Friday, May 26, 2006

Urban Design Cliches for Any occasion

Thursday night's Casino Design Forum, which drew about 650 Philadelphians to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, was an attempt to do the impossible, which was to evaluate the city's five proposed casinos purely on urban design terms. The problem is that Philadelphia's casinos are neither very urban nor really designed. As buildings, they're more like shopping malls, whose appearance is governed by fixed design formulas. The Planet Hollywood Riverwalk is practically indistinguishable from a Target.

But that didn't stop the casino architects and planners from acting as if they were Andres Duany unveiling the latest scheme for a dense, walkable New Urbanist town. Here are some my favorite design cliches from the evening, which was sponsored by Penn Praxis and the Daily News. They just go to show that architects will say all the right things about all the wrong buildings. Every quote was uttered by a casino presenter.

"This is about connecting the community back to the river."
"This is the kind of project that, in ten years, is going to feel like it's been around 50 years."
"It respects the historic scale of the neighborhood."
"It connects to the neighborhood."

And my personal favorite, which was used to describe Foxwoods mid'-'80s theme park desiged with red brick and a vaulted, green metal roof:

"It's getting back to the kind of craft you see on City Hall."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Saving the Rittenhouse Club Facade - Again

After the four disputed buildings came down on 18th Street to make way for a Robert A.M. Stern condo tower, there was an ominous lull in construction at the site. Now we know why.

The developer, Hal Wheeler, has run into unexpected construction problems involving the location of underground utilities and structural supports for the Rittenhouse Club facade (right). It now appears that Wheeler's contractor, Turner Construction, will have to take the beautiful Beaux-Arts facade apart block-by-block and reassemble it later, as the tower is constructed. According to an email distributed today by the Center City Residents Association, Wheeler has given his word of honor that he'll spare no expense to insure the reconstruction is done properly. He has hired LePore and Sons, a well regarded stone mason, as well as two top structural engineering firms, Keast & Hood and Thornton Thomasetti.

Even so, no one will rest easy until the Rittenhouse facade is back in place. Preserving the undulating white stone facade - a 1900 remodeling of Frank Furness' 1878 club building - was the primary justification for allowing the four lesser structures on 18th Street to be sacrificed. The Rittenhouse Club had been vacant for nearly 15 years, and Wheeler's tower was seen as a way to save its most public element, a remnant of a time when Rittenhouse Square was lined with exclusive clubs and townhouses. The CCRA has played a critical role in monitoring the developer during the long approval process. The neighborhood group set an important preceded by demanding proof of Wheeler's financing before allowing the 18th Street demolitions to take place. The problems with the facade are a reminder that they need to stay vigilant as the project progresses.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Real Riverfront Planning on the Delaware?

Pinch me, and maybe I'll believe it's true. Can it really be that Vince Fumo and Frank DiCicco met with Mayor Street to discuss setting up a development corporation to help plan the Delaware waterfront? So says today's Daily News. It's certainly a better approach than trying to withhold riverbed leases, as Gov. Rendell and Fumo proposed last month. Still, the Penns Landing Development Corp. hasn't exactly been a fount of enlightenment.

A serious plan for the Delaware can't come too soon. There are dozen proposed towers clustered on the waterfront in Northern Liberties, in obvious anticipation of a pair of casino aces across the street. The tallest of the lot, Bridgman's View, a 900-foot-tall tower by Agoos/Lovera that would be Philly's highest condo building, will be discussed tomorrow, May 18, at the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association meeting. It takes place at 7 p.m. in St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Church at 4th Street and Fairmount Avenue.

Design Changes Planned for 205 Race Street As Condo Market Softens

Philadelphia's condo market has become like a meal that's been through a bad microwave - some spots are hot, while others are cool. Today, Second and Race Streets in Old City is definitely cool, and not in a good way. Brown/Hill Development has decided to deep-freeze its plans for an ambitious 10-story apartment house designed by SHoP, the New York firm responsible for 108 Arch in Old City and the Porter House apartments in Manhattan's Chelsea.

Brown/Hill's Greg Hill says the developer isn't abandonning the project, which was one of the best new designs in Philadelphia. But after months of slow pre-sales, the company concluded that there aren't enough people willing to pay $900,000 for a duplex with 15-foot ceilings on the edge of Old City, next to the on-ramp for the Ben Franklin bridge. That isn't to say no one wants to live in Old City anymore. But as many developers are discovering, it's easier to sell a $400,000, one-bedroom unit today than a $800,000 two-bedroom. Brown/Hill's plan now is to see if SHoP's design can be reconfigured to accommodate more moderately-priced units. It may be a matter of reducing the quality of the finishes. Or, the developers may be forced to eliminate the duplexes, which accounted for nearly all of the building's 53 units. That might trigger other serious design changes, since SHoP's rhythmic, zinc-and-glass facade reflected the interior arrangement - a jigsaw puzzle of duplexes with a single-loaded corridor. The design called for three kinds of glass in the windows. The building had many charms, including a strong retail presence on the ground floor and underground parking. "We love the design," Hill says, "but we just can't afford it."

There are rumors, unconfirmed of course, that sales are slow at several projects. But it's easier for projects with large institutional investors to wait things out. One project that definitely appears to moving ahead now is the Murano, the 42-story curved glass tower at 21st and Market. Judging by the amount of equipment and utility trenches, they're really digging. The Murano's developers, it should be noted, intentionally priced the tower's 302 units in the $400,000 range, to appeal to a broader market.

But projects in more tested locations, like Rittenhouse and Washington Squares, are still able to command high prices.
Although 205 Race didn't work out as planned, Brown/Hill and the Goldenberg Group say they are satisfied with the pace of sales at the Ayer, the art deco office building overlooking Washington Square. (Please excuse the blue! This photo is really a lovely golden color.)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Durham School Update

Suddenly, Independence Charter's attempt to buy the Durham School at 16th and Lombard doesn't look so hopeless. They were outbid for the property earlier this year by condo developers Miles & Generalis, who won the Philadelphia School District's auction. But when the duo subsequently announced plans to erect a 22-story tower (see below) in the school playground, neighborhood groups began voicing doubts. Miles & Generalis came back with several less-towering variations, but by then public opinion had turned firmly in favor of the K-7 school.

The problem is that developers have already tempted the School District by offering $6 million for the school and its generous playground - $1 million more than Independence's bid. Seeing the issue purely in terms of dollars and cents (rather than sense), the district took the developer's money. Nevermind that there are already hundreds of condos proposed for the neighborhood and an influx of young families is likely to follow.

But the cause of Independence, a K-7 charter now located in cramped quarters on Seventh Street, got a huge boost last week when the Center City Residents Association came out squarely on the side of the school. The association has sent a letter to Mayor Street and Council President Anna Verna (whose district includes Durham) opposing a zoning variance to allow housing on the site and - even more significantly - strongly supporting Independence Charter's purchase. Their support for the school fits with their new master plan, which calls for additional schools and infrastructure to serve the neighborhood's growing population.

Now it's up to the school district to do what's right. On May 23, district representatives are due to appear in Common Pleas Court (Courtroom 426, at 1 p.m.) to finalize the sale of school property. This is a chance for the district to withdraw the property from auction and restart the process. This time, instead of holding a simple auction, the district should craft a Request For Proposals. Under such a process, the district would no longer be obliged to sell to the highest bidder. It could instead make the sale to the most compatible user. That would truly be acting in the public interest.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Changing Skyline: German Edition

In case any one was wondering why there were no entries here on Skyline Online last week, it was because the house blogger was in Germany inspecting the architecture of the World Cup. My first stop was Stuttgart, where Mercedes Benz is putting the finishing touches its new $200 million museum, designed by the up-and-coming Dutch firm, UN Studio. It's meant to look as if you could drive right in, though you can't, of course. The interior is a mind-blowing, triple mobius ramp.
As cars go, Mercedes-Benz are better designed than most. But after being forced to look at - and nod politely at - hundreds of Mercedes (and their engines!) over a two-day span, I never want to see another one again, except for this beauty on the hoist in the company garage. It used to belong to Francisco Franco, who hardly put any mileage on it. He's still dead, by the way.
The company figures that sports fans are also car fans, and will save a little time to visit the museum.
But if they're also architecture fans, they will certainly make their way to Munich to check out Herzog & De Meuron's new Allianz Arena, which resembles either 1) a squashed golf ball 2) a squashed Michelin Man or 3) a bubble-wrapped alien spacecraft. Whichever description you prefer, it's a relief to know that all sports stadiums don't have to be red-brick-clad nostalgia fests. It's also nice to see what Herzog & De Meuron did with a modern shopping mall in historic downtown Munich, slipping it elegantly and interestingly between two 19th Century commercial buildings. Note how they maintain the massing, scale and plane of the existing buildings. Another good lesson for red-brick Philadelphia.The dark elements over the windows are perforated metal shutters that slide open and closed. I promise more extensive reviews in future articles in the Inquirer.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Durham School and the Condo Boom's Hard Choices

It's been fascinating to observe how Philadelphians have changed their tune on the city's housing boom. In the beginning -sometime in late 2001 - there was a deep suspicion about the very notion of new construction - this in a city where the lifespan of a typical surface lot tended to run half a century. I remember attending a block party just after a clutch of new townhouses started rising on the site of the vacant Taney Park warehouse at 25th and Delancey, and hearing the project condemned as a threat to the neighborhood parking supply. Early on, there was a steady stream of complaints about how a half-dozen new condo towers in Center City would turn Philadelphia into Manhattan and destroy its special character.

But I've noticed that the decibel level has dropped since those early days. I suspect that many people have accepted that Philadelphia will be a changed city after the boom is over, but that change could convey some benefits - like more public energy, better-kept neighborhoods, a wider variety of shops and restaurants, increased estate values - and that these improvements more than compensate for the annoyance of having to circle the block in search of a parking space. Some people have even learned to love the boom, and the corresponding rise in property values. People still complain about new projects, but now their grumbling tends to be more civic-minded: Today's big gripe is that the inertia machine that occupies City Hall is incapable of doing the necessary planning to support the growing population in Greater Center City. While people have learned to love the boom, they want assurances that it won't compromise the qualities that attracted developers here in the first place.

Yet, after all this time, Mayor Street's administration remains shockingly oblivious to the developments taking place all around them. His planners, for example, have yet to spend any time evaluating such basic questions as whether Center City's traditional high-rise zone should be extended south of Pine Street or north of Spring Garden, although developers are pushing the frontiers every day. Nor have they worried much about whether the growing population Greater Center City might require some corresponding public investment in things likes schools, parks and transit.

Over and over, residents have been forced to deal with problems directly. They'll be doing so again tonight when the 30th Ward Democratic Committee hosts a meeting to consider a proposal for a 22-story tower at 16th and Lombard Streets, in the playground of the decommissioned Durham school. The proposal, which comes from one of the city's best developers, Miles & Generalis, is a distillation of all the things good and bad about the city's unfettered condo boom. The meeting, scheduled for 7 pm at the Wesley AME Zion Church at 15th and Lombard, is the second in as many weeks devoted to the project. Both the tower proposal, shown here, and a five-story alternative, met with strong opposition last week, during a meeting sponsored by the Center City Residents Association.

There are really two distinct philosophical issues here: The first is whether tall buildings should be introduced into neighborhoods south of Pine Street. Once you get below the Drake, Philadelphia becomes a red sea of low-rise brick townhouses. Even if the city did decide it was a good idea to expand the skyscraper zone, the last place to start would be mid-block on Lombard Street. Unlike Broad Street, where the 33-story Symphony House is rising, Lombard doesn't have the width and breadth to hold its own against skyscrapers.

The other issue is trickier, but no less critical. The site of this controversy is a former Durham School, which is owned by the school district. Disregarding the wishes of neighbors, the district decided it would sell the building to the highest bidder rather than the most compatible user. Miles & Generalis, who have redeveloped several decommissioned schools, managed to outbid the well-respected Independence Charter School - but just barely. That's a shame because the Durham School would have been a perfect fit. The K-7 charter needs more space; the neighborhood will soon need more school options. Yet when Independence Charter's $5 million bid lost out to the developer's $6 million offer, the city and school district acted as if it were none of their business.

How dumb is that? Toll Bros. alone has plans for nearly 1,000 townhouse units in the South Street corridor. Even if just 10 percent of the buyers have school-age kids, the presence of good-quality neighborhood schools is necessary to maintain the value of those houses. Yet, as Philadelphia School's recent battles with neighbors of its expansion plans demonstrates, it's not so easy for existing schools to grow. With its generous, fenced-in playground and sturdy building, it's obvious that Durham should be a school again. What's much less obvious is whether the city should allow skyscrapers to be sprinkled randomly around South Philadelphia.

Blow Out to help Restore the Boyd Theater

The old Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street isn't ready yet to show movies again, but you can watch one on behalf of the the art deco theater at International House this Friday. Friends of the Boyd, the non-profit group working with Clear Channel to restore the 1928 movie palace for live shows and film, is holding its annual fund-raiser and movie screening on May 12 at 7:30 p.m. They're showing Brian de Palma's Blow Out, the 1981 film set in Philadelphia (and, by the way, starring John Travolta.) It will be fun to see how much has changed since the movie was shot here. Tickets cost $15 and are available at the Friends of the Boyd site, or at the door on Friday, starting at 5:30 p.m. Be sure to arrive to catch the comedy routine by Chumley and Carlota. Friends of the Boyd is also hosting a $50 catered reception that starts a 6 p.m.
It may seem that Clear Channel is taking its time on the theater renovation. Work may be slow, but it does seem to be moving ahead. Clear Channel has completed the necessary interior demolition work and is now interviewing contractors. Once a firm is hired, it should only be a matter of time before the box office opens for business once again.