Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Coming Bust? Or, Just A Shake Out?

Long before developer Louis J. Cicalese admitted to the Inquirer's Henry Holcomb that he was giving up on his BLT-designed Marina View Tower, it was evident that the project was dead. No one was fooled by the token earthmover that has decorated the site for the past few months. But, of course, Cicalese's announcement has prompted a lot of people to conclude that Philly's condo boom is over. I, for one, am looking on the bright side: At least we won't have our Delaware River views blocked by this barrel-chested bigfoot (I'm referring to the building). I also happen to believe that the bust, when it finally does arrive, will be as gradual and nuanced as the boom was when it started.

Marina View Towers is hardly the first condo project to abort its mission. Brown/Hill had to give up on 205 Race earlier this summer, despite having one best-looking architectural designs in town. Opus ditched plans for 1919 Market Street, after working diligently with neighborhood groups to camouflage the project's garage decks and create an active ground floor. You've probably noticed that it's been months since we've heard a peep out of Charles Block about his Richard Meier-designed Mandeville Place tower for 24th and Sansom Street.
On a smaller scale, there are abandoned rowhouse footings all over SoWa (South of Washington Avenue), according to my informants. And a Mt. Airy friend, who lives near steeply inclined Horter Street, had a river of water cascade into his garage this week because the developer up the hill had walked away from a four-townhouse project without bothering to replace the drains and retaining walls. I could go on, but I won't.

So why do I believe that the apocalypse isn't here yet? For one thing, new projects keep being proposed. Take Daroff Design's 40-story tower for developer Joe Federman at 19th and Spring Garden (right), which recently secured an over-the-counter building permit. That building's architect, James Rappoport, has also just produced a new tower design for the New Market site in Society Hill. Even though these two particular projects are no more likely to get built than any of the previously proposed condo towers, they suggest that there is still a residue of optimism in the hearts (if not the minds) of developers.

I was talking about this the other day with a Philly-based developer, a guy who weathered the 1989-1991 real estate collapse. Inevitably we found ourselves participating in that favorite Philadelphia pastime: Handicapping the various projects on the boards. He was convinced that most of the projects outside the safe confines of Center City were doomed to go bankrupt - and then be picked up for a song by a few disciplined bystanders with spare cash. You'll note that all the failed projects I mentioned above, save for Mandeville Place, are located in somewhat peripheral or untested spots.
But it would be overly simplistic to suggest that anything within Center City will succeed and anything outside the core will fail. Rather, my gimlet-eyed handicapper says it's important to look for certain tell-tale characteristics.

Here are a few random thoughts my cynical interlocutor offered about the market:
-Luxury condo towers that overlook parks, plazas or otherwise unobstructed vistas AND include enough units to offer a full spectrum of concierge services - they should do okay. He argues that Philadelphia still can't supply enough of those sorts of high-end, service-oriented units for all the well-heeled suburbanites who want a place in town to go with their condo in Florida.
-Demand for affordable one-bedrooms - say in the $300,000 range - in new condo towers should remain strong for awhile longer. There are still a lot of young single people out there eager to get to equity, especially if they can keep their mortgage payment about the same as their rent. The Murano is one of the buildings in that category. Even so, my handicapper says he's still not convinced the Murano will ever pop out of the ground. "They're moving awfully slowly," he argued. "It looks like a way of waiting for more pre-sales."
(Ah, yes. Pre-sales. A few months ago, developers were saying that banks were asking for deposits on 15 percent of the units before okaying financing. Then the number was 35 percent. Now, the word is that it's 50 percent.)
-Smaller projects - those with less than 100 units - will be more successful than the 300-unit behemoths, mainly for the reason that it is easier to sell out a 100-unit building than 300-unit building. That's actually good news for Philadelphia, which will be better off with shorter and thinner towers than all these 47-story megabuildings. The downside is that the condo fees tend to be higher in smaller buildings, and that could make some buyers hesitate.
-The collapse of the Marina View project, and the relative unattractiveness of the very dark and uninhabited-looking Waterfront Square, has been good for Dockside. Apparently, people who put deposits on some slow-moving North Delaware buildings are flocking to Dockside, which is converting to condos.
-Loft-style condo units in good locations will always sell like hotcakes.
-Conversions in the few remaining Class B office buildings, like the Ayer, and rental buildings should do well because they have lower construction costs than new buildings.

So, don't think the boom is busted yet.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Calder Sculpture Update

After posting below about the departed Calder stabile on the Ben Franklin Parkway, Inquirer photographer Eric Mencher wrote to tell me about a series of images he made in the Calder Sculpture Garden. There are some lovely photographs of the sculptor's work, along with assorted other photographs on Mencher's blog. Take a look. You have to scroll down a bit for the Calders.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Try This in One High-Profile Memorial: Honor America's First White House, Acknowledge the Stain of Slavery

There are days when Independence Mall feels less like an historic site and more like an ideological minefield. I felt the need to tread lightly when I stopped by the National Constitution Center this week to look at the five final designs for the President's House memorial, which are on view until Sept. 13. The idea for the memorial sprang out of the groundbreaking discovery by historian Edward Lawler Jr. about the true location of America's original White House. Thanks to his work, we now know that both George Washington and John Adams served the bulk of their presidential terms (from 1790 to 1800) in a house at the corner of Sixth and Market Street - and not, as previously believed, in a house closer to Fourth Street.

In the real president's residence, which they rented from Robert Morris, America's first two elected heads of state established the basic forms of the executive branch. Many of the traditions they started, such as meeting with constituents in an "oval office," have been transplanted to Washington, D.C. In a tragedy of historic and ironic proportions, that house was demolished in the 1950s to create the great, long mall celebrating Independence Hall and America's founding.

If that was the end of the story, finding a way to commemorate the Philadelphia White House would be a straightforward matter. But just as Lawler was pinning down the house's exact coordinates, scholars Gary Nash and Randall Miller were shedding new light on some of the less noble things that went on in the house. It turns out the house was the first federally-subsidized slave quarters. Washington ran the place with a staff of eight slaves brought up from his Virginia plantation, even though slavery was then illegal for Pennsylvanians. Two of Washington's slaves used their stays in Philadelphia as an opportunity to flee to freedom. All that was brushed under the carpet till the park service was preparing to build the new Liberty Bell Center, when it was discovered that bell center's entrance was right next to the slave quarters. Visitors would step over the slaves' home every time they entered the shrine to the bell, which is inscribed with the words: Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land. Now there's a symbolic contradiction, if there ever was one.

This was all discovered just as the National Park Service was preparing to break ground on the new center in 2002. The project went ahead as designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, but meanwhile various powers agreed that there should be a memorial on the corner to commemorate both the original White House and America's history of slavery. Thanks to Washington string-pulling by Chakka Fattah, the Park Service and the city were finally given a decent budget of $5.1 million to do the job. They put out a call for designers earlier this year and have now selected five finalists. They are now actively seeking public input on the designs.

Well, maybe actively is too strong a word. The five models went on view Aug. 16 with little fanfare, and will remain only until Sept. 13 - which coincides precisely with summer vacations. There's a public hearing scheduled for Oct. 30, but who's going to remember the details of the designs six week after the exhibit closes? This show needs to remain on view somewhere right up to the public hearing if the city and park service are really serious about public input.

In my view, none of the five is really good enough. Only two come close to striking the right balance in commemorating the two opposite ideas - the birth of American democracy and the stain of slavery: Philadelphia's Kelly/Maiello plan (see above) and D.C.'s Howard +Revis. Several of the designers fail to understand that the memorial site needs to be open, transparent and visible, particularly as you it approach it from Sixth and Market Streets. At least two of the plans are cluttered with way too much stuff - Ewing Cole's entry and the one by Amaze Design. The last thing Philadelphia needs is another overdone structure on the mall to fight with the already overdone bell center. Finding the right design has been made even more complicated by the park service's decision to move the bell center's entrance permanently from the north end of the building to the Sixth Street facade.

Fortunately, even after a winner is selected, the city and park service will keep working on a design, says Dennis Reidenbach, the superintendent for the mall. That's good to hear, but there's a long way to go before our country comes to grips with historical and urban implications of this important site. I'll have more to say about the details of the five design proposals in my Sept. 8 column.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Lincoln Stays on Locust Street

Okay, so maybe the Lincoln Aparments at 1222 Locust Street wasn't the greatest place to live before it was devasted by fire in early July. But at least there's hope that it might be better in the future. The Daily News' Urban Warrior reports that the owners have committed to rebuilding a condo building behind the surviving facade, a muscular design from 1892 by George H. Fettus, a contemporary of Frank Furness. In other good news, the crane that has been blocking the street all summer is outtahere.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Notice Anything Missing on the Parkway? Philly's Loss is Seagram Building's Gain

I knew something out of the Ordinary was missing last week when I walked through the Calder Sculpture Garden on the Ben Franklin Parkway, but I couldn't immediately put my finger on it. Then it hit me. Ordinary - Alexander Calder's black-and-primary-colored, kinetic sculpture - was gone. How could that happen when it was guarded nightly by a ghostly SpectraGuard van? But sure enough, dear Watson, all that was left was a bare patch of grass on the corner of 22nd Street (see above). It turns out that Ordinary was shipped off May 22 to the plaza in front of Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building on Park Avenue (below). Philadelphia didn't even get to say goodbye.
It's all very strange - and worrisome. Ordinary was loaned to Philadelphia in 2002 by the Calder Foundation as a good will gesture while it negotiated with the city over the plans for a museum devoted to the work of the great sculptor Alexander Calder and his artist father and grandfather, Philadelphians all. The 19-foot-high, triangular Ordinary, with its little red, blue and yellow triangles dangling from its arm, looked so good on the Parkway in lieu of the museum, that in 2004 the Pew Charitable Trusts paid $5 million to rent 10 more Calder sculptures, a variety of related black pieces from the '70s with swiss cheese holes, for the site. Laurie Olin's office was hired to landscape the two-acre corner, and it produced a magically serene oasis - a miniature, urbanized version of the Storm King grounds for sculpture. The Calder sculptures, which circled Ordinary as if it were the queen bee, looked so much at home amid the ornamental grasses and black-eyed Susans that you almost didn't care whether the museum got built.
Now, there's no chance of that. Negotiations with the Calder Foundation fell apart last September. Nothing seemed amiss at first. Norman Keyes, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which manages the garden, insists that Ordinary was removed in May as part of a planned rotation. He says the museum is in the process of negotiating a replacement. Gee, if the museum knew back before May 22 - say, in March or April - that Ordinary was going, why didn't it start negotiating for a replacement then? Will the 10 charming Calders end up following Ordinary, to be lined up along Park Avenue instead of nestled amid the Parkway?
Keyes says there is no such plan. The landscaping in the sculpture garden were just replanted, he noted, and Pew's original contract with the Calder Foundation is supposed to run through 2012. Philadelphia has relinquished and replaced two large Calders before: First it had to give up Eagle from its perfect perch on the art museum plaza to Seattle's Art Museum. Then, a piece that had been lent by the Calder Foundation was returned after spending time in the Rodin Museum courtyard. Keyes notes that Ordinary took the place of that sculpture. Its home moved across the parkway after the museum site was designated.
Still, when Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski reported the break down in the Calder Museum negotiations last September, he noted that the city was now in danger of losing the 10 smaller sculptures. We hope not. Philadelphia - not New York - has an unbreakable umbilical tie to the Calder family and their work. Even if the museum is not to be, the sculpture garden is a reminder that one of the 20th Century's greatest artists has a home waiting in Philadelphia.

Goodbye New Orleans, Hello Venice: Biennial Features WRT's Rebuilding Plan

Wallace Roberts & Todd's New Orleans rebuilding plan may have been buried under a heap of post-Katrina political mud, but it has been selected as part of the United States entry at this year's presitigious Venice Biennial, which is taking up the theme, "Cities, Architecture and Society."
When the three-month-long international exhibition opens Sept. 10, WRT's plan for rebuilding New Orleans as an archipelago of connected neighborhoods will be featured at the United States Pavillion, as part of a display entitled, After the Flood: Building on Higher Ground. (Click here for larger, better images) The projects chosen for the biennial are vetted by a jury and few in number, so WRT is savoring the honor as a small, but nice, compensation for the rough treatment it received in the Big Easy earlier this year.
WRT planner John Beckman was given just 10 weeks by Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring Back New Orleans Commission to come up with a city-wide rebuilding plan. While the result was widely praised by professional planners, the scheme was never able to win the hearts and minds of New Orleans residents. As I chronicled in a Feb. 21 story for the Inquirer, Beckman started with the premise that all of New Orleans could be made safe with good engineering and good levees.
But because of the city's dire financial condition, and the fact that it was losing population even before the deadly storm, he argued that the city should "shrink the footprint" by strategically rebuilding neighborhoods most likely to have a critical mass of returning residents. Even the mere suggestion that the city government would play Solomon with its neighborhoods set off such a huge storm of protest, and the plan was ultimately abandonned. Now it will have a brief revival in another city threatened by the sea. Although the state of Louisiana and the city are now working on new, competing plans, it already appears that New Orleans will be rebuilt, for better or worse, in the usual organic and haphazard American way. WRT takes some small satisfaction that, whatever happens, its research and ideas will serve as a starting point of discussion.
The WRT plan was submitted as part a presentation called The Resilient City, assembled by the architecture department at the University of Texas in Austin. You can view the entire WRT plan here and read an interview with Beckman in Architectural Record. Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 18, 2006

Look What Penn's Architectural Archives Have Brought Forth This Summer

Antonin and Noemi Raymond may be the most important architectural modernists you've never heard of. But that won't be for long. Bill Whitaker, the collections manager at Penn's Architectural Archives, has put together a thoroughly engrossing show about the two cultural itinerants, who wandered from Prague to New York to Taliesin to Tokyo to New Hope and then back to Tokyo, soaking up local design idioms, and filtering them through a modernist sensibility. The couple, who met, fittingly, aboard a transatlantic steamer, crossed paths with a who's who of great 20th Century architects and artists, including Cass Gilbert, Robert Henri, Frank Lloyd Wright, and George Nakashima. After moving to Tokyo to work on Wright's Imperial Hotel around 1916, Antonin, an architect, and Noemi, a graphic designer, decided to put down roots and set up their own practice. During the next decade, they turned out a rich assortment of buildings, textiles and furnishings that bundled together the rigor and traditions of Japanese craft with a Wrightian aesthetic and a Central European outlook. Because the Raymonds best work was mostly done in Japan, and because most of it has been demolished, their story has never been told before. It took the curators more than four years to piece the narrative together. The show, Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noemi Raymond, adds an important new chapter to the history of 20th Century modernism.
Because the curators amassed so many objects and images, Penn's School of Design agreed to make the ground-floor gallery at Meyerson Hall, 34th and Walnut, available for the show. This is where the Institute of Contemporary Art started out, and it's nice to see it put to use again for such a high-caliber exhibit. The gallery is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, until Sept. 24.
If you make it over therein the next two weeks, be sure to stop next door at the archives' Kroiz Gallery to see a small, but interesting, exhibition honoring the lately departed Mitchell/Giurgola Liberty Bell Pavillion. Actually, the show, Housing the Bell: 150 Years of Exhibiting an American Icon, is really about much more than that. It traces the ideologies that have influenced how our culture displays that venerated historical object. We've gone from believing that the bell should be kept behind glass, to demanding that people ought to be able to touch it, back to a zone of high security. The exhibit, which is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., was supposed to close Aug. 18, but for various reasons, the drawings will be left on the walls until Aug. 31. Hurry over. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Happy Birthday to My Blog

I was going to wait until the end of the month to celebrate the first anniversary of Skyline Online. But then I opened Sunday's Inquirer and saw that the Arts & Entertainment section had neglected to run any architectural images with my story about UN Studio's new Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. But now there is another forum: I can post the pictures on my blog. So here they are.
I started the blog without knowing what I was getting into. I saw it as a place to channel odd bits of information that didn't quite measure up as column material, and to try out oddball ideas. It's been a dream situation for a journalist: No deadlines. No limitations on story length. No dumb headlines. No annoying editors. No plodding bureaucracy. What you see is what I write, flaws and all. I never expected that getting rid of the middleman would be so liberating. I also never expected the kind of feedback I see in the comments. Until recently, journalists could never be quite sure of how their work was being read. No more. I've learned a lot just by eavesdropping.
Clearly there is some kind of future here for journalists. I'm not sure yet what that future is, but in the meantime I will keep posting. And I hope you will keep reading and commenting.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Today's Stack of Glass Boxes vs. Yesterday's

Wasn't it only yesterday that our British friends had their knickers in a twist over Daniel Libeskind's "Sprial" entrance (right) for London's Victoria & Albert Museum? It was decried as the biggest blow to British self-image since the American Revolution, and finally, in 2004, the museum abandonned plans to insert the modern structure between its Victorian wings. One newspaper had even described the Libeskind design as"a disaster for the Victorian & Albert Museum in particular and civilization in general."
So it was amusing to follow the reaction to Herzog & De Meuron's proposal for an annex to their Tate Modern, now the most visited museum on earth. The irregular, 11-story glass pyramid will rise above the roof line of the former power plant that became the Tate. It's already been called "epic and cinematic" by The Guardian's Jonathan Glancey, and it could get a warmer welcome than Libeskind's more precarious stack of blocks. But it seems the backlash has started today. In an interesting essay suggesting that architects no longer see their role as imposing order on a chaotic world, Karl Sharro in Spiked argues the addition lacks any clear organizing principles and, therefore, lacks true archtiectural integrity.

Another Voice Questions Philly Casinos

Philadelphia has been slow to react to the urban menace of gambling. It wasn't until the casino operators submitted their proposals, designs and site plans that residents began to understand what it would be like to have a slots barn in the neighborhood. Because the most vocal opposition to the five casino proposals has been localized, there have been inevitable charges that the protest is just a nimby reaction. But in the Next American City, three of the city's most respected design professionals - all founding members of the Design Advocacy Group - go on the record saying Philadelphia doesn't need gambling.

Under Construction in Philadelphia

No one with decent observation skills needed to read today's Inquirer story on the cooling housing market to know that there is more talk than actual construction on the streets of Philadelphia. And yet, a walk around town is a good way to take measure of which projects are moving along. Here's a random sampling of what I saw this morning:
HOME OFFICE: That sheet of plywood covering the 16th Street entrance to Two Liberty Place? A sure sign that the conversion of the upper floors to condos is underway. Convinced that Philadelphia's office market isn't going to rebound any time soon, the building's owners are making floors 37 to 57 into 140 condo apartments. To accomplish that, they need to create separate elevator lobbies for residents and office workers. Agoos/Lovera is overseeing the conversion in Liberty Place, which was the second act of the complex that broke the city's height barrier in 1990.
PHILLY MEET-UP: Meanwhile, on the other side of 16th Street, HRPT Properties is finally starting renovations of the dowdy, '70s Centre Square office towers. It's been more than a year since Daroff Design was hired to reconfigure the Clothespin plaza and spruce up the sprawling lobby and ground-floor retail spaces. HRPT bought the pair of flat-topped towers, designed in the Brutalist style by Vincent Kling's old firm, in 2002. When the company first announced changes to the front plaza - Philadelphia's signature meeting place - there was concern that the renovation was driven by a desire to reduce the corner's magnetic attraction to proselytizers and protesters - and that the result would be a lot like the recent fortification of the Urban Engineers plaza on 17th Street. While the owners plan to reverse the spiraling Septa staircase so the steps lead toward Market Street, rather than toward the building entrance, HRPT's regional manager Dave Campoli insists that Philadelphians will still be able to say, "Meet me at the Clothespin."
URBAN UNDERGROUND: As work picks up at the Murano site, at 21st and Market Street, you can make out a fascinating underground city of vestigial utilities, pipes and mysterious fortifications. The dirt-encrusted, cylindrical formations on the east side of the site look like something archaeologists might have uncovered at the Roman Forum.
COLOR CHANGE: It's funny how you get used to seeing the streets of Philadelphia fixed in amber, and then one day everything changes. So it is with the house of the late city planner, Edmund Bacon, on the 2000 block of Locust Street. For decades, the brick townhouse's black-and-yellow color scheme stood out as combatively as the man himself. Now, as part of a major renovation, the owners have stripped off the black paint. It's currently somewhere between bluish-gray and the original red. But I suspect it won't be long before the house blends decorously with the neighborhood, another reminder than Philly's Captain Ahab is no longer haunting the streets and coming up with grand planning schemes.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Everyone's a critic in Philadelphia. I was strolling along Northern Liberties' Second Street the other night to check the progress at Erdy McHenry's Hancock Square, which is supposed to starting renting this month. As I was admiring the syncopated composition of the facade, with its angled glass windows and strategically placed voids, I was startled to hear two cynical hipsters mutter "ugly." Huh? Is it really possible that people don't know a good building when they see it? The development is Bart Blatstein's first mature effort at new construction, and Hancock Square's street presence is vastly superior to virtually every other large residential project going up in Philadelphia at the moment. What makes it good? Let's start with the ground floor. The entire Second Street frontage is a row of generously-sized, high-ceilinged, glass-fronted retail spaces. Red brick sections separate the shops. Unlike some projects, where the brick is wallpapered on without thinking, here the material is applied intelligently, as a strategic detail. There are just enough brick sections to reference the nearby rowhouses and factories, but the palette also includes concrete, glass, metal, and (yes, unfortunately) Dryvit stucco.
Because Hancock Square is a long, horizontal building, its facade could have easily been dull and overbearing. But Erdy McHenry succeeded in breaking the long line of the facade into more manageable visual bites. They started with the big center void, which serves as a terrace for the adjacent apartments, to divide the building visually in two. There's another void to the south and a compensating protrusion at the north end, which both help to mix things up. Meanwhile, the asymmetrical and irregular composition of the windows keeps yours eyes entertained. They also offer views on the bi-level units inside, which were inspired by Le Corbusier's L'Unite de Habitation in Marseilles (right). If you look closely at the Philadelphia image, you can make out slight variations in the window colors. It's not the glass, it's the paint inside on the face of the mezzanine lofts, which are set back from the windows to create double-height living rooms inside. There's a lot going on.
If you want to know what ugly really looks like, I suggest you walk south to Old City where two small slim condo towers have risen on Front Street. Both the Beaumont, by JK Roller Architects, and 101 Walnut, still under construction by BLT, are oriented so their apartment windows face south. Unfortunately, both towers present dumb blank walls facing north. Even the Beaumont's main facade is oddly proportioned with a zipper of tiny windows running vertically down the center. It remains to be seen whether 101 Walnut does a credible job on its main Walnut Street side. It's still a mystery to me why the building's waterfront side is given second-class treatment.
The difference between these buildings and Hancock Square is that the architects of the Northern Liberties project took the time to compose a detailed piece of architecture. The others simply drew a box around some condo units.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Done Deal: Charter School Stays in Center City

Now it's official. The Durham School at 16th and Lombard Streets will be sold to a charter school, rather than to a condo developer. It's good news for the buyer, the Independence Charter School, good news for Center City, and good news for parents who live or work in Center City. But ICS's protracted struggle to acquire the old school district building is a reminder that city officials still don't understand that an expanding Center City needs expanded services if it is going to thrive.

Having outgrown its rented space at 7th and Chestnut Streets, Independence Charter had been searching for months for its own building, preferably one with outdoor play space, when the Durham came on the market. Since ICS caters to kids whose parents live or work downtown, the school wanted a Center City location that was convenient to public transit. But the condo boom has made it nearly impossible for the non-profit, K-8 school to find affordable space anywhere near the center. So when the School Reform Commission decided earlier this year to sell Durham, Independence Charter thought it had found the solution to all its problems. Durham is not only a classic, early-20th Century schoolhouse, it comes with a huge playground.

ICS thought wrong. Rather than supporting the charter - and, by extension, Philadelphia's kids - the commission decided to cash in and sell to the highest bidder. The building was put up for auction. Not surprisingly, Independence Charter was outbid by real estate developer, Miles & Generalis, which wanted to use the property for condos. They offered $6 million, about $1 million above the charter's bid. Miles & Generalis have done some fine work converting factories and schools to condos. But with thousands of new residential units planned for Center City, it seemed foolish to pass up such an easy opportunity to improve neighborhood services. Center City's population is expected to grow by about 10,000 in the next decade. Yet City Hall is making little effort to provide amenities that will keep the neighborhood livable and viable - things like schools, parks, playgrounds, and pedestrian connections.

Things might have continued in their usual pre-ordained Philadelphia fashion. But the participants were suddendly gripped by a streak of public spirit. First, the Center City Residents Association decided to take up Independence Charter's cause. Because the CCRA is working on its own private master plan, it has come to understand how much the neighborhood needs a variety of education options. When CCRA objected to condos on that basis, Miles & Generalis graciously decided not to fight the neighborhood. Instead, the developer worked out an agreement that allows them to transfer the building to the charter school at cost. Independence will pay exactly what Miles & Generalis paid the school district - $6 million, plus transfer fees. Although the price is more than Independence wanted to pay, its board considers it a good deal at this point, given the location. The school has already hired the architects at the Schrader Group to design the renovations. Opening is now planned for September 2008. Moving to Durham will enable the charter - which has waiting list of 200 kids - to expand its enrollment from 600 to 720.

James Nevels, the chairman of the School Reform Commission, told me that he's thrilled with the outcome, although he initially felt the district needed to get the highest-possible price for Durham. This way, the district gets a market-rate price for Durham - plus it will get what is effectively a new public school without having to foot the bill for construction. Meanwhile, all those commuters who chose ICS because it is convenient to their jobs will still be able keep their kids in a Center City school. About 80 percent of ICS's students live outside of Center City. Another interesting thing about charters is that they're not bound by the same cumbersome bidding rules as the school district, so they can build at lower cost.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Another 40-Story Tower for Spring Garden?

A few years ago, Philadelphia was hit with a rash of middle-of-the-night building demolitions. Now the vogue seems to be for middle-of-the-night building permits.

Just as neighbors in the Spring Garden section were battling an over-the-counter permit for the 47-story Barnes Tower on the site of the Best Western motel, another developer was quietly making plans to get a similar stealth permit for a 40-story tower on a townhouse-sized site at the southeast corner of 19th and Spring Garden Streets. On July 18, developer/owner Joe Federman received a green light from L&I to demolish a charming, two-story, art deco office building at 1822 Spring Garden, and replace it with a condo tower. Federman now has carte blanche to construct an 108-unit high-rise with a pool, 84-car underground, ground -floor retail, and a "winter garden." Since the project conforms to the existing zoning, no discussions with neighbors and no zoning variance were required. There's already an architectural design, by James Rappaport of Daroff Design, but no neighbors have seen it.

Needless to say, Pat Freeland and the Spring Garden CDC are furious. After the Barnes Tower was sprung on the neighborhood, it seemed clear that such large, intrusive towers should be subject to more scrutiny by city planning agencies. Councilman Darrell Clarke even passed a bill that would trigger a review for any building taller than 125 feet. But it appears that Federman applied for a building permit before the bill became effective.

The Barnes Tower, in my view, is problematic not so much for its height, as for its anti-urban siting on the block. Federman's proposed tower has other issues. First, the site is tiny - basically the size of a Spring Garden Street townhouse. A 40-story tower and underground garage is a lot of program to squeeze onto such a small plot of land. There are other tall buildings on the block, including Museum Tower, but nothing approaching 40 stories. I've always admired the spunky little art deco building on the site, which would look like something from Miami Beach if it weren't painted such a dreary gray and black. Its engaging, curved front facade grasps the corner of 19th Street like a firm handshake. Plus it's in scale with the townhouse rhythms of Spring Garden Street. To put a tower there would mean building something that looked like twizzle stick. Freeland said the CDC plans to fight the project.

There are arguments to be made, both pro and con, about the addition of new high-rises in the Spring Garden neighborhood. But one thing is clear: there should be arguments and they should be made in public. The impact of these buildings is too great simply to write developers a blank check.