Tuesday, October 24, 2006

One Forbes List Philadelphia Might Want To Avoid

Philadelphia can take comfort today in NOT being on Forbes' list of the top ten seriously slowing real estate markets. Read it here. Ironically, given the Wall Street Journal story cited below, Boston is one of those markets heading downwards.

More Parking in the Park

The Fairmount Park Commission congratulated itself last night for holding a public hearing on a plan to insert more parking in the recreation space behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art - and then proceeded to vote exactly as it had intended before anyone uttered a word. The commission unanimously approved Olin Partnership's conceptual design, which calls for inserting 27 new parking space on the grassy riverbank between Lloyd Hall and the Italian Fountain. Those spaces, which will utilize an environmentally friendly, porous paving stone, are a supplement to a 440-car garage (see glass elevator tower, right) that the commission approved in June - without benefit of a similar, special public hearing - for the hillside just south of the Azalea Garden. The good part is that much of the garage will be camouflaged with greenery and topped with a sculpture garden. All told, the available parking behind the art museum (not counting the parking on the museum apron) will increase from 225 spaces, to a maximum of 621.

Despite the pre-ordained feeling of last night's hearing, several speakers raised serious concerns about imposing all that extra parking on one of the city's most intensively used parklands. They fear that that the conflicts between pedestrians, bicyclists, children, rowers, roller bladers, skateboarders, and motorists will increase significantly after the parking garage opens in early 2009. The rowing community is especially worried that they will be forced to find parking on Lemon Hill - and then have to run the dangerous gauntlet across Kelly Drive to reach the boathouses.

No one doubts that the museum is strapped for parking, or that parking is an essential first step in its Frank Gehry-designed expansion. But I can't help wondering if focusing so much parking in such a heavily used recreational area is the best solution, especially when the parking needs of the Parkway's cultural institutions are growing rapidly. Because of the city's lack of planning vision over the last decade, the city is only just starting to consider the possibility of locating large garages under Eakins Oval and the parkway ballfields.

Still, the museum insists the new garage next to the Azalea garden is the best solution available at the moment. The museum argues that the garage will reduce the number of motorists driving between Lloyd Hall and the Waterworks in search of spaces. But if the surface spaces are free and the garage costs money, I suspect that the typical motorist will make a few sorties in search of a no-cost space.

To making the project more palatable to park users, the commission last night unveiled a concept plan to reclaim the silted peninsula (see the post below) next to Lloyd Hall for recreational use. The commission would dredge the water around the 80-year-old silt peninsula to turn it into an island, thereby eliminating the stagnant inlet next to Lloyd Hall. The island would then be connected to the grassy bank by a lightweight bridge and outfitted with boardwalk-style nature paths.

As additional compensation for giving up the grassy bank, the existing recreation path would be shifted closer to the river. The commission wants to add benches, a decorative railing, a small childrens park and spouting fountains. While the commission showed lots of pretty pictures of how this new park area could look, they were pretty coy about how they intend to finance the improvementst. Mayor Street has committed money for initial design, and promised to follow through with money for construction once the design is done. Unfortunately, those designs are expected in October 2007 - a month before the mayoral elections. Will Street really be able to come up with a couple of million for a pretty park just as he's walking out the door of City Hall?

The museum is footing the $30 million bill for the garage, the 27 spaces, the realignment of the recreation path and lighting. But for everything else, Philadelphia have to trust its luck to the perennially cash-short Fairmount Park Commission.

By the way, here's what a real public hearing on the parking issue would have looked like: It would have been held when the Olin Partnership's design was still in the talking stage. What's the point of offering a public hearing when you've already sealed, signed and approved the main element in a plan?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Boathouse Row or Parking Row?

Frank Gehry's selection notwithstanding, it looks like rototilling of the hillside behind the Philadelphia Art Museum for a new parking garage and an additional surface lot isn't going to proceed without complaint. The Philadelphia Parks Alliance and a Fairmount residents group have managed to convince the Fairmount Park Commission to hold a special hearing tonight, at 7 p.m., at the Horticulture Center to discuss the latest variation. Although back in June the commission approved the museum's plan to insert a 440-car garage into the rocky outcrop just south of the Azalea Garden (see my Inquirer column), it still needs to make good on a promise to provide the new Waterworks Restaurant with 84 dedicated parking spaces. The problem is that the park space behind the museum is already the most intensively used in the city, perhaps with the exception of Rittenhouse Square. There's just no easy place to carve out an 84-car surface lot.

In June, the museum, the commission and Olin Partnership were talking about paving a section across Kelly Drive, next to the Lincoln statue. That didn't work out, thankfully. Now Olin has come up with an alternative, which you make out in the image above. It involves colonizing a piece of land between Lloyd Hall and the Waterworks circle. It's being described as a less intrusive design, which will include lots of trees and won't have hard asphalt paving. It's hard to tell whether it will be acceptable just by looking at this pretty picture. The only way to find out is to show up at tonight's public hearing.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Art Museum's Gehry Plot

I assumed that the Philadelphia Museum of Art's selection of Frank Gehry as the architect for its 10-year, $500 million, underground expansion would be cause for cheering among those who have always felt that the city's cultural elite suffered from a vestigial Quaker reticence. But I underestimated the ability of Philadelphians to gripe about just about anything. I've been receiving emails suggesting that the choice was really just the usual Philadelphia caution in disguise, since Gehry's galleries will be located entirely within the belly of the museum and won't be visible from the street. One correspondent even suggested this fabulous conspiracy theory: The museum chose Gehry because that means the Barnes Foundation won't be able to pick him to design their new home on the parkway. Philadelphia's gets to wave the avant-garde flag without having to look at it!

Actually, I think Gehry is an inspired choice by the art museum. He's a wonderful sculptor of space. He may be one of the few architects who will be able to making those catacombs below the Beaux-Arts museum feel exciting and fresh. Gehry's not unerring, as Paul Goldberger's analysis of his Brooklyn project shows, but it will be interesting observe the marriage of a converted Angelino with one of Philadelphias most august institutions.

Walking the Mean Streets of the Sixth Boro

I just got back from fighting my way through the crowds of shoppers on Walnut Street and found this Wall Street Journal story (below) from Friday's paper in my inbox. Ooops, I should have said, I just got back from the bleak, post-industrial landscape of Rittenhouse Square.

Besides the absolute lack of truth in the writer's description of Center City, she completely fails to make a coherent argument for why Boston is more prosperous than Philadelphia. Is it just me, or do you detect a racist subtext in this piece?

A Tale of Several Cities
October 20, 2006; Page W13
Why isn't Philadelphia Boston? Why does Boston prosper, people and businesses outbidding one another to get in, while Philadelphia languishes, with acres of vacant and underused property announcing the lack of local demand? Why does much of Boston look like Hollywood's idea of a hip, fabulous place to live, while downtown Philadelphia seems to be a bleak postindustrial landscape -- the few good buildings that are still standing routinely visited by street people begging at their entrances?
The answers are not to be found in conventional 20th-century analysis, which emphasized the seemingly unsolvable urban crisis: the decline of industrial jobs, the burdens of excessive taxation, the inevitability of racial tensions and the dominance of geography. After all, in traditional urban terms, Philadelphia and Boston are nearly twins, both founded by Protestant-Anglo stock in the 17th century, both blessed with prime locations, beautiful waterfronts, good vernacular housing, historic buildings, Olmsted parks, renowned museums and fine universities. And both are high-tax cities that have lost their industrial base. Yet one now thrives while the other declines.
At least part of the answer stems from their underlying cultures. In his "Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia" (1979), E. Digby Baltzell argued that Boston Brahmins, with their belief in authority and leadership, embraced a sense of responsibility for civic life, while Philadelphia Gentlemen, with their inward but judgmental Quaker ways were deeply unconcerned about their city's welfare. Over the course of the 19th century and well into the 20th, they abdicated their role in government and watched indifferently as Philadelphia became, by the 1960s, the worst run city in the nation. The Brahmins might have been intolerant and unpleasant while the Philadelphians were open and charming, but the Brahmins cared about their city -- and so, subsequently, did the Irish politicians with whom they warred and the Italians who replaced the Irish.
Such cultural analysis -- long out of fashion as too soft (as as opposed to econometrics) or too racist (who is to say that one culture is better than another?) -- is due for a comeback. It starts to explain, in a way that mere fiscal analysis does not, why Miami has become the gateway to Latin America, why Los Angeles rules the Pacific Rim and why Chicago controls the Midwest. And it helps us to understand how New York City moved in 30 years from the humiliation of near bankruptcy to being the dominant city on earth.
The old answer of urban success was deterministic: taxes and geography. Cities with superb natural harbors, for example, become the natural capitals of trade, commanding and distributing the resources of their hinterlands. They kept their own taxes low by feeding off their interiors. Yet as the historian Richard Wade has noted for years, against the tide of his field, this theory has its flaws: If the sheer excellence of a harbor truly determined a city's fate, then the greatest city in America would be Upper Sandusky, Ohio.
What flourishing cities often have in common, instead, are two crucial cultural characteristics: combativeness and cunning. New Yorkers, for example, fought back from their 1975 bankruptcy with every tool at their disposal, fair and unfair. Their rallying cry against the federal government -- the famous Daily News headline of "Ford to City: Drop Dead" -- had never actually been said by feckless President Ford. Indeed, on the merits, the Ford administration had good arguments for resisting a bail-out of the nation's financial capital.
Yet New York armed itself with brilliant leadership, cut its bloated operating and capital budgets, cajoled the federal loan guarantees from Congress, poured money into fixing up thousands of units of abandoned housing, fought crime and graffiti -- and emerged triumphant. It might have done even better: It barely reduced its onerous tax burden, regarded by many analysts as the highest in the country. Indeed, one of New York's most notorious, anti-enterprise taxes is the 4% unincorporated business tax, which was targeted at wealthy physicians but which instead hits every bodega and small business. Surely this tax has done serious harm, if not enough to force its repeal. Somehow New York's entrepreneurial spirit drives forward, scattering even the grossest of obstacles -- almost against reason.
That same energy contributes to New York's cyclical boom-and-bust nature, regularly pushing speculation beyond the limits of an exuberant boom, thereby encouraging a bust. New Yorkers have done this for centuries while, for example, more temperate Chicagoans have not. Seemingly more stolid than New Yorkers, Chicagoans have transformed Carl Sandburg's brawling city of big shoulders into what is probably the most beautiful of postindustrial cities.
Chicagoans actually think about beauty in a way that New Yorkers do not, caring for their public gardens -- which go unvandalized though they are also unpoliced -- and embracing Mayor Daley's seemingly quixotic decision, 20 years ago, to put flowers wherever he could fit them, starting with highway barriers. (At the time, New York's parks commissioner, Gordon Davis, complained that he couldn't even get his own staff to plant flowers in front of his headquarters.) Cherishing their unparalleled lakefront -- originally a gift of businessman Montgomery Ward -- Chicagoans keep it free of invasive development while encouraging towers for the wealthy to rise efficiently behind Lake Shore Drive.
When a public consensus developed, in the second Daley administration, that the southern section of the drive was too close to Lake Michigan, Mayor Daley's people simply relocated it inland -- revealing even more of their splendid lake without hurting traffic. Such a move would have been unthinkable in more contentious New York, where the congested and ugly West Side Highway still blocks the Hudson River waterfront -- and the memory of the proposed above-ground Westway, stopped in the 1970s, can still induce room-clearing arguments.
Cunning and combativeness, however, often restore cities financially without making them many new friends, except, perhaps, for the young -- who, for the past two decades, have been returning in great numbers to the old neighborhoods long ago abandoned by their parents and grandparents. So widespread yet diverse is the youth wave that it has produced well-known derisory terms like yuppies, buppies and guppies -- terms that played down the significance of their achievement. Returning youngsters played for a few years, then settled down to buying houses, raising children, fighting for better schools and reclaiming their lost urban heritage.
But what makes cities successful -- or even just lovable -- can seldom be quantified. Even Baltzell, who admired the mind and achievements of Puritan Boston, said that his heart and loyalties were rooted in Quaker Philadelphia, which he criticized so harshly. As poet Phyllis McGinley wrote, perhaps in astonishment, "Some love Paris and some Purdue."
Ms. Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Philly's Condo Beat Goes On

There must be some life left in Philly's condo boom yet. The last few weeks have seen developers rachet up their marketing effort for a couple of the more high-priced, better-located towers, including 1706 Rittenhouse Square Street (left), designed by Cope Linder Architects. After a long, ominous period of inactivity, a large sign displaying a new, sleeker rendering for the 30-unit tower went up recently at the corner of 17th and Rittenhouse Square Street. That was followed by the opening of a sales office at 1708 Rittenhouse Square Street, and substantial advertising in places like the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine. And just in case those publications can't produce 30 readers with $3.5 million to spend on a Center City condo, developer Tom Scannapieco put an ad in the New Yorker. (Yes! The New Yorker!) See the far back pages of the Oct. 16 issues, nestled among the glossy ads for Main Line-style bling. Next thing you know the New Yorker will be running ads for plastic surgery and Philly will really be officially declared the Sixth Borough.

1706 Rittenhouse isn't the only tower on a marketing blitz. Mandeville Place, the 43-story slab from Richard Meier's California office, also has a new sales office in the Bell Atlantic Tower, and developer Chuck Block is predicting groundbreaking for this time next fall. Hal Wheeler's 10 Rittenhouse, designed by Robert A.M. Stern, has also set up a storefront sales office, on 17th Street, north of Walnut - not to mention a web page that plays the obligatory violin concerto.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Good Advice from New York's Head Planner

New York is a city where planning matters. That's partly thanks to its mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who's made it plain that he wants the city's head planner, Amanda Burden, to think big. There's a good Q&A interview with Burden today on Planetizen that could easily serve as a primer for Philadelphia's new head planner, Janice Woodcock. Here are a few choice quotes:

Most pressing immediate issue: "Ensuring and encouraging affordable housing for all New Yorkers and maintaining New York's economic diversity."

Most significant long-term issue: Encouraging green design (that presumably includes waterless urinals!)

Thoughts on the building boom: "We have sought to promote growth in a more sustainable manner, emphasizing growth near the City's extensive transit system while limiting growth in more automobile-oriented neighborhoods. We have introduced "Contextual Zoning" districts to ensure that growth won't mean the out-of-scale overdevelopment of some of New York truly unique neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, City Island, Park Slope, or Greenpoint-Williamsburg."

Biggest news in the planning biz: "When I was in planning school, the future of places like New York was very much in doubt. The country was suburbanizing and dense cities were seen as modern-day dinosaurs. Today, successful cities like New York, San Francisco or Boston are thriving."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Mayor Street Finally Names New Head Planner

Philadelphia's civic leaders, foundations and politicians have been clamoring for months to get Mayor Street to pay attention to planning, and now he's finally done something: Today, he appointed Center City architect and planner Janice Woodcock as the city's head planner - taking over from Maxine Griffith, who resigned 19 months ago! Woodcock comes to the job with excellent credentials. She served as president of the local chapter of the American institute of Architects, and started her architectural career in Cecil Baker's office. She was one of the people who helped produce a well-regarded plan for Chestnut Street, called "Turning the Lights Back On," which advocated converting the upper stories of buildings into apartments. More recently, she has worked in the city's Capital Projects Office, overseeing construction projects.

The big question, of course, is whether she can hope to accomplish anything with just a year left on Street's term. Most observers (ie. chatty architects and planners) say it's a difficult position to step into at this point. Although the condo market appears to be cooling, the city still faces the big issue of how best to accommodate skyscrapers. Then there's gambling, which could land two boxy casinos on the Delaware Waterfront, along with lots of traffic and other headaches. Meanwhile, Mayor Street has just outsourced the city's waterfront planning to Penn Praxis. If Woodcock simply serves as an aggressive advocate for the public good over the next year, her appointment won't be for naught.

Monday, October 02, 2006

When All Else Fails, Build a Garage

Unable to build the 58-story luxury condo tower at 15th and Chestnut Streets that it's been talking about for nearly five years, Mariner Properties has come up with a new scheme: Build a luxury garage instead! Talk about trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

In a little news item buried on the bottom corner of the Inquirer business section, developer Timothy J. Mahoney exults that the 10-story garage facing Chestnut Street will be "region's most expensive and beautiful parking garage." Yes. He is actually proud of that. Ultimately - that is, if the market rebounds and his company can get its act together - Mahoney, who is backed by Brook Lenfest's money, would like to put a tower on top of the garage. But who knows when that day might come.

Does anyone believe that dropping a 10-story public garage at the atrociously congested intersection of 15th and Chestnut is really a good idea? It was bad enough when it was an accessory garage designed to serve the residents of the condo tower. The frequency of coming and going from a condo garage is far less than the pace at a principle-use public garage. At 10 levels, this garage is likely to hold 300 to 500 cars. It's not clear just yet what permits will be needed, or whether Mahoney's company will have to get a variance for this - uh - modification of the original design, especially since the site was rezoned for maximum height. But there absolutely needs to be a review hearing. The new master plan by the Center City Residents Association forbids principle-use garages in its sector, as does the recent parking policy approved by the Planning Commission. But it's anyone's guess whether the More-Parking-Is-Better Zoning Board will bother to take either policy into account.