Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Amnesia Sweeps Society Hill

I suspect that if someone from Burkina Faso or Lapland happened to read Harry K. Schwartz' letter to the editor in today's Inquirer, they might assume that Society Hill was some kind of village of small houses. He writes to take issue with last week's column , in which I conclude that Stamper Square's carefully modulated massing won't destroy the neighborhood. Indeed, I believe there is a good chance that the plan for a luxury hotel, a park that continues the beloved St. Peter's Way path, and outdoor cafe might boost the neighborhood's elegant ambiance.
Yet, residents are so fixated on the height of the project's 15-story, asymmetrical towers - which top out at 166 feet - that their memory banks seems to have been wiped out.
They've con- veniently forgotten about the presence of three 31-story skyscrapers by I.M. Pei just up the block, which are probably twice as tall as the proposed replacement for the NewMarket. (I shamelessly stole the photograph here from Brad Maule, who has a good analysis at PhillySkyline.) They've also forgotten about the rather bulky Abbott's Square, right across the street from the NewMarket site. Harry seems to have completely blocked out that his Society Hill Civic Association allowed in the 1970s-80s the construction of two 25-story towers at Independence Place, which, of course, are located across the street from the 35-story Hopkinson House! And wasn't it just a couple of years ago that Society Hill Civic approved Will Smith's 112-foot W Hotel without any of the sturm and drang we're seeing today. Hardly an unsullied low-rise enclave.

Society Hill-ians, who will vote tonight on the project, are immensely proud of Society Hill Towers, which jump-started the neighborhood's landmark revival, and frequently point to that design as a model. While the project is certainly important historically, it's hard to overlook the designs serious urban flaws. For starters, there is the towers-in-a-park layout and the separation from the street grid - two mistakes that should not be repeated in Philadelphia. One of the very good things about the layout and massing of Stamper Square is that it connects with the grid in multiple urban ways. It also pushes those two, now modest, mid-rise towers to the far edge of the site, so they hardly interfere with the blocks of low-rise townhouses. They will overlook the broad openness of Front Street, with I-95 and the Delaware River in the distance.

In arriving at this massing and layout, the architects at H2L2 have essentially articulated some useful, basic rules for siting tall buildings in Philadelphia:

1) Bring the buildings to the street line

2) But make sure the massing responds to the urban context on the edges

3) Place tall structure on big streets, facing parks or other broad expanses

4) You can never be too rich or too skinny. Tall, skinny towers are usually better than short fat ones. Rich articulation beats large, under-detailed expanse.

5) Include public open space, but avoid anti-urban setbacks from the street line.

I'm sure there are other rules that could be added to the list, and I'd love to hear suggestions.

Monday, February 25, 2008

It's Not 'Goodbye Broad Street' for Inky

Patriot Equities may not have fully sewn up the deal to buy the Inquirer Building, as Publisher Brian Tierney says in today's Daily News, but I'd wager a year's subscription to the Inquirer (what can I say, I'm partisan) that the building's two newsrooms aren't going to be packing up and leaving anytime soon. Philadelphia Media Holdings, which bought the Inquirer and Daily News in 2006, put the landmark white tower on the block last August. While no official price was disclosed, developers said the original number was upwards of $60 million.

It's not clear how much Patriot, a Wayne company that was assembled by alumni from Mike O'Neill's Preferred Real Estate, is offering now, but many suspect the sale price will be much less. The big question now is what will Patriot do for PMH. We know that Patriot specializes in lease-back deals. For all Tierney's broad hints about being courted by New Jersey Gov. Corzine for a a high-profile spot on the Camden waterfront, one suspects the talks are nothing more than a strategic flirtation. Why else would architects from H2L2 be prowling the newsroom here all last week, with clipboards and blueprints in hand? They're getting ready to renovate.

They most likely scenario is that Patriot will buy the 1924 neo-classical tower, along with the former printing building, adjacent parking garage and surface lot - and then lease a good part of it right back to PMH. Tierney and Co. get a much-needed cash infusion for PMH, and Patriot gets a ready-made tenant.
It's very clever on Patriot's part: It buys the historic and symbolically charged Inquirer property at a rock-bottom price, then waits until the market comes back. By then Bart Blatstein will have packed the State Office Buildings with apartments and shops. David Grasso will have completed his Whole Foods complex at 16th and Vine. And the Inquirer's parking lot site - right next to the Vine Street interchange - will be in position to attract big box retail and maybe even an office tower.

In the meantime, the Inquirer and Daily News newsrooms stay exactly where they are, but Patriot remodels our archaic offices so they no longer look like a set from The Front Page. I've even heard talk that Patriot intends to put a Starbucks-like cafe in that fabulous, but wasted, ground-floor space on Broad Street, where you used to be able to watch the presses run. Oh let it be so!

But as a battle-scarred veteran of the old-media biz, I know that our working conditions may occasionally change, but never actually get any better. Most likely, PMH is going to lease-back only the lower five floors,
with their immense and problematic floorplates. The vast, open-plan spaces are perfect for an old-style newsroom, but not much else. Patriot will then be able rent the more manageable tower as offices to boutique clients.

If that happens, Patriot and PMH will have to consolidate the thousand or so employees now in the building into the lower five. Some employees may go to PMH's printing plant in Conshocken, but I suspect it's going to get more crowded in here. Patriot and PMH may even decide insert an extra floor into the Inquirer's glorious double-height newsroom to fit everyone Wouldn't you know it - just when I've finally assembled a nice little cubicle empire from the empty desks!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pa. Convention Center Approval Revoked

It's pretty clear that Pennsylvania officials didn't bargain on a public fuss when they decided unilaterally to tear down the two protected Broad Street buildings that were supposed to be part of the expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center. Nor, I suspect, did they expect any trouble from one of Philadelphia's more obscure agencies, The Philadelphia Art Commission.

But now the project's architects have some explaining to do.

The art commission wants to see the revised design for the facade - sans the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. headquarters - before it will allow the $700 million mega-project to receive a building permit. That's sort like having your dam project derailed by a snail darter.

The art commission, which is charged with reviewing designs for all publically funded buildings, approved the center's new Broad Street facade in February 2007. But once the state Department of General Services edited out the two historic buildings, the commission felt the facade design had been radically altered. The two masonry buildings, including Romaldo Giurgola's landmark 1962 addition, were supposed to anchor the southern end of the airport-modern facade.

What will take their place? Will the glass curtain wall be drawn across the ugly gap? Will the gap be converted into a pocket park, as the Convention Center's Al Mezzaroba promised? Will the space be left as a refuge for the homeless? No one knows. And that's why the art commission is asking to review the new design, said director William J. Burke Jr.

Burke sent a letter dated Feb. 11 to Vitetta's Richard Holland, who is responsible for that part of the design. There's been no response yet. The earliest that Vitetta can show the revised facade to the art commission is at March 5 meeting.

But that would presume that someone has actually produced design drawings to fill in the gap.

Until that happens, no art commission approval, no building permit - and no new convention center.