Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Cover Up at the President's House

Don't be alarmed if you see city workers dumping dirt this coming Tuesday on the amazing brick foundations of the President's House. The cover-up should be only temporary. The fragile brick foundations, which were revealed during a required archaeological dig this summer (see my May 9 post and May 25 column), are being draped in a three-foot-high blanket of soil to protect them from the elements while architects rework a plan for memorializing the historically complex site.
The expectation now is that the foundations will eventually be dusted off and put on view as part of a major national shrine that somehow acknowledges both the creation of the American presidency and the American practice of slavery. Getting to this point has been quite a saga, as the Inquirer has chronicled, so some will certainly see this step as another frustrating delay. But frankly, the longer this project takes, the better it is likely to turn out.

Kelly/Maiello's winning design for the memorial, which was selected by the Street Administration before the foundations were uncovered, is a heavy-handed mess that will simply add to more clutter to the mall. Once the discovery of the foundations became a national sensation - attracting more than 250,000 curious visitors since early May - the Philadelphia architecture firm was asked to see if it could find a way to incorporate the foundations into its memorial design. It was clear to many that the rough, time-scoured foundations speak far more articulately and movingly than the planned Kelly/Maiello structure. Those old stones testify to the site's multiple and conflicting meanings. In one glance, you can see the outline of both the oval room where George Washington learned to practice democratic accountability and the kitchen where his illegal slaves were kept hidden. Where else is America's noble experiment so bluntly juxtaposed with the evil institution of slavery?

The only question now is how to incorporate the foundations into the President's House memorial. There's no point in looking at them through a window from the floor of the Kelly/Maiello design. The brick ruins are 10 feet below the sidewalk level. A better approach would be to build a memorial that somehow ramps down to the protected foundations, so that you are able to see them up close. I encountered a great example of this approach recently when I visited Philip of Macedon's tomb in Vergina (photo), a World Heritage Site just outside Thessaloniki, Greece. (Philip II was Alexander the Great's dad.) After his crypt and tumulus were unearthed in the 1970s, the Greek government built an underground museum that incorporates Philip's burial chamber and a museum's worth of artifacts. The descent from the bright sunshine of the surrounding park, down into the earth makes for an extraordinary, emotional journey. When you finally come face-to-face with the 4th Century burial temple, you have a mystical feeling of having traveled through time.

But it's wrong to think you can have that level of design excellence simply by asking Kelly/Maiello to adjust their old design. They will have to start from scratch. Better yet - the city should go back to square one. Hire a design consultant. Organize a national design competition. Invite the world's top designers. Include the best historians in the field, Only then will Philadelphia make this site into the national memorial it deserves to be.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bob and Denise: Feted in Washington, Rejected in Chestnut Hill

Is that Philadelphia's own Bob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
with First Lady Laura Bush? Yes, it is. The architects were at the White House on Wednesday for the National Design Awards. They received the "Design Mind" award for their career achievements, as the Washington Post reports. The award, which I wrote about in May, is sponsored by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a part of the Smithsonian. In the past, the awards event has usually occurred in the Cooper-Hewitt's New York outpost. When I saw the press release last week saying the awards would be presented in Washington, D. C., at the White House no less, I wondered briefly if the Quaker-bred Venturi might refuse to attend, as a protest against President Bush's blundering aggression in Iraq. Now that would have been a good story.
Of course, it's nice to see Venturi and Scott Brown, who may be America's most important living architectural thinkers, get this recognition. Here in Philadelphia, it's become a struggle for them to win new commissions. While Venturi is putting the finishing touches on a chapel for Episcopal Academy's new campus, the saga of the pair's Woodmere Art Museum addition continues to drag on and on. Days ago, neighborhood opponents won a surprise victory when Commonwealth Court ordered the Chestnut Hill case back to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The museum, which owns a very good collection of eastern Pennsylvania artists, must decide between appealing to the state Supreme Court, taking the case back the the Zoning Board, or asking Commonwealth Court to give the issues a second look. See the Chestnut Hill Local for all the legal ins and outs.
After seven years of legal battles, perhaps it's time for Woodmere to reassess. Isn't there an empty spot on the Parkway, where the Calder Museum was supposed to go? This low-slung building would look pretty nice there all by itself - better, even. Unlike the neighbors in Chestnut Hill, the parkway crowd would probably welcome the Woodmere with open arms.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sidewalk Musings

The deal that the city cut with Samir Benak-moume over the sidewalk in front of his 1352 Lofts strikes me as part of a worrisome pattern. The developer clearly made a gross mistake in building a ramp 6-feet, 7-inches into the public sidewalk. Yet in trying to undo the damage, city officials first determined how much space the developer needed for his retail ramp. The public was then allocated the left overs.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. That's the exact same approach the city used to determine the width of the sidewalks for the planned reconstruction of the South Street bridge (image). First the engineers calculated how much space would be needed for cars if two new dedicated turning lanes were added to the road deck. Then they calculated the maximum road deck the existing bridge piers can hold - 83 feet. Once they divvied up the space for the cars and two 5-foot bikes paths (Give them credit for including those), there was only 18 feet left over. And so on a bridge where motorists will be hellbent for glory (and those merge-or-die I-76 entrance ramps), pedestrians are left with just two 9-foot refuges. Will a day ever come where the sidewalk space is allocated first?

Monday, July 16, 2007

One Small Step for Philly Pedestrians

The sidewalk in front of 1352 Lofts on the 1300 block of South Street may end up a little wider thanks to the city's legal action - but not by much. All in all, it looks like pedestrians will get a four-foot-wide clear footpath, while developer Samir Benakmoume is allowed to construct a nice five-foot-wide terrace, er, wheelchair ramp to access the ground-floor shops below his million-dollar condos.

It took more doing than should be necessary in a democracy, but this afternoon I was finally able to secure a copy of the legal agreement, which was hammered out last Thursday between Benakmoume and city lawyers. (It's included at the end of this post.) You may be no wiser after wading through the legalese, so I will do my best to explain.

The agreement is odd in that it specifies exactly how much room that Benakmoume's illegal terrace is guaranteed - five feet - but says absolutely nothing about how much clear sidewalk space the public is due. Thanks to Jim Campbell, an architect who is a member of the South Street West Business Association, I was able to make these calculations:
-The normal sidewalk width in that area of South Street is 11-feet-6-inches. (It may be as wide as 12-feet-6-inches at the west end of Benakmoume's building.)
-Subtract Benakmoume's 5 feet. That leaves 6-feet, 6-inches for the public footpath.
-Of that, about 2-feet, 6-inches will be consumed by lamp posts and street signs
-What's left over for the public, then, is four feet of clear space for strolling. That's one more foot than what is there now. The clear footpath, however, "should have been five feet," according to Campbell, who is half of Campbell Thomas & Co. "It's an issue of gentility. It's an issue of comfort. It's an issue of access."

So, yes, two people will be able to walk side-by-side past this building, but only if they're very good friends. Expect to see a lot of dosey-doe-ing. While a person in a wheelchair should able to maneuver down the block now, it's looks a poor deal for the poor pedestrian.

Here's the agreement:

Whereas, Rimas International, 1352 South LLC (the “Defendant”) is the owner of the mixed-use development located at 1324-52 South Street (“Subject Property”), and
Whereas, the City of Philadelphia has a legal duty to assure safe and adequate passage on the public rights of way, and,
Whereas, South Street is a legally opened street, and
Whereas, the Defendant or its agents did construct encroachments upon the southerly line of South Street fronting the Subject Property, consisting of an access ramp, steps, landing and tree wells, and
Whereas, the sidewalk and curbline, as constructed by the Defendant or its agents is not set within the proper lines and grades, and
Whereas, the encroachments and existing sidewalk cannot be maintained upon the public right of way, as built,
Now, therefore, the City of Philadelphia and the Defendant (the “party”) agrees to enter into this Consent Decree upon the following terms and conditions:
The Defendant agrees that within ten (10) days of the date of this Consent Decree, they shall submit detailed architectural plans (“Plans”) to the Streets Department Right-of-Way Unit, indicating that the encroachments shall be reduced in size and/or relocated so that no encroachments along South Street will extend beyond the building line of the Subject Premises by more than five feet (5’);
The City agrees to review the Plans in order to determine if the reconstruction of the encroachments may be approved by permit, pursuant to Title § 11 of the Philadelphia Code.
If Plans may be approved for issuance of a permit under Title § 11 of the Philadelphia Code, the City shall issue a permit and lift the Stop Work Order imposed on June 29, 2007.
Defendant shall immediately thereafter commence work in order to comply with the conditions of the permit and make good faith efforts to complete said work within thirty (30) days.
The City shall forthwith survey the sidewalk and curbline along the South Street side and shall thereafter provide the Defendant with the correct lines and grades of the sidewalk and curbline.
Upon receipt of the specifications for the proper lines and grades of the sidewalk and curbline, the Defendant shall obtain a Curb and Footway Permit authorizing reconstruction of the sidewalk and resetting of the curb in order to conform to the correct lines and grades, and shall commence work necessary to achieve compliance.
Defendant agrees to the imposition of a One hundred thousand dollar ($100,000.00) conditional fine, all or part of which may be made absolute by the Court if it is shown that the Defendant has acted in contempt of this Consent Decree or fails to complete the encroachment modification set forth herein.
In the event that the Plans submitted by the Defendant cannot be approved within the parameters of §11-604 of the Philadelphia Code, the City reserves the right to request a hearing before the Court, at which time the City may seek appropriate injunctive relief.
This Consent Decree shall not bind the City to authorize, by permit or ordinance, any activity or construction upon the public rights of ways abutting the Subject Premises.
This Consent Decree shall not prejudice the right of the City to demand compliance with any provision of the Philadelphia Code, or other applicable law, that is not contemplated herein.
Either of the parties may request that a status hearing be held in Court on this matter within thirty (30) days of the date of this Consent Decree.
Samir Benakmoume, for Defendant, Ramis International, 1352 South LLC
Ronald J. Patterson, Esquire Attorney for Defendant, Ramis International, 1352 South LLC
Leonard F. Reuter Assistant City Solicitor Attorney for Plaintiff, City of Philadelphia

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sidewalk Brawl, Cont'd

Lawyers sauntered in and out of City Hall Courtroom 426 for more than an hour today, but for the moment the 1300 block of South Street remains a difficult passage for pedestrians and the disabled. City solicitors had gone to to court intending to force condo developer Samir Benakmoume remove an illegal six-foot-wide platform (see below) in front 1352 Lofts. But after a lot of whispered conversations in the corridor, the two sides worked out a legal compromise. What the terms of that agreement are won't be known until tomorrow, after the legal papers are approved and signed. Stay tuned.....

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

City To Developer: Make Way For Pedestrians!

It was clear from the minute that developer Samir Benakmoume poured himself a generous concrete terrace in front of his pricey new 1352 Lofts, that South Street's footpath wasn't big enough for both his grand schemes and the public. Now there's hope that Philadelphia's pedestrians can take back their sidewalk. A reliable source tells me that city lawyers will go to court Thursday (Yes - it really is Thursday, at 1:30 p.m., before Judge Glazer in Rm. 426) to demand that Benakmoume jackhammer what he disingenuously describes as a wheelchair ramp.

Benakmoume's raised platform, which runs almost the entire length of the 1300 block of South Street, is no ordinary sidewalk encroachment. As I described in a June 22 news story, Benakmoume annexed a six-foot-wide strip of public space. That leaves just three measly feet for the rest of us. But even that narrow ribbon is a gantlet of street lights, parking signs and planters. If you're an able-bodied adult, you might be able to squeeze single-file down the block; if you're pushing a stroller or in a wheelchair, well, just fuggetaboutit. You can build all the fancy condos you want, but cities are nothing without their sidewalks.

Benakmoume has been claiming that the Streets Dept. approved the ramp as the only reasonable way to make the ground-floor shops wheelchair-accessible. Not true, says William P. Mautz, who oversees the city streets and sidewalks. He told the developer's Rimas Properties back in May that the platform was "unacceptable," and refused to grant his retail tenants a Certificate of Occupancy. It looked like they would just stand around and make angry faces at one another until the City Law Department stepped in.

Clearly, Bankmoume underestimated the public outrage against his land grab. The blogs have been boiling over with fury: Phillyblog, Young Philly Politics, Outside In and Design Advocacy Group. Things got so hot over at Phillyblog that Benakmoume's people started using words like "libel" and the administrator pulled the thread, prompting a new thread on free speech in the blogosphere.

The Design Advocacy Group understands that this case isn't about just one obnoxious bump in the sidewalk. Benakmoume's actions mock Philadelphia's claim to be among America's last walkable cities. DAG has launched a petition campaign for the platform's removal. (150 signatures as of Monday) But the group's leader, Alan Greenberger, says the Benakmoume blockage is just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of equally egregious impediments around the city: Check out the abandoned construction trailer behind the Rodin Museum on Hamilton Street or the trailers that turn 15th Street into one lane south of City Hall. DAG is recommending that the next administration create an "Overseer of Sidewalks"

Let's start making a list of these invaders of the public realm now. Send your nominations here.