Monday, March 24, 2008

Skyscraper Height No Object?

When its exterior was completed last year, the 975-foot-tall Comcast Tower ended One Liberty Place's 20-year run as Philadelphia's tallest building. It seems unlikely that Comcast will be able to hold onto the city's height record for quite so long. Even as Comcast puts the finishing touches on its plaza and underground concourse, a group of developers is proposing an even taller tower - the 1,500-foot American Commerce Center. While it's a long-shot of a project - as I wrote in a story that ran Saturday - it signals that Philadelphia is entering the age of super-tall towers.

The project is being shopped around by Joseph Grasso's and Garrett Miller's Walnut Street Capital, which spent $30 million on the site. Some handicappers suspect they are in way over their heads. Unlike Liberty Property Trust and Brandywine, which are the only companies to actually build new offices in Philly in the past two decades, Walnut Street Capital has never put a shovel in the ground. Their ambitions for the American Commerce Center are very grand, considering. First there is a 1,200-foot office tower (topped by a 300-foot spire) that would include 1.3 million square feet of office space (same as Comcast). But there is also supposed be a second, 477-tall cubular donut that would house 300,000 square of retail in a five-level base and a hotel, located in the southern leg of that open rhomboid you see in the rendering. The architects, Kohn Pedersen Fox, of New York, envision three different plazas, which would host various cafes, a movie theater complex and the hotel ballrooms The dense array of activities could, theoretically, be a smaller Philly version of the shops at Time Warner's building. There's even space set aside for an upscale supermarket in the lower level, just like Time Warner's Whole Foods space.

The architects have done some clever things with the design, like hollowing out the lower structure to preserve some views for the Stirling on JFK Boulevard. The top level of the open rhomboid would have gardens and meeting rooms that can do double-duty as both a conference center for the office tenants and ballrooms for the hotel.

But it would be nice if KPF designers Eugene Kohn and William C. Louie had worked out the architecture beyond this schematic form. You would think they'd be a little embarrassed at stealing the idea for the crown from Daniel Libeskind's original pass at the Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan (see image below). And while the architects say they haven't begun to work on the details of the facade, it's disheartening to see their starting point is the same bluish glass used at Le Petite Cira and half the new office buildings in New York. KPF, which designed cool, angular One Logan Square and the far-less-cool, Post-Modernist Two Logan , as well as the Mellon Bank Center, does seem to have a good recent track record of manipulating glass curtain walls to give them depth and shadow. Of course, most of their recent clients have been in places flush with money, like Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. We haven't seen any Philly developers willing to spend money on the detailing necessary to make a glass facade more than a vertical ice rink.

My greatest concern, however, is the boxy mass of the tower. It appears to slam down hard on the ground at the corner of 19th and Arch Streets with no set backs and no grace notes. If you've walked around to the back side of the Comcast Tower, then you known how these sheer glass skyscrapers walls can easily become an urban cliff. Given that Ron Caplan, et al, are assembling land for yet another tower immediately to the west, on Arch Street between 19th and 20th, Philadelphia needs to plan now to avoid building a forbidding palisades of skyscraper walls. See my Friday column for more on that subject.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Architect as Provocateur

In today's Changing Skyline column,I take a look at the provocative poet-artist-architect Vito Acconci, whose work explores how our built spaces dictate our actions and feelings. Acconci, hasn't built very much. But he does have one existing project here, a sculpture at Philadelphia Airport's Terminal C (pictured below). The piece riffs on Acconci's interest in creating continuous movement from level to level, sort of like what UN Studio did at the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart. Acconci had an even more ambitious proposal for Philadelphia that would have taken those ideas a step further. He was commissioned by SETPA in the '90s to design the public art piece for the lightwell at 16th Street and JFK Boulevard. His design envisioned a vine-shrouded igloo (Think 34th Street Bells) over a spiraling walkway that brought you down to the concourse level. Only problem was the cost was about ten times the measly $350,000 budget. So that project never went anywhere. Septa instead commissioned artists Barbara Grygutis. Working with that budget, she came up with a kind of dwarf sculpture. Her group of illuminated leaves aren't so bad, but it seems dumb that they barely crest over street level.They just beg to be taller so we can see them as walk along the street. The image here, of course, shows them to their best advantage.

You can learn more about Acconci from the exhibit at the Slought Foundation gallery, which conveniently recorded the lecture he gave Feb. 15 at the University of Pennsylvania.

Preservation Postscript No. 2

During the arduous fight last fall and winter to save the Phila-delphia Life Insurance Co. buildings on Broad Street, state officials from the Department of General Services insisted - actually, they swore in a court of law - that the entire $700 million convention center expansion would be in financial jeopardy unless the state was allowed to tear down the two protected buildings. Failure to get rid of these historic nuisances, they claimed, would add $2.25 million a month to the already exorbitantly expensive project. Worse, the convention center might fail to open in time for several pre-booked conventions in 2011. So, DGS got its way. It tore down the buildings in January.

But guess what? As Dave Davies reports in today's Daily News, the convention center still hasn't gotten around to seeking construction bids. I suspect that foot-dragging will cost the project a whole lot more than two innocent historic buildings. Based on convention center own numbers, the cost is now up to $702.25 million.

It's interesting how all the problems with the convention center construction began when the Rendell Administration fired the convention center's long-time project manger, Perks Reutter Associates, and handed the project to DGS. At this point, as I reported in the Feb. 20 post below, the convention center doesn't even have facade approval from the city Art Commission.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Preservation Postscript

A charming historic building goes down in Philadelphia - as the poor Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. headquarters did last month - and eventually someone in Harrisburg hears about it. In this case, it was Sen. Gib Armstrong (R-Lancaster), the chair of the budget committee.

During a routine budget hearing, Armstrong took the opportunity to question the head of the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, Barbara Franco ,about why her agency sat on the sidelines while the Department of General Services carried out a classic bait and switch. You can watch the filmed testimony and hear it all for yourself. (Armstrong raises the issue in the first five minutes, so you don't have to stay for the whole hour.)

In case you've forgotten the sorry tale, the state historical commission negotiated a landmark deal in 2004 with the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The center agreed to retain those two charming little buildings - including a famous addition by architect Romaldo Giurgola - in exchange for permission to demolish several more inconveniently located historic buildings. Only one problem: DGS, which is building the center, says it didn't make the deal. Ergo, it could do whatever it wanted. Which was to let the wrecking ball swing away.

Armstrong raises a very good question: Why doesn't the state historical commission have greater powers to enforce its rulings? It's time people in Harrisburg started looking for an answer.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Philly Buildings Make News

Philly's new buildings don't get much coverage these days in the national architectural press. We can only guess at the reasons. Is it because they so rarely break new architectural ground? Or is it because of Philadelphia 's preference for soft-spoken designs in an age of shouters? Certainly there have been several recent projects that deserved more exposure than they received: Penn's Skirkanich Hall by Tod Williams/Billie Tsien Architects, Bryn Mawr's Anthropology building by MGA Partners, Hancock Square by Erdy/McHenry Architects, and the Perelman addition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Gluckman Mayner Architects.

So, given the drought of media acknow-ledgement, last week's coverage amounted to a deluge In his critique of the Bilbao effect in Architectural Record, Martin Filler offers some understated praise for the understated Perelman addition, which fared badly in a December review in the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, this Sunday, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre by Kieran Timberlake received some major national exposure in New York Times' Arts and Leisure Section. Kieran Timberlake is one Philadelphia firm that hasn't suffered from a lack of publicity. Not only did their Loblolly House get featured in half a dozen glossy magazines (and Changing Skyline, natch), but they had heavy exposure for the prototype design they did for Brad Pitt's Make it Right New Orleans project and the upcoming survey show of Fab pre-fab houses at MoMA. Let's hope this recent attention to Philadelphia firms is evidence that sophistication is returning to the city's building design.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

How to Redesign SS Bridge

In an impassioned, 11th-hour effort aimed at convincing city officials to reconsider a harsh, automobile-oriented design for the new South Street Bridge, about 75 residents, planners and traffic engineers spent three hours on Saturday morning pouring over engineering drawings and satellite images. Like the recent brainstorming efforts for the Delaware Waterfront and the Kimmel Center, the design charrette helped clarify the community's values and identify some creative strategies for making the project better.
The sad part, of course, is that residents were acting in desperation. They were forced to hold the charrette now, just one month before the city Streets Department plans to bid the $54 million bridge project, because the Street Administration left the design of the city's the most important new bridge entirely in the hands of traffic engineers, without any thought about the role it plays as a neighborhood connector and symbolic urban gateway. Not surprisingly, the engineers came up with an interstate-style span that that will increase the psychological divide between Center City and the University of Pennsylvania area. Now they are claiming it's too late to change the design because the bridge is exfoliating concrete at a rapid rate and could become dangerous.

So, there isn't much time to reconfigure this bridge from an interstate speedway to a neighborhood gateway. But as organizer and planner Jim Campbell told the group, "If we do nothing now, nothing is going to be done. We can influence what choices are made." The charrette was a good first step, but Campbell and others conceded that the only hope for getting a better bridge now lies with Philadelphia's elected officials: Mayor Nutter, Council President Anna Verna, Sen. Vincent Fumo and Rep. Babette Josephs (who attended the Thursday night session). Ward Leader Marcia Wilkof urged participants to write letters encouraging them to show the kind of leadership that John Street failed to display. No doubt she's right, but I'm always amazed that Philadelphia officials still need to be nudged and cajoled into taking an interest in a major civic construction project as important as the South Street Bridge. As one of the most photographed perches in the entire city, this bridge will shape Philadelphia's public image for generations.

It was heartening that one of the Streets Department's most progressive engineers, Dave Perri, participated in Saturday's discussion, and was willing to offer both practical advice and a sympathetic ear. While he cautioned that "there isn't time to do a complete redesign" because of the bridge's poor condition, he said it is still possible to make some improvements to slow down traffic and increase the comfort zone for pedestrians and bicyclists on the new bridge.
Here are some of the most interesting ideas I heard from the break-out groups:
-Use crash barriers to separate the car lanes from bike lanes. That means engineers won't have to put an ugly crash-rated fence along the bridge's outside edge and can instead use a handsome decorative railing.
-Incorporate pedestrian lights into protective bollards that double as crash barriers.
-Add a traffic light on the east side of the bridge, where it intersects with the ramp from the Schuylkill River Park. That will slow traffic and make it easier for walkers and bikers to get to and from the park safely. It's almost hard to believe that, in the current design, you'll exit the park ramp directly into the whizzing bridge traffic.
-Eliminate the tin can look-outs and use the savings for sidewalk improve-ments. Several people said the design (see post below) looks like garage elevators.
-Reconsider the plan to demolish the beautiful arches leading the bridge on the east side. The city will not only save money and preserve a historic structure. Keeping the stone arches will retain the odd curve that forces motorists to slow down as they approach the bridge.
-Extend construction from 18 months to 24 months and eliminate excessive overtime costs. Use savings for pedestrian improvements.
-Write letters to politicians to let them know that the city residents value Schuyllkill river crossings that feel like a continuation of the city's streets - not a highway interloper.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Next Liberty Place?

Philly's developer-dreamers just don't quit. Trinity Capital Management, which took a 75-year lease on the Girard Estate block (Market, btwn 11th and 12th) in 2006 for $90 million, has come up with the outlines of a massive development scheme that would dwarf Liberty Place. It calls for three skyscapers, a massive, Marriott-sized convention hotel, a large mall - as well as a pedestrian arcade that would cut through all the way to Walnut Street.
The tallest skyscraper, proposed for 11th and Market Street, could be taller than the Comcast Tower under the existing zoning. Unfortunately, the developer is too eager to level the site, which includes some wonderful early, 19th century skyscrapers like the Stephen Girard building, pictured here. Read all about it in Friday's Changing Skyline.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Say Something About SS Bridge

No, the new South Street Bridge doesn't have to look like this - not if Philadelphians put pressure on city and PennDot officials to redesign the passage. Residents will get their chance to do just that starting tonight.
The South Street Bridge Coalition is holding a public design charrette at 6:30 p.m. at the Philadelphia School, 2501 Lombard Street, to outline the aesthetic and urban objectives for the new bridge. Then on Saturday, starting at 9 a.m., there will be a full-scale re-visioning of the bridge design. Wallace Roberts & Todd, the architecture and planning firm that played a big role in the PennPraxis waterfront study, will guide the discussion.
Even if the one-day event does yield useful design ideas, the public shouldn't expect miracles. Unfortunately, many of the most important aspects of this bridge were set by engineers years ago, with little input from city planners or residents. I've chronicled the process and its failings in columns over the years from 2001, 2007 , 2008 and in an August blog post.