Thursday, October 18, 2007

Of Parking, Plans and Planners

During Tuesday's strangely schizoid Philadelphia Planning Commission meeting, it was interesting to watch the members veer between rejecting the whole notion of planning on the Delaware River, and demanding more serious planning on the Schuylkill River, where Brandywine Realty Trust is seeking City Council permission to build an $800 million mixed-used development. One moment they were threatening to derail Brandywine's transformative Cira Centre South project because the developer hadn't completed a traffic study. Next, they were grilling Penn Praxis' Harris Steinberg because the Delaware waterfront study will offer some strong ideas about traffic and parking.

There's no doubt that traffic and parking are big issues for Cira South, which includes a 2,400-car garage (above) sandwiched between a proposed 50-story tower on Walnut and a 25-story tower on Chestnut. As part of the project, which I wrote about Monday, Brandywine will overhaul the 30th Street post office, designed by Rankin and Kellogg - architects of the Inquirer Building, among other things - for 5,000 employees of the Internal Revenue Service now housed on Roosevelt Boulevard. You don't need to be a traffic engineer to know that means Cira South will draw an awful lot of drivers from the Northeast, who will arrive at their jobs after fighting their way off the I-676 ramps. So, members of the planning commission were absolutely right to zero in on the traffic issues.

The problem was the ways they flailed at the issue without really having any sense of how it might be solved. If the Street Administration had bothered to employ a transportation director, or if actually attempted to implement the parking plan it completed last year, the commission might have had policies in place that would have enabled it to give Brandywine guidance on the issue. Instead, all they went around in circles - like a motorist searching for a Center City parking space on Saturday night - on the subject of whether a 2,400-car garage was too big or too little.

Perhaps if they did have a clear parking policy, they would have instead talked about more progressive measures than simply building a bigger garage. What about instituting van pools from the Northeast, providing remote parking at Septa stations, and staggering work hours to ensure that all 5,000 IRS workers do not descend on the Cira South garage at the same moment? Solving the parking problems in Center City isn't about providing more parking; it's about finding ways to keep cars out of the center.

As I wrote on Monday, Brandywine is promising that its project will help fill the void between Center City and the universities, and create a new neighborhood on the west bank of the Schuylkill. It's an exciting concept. But I'm not sure they can deliver with this plan, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli. For one thing, Brandywine is counting heavily on PennDot and other highway agencies to pay for the desperately needed sidewalk and street improvements. But the bigger issue is the moat in front of the garage, which overlooks Amtrak's Northeast Corridor tracks. Until that big gap is decked over, this project can never fulfill its claim to be a connector. But you didn't hear the auto-obsessed planning commission members discuss those kind of pedestrian issues. They're just not on their radar.

Which reminds me of another reason Philadelphia needs the Penn Praxis vision study. Plans help you define the issues worth caring about and provide a road map for finding solutions to complex urban problems.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gloves Off on Waterfront Plan

If the reception that Penn Praxis' waterfront vision plan received at Tuesday's Planning Commission meeting is any indication, then the year-long study is in serious danger of ending up on a shelf - and with it, Philadelphia's last, desperate hope of realizing a humane, urban-scaled neighborhood on the Delaware. As I wrote in a recent column, a coalition of real estate interests is lobbying to scuttle one of the plan's big ideas, extending the city grid to the river's edge, because they feel it would restrict their flexibility to develop their property. The opposition launched its shock-and-awe campaign on Tuesday.

Of course, the opponents didn't specifically say they don't want a grid. Instead, the forward attack team made up of lawyer Michael Sklaroff and developer consultant Craig Schelter simply listed all the things wrong with the waterfront study. But it's not like they want to see those weaknesses corrected; they want to take the whole plan down. Certainly there are aspects of the study that reasonable people will want to quibble over: Is the recommended, 100-foot recreation path a bit too wide? Has Penn Praxis set aside enough land to accommodate the large-scale industrial users who might come along?Is it realistic to reduce Delaware Avenue to just two lanes? Does the plan offer a viable alternative to the ugly parking podiums like the one built at Waterfront Square?

It's true that the plan isn't perfect. But what plan is? The point is that it offers a planning philosophy that can be used as a starting point. We know there will have to be exceptions. The problem right now is there is no philosophy, no direction, no energy to shape the waterfront. As a result the Delaware has languished more than any big city waterfront in America. The situation isn't good for the public, which can't take full advantage of the river's beauty.

And it isn't good for developers either, as developer Sam Sherman pointed out Tuesday in a principled dissent from Sklaroff and Schelter. "This proposal will add value in the long term he argued. "Mangling the Delaware shore with suburban style gated cul de sacs will not only damage Philadelphia, but would undermine the development value of the waterfront. It is astonishing, even breathtaking, to think that a developer could be so foolish as to devalue their own development by requesting that their site be converted from a prime urban development opportunity to Sprawl Junkspace." Sherman, who is active with the Congress of New Urbanism, which just held its convention in Philadelphia, says the group has unanimously endorsed the Penn Praxis study.

Incredibly, several members of the planning commission actually voiced doubts about the wisdom of setting out a broad planning philosophy: "If we say where the streets should be, then we'll be pre-determining the type of development," commission member Gloria Levin fretted. Well, yes, pre-determining the shape of development is what planning agencies do.

Top Planner Janice Woodcock, who introduced the presentation, and Harris Steinberg, who has been overseeing the waterfront study, tried to make a pre-emptive strike against the forces of opposition. "Vision plans allow us to imagine the future," Woodcock said. But Sklaroff and Schelter seem to want to control what we imagine.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Developer really, really means to shore up Girard Warehouse

The Inquirer's Stephan Salisbury reports today that Philadelphia is filing suit to force the owners of the Girard warehouses to stabilize the teetering historic building. Developer Geoff Flournoy, of BRP, goes to great lengths to insist that they've been meaning to make repairs all along. He also blames a previous owner, the Board of City Trusts charity, aka Girard Estate, for the poor condition of the property. How convenient that he overlooked the fact that it was his company that ripped off the back of the building in May - and has done nada since then.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Front Street's Domino Scenario

The block-by-block demolition of Phila-delphia's surviving maritime arch-itecture seems to be going quite nicely, as these shocking images of Front Street's Girard Warehouses suggest. With the north corner of Front and Chestnut Streets having been just transformed into a smooth asphalt parking lot by the Spear brothers, it looks like the next logical place for the wrecking ball will be the long, handsome facade of the Girard Warehouses, the row of early 19th Century buildings that Stephen Girard built between Market and Arch Streets.
Talk about a domino effect. It was only June when the Spears, who own a collection of apartment buildings and parking lots, succeeded in manipulating city building code officials into letting them level two historically certified buildings that had defined the Front Street intersection of Chestnut since the 1830s. Now the virus of destruction is spreading uptown.
Officials at the city Historical Commission first became concerned in May, when the Brooklyn company that was supposed to be turning the Girard Warehouses into condos began tearing wildly at the facade. BRP Development ripped out the historic wooden frames, and then sheared off the rear of the building - apparently without a building permit! Commission staffers
got involved in the spring, but then all work stopped. The warehouses have been sitting in this condition ever since, waiting for winter to deal the final death blow.
And now - surprise, surprise - the owner, Tom Stafford is quietly talking to city planning officials about abandoning the approved renovation project. He wants to demolish the historic structures and erect a brand new condo tower. If the city agrees to that, it may as well write out a death certificate for its historic preservation law. Both Plan Philly and Skyline Online are concerned that the buildings could collapse any minute.

Over and over, we've seen developers buy fragile historic buildings, only to let them fall to pieces and then claim they have no choice but demolition. The only way for the city to stop that scam is to just say no: If you don't want the head-aches and expense of renovating a certified historic building, then don't buy it. Interestingly, in the same time that BRP and Stafford have been picking at the poor Girard warehouses, their neighbor to the north has successfully completed a beautiful renovation and filled the old historic building with tenants. So, it can be done, so long as you're not too greedy.
Front Street, as I wrote in this February post, was, until the start of 1993, a glorious, intact edge of the city, a living reminder of what Philadelphia was like in its maritime heyday, when clipper ships jostled for space among the wharves. But then Ed Rendell made his middle-of-the-night decision to allow the Bookbinders restaurant to demolish the Elisha Webb Chandelry at Front and Walnut. Within two years that entire block had been razed. And most of it is still empty today. If the Girard warehouses go, Philadelphia will have lost nearly four blocks of Front Street, the original Center City portion.
The waterfront activity is the reason that Stephen Girard built his series of warehouses and shops on Front Street. The ground floors were leased out to shopowners, while shipping merchants rented storage space and counting houses on the upper levels. The business had all but dried up by the time the city's port moved to South Philly in the 1960s. The old warehouses sat abandoned and forlorn for 30 years until people started to figure out that they were tailor-made for a loft living.
It's been frustrating watching the Girard Warehouses grow more decrepit while so much else in Old City has been spectacularly renovated. The buildings' bad luck was to have I-95 in its front yard. But at least the buildings managed to survive the imposition of that highway barrier. Now, ironically, that interstate road no longer seems to be such a deterrent to residential development. Several towers have been completed on Front Street. How ironic if these poor warehouses should be done in, not by the loss of the port or a massive highway, but by the overly grandiose expectations of a residential revival.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

RIP: Herbert Muschamp

Herbert Muschamp, the former New York Times architecture critic who died yesterday at the way-too-early age of 59, was brilliant and bizarre in equal measure. He loved the wonderful chaos of cities, but could care less what buildings did to their fragile human balance. He wrote a riveting, 6,000-word personal history of his experiences with Edward Durell Stone's 2 Columbus Circle (see my post), yet refused to advocate for the preservation of its facade; indeed, he opposed the whole idea of preservation on the grounds that it was a form of urban calcification. Muschamp was given to the kind of extreme pronouncements that make you involuntarily spit your morning coffee all over the newspaper, and yet there was no contemporary critic in any speciality who could fuse disparate ideas into such a fireworks of blazing insight.

Muchamp, a Philadelphia native who attended Chestnut Hill Academy and, briefly, the University of Pennsylvania, lived an amazing life. He was present at the ICA on the famous day in 1965 when Andy Warhol's first museum show opened and the artist was besieged by a wild crowd. He later became a friend of Warhol' and a denizen of the Factory, his famous art commune. Julie Iovine, who worked as Muschamp's editor at the New York Times, gives a good account of his over sized personality in the Architects Newspaper, and Verlyn Klinkenborg makes a stab at describing what made his work so intellectually thrilling, even when he was dead wrong.

In honor of this great critic, here's a teensy sampling of the most over-the-top, infuriating, certifiably mad Muschampian statements:

-On 2 Columbus Circle: "No other building more fully embodied the emerging value of queerness in the New York of its day."
-On perfume bottles and urban skylines: "Few new buildings, tall or short, match the aesthetic appeal of the flacons, vials and jars that crowd the perfume and cosmetics counters at department stores and duty-free shops all over the world. They are my favorite skyline."
-On Daniel Libeskind's proposal for Ground Zero:
From September 2002: It "attains a perfect balance"
From February 2003:, “Daniel Libeskind's project for the World Trade Center site is... a war memorial to a looming conflict that has scarcely begun.”
-On the Kimmel Center: "Rafael Viñoly's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is precise, luminous architecture for lovers of rich, cultivated sound