Tuesday, August 26, 2008

ZBA Rules Against Unisys Sign

When I decided to devote last Friday's Changing Skyline column to the saga of the Unisys sign, it looked like the zoning hearing might drag on for months. Who knew the zoning board, whose members interrupted their summer vacations for a special hearing this morning, would wrap things up so quickly. They voted to deny Unisys its request to place its name in 11-foot letters on the 38th floor of Liberty Two.
Now that they've been denied this billboard space (as well they should have), it looks like the lawyers can stop piling up briefs for the federal lawsuit. It's all moot. But it might have been an interesting, precedent-setting case that clarified the relationship between owners in mixed office-residential-retail buildings. My prediction is that there are going to be a lot more office towers converting empty floors into condo apartments.
Meanwhile, one city wag has this suggestion for Unisys: If they can't put their logo on a prestigious Philadelphia landmark, put the prestigious Philadelphia landmark on their logo. Redesign the Unisys signature to incorporate the outline of Liberty Two. Everyone wins!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Stamper Square: Where's the Cafe?

There is much to admire about H2L2's design for Stamper Square - which is no doubt the reason the Nutter Admin-istration was so decisive in backing the project for the failed NewMarket site. But surely one of the most appealing elements is the proposal to add a new leg to Society Hill's historic greenway. The winding pathway would meander along the north side of the hotel-and-condo project, gently conveying the city's boulevardiers between Second and Front Streets and, rewarding them en route with a charming, tucked-away outdoor cafe. (Look closely at the indentation in the rendering)

So why, we must ask, was all evidence of the cafe erased like a photo of Joe Stalin from the drawings that received final approval from the Planning Commission last week?

For the answer, you have to go to Joe Jacovini, one of Philadelphia's most powerful lawyers. Besides his day job as chairman of the well known firm Dilworth Paxson (where he was Vince Fumo's boss), Jacovini is also a long-time Pine Street resident, whose double-wide, townhouse garden backs onto the New Market weedy and forlorn lot (see photo by PhillySkyline's Brad Maule).

Unlike some Society Hill residents, Jacovini did not oppose redevel-opment of the old NewMarket site. But he strenuously objected to the presence of a cafe behind his house - so strenuously that developer Marc Stein ultimately figured it was preferable to cut his losses and to scratch the amenity from the project, rendering Stamper Square's design much less interesting. Obviously, someone like Jacovini has the legal wherewithal to tie up the project in court for the next century or so. But Stein's pragmatic concession strikes me as an extreme response.

Alan Greenberger, the planning commission's vice chairman, and soon-to-be executive director, was taken aback to learn that Stein had actually promised Jacovini a deed restriction that would bar an outdoor cafe on the Stamper Square site forever and ever. Recognizing that outdoor cafes have almost single-handedly energized Center City's once sleepy streets, Greenberger and the commission refused to sanction the deed restriction. But they did acknowledge that Stein was free to work out a private - and presumably more temporal - agreement with Jacovini. Still they're appalled by the outcome. "It's a terrible way to do this," conceeds Greenberger.

It's more than terrible, actually. It's dumb. Jacovini is afraid that the cafe, which would be located 115 feet from his garden wall, will create a never ending din that will make it impossible for him to enjoy his garden. He also told me during a very pleasant telephone conversation that he's even more worried about the security issue once there is a public walkway open 24/7 right behind his six-foot-high garden wall.

These are very real and legitimate concerns, as anyone who lives in a Philadelphia rowhouse knows. But deleting the cafe from the plans isn't the answer. Good design is the answer. And I suspect H2L2 would have no trouble drawing a solution.

Incidentally, if security is Jacovini's main worry, he'd be a lot better off having a patio full of chattering people with a good view of that walkway. While the proposed Starwoods Hotel will certainly have plenty of electronic cameras monitoring its perimeter, nothing beats Jane Jacobs' classic eyes-on-the-street security.

As for the potential of noise traveling 115 feet - okay, it's possible. But noise can easily be buffered by building a higher wall. Under the city's code, garden walls can't be any taller than six feet. But I suspect the city would enthusiastically endorse a variance in exchange for allowing the cafe. A higher wall that is impossible to scale would also solve the security issue. Jacovini has good reason to be extra cautious; he lived through the rise and fall of NewMarket, and watched the original tony complex decline into a low-rent joint. Starwoods may promise to be a first-class neighbor, but who knows what kind of owner might replace it in the future.

Jacovini told me he might soften on the cafe idea if Stamper's wall were 30-feet - the height of NewMarket's old north facade. That's a little excessive, if you ask me. He could probably get excellent results with a wall that's 12 to 15 feet high. But if the man wants 30 feet - give him 30 feet. As Robert Frost observed many men are convinced that, "Good fences make good neighbors."

So, build the wall. And let the rest of us enjoy our coffee.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Last Days for Electric Plant?

John T. Windrim's stately, early 20th Century cathedral of electricity, the Delaware Power Plant, has taken some hard blows. Graffiti mars the elegance of its stripped-down classicism, and a tangle of transformers and substations block views of its elegant Delaware Avenue facade. But until this week, the 1917 power station - one of four Windrim designed along the Delaware - had stood fairly intact. Then, on Thursday, Exelon (which bought PECO and its property a few years ago) began slicing off a small annex, leaving the power plant's north wall open to the elements.

Company spokesman Fred Maher insists the demolition is a limited operation - and not a prelude to total destruction of the generating station. But the unexpected deconstruction work has alarmed the building's champions, especially Hilary Regan. (Photo, right, by the Inquirer's Jon Wilson). They're increasingly worried about the future of the Delaware Power Plant and its sister station upriver, the Richmond Power Station, which was denied historic certification by the Street Administration.

Like many people who have devoted themselves over the last several years to creating a new vision for the Delaware waterfront, they see the two industrial relics as, well, generators of change. The grandeur of their architecture, coupled with their enormous high-ceiling turbine rooms, make them perfect candidates for a new museum of modern art. Obviously, they're keen to replicate the success of London's Tate Modern, which was carved out of old Bankside power plant on the Thames River with the help of Herzon & DeMeuron. But why not?

The Delaware Power Plant, which sits immediately north of Penn Treaty Park, is the more obvious candidate for re-purposing as an art museum, since it's closer to Center City. It's not hard to imagine it cleaned up, freed of its concertina of transformer wires, and installed with oversize sculpture. Sure beats a casino as a riverfront attraction.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Slasher Targets Downtown Street Trees

The dog days of August are upon us, and as any grizzled veteran of the police beat knows, that means we've entered the season of the bizarro crime story. Today's crime is a most diabolical one. It appears that some madman armed with a machete-like instrument is cutting a swathe across Center City, attacking street trees (Innocent street trees!) and hacking off their bark.

Said attacker appears to favor young, subtle trees, according to an email being circulated by the Center City Residents Association. Most of the attacks have occurred in the vicinity of 10th Street, between Walnut and Chestnut - Jefferson Hospital territory. Not content to slash and run, this attacker apparently returns to the scene of the original crime to hack again at the same trees. Nancy Goldenberg, a vice president at the Center City District, told the CCRA that the young trees are particularly vulnerable and could die from their wounds.

Just what we need in that quadrant of depressing parking garages and surface lots - treeless streets with no refuge from the burning sun. Someone stop this evildoer!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Failed Sci-Center Experiment

After a long search for someone to lead the city Planning Department, the Nutter Administration finally found its man right here in Philadelphia. Alan Greenberger, a principle architect at MGA Partners, will take charge of Philadelphia's planning agency in November, as I reported on Friday. Appointing an architect to head the storied department - no doubt still stalked by the ghost of uber-planner Edmund Bacon - isn't without precedent, though. Up until a few months ago, the place was run by Janice Woodcock, another well known Philadelphia architect. The hope is that having a director with a well-tuned design sense will encourage planners to vet new buildings for more than just the usual suspects of mass, density and loading, and pay attention to the finer details of how new buildings engage the street. That's clearly something that didn't get much attention at the Science Center's newest addition, 3711. You can read about what went wrong in Friday's Changing Skyline.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Farewell to the Youth Study Center

The Barnes Foun-dation is still in Merion and the Youth Study Center is still on the Parkway, but some frenetic activity in Philadelphia this week suggests that the planned relocation of both insitutions is picking up steam.

In preparation for the two moves, the city's public property department spent the week packing up two groups of sculptural figures that have humanized the forbidding juvenile prison for the last half century. The two groups, by the respected sculptor Waldemar Raemisch, are being relocated to the so-called Microsoft High School on Girard Avenue.

It's sad to see them go, especially since we're likely to have to look at the blank lower facade of the Youth Study Center for another year or so. The unbeautiful, but strangely fascinating, kiddie jail - by Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen - isn't coming down until the Barnes Foundation is ready to start work on its new Philadelphia building. Since the Barnes' architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, are still working through schematic design, they're unlikely to have a finished design until late this year, Barnes spokesman Andrew Stewart told me. So there is no urgency for the Youth Study Center to vacate its Parkway site.

Those sculptures were one of the few redeeming features of the Youth Study Center, surely the most oddly sited prison in the world. Because the building was located on the city's most monumental boulevard, the architects tried to camouflage its true purpose by giving the prison's Parkway facade a rather elegant, if strictly modernist, look. But they still couldn't get around the security issues and so the ground level is a brutally blank fortress wall. Hardly the thing you expect to encounter on a leisurely stroll along a major cultural thoroughfare Somebody must have gotten the idea that sticking some nice sculpture in front of the blank wall would make people forget what was behind it. So Raemisch , who escaped the virtual prison of Nazi Germany, was commissioned to design the two large ensembles to screen the real prison.

They're actually quite moving works, called the The Great Mother and The Great Doctor, that elevate their nurturing subjects to iconic status. Each ensemble is organized around a large figure, who dominates the group and offers comfort to the smaller members. They're beautifully composed, with small and large figures. For me, they evoke the hopeful spirit of early modernism, although they weren't dedicated until 1955, long after modernism's best years were past. You may not have paid much attention to the works in recent years. Sadly, the base of the Youth Study Center had become a dormitory for the homeless,and the sculptures were saddled with the additional burden of serving as cover for that social ill, too. Let's hope they can get the appreciation they deserve in their new home.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Brothers Chawla's Big Mess

Philadelphia's most notorious real estate flippers and speculators have got themselves in a spot of legal trouble again. This time, the Feds are accusing the Hardeep and Ravinder Chawla of trying to bribe an aide to at-large Councilman Jack Kelly with a Rittenhouse Square apartment, legal help and other assorted goodies, the Inquirer and Daily News both report today. Kelly, incidentally, is a good friend of the Chawlas.

Those among you who like to connect the dots will recall that the Chawlas are the guys who hired Daroff Design in 2006 to cook up the loony, George Jetson nutscape (see image) called New River City for the Schuylkill waterfront. The brothers, who hail from Burma and now live in Huntington Valley, claimed they were prepared to build 10 high-rise towers, containing a whopping 12 million square feet of space (that's 10 Liberty Places), in a L-shaped arrangement spanning the Schuylkill River and the airspace over Septa's regional rail viaduct. (See my 2006 column here, and blog post here.)

The Chawlas, who were then operating as the megla-manically named World Acquisition Group, got Gov. Rendell himself to make a personal pitch for the project to the skeptical Logan Square Neighborhood Association - after contributing some $31,000 to the guv's campaign chest.

Perhaps to cover their bets, the Chawlas had Kelly's aide, Christopher Wright, introduce them to people at the neighborhood association, the group's president, Rob Stuart, told me. Wright is alleged to have received $16,000 worth of favors for the introduction and other help. Those pitches "epitomize how business and politics get done in Philadelphia," Stuart observed.

Although they never received the hoped-for zoning variances for New River City, the Chawlas have continued to be generous to Philly politicians. In 2007, they hosted a fundraiser for Mayor Nutter, Mary Patel reported. It was arranged by PR it-girl Kelly Boyd and attended by the likes of DA Lynne Abraham and former controller Jonathan Saidel.

Considering all the money the Brothers Chawla have spread around, it's interesting how little they've built. They seem to prefer to collect than develop. In 2005, they took the infamous NewMarket site off Will Smith's hands. Initially, they came up with a proposals for a gruesome 20-story tower, by Daroff's James Rappaport (son of a federal judge, incidentally). But after intense neighborhood opposition, they leased the site to Marc Stein, the developer of the yet-unbuilt Bridgman's View. Stein's hotel-condo project won a controversial zoning change from the Nutter administration in May after much heated debate. (See rendering above)

Stamper Square, I would argue, is among better things to result from the Chawla's wheeling and dealing. They were the notorious landlords for the Architect's Building, before selling it to a developer to convert to a Kimpton Hotel. They also flipped the former Locust Club on Locust Street to philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, who is turning it into dorms for students of the Curtis Institute. But they still own the empty and decaying AAA building at 21st and Market Streets, as well as another office building at 1760 Market Street. The Chawlas' Sant Properties is also said to be the largest owners of industrial property in Philadelphia's Northeast - Kelly's stomping grounds.

For a time, they were the landlord for the IRS. But Hardeep Chawla apparently got a little greedy and tried to stiff the nation's tax collector by failing to pass along a mandatory property tax rebate. Whoops! He spent six months in jail for that one. Something tells me this latest indictment isn't the last we'll hear of the Brothers Chawla and their political friends.