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Why rejecting the Sixers’ arena is a grownup moment for Philadelphia | Inga Saffron

Philadelphia trusted the planning process, and it finally got the plan that Penn's Landing deserves.

Because they would be constructed on a platform, the towers proposed by the Durst Organization would have their ground floors at the same level as the new park.
Because they would be constructed on a platform, the towers proposed by the Durst Organization would have their ground floors at the same level as the new park.Read moreDurst Organizartion

It’s too soon to say whether Philadelphia can overcome the curse of Penn’s Landing and create a real neighborhood on that glorified sandbar at the foot of Market Street. But after almost 50 years of trying, the city’s waterfront manager has finally succeeded in picking a developer for the Delaware River site without anyone being indicted or sent to jail.

Unlike the half-dozen competitions that preceded it, the process that concluded Wednesday with the selection of a New York developer was deliberative and driven by clear policy goals. That high-minded approach paid off, just not in the usual Philadelphia way. All four proposals submitted to the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. were well done — even the one from the 76ers — and the winning entry from the Durst Organization stood out.

Durst was the only applicant to include architects of international stature on its team, the only one to bother crafting a proposal that didn’t demand hunks of public subsidies, the only one to think rationally about current market conditions. In choosing Durst, and in resisting the siren call of the 76ers and their politically influential minions, the city and DRWC demonstrated a true grownup moment.

For some, the images that accompany the Durst proposal may recall earlier plans for Penn’s Landing. The renderings produced by its three architects — Pelli Clarke Pelli, Bjarke Ingels Group, and Hargreaves Jones — show a parade of 12 shimmering towers arrayed along the Delaware, starting with a 703-foot flagship skyscraper at Market, and stepping down to a troupe of six mid-rise buildings clustered on the south side of Spruce Harbor Park. Durst’s proposal calls for 2,400 apartments and a 225-room hotel to be constructed over nine years. That’s a huge amount of density when it’s not clear how COVID-19 will disrupt Philadelphia’s recent economic revival.

What makes this ambitious scheme different is that it adheres to the DRWC’s master plan guidelines. Durst didn’t jam its buildings onto the 11 available acres — as the earlier proposals did — but carefully spaced them to maintain views of the river from Center City. Large sections of the two parcels are set aside for a public esplanade and pocket parks. Parking is thoughtfully handled, and there is no mega-attraction walling off the river, in the manner of the Sixers' proposed arena. The second-best proposal, from Hoffman & Associates, would have given us a dense collection of D.C.-style blocky mid-rises. What the Durst renderings resemble more than anything else is a 21st century version of New York’s Battery Park City. For this site, I’ll gladly take Manhattan and the extra public space it offers.

Much has been made of the fact that Durst did not request public subsidies, other than the city’s existing property tax abatement. It would not be accurate, however, to claim that no public money has gone into this project.

Since the DRWC completed the waterfront master plan in 2011, the agency has systematically invested state, city and foundation cash into the area north and south of Penn’s Landing. Most of the money went to parks, public spaces, and bike trails, although a portion was used to prepare Festival Pier for an apartment development. At the same time, DRWC rebranded the waterfront by introducing affordable attractions like beer gardens, food trucks, ice skating, and a Ferris wheel, establishing Penn’s Landing as a people’s park. It is now gearing up to start construction on a $225 million park that was designed to provide a seamless pedestrian connection between Front Street and the river.

The lesson here is that cities have to take responsibility for building infrastructure if they expect to exert public control over private development. The city would never have succeeded in getting a proposal like Durst’s if it hadn’t first established a physical framework that values public access to the river. A big reason that a tabula rasa project like Battery Park City feels so integrated into the city is that New York’s government similarly installed all the infrastructure first. All the previous failures at Penn’s Landing can be traced to the lack of infrastructure and urban planning.

The saga of Penn’s Landing goes back to 1976, when the city used the earth removed from I-95′s construction to extend its shoreline between Market and Spruce Streets. Things got off to a bad start. A massive development proposed by Willard Rouse III, founder of Liberty Property Trust, was derailed after a city councilmember was caught on tape asking for $1 million to sponsor a zoning variance. Then, in 2005, after a series of failed competitions, an adviser to Mayor John F. Street was convicted of shaking down developers for campaign contributions. The Street administration had launched that competition without bothering to prepare a master plan or hold any serious public meetings.

Still, all the thought and money that got us to this point don’t necessarily guarantee that the Durst plan will succeed. The DRWC must now negotiate a formal contract with the company. It needs to include clear performance benchmarks, as well as meaningful penalties for failing to meet them.

In an interview, Douglas Durst, the company’s patriarch, told me that it will be several years before the company puts a shovel in the marshy Penn’s Landing ground. We don’t know when the economy will bounce back from COVID-19, he said, and “no one wants to start building in a recession.”

But while it may take time, he promises the full proposal will eventually be realized. The Durst Organization, he said, “has been around 105 years. We’ve seen times when things were very bad. They always come back, so we’re confident.” Unlike the other three applicants, Durst is a developer that retains ownership of all its buildings after completion, rather than selling them to apartment management companies. Companies that “hold” their buildings, to use the real estate phrase, tend to have longer timelines and invest more in quality architecture.

The first part of the Durst project to be built will be its least glamorous element. Because of climate change and the flooding it will cause on the Delaware, Durst will have to construct a two-story platform on the northern portion of the site, between Market and the new park. Since the Penn’s Landing esplanade is over 30 feet below the level of Front Street, the platform will also help to make Durst’s towers feel connected to Center City. The platform will also ensure that the entrances to the towers are at the same level as the park.

The current architect for the six northern buildings, Pelli Clarke Pelli, is the same firm that created the lineup of blue-glass towers on the Schuylkill. While all are pretty good designs, there is reason to be concerned that the architects will repeat themselves on the Delaware, making Penn’s Landing feel generic. Glass facades are also deadly for the birds that migrate along our rivers. Durst told me that the buildings shown in the renderings are a long way from being real designs and that no decision has been made yet on the facades.

What has already been determined is the layout of the buildings and pathways that run through them. A pedestrian-friendly public street called Penn’s Landing Road will divide the northern parcel in half. Durst expects to start work first on the three towers closest to Columbus Boulevard. All the parking will be tucked below the platform, so that the surface at Penn’s Landing will be largely car-free. Durst’s plan includes space for restaurants, a supermarket, and even a preschool at the platform level of the towers.

Depending on the strength of the market, Durst said, the company may start construction on the mid-rises at the same time it is building the first three towers. That ensemble was designed by Bjarke Ingels, the New York-based Danish architect who was responsible for the Navy Yard’s most interesting new building, a four-story office block called 1200 Intrepid Ave. Ingels is known for his whimsical, sometimes overly clever, designs. The unusual curving facade of the Navy Yard building crests upward, like a crashing wave. At Penn’s Landing, he uses a dramatic watermelon-shape curve to define the roof line of the six mid-rises and maintain views of the river. While Ingels is good at creating compelling forms, like the sailboat-shaped Via 57 West apartments he designed for Durst in Manhattan, you wish the construction quality was better.

Durst’s calling card is its commitment to sustainability. Because it intends to retain ownership at Penn’s Landing, it has promised to build a single, energy-efficient heating and cooling plant to serve all the buildings. It has also promised to offer a minority-owned firm a 20% ownership stake in the development, and to hire a third-party compliance company to make sure it meets the city’s minority hiring requirements.

After news leaked earlier this month that the Sixers were competing to develop Penn’s Landing, their catchphrase “Trust the Process” became a source of derision on social media. It’s true that trusting the process didn’t work out so well for Philadelphia’s basketball team. But the public planning process is just what Philadelphia needed to turn around the fortunes of Penn’s Landing.