Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Odds On A Casino Vote

The editorial on casinos in today's Inquirer gets it exactly right: Philadelphians deserve a chance to vote on gambling. Whether they get what they deserve will be decided tomorrow by 12 good people on City Council. The legislators are scheduled to vote at 10 a.m. on a Frank DiCicco-sponsored ballot initiative that would greatly restrict the location of casinos. If the measure gets 12 votes, then the question will be included on the May 15 primary ballot.

The referendum wouldn't actually outlaw gambling in Philadelphia. But it would specify that casinos must be 1,500 feet away from the nearest residential area. That rules out both Foxwoods and Sugarhouse, the winners of Philadelphia's two slots licenses, as well as the three losers - Trump, Pinnacle and Planet Hollywood. But there are still five sites on the Delaware waterfronts that would meet the 1,500-foot rule. In last week's Daily News, Society Hill Civic's Paul Boni made a good case that there are other, better locations for casinos. A city that cares about controlling its destiny would have insisted on choosing the sites, not leaving it to the operators, the Harrisburg pols, and a roll of the dice.

Even though slots seem like a done deal, there's ample precedent for putting the question on the ballot. In virtually every state where gambling has been legalized, the public has been given a say. Here in Pennsylvania, the state legislature approved the monumental change in the middle of the night on July 3, 2004. I distinctly remember during the run-up to the primary election that year receiving almost daily campaign mailings from Sen. Vince Fumo. Not a single one even mentioned the impending vote, even though he was the chief author of the gambling bill.

If council does approve the ballot question, be prepared for legal challenges. The status-quo powers didn't want the public involved in gambling decisions in 2004, and they don't want people involved today.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Rogers: Cities First, Then Buildings

Architecture students are usually taught that the internal demands of a project come first, and what happens outside on the street - happens as an afterthought. So what a nice surprise to hear an architect of the stature of Richard Rogers tell a convention of university architecture professors in Philadelphia that their students should think less about individual designs and more about making cities livable.

Rogers, who turned the profession inside-out with buildings like the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Lloyds of London, was interested in urbanism and environmental sustainability long before they become the mainstream issues they are today. He did his first master plan for London in 1986 and today serves as an adviser on design and planning to Mayor Ken Livingstone. He's come to believe that the fate of cities and the planet are inextricably linked, a subject he explored in "Cities for A Small Planet." Unless the world moves quickly to rein in sprawl and reduce carbon consumption, the earth is headed for rocky environmental times, warned Rogers, who was in Philadelphia on Saturday to address the Association of Collegiate Architecture Schools. "We're at the tipping point," he said.

What's the environment got to do with educating architects? A lot. As many others have noted, construction of new buildings is a major contributor to the problem of climate change. (Rogers blamed it for the 75 percent of carbon emissions, though that sounds a bit high.) Rogers argues that architects now have a moral obligation to lobby their clients to include sustainable elements in their projects And the only way to make truly sustainable buildings - as opposed to the kind that simply incorporates some earthy-crunchy finishes - is to build in existing urban areas at relatively high densities.

A lot of the ground Rogers covered on Saturday has been well trod by the anti-sprawl crowd: Stop developing cornfields and build in existing urban areas. Don't be afraid of density. Keep cities economically diverse by supporting affordable housing. Make urban places livable by including public amenities in new project. But when these ideas come from the mouth of an internationally respected designer like Rogers, the architecture community is more likely to take notice. It doesn't hurt that Rogers has that British, lets-pull-together-mates manner of speaking, and that he is known for being married to one of the top chefs in Britain, Ruth Rogers, of the River Cafe. So rather than coming off like a stern nanny urging you to take your medicine, he makes the project of urban regeneration sound like great fun, something to be accompanied by leisurely meals with friends.

Actually, one of the most charming and compelling parts of Rogers' talk was his vision of cities as sociable places "first and foremost for the meeting of friends and strangers." His emphasis on environmental sustainability can't be separated from good urbanism. Rogers believes cities have to be comfortable places to live, with plenty of parks and narrow, walkable streets, and regular supplies of good coffee. Some other interesting comments:

-Density has nothing to do with height. Barcelona, which caps its buildings at eight stories, is the densest city in Europe.
-Jane Jacobs' "eyes on the street" is better than any security camera in deterring crime.
-While 60 percent of Los Angeles' land area is devoted to asphalt roads, only 15 percent of New York's ground is covered by streets.
-The U.S. consumes three-times as much carbon fuel per capita as Europe.

It wasn't clear whether the audience of architecture professors was buying everything Rogers had to say. But toward the end, the dean from the University of Michigan's architecture school asked Rogers if it were really possible to maintain the"look of the traditional urban street and still have great modern architecture." Rogers replied amicably, "you don't always need a street, but you have to a mix."

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

One Way to Save Broad Street's Odd Fellows

There has been little protest (except in a couple of my columns) over the plan by the Pennsylvania Convention Center to demolish the 1892 Odd Fellows Hall at Broad and Cherry Streets so the center can expand its meeting hall two more blocks. It's a shame because this building punctuates a perfectly intact row of commercial buildings that beautifully frames the north side of City Hall, and serves as a counterpoint to the great, early 20th Century skyscrapers on the south side. A small consolation is that a seller on e-Bay is offering gorgeous magazine print by the architects, Hazlehurst and Huckel.
The building, which has an elegantly curved marble lobby staircase and a large meeting room, has been badly treated over the years. You won't find the sculpted figures looking imperiously down from the roof line, any more; indeed that whole roof balustrade is long gone. But it's a trim, well-proportioned early skyscraper in the classical palazzo style that is a reminder of the days when Broad Street was lined with meeting halls of the city's many fellowship societies. The long, bland glass facade that Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates had designed for the convention center's Broad Street facade is a pretty meager replacement for this stout-hearted office building.
The con-vention center is planning to save the front 30 feet of two other buildings on the block, the New York Insurance Co.'s townhouse-size Beaux-Arts structure, and Romaldo Giurgola's equisitely crafted modern addition. It's a sliver of a building, but the design was a landmark that showed modernists could make great, street-friendly urban buildings. Go look at Giurgola's gem before they amputate the back portion and you'll see a composition as disciplined and timeless as any great classical building.
I guess I'm glad the convention center will leave something of these two little buildings, but when the big glass monster (covering 18 acres) sidles up to these itty-bitty row buildings, it's going to look ridiculous. Odd Fellows, at least, has the heft and height to stand up to the convention center, so it's a shame the designers couldn't have incorporated its facade, too.
I suspect the print on e-Bay is pretty rare because it doesn't appear in Robert Morris Skaler's book on Broad Street. But the print will soon be the only thing left of Odd Fellows Hall.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Help Wanted: Famous Merion Museum Seeks Architect for City Job

The Barnes Found-ation has been very, very guarded about the progress of its move to Phila-delphia. But it looks like the Merion museum has completed a shortlist of potential architects and project managers. In the last few days, those firms received letters asking if they would be interested in competing to design a new Barnes museum on the Ben Franklin Parkway. Sounds like an offer that can't be refused. Here's how the letter began:

"This letter is to invite you to submit documentation on your firm to be considered for the commission to design this new facility. The Trustees are confident that the new building will be an outstanding addition to the Barnes Foundation’s campus and the city. As mandated by the Court, part of the new building must replicate the scale, proportion and configuration of the existing galleries.

The process for the selection of an architect consists of two phases: the first involves the evaluation of documentation submitted by each of the invited firms; the second, a presentation/interview of a small number of finalist firms with the Building (Selection) Committee. Firms are not expected to undertake designs for the new facility. However, they will be invited to visit the Foundation and site to gather information, in order that they can further discuss their approach to the specifics of the commission during the interview phase."

My sources can't say which firms received the letter, but you can bet all the usual big names are on the list. Polshek Partnership in New York, which designed the National Jewish Museum on Independence Mall (the one with no door facing the mall) had been hired to do a programming study but later withdrew to compete for the design. Martha Thorne, the executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, will serve as the Barnes' professional advisor. It doesn't get any more rarefied than that. Wonder if any Philadelphia firms received the letter? Submissions are due April 3, and an architect will be chosen by early August.

I guess the Barnes isn't too worried that the Montgomery County Commissioners voted last week to join the lawsuit aimed keeping the foundation in Merion.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Tale of Two Waterfronts

The South Street Bridge is about to fall down. Scratch that. It is perfectly safe. In a quote destined to be a classic, PennDOT traffic expert, Rina Cutler, told the Daily News that the bridge is "safe" but remains "a serious public-safety issue." And that's the reason, says Council President Anna Verna, why the city can't spend any more time thinking about the bridge's design, which will give Philadelphia a wider span where cars can drive more quickly to I-76's most notorious entrance ramps. With Verna's encouragement, City Council yesterday moved the project one step closer to a 2008 start date.

For the past few years, Philadelphia's Schuylkill River has been the source of most of the progressive ideas about waterfront development. But since PennPraxis began its Delaware River study, the best ideas have been bubbling on the other side of town. Today five teams of architects and planners begin a three-day brainstorming session at the Independence Seaport Museum. The kick-off presentation for the charette starts at 6 p.m. After that the designers will lock themselves into work rooms and start drawing up plans. The public is welcome to eavesdrop on the work sessions. But if you just want to cut to the chase, then show up for the final presentation on Saturday, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Seaport Museum.

This last item has nothing to do with architecture, planning or design. But it is one of my favorite newspaper corrections of all time, so I thought I'd share it. It appeared in yesterday's Daily News . Here goes:

"A story in yesterday's paper about several mayoral candidates' visit to Central High School misstated their cheese-steak preferences. Chaka Fattah, Tom Knox and Michael Nutter all favor Pat's; Al Taubenberger and Bob Brady prefer Geno's."

Yes, but if elected, what guarantees does the public have that they'll stick with their stated favorites!