reactionary fear mongering on the part of some neighbors during this process has been truly pathetic.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Winfield said...

As a center city resident that would have been directly affected by the proposed building of a 49 story condominium, I learned how the "planning" process was circumvented .....the owners of the present site just went to Phila L&I and got a building permit!!!
After significant and loud neighborhood group protests, a small victory was achieved; the height was reduced to 39 stories.
Some victory!


5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read on that the idiots of the Society Hill Neighborhood Association were succsessful in blocking the project. Aparantly, they are quite satisfied with the hole that has been there for ten years and will now prbably remain for atleast ten more. Shame on you !!!

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Plan Philly is wrong no one lost! They get there information Directly from PB. they also work with him.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Criticizing a proposed development strictly on the basis of height is liking judge a piece of music by the number of notes or a book by the number of pages. This development has been very carefully designed and would be a great addition to Philadelphia. I am very much looking forward to the upcoming zoning and planning changes in this city to combat the ignorance and selfishness of a small minority.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Harry K. Schwartz said...

I am a fan of Inga Saffron. I find her criticism lively, persuasive and almost invariably right.

So I was honored that Ms. Saffron would take the time to respond to my modest Letter to the Editor of February 27 regarding the proposed development for the NewMarket site in Society Hill. In fact, there is much we agree on.

H2L2's hotel building -- the pediment on which the towers would stand (actually, there is only one tower) -- is quite good. Connecting walkways that cut through city blocks make a neighborhood more pedestrian friendly. Towers should be slender, not squat. There will be, and there should be, more tall buildings in the city. The issue is where.

Society Hill was designed as a low-rise urban neighborhood of historic row houses. It was the product of planning -- very good planning. The tall buildings referred to in the blog (Hopkinson House, Independence Place) are part of the streetscape of Washington Square, and front on the historic facades of large buildings that were already there. The other examples mentioned are simply mistakes -- Abbott Square, which did get built, and the W Hotel, which, fortunately, didn't.

There are, however, two issues on which we have significant differences: the role that Society Hill Towers played in the implementation of the plan, and whether economics trumps planning, or planning guides development.

I believe we agree that the Towers played a key role in the restoration of the community. When the Towers were built the streets below were pretty much deserted and forbidding. Under the circumstances, building them on a campus made sense. So it is incorrect to suggest that the Towers intrude on the neighborhood, when in fact they helped to create it.

The second point is broader and more troubling. Developers who overpay for land on the assumption that the height limitations in the zoning code can be circumvented take a risk. The risk is there because the height limitations help to preserve the fragile fabric of the community. This is not just about Society Hill. It is about all of the row-house neighborhoods that are or may be threatened by unplanned, out-of-scale development.

Neither Ms. Saffron nor I want that.

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The beauty of media is the freedom of open discussion. But educated discussion is important as well. Anyone who does a simple google search of Mr. Schwartz will find that he is a longtime preservationist with a history of working with communities to assure the strength of the people within them. Those who criticize his concerns should research his work before reacting to his comments and understand that his years of experience lend to his understanding of the development of innercity spaces. You do not need to agree with him... you simply need to understand his concerns are warrented. His effort is not simply to protect what is his, but rather to assure the sanctity of all communities within our nation's cities.

8:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Inga,

There is other stuff brewing in Society Hill as well. Did you know you can't really get a tour of the Powell House anymore and the gardens are looking VERY rundown? That the Powell House is closed for tours? Have you heard that the board of is thinking of selling the Hill Physick Keith House?

What's next? Will the Park Service put the Liberty Bell on the block with Independance Hall?

Someone needs to look at what the board of Phila Landmarks is doing with it's money shouldn't they?

It makes you wonder why all those folks who saved Society Hill bothered at all....

And as for 185 feet at New Market? Why does this developer need to memorialize himself with a giant phallic symbol?

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're suffering from a little amnesia yourself, Inga, and others. Your support of Stamper Square seems inconsistent with your expressed views on the Dilworth site on Washington Square. The issue is that the memories of long time residents of Society Hill of an elevated I-95, ramps off I-95 on to Spruce Street, NewMarket's imposition on carefully restored townhouses on the north side of Lombard, the original Sheraton Hotel plan on Dock Street, the final solution to Independence Place from its original developer's proposal, on and on, are very good. The neighborhood has thrived as a result of the neighborhood's demand for adherence to the zoning code that created it and its ability to withstand the onslaught of inappropriate development by developers who do not keep their promises.

7:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With more residential development occuring in Society Hill and other parts of town, the city's recreation facilities must keep pace.

In particular, WE NEED TENNIS COURTS as greater Center City is UNDERSERVED.

8:09 AM  
Anonymous joe deegan said...

Offer the street level retail space to unique shops or restaurants that will add interest to the street and the building, without making them pay going rate or top dollar for the space. The east side of 16th street, south of Market St is an example of what not to do,i.e. have empty retail space most of the time. The developer should think that an interesting retailer at ground level is worth his weight in gold. National chains are a bore, but are often the only ones who can afford the rent.
However, if this is space that builders are willing to leave empty though setbacks,why insist on a a big rent when an interesting retailer would be of much more value.
So pick a retailer or Restaurant that will enhance your project and set the rent as if you recognize his intangible value to your building.
A radical example would be if a new building developer could get Le Bec Fin to move to the building, he would benefit even if he got no rent out of the space.
That is my humble opinion.
Joe Deegan

10:40 PM  

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