Over the last eight years, urban planning has held a privileged place in the Nutter administration. His team has racked up a series of major accomplishments, from modernizing the city's outdated zoning code to producing a citywide master plan. But surely the gutsiest initiative, given Philadelphia's get-it-built-whatever-it-looks-like pragmatism, was the creation of a board to evaluate the urban design.
Called Civic Design Review, the board straddles the intersection of architecture, aesthetics, and public policy (much as this column does). Its job was never to be the style police, but rather a watchdog for urban values, so developers would build things that look like they belong in a city. No more lifeless ground floors, visible parking podiums, big driveways, and other urban scourges.
Turns out, change is hard. Though the planning process today is much improved, the result often looks little different than it did before Nutter took office. That became glaringly obvious at a single design review meeting in August when the board, which has only advisory powers, reluctantly sanctioned two projects that might have been airlifted in from a distant suburban township: Soko Lofts in South Kensington and a project for the Mount Sinai hospital site in South Philadelphia.
Although it's a challenge to build in an old city like Philadelphia, particularly on tight downtown sites, what makes the approval of these two projects so disheartening is that each of the developers has an entire block to work with. They're tabula rasa places where anything is possible.
Soko Lofts' 320 apartments are now planned for a cleared, three-acre block on American Street, just north of Girard Avenue. The Mount Sinai rowhouse development will occupy a similar three-acre block. It will replace that craggy, Deco-era acropolis - a beloved South Philadelphia landmark - with 95 rowhouses.
With so much space, you would think the developers could easily knit the new housing into Philadelphia's grid. Long-lost streets could be reestablished through the sites. The developers might even have found room for several affordable housing units and underground parking.
Instead, the developers treat their sites like suburban subdivisions. The connections to the surrounding neighborhoods are poor and grudgingly made, and both projects go heavy on the parking. Critics have accused the developers of building "gated" communities. Though that is not literally true, the projects are arranged so all the perks are inside the block.
What's remarkable is that the developers - the Klein Co. for Soko, Concordia Group for Mount Sinai - were enabled in their antiurban schemes by none other than City Council, which rubber-stamped bills changing the zoning of the two sites. Those bills were pure giveaways with no planning strings attached.
It's worth noting that both developers are making their first foray into Philadelphia and have previously done their building in the suburbs. That shows in their designs. Both hired the same architect, Barton Partners of Norristown, although in the case of Mount Sinai, Concordia used an engineering firm, Ritter & Plante, to arrange the houses on the site.
As a result of that odd choice, the Mount Sinai project looks as though someone used an algorithm to cram the most units on the site. The houses on the interior of the block - all 42 feet high - are lined up like soldiers on a parade ground, in rows that will be separated by 20-foot green strips. Only a single street cuts through the property, from Fourth to Fifth. The developer was so reluctant to give up even an inch of ground for the public good that only one side will have a sidewalk.
We can be grateful, at least, that the houses on the block's perimeter face the sidewalk. But it would have been much better if the block had been divided into quadrants, so all the houses had street frontage. "The smaller you can make the blocks, the better," Barton's urban designer, Seth Shapiro, acknowledges.
As for the architecture of the two projects, it can best be described as "meh." The Mount Sinai rowhouses are designed to look traditional and will have brick faces on the front, though not the backs or sides. Soko's facade is enlivened, but just barely, by an arrangement of flat colored panels. The same generic, pasted-on look can be seen on dozens of suburban apartment projects. Why bother with an architect if you're going to churn out the same building over and over?
Soko's saving grace is a public plaza bracketed by retail - most likely restaurants - at the corner of American and Thompson. In the original plan, Barton also showed several paths weaving through the site, linking up with the rowhouse neighborhood. They led to a small park that would have been public, much like the plaza inside the Schmidts' complex in Northern Liberties.
But once the developer secured a zoning change, those public amenities became history. The park was replaced with a private pool. More parking was layered on.
It was a "classic bait and switch," says Leah Murphy, of South Kensington Community Partners. A parking podium will mar American Street, which has the potential to be the neighborhood's central boulevard.
So, given the exalted treatment of planning in the Nutter administration, why can't Philadelphia control its physical destiny?
Part of the reason is that the administration still operates in the same old desperation mode that views any development as good development. City Council may be even worse in its eagerness to push through special zoning bills.
Both these projects, and many others, could be much better if the Planning Commission had insisted on making urban design guidelines a condition of zoning changes. By the time the projects reach the advisory-only Civic Design Review, it's too late.
Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who oversees planning, told me his office worked behind the scenes to improve the architecture of the projects. "We pushed hard for significant improvements," he says.
If that's true, it's scary to think about what they looked like before.
Those tweaks don't get at what's wrong with Soko and Mount Sinai. Urban design is essentially a form of inclusion. Streets and active ground floors are what make buildings welcoming to all. What we have with Soko and Mount Sinai is the design of exclusion.