Monday, August 25, 2008

Stamper Square: Where's the Cafe?

There is much to admire about H2L2's design for Stamper Square - which is no doubt the reason the Nutter Admin-istration was so decisive in backing the project for the failed NewMarket site. But surely one of the most appealing elements is the proposal to add a new leg to Society Hill's historic greenway. The winding pathway would meander along the north side of the hotel-and-condo project, gently conveying the city's boulevardiers between Second and Front Streets and, rewarding them en route with a charming, tucked-away outdoor cafe. (Look closely at the indentation in the rendering)

So why, we must ask, was all evidence of the cafe erased like a photo of Joe Stalin from the drawings that received final approval from the Planning Commission last week?

For the answer, you have to go to Joe Jacovini, one of Philadelphia's most powerful lawyers. Besides his day job as chairman of the well known firm Dilworth Paxson (where he was Vince Fumo's boss), Jacovini is also a long-time Pine Street resident, whose double-wide, townhouse garden backs onto the New Market weedy and forlorn lot (see photo by PhillySkyline's Brad Maule).

Unlike some Society Hill residents, Jacovini did not oppose redevel-opment of the old NewMarket site. But he strenuously objected to the presence of a cafe behind his house - so strenuously that developer Marc Stein ultimately figured it was preferable to cut his losses and to scratch the amenity from the project, rendering Stamper Square's design much less interesting. Obviously, someone like Jacovini has the legal wherewithal to tie up the project in court for the next century or so. But Stein's pragmatic concession strikes me as an extreme response.

Alan Greenberger, the planning commission's vice chairman, and soon-to-be executive director, was taken aback to learn that Stein had actually promised Jacovini a deed restriction that would bar an outdoor cafe on the Stamper Square site forever and ever. Recognizing that outdoor cafes have almost single-handedly energized Center City's once sleepy streets, Greenberger and the commission refused to sanction the deed restriction. But they did acknowledge that Stein was free to work out a private - and presumably more temporal - agreement with Jacovini. Still they're appalled by the outcome. "It's a terrible way to do this," conceeds Greenberger.

It's more than terrible, actually. It's dumb. Jacovini is afraid that the cafe, which would be located 115 feet from his garden wall, will create a never ending din that will make it impossible for him to enjoy his garden. He also told me during a very pleasant telephone conversation that he's even more worried about the security issue once there is a public walkway open 24/7 right behind his six-foot-high garden wall.

These are very real and legitimate concerns, as anyone who lives in a Philadelphia rowhouse knows. But deleting the cafe from the plans isn't the answer. Good design is the answer. And I suspect H2L2 would have no trouble drawing a solution.

Incidentally, if security is Jacovini's main worry, he'd be a lot better off having a patio full of chattering people with a good view of that walkway. While the proposed Starwoods Hotel will certainly have plenty of electronic cameras monitoring its perimeter, nothing beats Jane Jacobs' classic eyes-on-the-street security.

As for the potential of noise traveling 115 feet - okay, it's possible. But noise can easily be buffered by building a higher wall. Under the city's code, garden walls can't be any taller than six feet. But I suspect the city would enthusiastically endorse a variance in exchange for allowing the cafe. A higher wall that is impossible to scale would also solve the security issue. Jacovini has good reason to be extra cautious; he lived through the rise and fall of NewMarket, and watched the original tony complex decline into a low-rent joint. Starwoods may promise to be a first-class neighbor, but who knows what kind of owner might replace it in the future.

Jacovini told me he might soften on the cafe idea if Stamper's wall were 30-feet - the height of NewMarket's old north facade. That's a little excessive, if you ask me. He could probably get excellent results with a wall that's 12 to 15 feet high. But if the man wants 30 feet - give him 30 feet. As Robert Frost observed many men are convinced that, "Good fences make good neighbors."

So, build the wall. And let the rest of us enjoy our coffee.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jacovini is an ass - I'd never hire him for anything now.

5:19 PM  
Blogger MikeS said...

Welcome to Philadelphia, where good design is typically trumped by who's who! On the other hand, if David Auspitz was still presiding over the ZBA, nothing would ever be built on that site!

6:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing that ONE man can stop a small cafe...but entire neighborhoods cannot stop casinos bringing 40-60K cars/day and 24/7 free booze into their backyards. Only in Philly. Go figure.

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is typical Philly. As a "city of homes" unlike Manhattan, people tend to defend not only their own turf but also a perimeter around it as if they were living in Chester County. Part of what prevents Philly from being a great city is that any ambition it has is always being compromised because of the suburban mentality of many of its people. Is this a city or not? Part of what causes these same NIMBYs to live/stay in the city is the vitality. However, they seem to only tolerate vitality if it isn't within a set perimeter around where they live. They must realize that, collectively, their actions are undermining the very vitality they crave. However, be it selfishness or lack of civic pride, they don't care.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unreal, but this is so typical Philadelphia. You live in a city, dude. If someone is coming to get you, I don't think a wall of any particular height is going to stop them. Better yet, move to Chester County.

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

beautiful Inga, beautiful! thanks for bringing this to light!

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jacovini go back to the suburbs were you most likely came from... When you buy a property next to a vacant lot, someone developing it is what you eventually get. Jacovini should be happy that this will bring value to his property. It will bring value to the neighborhood as a whole. This project with all of its open space needs to have people that don't live there to utilize it. DOES JACOVINI REALIZE HOW THE SUN WORKS AND IF HE WANTS A 30' FENCE NEXT TO HIS PRIZED GARDEN IT WILL BE IN SHADE MOST OF THE DAY..?

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it that every urban project requires a cafe? I love cafes, but how many can our population support? I suspect a quaint tucked away cafe will suffer the same fate as tge original New Market concept... nobody will go inside and it will close. There are way too many restaurants on South St., a couple on Lombard, several on Headhouse Square, etc. We don't need another one.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hotels and condo development in the next 4 years will be a joke. no demand, no money, no project. what has Mr. Stein ever built before?

1:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unreal that one person can impose his will like that. You purchase a house next to a 1.5 acre vacant lot, and then think you can control the site. This is the kind of behavior that keeps this city down. A cafe in an open green area would be a welcome addition to Olde City. Everyone wants progress at everyone elses expense. Pure selfishness.

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a longtime neighbor of Jacovini please let me share with the quick-to-judge and uninformed: NO ONE has worked more tirelessly for the block & the neighborhood (and the citizens themselves) than Joseph Jacovini. I am a proponent of contemporary architecture and it must be noted that without Jacovini’s participation over the years there would probably be horrific buildings standing on that site right now. Previous proposals were awful- Jacovini was one of few who fought against hideous post-modern (to be polite) brick (they said to be “contextual”) high-rises (translation: can you say “symphony house on second street”??). Developers are sly and without our good legal counsel these monstrosities would be a reality.
For the record Jacovini is born & bred Philadelphian (unlike many of the hipsters that I think replied to this blog) and I would suggest that it is his selflessness that, in fact, has preserved our block from ruin. Go, Joe, go!!

8:07 PM  

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