Monday, December 19, 2005

Venturi vs. Mies

Philadelphia Architect Robert Venturi, who coined the post-modernist retort, "Less is a Bore" ventured into enemy territory - Chicago - to lecture on that city's great 20th architect modernist, Mies van der Rohe, whose aesthetic motto was, of course, "Less is More." See Lynn Becker's report on the flying fur at ArchitectureChicago Plus.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ed Bacon's Last Words on the Dilworth House

Ed Bacon died in October, at the age of 95, but the famously feisty city planner continues to fight battles in cyberspace. In what may be his last interview before his death, you can hear him speak eloquently and forcefully about the need to preserve former Mayor Richardson Dilworth's house on Washington Square. The audio clip comes via the webpage of the Society Hill Civic Association, which has been fighting developer John Turchi's attempt to strip the house of its historic status.

Nothing much has been heard about the case for several months, not since the city Historical Commission's designation committee unanimously rejected Turchi's request to decertify the historic house - opening the way for demolition. After the committee rejected the idea, Turchi's last hope was having the full commission override their decision. But Mayor Street asked him to put the request on hold so he could study the issues. Street spent almost two hours recently listening to Society Hill Civic reps make the case for preservation.

Turchi originally bought the house to live in it, but changed his mind and decided instead that it was the perfect site for a condo building. Turchi hired Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi to design a 13-story tower on the narrow site. Just one problem: the house is designated as historic and historic houses are untouchable. Turchi tried to do an end run around the law by having Dilworth's home "decertified" - an increasingly common tactic in Philadelphia's historic areas.

Oddly enough, the Dilworth house is not one of Society Hill's great 18th Century houses. It's a fake colonial that Dilworth had built for his family in 1957, when Bacon was beginning his historic effort to revive Society Hill as a middle class neighborhood. The former mayor wanted to do something to demonstrate his commitment to the project, so he moved his family into the heart of the neighborhood, then considered a slum. Dilworth actually tore down two historic houses to build his fake colonial, but we forgive him - historic preservation was in its infancy then. His house isn't important for its architecture or for its age; it's important as the physical manifestation of a great moment in Philadelphia history.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Return of the Ancient Mariner Condos

Long, long ago - in 2001 - when Mariner Commercial Properties first announced plans for Philadelphia's tallest residential building, a 50-story tower at 15th and Chestnut Streets, the massive tower by Cope Linder didn't look half bad, even though it was perched atop a 10-story parking podium. But that was before the condo craze hit, and before Philadelphia was immersed in the biggest residential building boom since the 1929 stock market crash.

Over the last four years, while Philadelphia was remaking itself as the so-called Sixth Borough, Mariner had the bad luck to be involved in the mother of all zoning feuds. While its developer, Tim Mahoney, and the developer of the adjacent Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, were busy suing and counter-suing one another, the little world of Philadelphia condo design started to change. Developers started slicking up their towers with sophisticated architecture. Richard Meier's firm entered the fray with Mandeville Place. Then came Solomon Cordwell Buenz's Murano tower, now under construction at 21st and Market. Neither had a garage podium.

Even Handel Architects, the designers of the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, improved their original design by ditching the podium and putting all the parking underground. As condo towers proliferate in Philadelphia, the saavier designers and developers are realizing that the blocky, dark podiums wreck the lines of their towers and make them less attractive places to live. Opus East, a development company with few design pretensions, quickly agreed to neighbors' demands and seriously reduced the podium on its new tower at 20th and Market Streets.

Now the Mariner project is back on track. The Zoning Board of Adjustment approved a slightly revised version of the project this week, despite threats of more lawsuits from neighbor and competitor Craig Spencer. It's not much different than the design Cope Linder Architects presented four years ago. Mariner brought down the overall height of the tower to 585 feet, from 615. Unfortunately, the podium remains, although it is now down to eight stories. The only compensation is that the parking structure will be completely enclosed in the same masonry and glass as the rest of the tower. We can only hope it will be indistinguishable from the rest of the building and doesn't create a harsh backdrop to McKim Mead & White's sublime Girard Bank Dome.

As you might expect, the subject of the podium didn't phase the ZBA. As the Inquirer reports today, the board quickly rubberstamped the old design and its chairman, David Auspitz, wished them all godspeed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

See Philadelphia Block by Block From Your Computer

There's something about looking at the world from above that changes your the way you think about the relationships between places. I've just discovered a couple of great sites that let you look at incredibly detailed bird's eye views of Philadelphia, right down to individual rowhouse rooftops. The easiest site is run by Microsoft, but Google Earth also has a version.

If you take a mouse-guided tour from north to south, it will quickly become obvious that the densest neighborhoods - those packed with rowhouses and no intermitant green space - are the most successful. Most of the photos were taken a year ago so they don't include the new construction that occured since then, such as Westrum's rapidly spreading Brewerytown development and the Toll Bros. project at the Naval Home,

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What's Penn's Landing Worth to You?

Philadelphia has spent 30 years trying to figure out how to use the Penn's Landing waterfront. But it was members of the Street Administration who hit on the idea of turning it into a fountain for campaign contributions. Now that Mayor Street's pal and former law partner Leonard Ross has pleaded guilty to trying to extort campaign donations from the applicants seeking the development rights to Penn's Landing, I thought it would be fun to look back on the denials (ie. lies) issued when the accusations were first made in 2003.

Just to set the scene a bit: In December 2002 - while Mayor Street was gearing up his reelection campaign - he invited developers to submit ideas for transforming Philadelphia's forlorn central waterfront. Nine developers responded. And so did the public. The problem of what to do with Penn's Landings sparked one of the most engaged civic conversations in Philadelphia history. Little did the particpants know that Len Ross was settling things behind closed doors. "I wanna make sure all these other guys [developer candidates] . . . are gonna come to a few of our fund-raisers . . . " Ross explained to Street's top fundraiser, Ronald White, in a conversation the FBI happened to be taping on April 1, 2003.

It was quite obvious even to casual observes that the Street Administration was drawing out the developer selection that spring in an effort to squeeze a few more campaign checks out of the applicants. Here's how mayoral spokesman Frank Keel responded to that suggestion in a May 9, 2003 Changing Skyline column:
"The assertion that this is tied into a desire to ratchet up contributions is politically motivated nonsense. "

In a May 20, 2003 letter to the editor, former Commerce Director James J. Cuorato also took umbrage:
"The city's process is being driven solely by the goal of selecting the best development plan and development team for Penn's Landing. Selection of a plan and developer will be determined solely on the merits of the proposals and the development teams who participate. Saffron's suggestion to the contrary is simply not true, and discounts the efforts of the developers who will put in countless hours of hard work and planning to provide their visions. "

After the longest developer search in planning history - 22 months - Mayor Street announced in Oct. 2004 (after he had been re-elected in a landslide and the pay-to-play probe was proceeding apace) that the proposals of the two finalists were just too expensive. But he promised then that the city would turn the crumbling asphalt lot on the waterfront into a green park. Being a bit tone-deaf to irony, the mayor declared:
"Waterfronts are our greatest resource."

As a resource for what? Shakedowns?

One footnote: In 1986, City Councilman Leland Beloff went to jail for demanding that developer Williard Rouse pay $1 million for the priviledge of developing Penn's Landing. In 2003, Len Ross upped the price to $2 million. The only thing that has changed at Penn's Landing is the going rate of the bribes.

Oh, yeah. For the record, Street himself has not been implicated in any wrongdoing. Federal investigators repeated this week that they have no plans to bring charges against the mayor.

But don't expect development at Penn's Landing any time soon.