A great public space like the Schuylkill River Park deserves an exceptional building as a neighbor. So far, developer Carl Dranoff's proposal for One Riverside isn't it.
That doesn't mean the 21-story apartment tower designed by Cecil Baker + Partners can't evolve into something worthy of the popular riverfront park that surrounds the site. But it's going to take work - and not just by the development team. The neighborhood has to pitch in, too.
The wailing and keening that greeted last week's presentation to the Center City Residents Association wasn't the kind of constructive help that this project needs. "It will literally cast a shadow over all that is good," one speaker declared. By the end, you could be forgiven for expecting the tower to unleash a nuclear winter. On Tuesday, the CCRA's board voted to fight the project.
If Dranoff, the developer of Symphony House and 777, were seeking a zoning variance to build the riverfront tower, such take-no-prisoners opposition might be reasonable. Ideally, the triangular blip of land on 25th Street - now a surface lot - should have been acquired years ago by the city for the park. But the site is zoned for high-rise buildings, and has been since 1975. The odds of stopping the 167-unit development appear slim.
Still, there are legitimate concerns about this sensitive site, just a few feet from the Locust Street entrance to the Schuylkill trail. Although high-rises dot the length of the trail, none is as deeply embedded in the park as this would be. The tower's 144-foot south wall would loom oppressively over the community garden, a manicured oasis that is a popular and romantic place to stroll. (I know because I have a plot there.)
The tower won't actually cast shadows on the garden (despite all the doomsday forecasts) since it sits north of the garden, out of the arc of the rising and setting sun. Yet the high-rise's presence can't help but change the character of a park visited by a million people a year.
So what to do?
Before answering that question, it's worth pointing out that community groups around the city have tried for years to get developers to play by the rules of zoning. That was a motive for the recent overhaul of the zoning code, which sought to clarify the process. You can't expect developers to follow the new standard if neighborhood groups expect to bend those rules to their self-interest.
What's more, the CCRA was an enabler of Dranoff's current project. According to its president, Jeff Braff, the group agreed in 2010 to lift a restrictive covenant forcing Dranoff to use the site as dedicated parking for his rental building across the street, Locust on the Park. It became just an ordinary public parking lot, which opened it up for development.
Fortunately, the new code requires Dranoff to submit the tower project to the Planning Commission's Civic Design committee for review. Scheduled for Sept. 3, the hearing is a chance to make the tower a better neighbor. Even though the CCRA voted to oppose the project, Braff says the group is still open to negotiations.
Here are six suggestions for doing just that:
1. Reduce the square footage from 167,000 to 150,000. Why? One of the worst things about the design is the plan for three curb cuts along 25th Street: two loading docks and one garage entrance. Blame the new code, which requires a second loading dock for buildings of more than 150,000 square feet.
This is not as arbitrary as it sounds. The zoning only allows a 140,000-square-foot building on the site, but Dranoff is hoping for the extra space as a bonus for locating one level of parking below ground. It's crazy that such modest public benefit should beget the significant public nuisance of a second loading dock. A bonus of 10,000 seems fair. By cutting the square footage, he would also reduce the tower's bulk.
2. Combine the two remaining curb cuts into one. To do this, the garage height would need to be raised to 14 feet to accommodate trucks. Since throngs of people walk, jog, and bike along 25th Street to the trail's Locust Street entrance, having just one driveway will minimize conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles.
3. Shift this combined garage-and-truck entrance away from the garden. Then move the lobby to face the garden. Why waste an opportunity to have tenants enter through a beautiful green space? Imagine the lobby as a gossamer, glass portal.
4. Move the tower north to minimize its impact on the park. Since the triangular site tapers to a point, the shift would mean shrinking the tower's footprint. That's not a bad thing. Right now, the floorplate is 9,000 square feet, twice the size of 1706 Rittenhouse, a model of what a slim, chic, residential tower should be. To recover the lost square footage, Dranoff could make the tower slightly taller.
There's another argument for increasing the distance between the tower and the park. If you look at cities that have lined their waterfronts with urbane towers, the buildings are always separated from the waterside path by a street. That helps delineate what's public and what's private.
A buffer between the park and the tower would serve the same function. Think of it as a green street. It's true that some tenants in Dranoff's Locust on the Park would lose their views of the river, but the public gains.
5. Activate 25th Street. Dranoff's garage will create a long blank wall along this heavily used residential street. He has hired landscape architects at Olin to pretty things up with vines, but don't believe for a minute that the strategy will be effective. Ten years after Olin planted vines to camouflage the subpar architecture on Independence Mall, they still haven't grown in. Ditto for the vines at the Barnes Foundation. Architectural problems should be solved with architectural solutions.
Because the garage is in a flood plain, Dranoff says he can't include retail on the ground floor of the garage to liven up the street frontage. Here's an alternative: Devote the strip along 25th Street to public bicycle parking, with a glass shop wall. Such bike stations are springing up in cities around the country. Is there a more perfect spot in Philadelphia than next to the trail entrance?
6. Use zinc panels on the tower's south and west walls. At the CCRA presentation, architect Cecil Baker promised to use metal cladding on the south side to minimize glare. The west side is equally important since it receives the harsh afternoon sun. Zinc is the best choice of metals because it has a matte finish and is as natural as brick or stone.
Admittedly, these suggestions don't address the issue that most outraged speakers at the CCRA meeting: parking. They argued that a 167-unit building is too dense and will make it harder to park in the neighborhood.
Sadly, density remains a dirty word in Philadelphia. But it's the high concentration of people in the neighborhood that made Schuylkill River park possible in the first place. Who's opposed to that?