Wednesday, February 28, 2007

And This Just In...

Round one in the fight for Front and Chestnut Streets, one of the last intact vestiges of the city's maritime past, went to the preservationists today. The hardship committee of the Historical Commission voted 2-1 to deny the Spears brothers' application to demolish three historic structures from the early 19th Century. (See post immediately below). The arguments - which went on for more than two hours! - centered mainly on how much it would cost to repair the rundown buildings. The owners claim the bill would top $1.5 million for a steel frame, but the committee was skeptical about the approach and estimate. Meanwhile, the city solicitor's office said it intends to pursue a "demolition by neglect" case against the Spears. Since they've only owned the building two years, it will be interesting to hear the city's arguments. Don't expect this battle to go away.
Meanwhile, at the Zoning Board of Adjustment, it was smooth sailing for the National Jewish Museum, planned for the southeast corner of 5th and Market Streets. Chairman David Auspitz pronounced the design by New York's Polshek Partnership "beautiful" and no one noticed the museum doesn't have a door facing Independence Mall (above). The board did add its voice to the chorus of complaints against Septa for failing to renovate its dowdy Fifth Street El station, with its double-wide staircases that occupy the better part of the corner. In addition to my concerns about the absence of a door on the mall, I find Polshek's 5th Street landscape plan pretty banal. It would simply cap one of the offending staircases with greenery. It's just another planter blocking the sidewalk.
The other news from the mall is that locals Kelly/Maiello beat out four other teams to win the commission for a memorial honoring the first American president's house and the slaves who were forced to live there. It was a nearly impossible assignment. But, given the complexities and rancor that has accompanies this patch of history, their memorial was easily the best of the five submissions, both in terms of content and design. Still, you have to wonder how those blank, brick columns, which represent the house's chimneys, are going to look to people approaching the mall from the west. They're meant to hold some of the video and audio equipment that will be incorporated into the memorial. In general, that corner is already pretty crammed up with stuff, so it's going to take some real finesse to make the memorial not look like kitsch.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Assault on Philly's Waterfront Architecture

Cities are rarely destroyed in one fell swoop (with the notable exception of New Orleans). It happens incrementally, so you hardly notice. One building goes down. Then another. Until one day you realize that a group of buildings as familiar as an old sweater is gone, and the land they occupied is being used to park cars. That's what happened to the north side of Front and Walnut Streets in Old City, across from the Sheraton Hotel. The block, which rose up in Philadelphia's 19th Century shipbuilding heyday and was a major gateway to Penn's Landing, survived nearly intact until 1993 , when the Rendell Administration okayed a run of demolition orders. The result is that Bookbinders is the only historic building standing on the block today.

Why bring up the story of Front and Walnut now? Because the owners of a similar group of historic, Greek Revival waterfront-era buildings at Front and Chestnut Streets (above) are now trying to clear that important intersection in much the same way. The Spear brothers, who also own the Front Street parking lot just north of Chestnut Street, will ask the city Historical Commission on Wednesday, at 11 a.m., for permission to tear down the two early 19th Century buildings pictured here, 48 and 50 S. Front Street, as well as one around the corner at 103 Chestnut. If they get their way, they'll have destroyed one of the last intact Front Street intersections, and wiped out yet another vestige of Philadelphia's maritime heritage. Right now, the 100 block of Chestnut Street, between Front and Second, offers a complete, untouched set of 19th Century commercial architecture. Jon Farnham, at the Historical Commission, says the node is essentially one of the oldest commercial corners in the city. But once the intersection goes, who know what will follow. The Spears also own 107 Chestnut Street, but not 105.

Unfortunately, the Spears, who bought the historically designated buildings two years ago, and their previous owner, Gagan Lakmna, of CREI, let them fall into ruin. The three structures were declared imminently dangerous last week. Although an independent engineering assessment by Keast & Hood maintains that they're easily salvageable, the Spears argue that the costs would be prohibitive. They're claiming financial hardship as grounds for the demolition of the buildings, which are part of the Old City historic district. How ironic that, even as Penn Praxis is struggling to bring new life to the Delaware waterfront, some owners still don't realize the vaule of the city's surviving maritime architecture.

The financial hardship claim was what made the clearance possible at Front and Walnut in 1993. The Taxin family, which owned Bookbinders, had been fighting with the city for years over permission to raze the Elisha Webb Chandelry at 136 S. Front Street, an 1835 building that had provided support services to the waterfront. But in 1993, within months of taking office and appointing Wayne Spilove head of the Historical Commission, Rendell reversed city policy and allowed the demolition permit to go through. The buildings at 115 and 117 Walnut came down a few months later, in 1994. The destruction of the block was completed in 1995 with demolition orders for 101, 103, 107 and 109 Walnut. The plague soon spread north, when the owners of 110-112 S. Front Street also won a demo order.

That address is now the home of the Beaumont condos, a high-rise that was jammed so awkwardly onto the narrow site that its entire north side is an unrelenting wall of concrete. Lakhmna's CREI group is putting up a similar, 12-story blank-walled high-rise at the corner of Front and Walnut - although that project is moving so slowly you have to wonder if the construction is being done by a lone workman. The rest of the block remains a vast surface parking lot. If the buildings at Front and Chestnut go down, will that be their fate, too?
Fortunately, this isn't 1993 or Spilove's historical commission. David Perri, the city's chief code engineer and the No. 2 guy at the Department of Licenses and Inspections, said he intends to fight the Spears' demolition effort any way he can. He countered their request by issuing a citation for demolition by neglect, which carries a $300-a-day fine. "We want those buildings saved," Perri told me in no uncertain terms . "They’re important buildings. They're the soul of this city. People who own them have to understand that." I think that series of sentences may be the most unequivocal statement I have ever heard uttered from the mouth of a city official. "It's absolutely critical that they be saved," Perri added. "One of the reasons Old City so hot, is because of these historical buildings like these. From the engineering reports I've read, I believe they can be saved and put back into service."

Rich Thom, who heads Old City Civic's zoning committee said he was shocked to hear of the Spears demolition request. What's at stake, he said, is"the face of 19th Century Philadelphia."
The fight to save that great shipbuilding era begins Wednesday.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Don't Call It The Barnes Tower

Sometimes good things happen for the wrong reasons. Take the Tower Formerly Known as Barnes, at 21st and Hamilton Streets, planned for the current site of the Best Western Motel. The original, clocked in at 500 feet. Even though it stuck up like giant obelisk in the middle of the nearly block-size site, and was a seriously anti-urban building, it was all legal under the city's zoning code.
That didn't stop Vince Fumo and Spring Garden neighbors from protesting - or Lord Auspitz of the Zoning Board from throwing out the building permit. The developers, Dalia Shuster and Daniel Katz, were forced to negotiate a compromise.
The process was scarily undemocratic and arbitrary, yet there is no doubt that the new version - by architect Steven J. Brittan of Burt Hill Kosar - is much, much better - and not just because the height of main tower is down to 406 feet/ 37 stories. The real reason it's better is because the site is now being treated like a part of the city grid. As you see in the rendering above, the new version calls for street-wall buildings on three sides of the site. Instead of occupying just 20 percent of the land, buildings will cover about 50 percent.
On the lower right, you should be able to make out a white rectangle that will be a seven-story loft-style condo building with space for a ground-floor restaurant. It will be attached to the tower and clad in the same glass-and-metal materials. The plan calls for a green roof - not out a commitment to the environment, but so residents of the nearby towers won't have to look at an ugly sheet of tar paper.
Moving up to Spring Garden Street, in the top left corner of the block, you should be able to make a red rectangle. Brittan is proposing brick townhouse condos that will mimic the scale and materials of Spring Garden Street's grand houses. Depending on whether they are built as full houses or duplexes, there will be 6 to 12 units hugging the corner of 21st Street.
Just below the main tower, also on the left, is a second, smaller tower that would be 187 feet tall (16 stories), although the neighbors are still discussing the details. In any case, the developers have scheduled that tower for some far-off second phase, so we won't see it until long after everything else is built. It's not clear whether there will be room for retail, but there should be. Can you believe that the neighbors scotched the developers' plan for retail in the 22nd Street corner of the townhouse units, even though there is currently retail on the three other corners of the Spring Garden intersection?
As to the tower itseelf, it remains in the same spot, with its front facade running parallel with the diagonal of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It may be 100 feet shorter than before, but it will still be bigger than the neighboring Buttonwood and Parkway House buildings. But the peaks and valleys of the local skyline cluster will be less extreme. The project's main building is still set too far from the street, because of the 200-foot setback required of all parkway towers, and still has a big curving driveway. The footprint will now be 11,000 square feet. It won't be a skinny, tower, but it won't be one of those wide, JFK- Boulevard blockbusters either. Fortunately, the garage didn't grow in size, and is still buried in the natural hillside. Entrances and exits are from 21st and 22nd Streets.
It's the little seven-story condo building at 21st and Hamilton that really elevates this project. Not only is the design smart and crisp, it will do wonders for that cluttered corner. The white-tablecloth restaurant will finally provide a refuge for visitors to the parkway and the Rodin Museum. Other than Whole Foods, which is supposed to move to 16th and Vine one of these days., there is not a single place t eat on the parkway between 17th Street and the art museum.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Laurie Olin Observed

The New York Observer profiles Philly's own Laurie Olin, the landscape architect who remade Independence Mall and is now working on the landscape behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The real subject of the article is the controversial Atlantic Yards project, which Olin is doing in collaboration with Frank Gehry. Even you don't care a whit about what happens in Flatbush, N.Y., it's interesting to eavesdrop on the sophisticated discussion that New Yorkers are having about the project, which resembles in some superficial ways Philadelphia's River City proposal. Notice that the conversation is lot more meaty than the "Big buildings: Good/ Big Buildings: Bad," dichotomy that we often hear these days in Philadelphia.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Busy, Busy Spring

So what if it looks like the depths of winter outside. The spring events schedules are in the mail. In April, some 6,000 urban planners will be scrutinizing our little town with a practiced eye when the American Planning Association meets for its annual conference (April 15-18). They'll be followed in May by the Congress for the New Urbanism . (May 17-19)

Along with nuts-and-bolts seminars with titles like "Dredge Spoils Sites Become Urban Assets," and more lively fare along the lines of, "A Walk Through Ed Bacon's Philadelphia" and "Preserving Doo-Wop in Wildwood Crest," the planners will gather at 8:30 am on April 15 to hear a keynote address from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental advocate from the Natural Resources Defense Council, and a scion of the famous family. The theme for the Congress' meeting is "New Urbanism and the Old City." I think Philadelphia should be able to teach that group, which is sometimes sidetracked by a suburban focus, a few new tricks.

Just in case you think a few thousand city planners weren't enough for one season, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture is also holding its annual event in Philadelphia, March 8-11. They're bringing in the most interesting (and cheeky) speaker of all, British architect Richard Rogers, who designed the subversive Lloyds of London (above) and collaborated on the Pompidou Center in Paris with Renzo Piano. Rogers has a habit of saying what he thinks, so you won't want to miss his talk March 10 , at 5:30 pm in Irvine Auditorium. You'll need tickets for this one, alas.

Fortunately, Penn's School of Design is offering a long list of free lectures this spring, including:
-Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus, who left Rem Koolhaas' firm after the success of the Seattle Library, April 9
-The provocative critic Hal Foster, who was the only person in "Sketches of Gehry" willing to be quoted as saying he'd doesn't care for Frankie G's work, April 10
- Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, who is designing an addition to Penn's Annenberg School, April 17.
-See the School of Design for the full list.

But the date you really want to save is April 9, when the Design Advocacy Group will put the six mayoral wannabes in the hot seat on design and planning issues. It's being held in the Free Library auditorium, starting at 5:30 pm. If you're one of those folks with strong opinions about the congestion tax - among many other things - this one you won't want to miss.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

More About Fattah's Car Tax

This is just an observation, and a cynical one at that, but one reason that a politician like Chaka Fattah might prefer a congestion tax over a parking-garage moratorium is because the tax would be borne by scattered individuals, many of whom don't vote in the city and don't make campaign contributions. On the other hand, parking operators and condo developers are a prime source for campaign contributions. As John Street might say, that's how it works in Philadelphia. So, don't expect a parking moratorium any time soon - although, limiting the supply would be beneficial to owners of existing garages because they'd be able to raise prices.

The central issue is still Septa. As I wrote in a recent column about Suburban Station, Septa has invested $5 billion rebuilding its decaying infrastructure and is in pretty good shape physically (with the big exception of City Hall station). Now it's time to invest in service, so that people don't spend as much time waiting for a bus or train as they do traveling on Septa. An improved transit service, which could compete with the roads for users, will pay off economically for Philadelphia. Although I think it was foolish for Fattah to promote the congestion tax, he deserves credit for making improved transit a campaign issue. His full plan contains quite a few good ideas, including a proposal to re-establish the city Office of Transportation, discontinued by the car-loving Street. If he could achieve everything on his list, I'd tip my hat to him - if I wore the sort that was tippable.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Chaka Skips Ahead Two Steps

If a politician thought that promising to invent the wheel was a good campaign strategy, you can bet he'd make it his central platform. So today, we have mayoral candidate Chaka Fattah in the Inquirer suggesting that Philadelphia impose a congestion tax on motorists to discourage driving into the city during rush hour and raise money for transit. (It's a tax similar to the one that London instituted.) Will someone tell Chaka he's been away from Philly too long? Proposing such a tax for modestly congested Philadelphia suggests he doesn't have a clue about the real nature of the city's car problem. Center City isn't suffering from too much congestion; it has too little. Right now, it's way too easy to drive into town.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's urgent that city officials do something to constrain the growing dominance of the automobile in Center City and its environs. But not because traffic congestion is the monster about to consume Philadelphia. It is true that Philadelphia does experience some traffic congestion on certain streets for certain limited periods of time. But the real consequence of increased car use in Philadelphia has to do with the destructive force of parking garages on the city fabric. Garages require big chunks of land that Center City can't afford to sacrifice. Consider the Jefferson Garage on Chestnut Street as Exhibit A. That hunger for land to build garages is wrecking the walkability of Center City, making its neighborhoods less attractive and less livable, and destroying the architecture that gives the city its character.

A congestion tax is two steps ahead of the problem. Before Philadelphia resorts to such an extreme measure, it first needs to start seriously pumping up Septa and make mass transit the mode of choice. As part of that effort, the city should impose a moratorium on stand-alone garages, as well as limits on "accessory" garages in condo and office towers. Limiting the supply of parking is one way to increase the appeal of transit, although a lot else has to be done. If it takes those steps and the traffic still becomes unbearable, then Philadelphia might turn the conversation toward congestion taxes. But I doubt it will ever need to happen.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Tour the Garage of the Future

I've always felt a warm regard for the Parisian thug in the 1981 policier Diva (NOT pictured left - that image is from Seinfeld). In the course of an overly long stake-out in a French parking garage, the fiend in the dark, wrap-around glasses deadpans menacingly to his companion: "Je deteste parking." Moi aussi. But I could probably learn to live more happily with parking garages in Philadelphia if they were smaller, less obtrusive and consumed less downtown real estate.

Short of everyone becoming a bicycle commuter, the best hope for cramming more cars in less Center City space is robotic parking, a relatively new technology that is gaining acceptance. Parkway Corp. will install a cutting edge, underground robotic system in 1706 Rittenhouse if that project ever gets anywhere. And of course, we've been hearing for eight years how Wayne Spilove is going to build a 12-story, above-ground automated parking garage at 16th and Sansom Street. His dream garage is still a scruffy asphalt parking lot. In the meantime, you can see what the hype is all about by taking a video tour of a new automated garage in New York here, courtesy of the BBC. If all the cars in Philadelphia were so cute and small, we wouldn't need to devote so much space to parking.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The South Street Bridge Stops Here

There is a revolt smoldering in the neigh-borhood around the South Street Bridge. Opponents to the proposed car-dominated design by Gannett Fleming and H2L2 are circulating petitions in an effort to convince city officials to throw it overboard.

There are two upcoming City Council hearings where those opponents plan to raise a fuss. Both are scheduled for Feb. 14, so bring a valentine for your favorite council member. The hearings will be devoted to technical issues, but no matter. At 10 a.m., the Streets Committee will meet to discuss lines and grade issues. That session will be followed by a meeting of the Public Property Committee at 10:30 a.m. to discuss right of way issues. It may be the last chance to convince city officials to make the South Street Bridge to look more like the Hungerford Bridge (above) than the current design (below).
In today's Changing Skyline, I explain how London salvaged a beautiful 19th Century bridge similar to South Street by suspending 12-foot-walkways from the sides using a cable-stay system. You can get a feel for walking over the Thames Bridge by clicking on this link here.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Ritz-Carlton About Face

Judging by the sleight of hand used to market the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, the old adage of "Location, Location, Location" may have to be replaced by "Photoshop, Photoshop, Photoshop." Note how the building, by New York's Handel Architects, has been shifted about 90 degrees to gain a better position on Philadelphia's skyline.
In this ad, which was included as an insert in this weekend's Inquirer, the prow of the glass condo tower faces northwest, instead of east, so that it joins the party with all the other Center City skyscrapers. Could it be that idea of living across the street from City Hall doesn't have so much appeal after all? Hard to tell, but the appearance of a second construction trailer on the site suggests the project continues to progress.

Now if we only figure out how to get to that nice park in the foreground.