Friday, September 30, 2005

Philadelphia Parking Authority Moves on Rittenhouse Square Property

Park your car a minute longer than the parking meter allows and some inspector from the Philadelphia Parking Authority will dart out faster than a rattlesnake to drop a ticket on your windshield. But when it comes to prime Center City real estate, the agency moves more like a slug.

In January, the authority reluctantly abandoned its wacky plan to build a large parking garage across from Rittenhouse Square - the city's loveliest neighborhood park - after the courts struck down the scheme. Now, after puttering around for ten months, the agency is ready to seek new ideas for the site by issuing a formal Request for Proposals, according to authority spokesperson Linda Miller. That request should be out in October. Of course, the authority could have waited even longer to spring into action - perhaps until after Center City's condo boom had totally fizzled. It seems likely that most of the proposals will be for a residential tower.

Condos make sense for Rittenhouse Square, which is already ringed by tall, gracious apartment buildings. The question is, why didn't the parking authority go that route when it sunk its bureaucratic claws into the vacant property seven long years ago?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Redevelopment Authority drives business out of Philadelphia

The James J. Clearkin construction company, whose battles with Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority were chronicled in my July 15 Changing Skyline column, have finally accepted defeat according to the Daily News.

The 45-person firm is leaving its Juniata Park neighborhood for Cheltenham, even though Clearkin is one company that would much rather be in Philadelphia.

Naturally, the Daily News wanted to get RDA Chairman John Dougherty to comment about the loss of this 87-year-old Philadelphia business, but he refused to return their calls - as is often his practice with journalists.

Dougherty, whose other job is running the electrical workers union, plans to run to for mayor. You can bet voters are going to ask why he helped run a tax-paying business out of town. It won't be so easy then for Candidate Dougherty to avoid answering questions.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Making Tracks Along the Delaware Waterfront

Progress in Philadelphia always comes in tiny steps. The smartest and most ambitious thing the city Planning Commission did this year was to adopt a rule requiring all development on the Delaware River to be set back 50 feet from the water's edge, thus preserving a strip of land for a future walking and biking path. Then, exhausted by its exertions, the commission decided to call it day. There's no park design, no provision for funding and building the path, no rules on preserving view corridors. Meanwhile, developers are rushing ahead with some 4,000 proposed housing units for Philadelphia's big waterfront. Already, 1,429 units are under construction.

So, it is nice to hear that Paul Levy and the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. have stepped into the breach. At the group's quarterly meeting this week, Levy offered a sneak preview of his plan for a 5.76 mile trail that snakes along the Delaware, with occasional detours inland to Columbus Boulevard. Plans for the trail, which would run from Penn Treaty Park to the Super Fresh parking lot at Mifflin Street, was put together by Wallace Roberts & Todd, a Philadelphia planning firm that has designed waterfront parks in Baltimore and along New Jersey's Hudson River.

Of course, there remains the sticky problem of how to pay for it. Levy estimates the park would cost $12 million and suggests it could paid for using a fancy municipal tool called Tax Increment Financing. It's a good idea, and definitely worth exploring, but the cost estimates sound a little low. Let's not forget the 1.2-mile Schuylkill River trail cost $14 million - and that was without any landscaping.

But there is no doubt that Levy is on the right track. "We were once a city that planned and dreamed. We've lost that habit," he told the CPDC meeting. As a result, the waterfront is becoming an unattractive hodge-podge of big-box stores and parking lots. Casinos and a proposed liquefied nitrogren gas plant could add to the mess. Meanwhile, other cities have turned their waterfronts into attractive parks that help smooth the rough edges of urban living.

"We're late, very late," said Levy.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Vancouver skyline

How does Vancouver do it?

Vancouver has doubled its downtown population in the past 20 years, mainly by building tall condo towers. But instead of being stressed by the rapid growth and high-density construction, the city has become more livable, more interesting and more fun than ever. Credit goes to the city's director of planning, Larry Beasely.
Beasley, who gave a talk Monday at the University of Pennsylvania, is a stickler for hands-on planning. "Having a developer present something to us and having us react - that simply doesn't work," he said. His department has spent countless hours working out design standards, so developers know in advance what will fly and what won't.
Here's a quick list of what Vancouver planners demand as a starting point:
-Elegant, thin towers, with floor plates no bigger than 6,800 square feet.
-To ease the transition to the street, most condo towers need to have a low-rise base comprised of townhouses, shops or low-rise apartments.
-Towers must be placed at wide intervals to preserve views of Vancouver's stunning waterfront and mountain scenery.
-ALL, yes ALL, parking must be underground. Imagine that in a downtown surrounded by water. There are dozens of new condo towers and not one of them sits on a parking deck.
-Between 20 and 33 percent of all new condo units must be set aside as affordable housing.
-Whenever a neighborhood begins to experience a building boom, city planners rush in to assess the need for parks, bike paths, playgrounds, schools and daycare.
Coming from Philadelphia, it sounds impossible that a city could demand so much and get developers to comply. But it works, Beasley said, because the demands are consistent. He also believes that good urban design begets good cities. "People will not be drawn to cities that are ugly or uncomfortable. They'll vote with their feet," he said.
Right now, Vancouver's downtown population is 85,000, exactly the same as Philadelphia's Center City. Wanna bet which city pulls ahead?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Nice Coincidence

How's this for a happy coincidence? Vancouver's celebrated chief planner, Larry Beasley, will speak tonight at the University of Pennsylvania, 6 p.m. in Meyerson Hall's basement auditorium. Beasley is the planning mastermind who helped make Vancouver one of the most liveable cities in North America. Wouldn't it be nice if some folks from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Adjustment stopped by to pick up a few pointers? I'll be there and I'll let you know what Beasley has to say.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Finally, some planning in Center City

Though Center City is booming with new construction, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission has been unable to rouse itself to consider how the downtown is being reshaped. Fortunately, several neighborhood groups have taken up the task themselves. The Center City Residents Association gave its members a mid-term peak Thursday night at its privately-funded neighborhood plan.

The study, conducted by the Philadelphia firm Kise Straw and Kolodner, was impressive not just for its wealth of data, but for its progressive urbanist views and its strong support for pedestrian-friendly streets. Get this: They said it was time for Philadelphia to stop acting like a beggar that can't be choosy, and to start behaving like it belongs to the club of great walkable cities that includes San Francisco and Vancouver. With all the new condos in the pipeline, the southwest quadrant of Center City could add 10,000 new residents in a decade, an increase of 50 percent.

Unlike the city planning commission or the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the CCRA team spoke plainly about the design villains that are threatening to undermine Center City's virtues: condo towers built atop huge garage podiums, the immense maw of large loading docks, huge blank walls on the backs of tall towers, and rowhouses whose ground floors are dominated by garage doors. They suggested that the city needs to start thinking now about creating new parks in developing areas, funding sidewalk improvements, discouraging car ownership downtown, and improving pedestrian connections between neighborhoods.

The planners promised to return in three or four months with more specific recommendations.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Do You Miss New Orleans?

If you do, take heart from the words of Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Dismissing suggestions that the location of New Orleans is too precarious for a modern city, she responded in strong terms on Wednesday: "To anyone who even suggests that this great city should not be rebuilt, hear this and hear it well: We will rebuild."

Increasingly, it appears the city will get a financial boost from architectural and preservation groups. The National Trust for Historic Preservation announced Thursday that it was starting a fund to pay for preservation-minded repairs. The aim is to raise $1 million. The Getty Foundation got the ball rolling with a $100,000 contribution. See

Meanwhile, S. Frederick Starr, a New Orleans resident and architecture chronicler, has started a separate effort called the Fund for New Orleans, with Washington, D.C. investment banker Paul Schott Stevens. Contact them via

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A Room of My Own

Architects design the buildings, clients pay for them, developers get them built, but the rest of us have to live with them.
My name is Inga Saffron and I’m the architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. During the half dozen years that I’ve been writing about buildings, I’ve always tried to look at architecture and planning with a civilian’s eye. If an artist exhibits a bad painting in a museum, no one forces you to go see it. But when designers and developers put up a building in a prominent spot in your city, all of us have to live with it.
I’m not an architect. I’m a critic and newspaper reporter. Architect and architecture critic are two different professions. Architects may be loath to admit it, but we couldn’t exist without one another.
My architecture column, Changing Skyline, appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer nearly every Friday. But that leaves six other days of the week to think about how we shape our buildings - and in Winston Churchill’s words - how they shape us. Fortunately there is the blogosphere. Welcome to my little part of it, a room of my own that I’m calling Skyline Online. I hope you’ll stop by and chat from time to time. After all, everyone’s a critic.