Who would have thought that yanking Philadelphia's city planners out of their 16-year-long politically induced coma would have been so easy? But it took just three choice words to set them on the road to recovery: "plan of development."
Andrew Altman, the new deputy mayor for planning, slipped that deceptively plain phrase into an otherwise standard zoning bill that City Council approved this morning. The bill, sponsored by Councilman Frank DiCicco, was crafted to allow a controversial 15-story hotel-and-condo project, called Stamper Square, in Society Hill.
In the past, Council - operating on the I'll-pass-yours-if-you-pass-mine theory of governance - would have rubber-stamped the bill, and the project's developer would have been handed a zoning upgrade worth millions of dollars with no strings attached. Thanks to the new language, major zoning changes in Philadelphia now come with strings.
To qualify for a building permit, Stamper Square's developer, Marc F. Stein, must first submit a detailed "plan of development" to city planners for review. Of course, review is a meaningless word unless they have the right to modify or reject the project's design, massing, siting, and material choices. It helps that Altman and Mayor Nutter have empowered planners to do their jobs.
Not that reviewing designs is groundbreaking stuff. In many big cities, planners routinely vet high-profile projects. It's basic urban quality control. But during the Rendell and Street years, planning was viewed as a bureaucratic nuisance that only impeded development (and slowed the subsequent flow of campaign contributions). It got to the point where any design, no matter how overbearing or anti-urban, could sail through the process.
The consensus now is that the laissez-faire approach does the city more harm than good. Last spring, voters approved a special commission to modernize the city's obsolete zoning code. Nutter came into office pledging to make planning important again.
But those good intentions soon bumped against calcified reality. It will take years to rewrite the zoning code. The Planning Commission remains a toothless advisory agency under the City Charter. In the meantime, developers still want to build. More often than not, that means getting special deals on zoning, variances and permits from politicians. The problem is how to accommodate development and still involve the planners.
The new language in the Stamper Square rezoning bill is Altman's answer. It's not a perfect solution, but it will serve for the moment.
The clause, which was worked out with the Planning Commission and DiCicco, does more than just give the planning professionals final say on design. It also prevents developers from practicing a bait-and-switch, where they seduce the neighborhood with pretty renderings, then construct something completely different. Although the Stamper Square bill theoretically allows Stein to build a tall skyscraper on the former NewMarket site, he agreed to a deed restriction limiting the height to 166 feet.
His zoning upgrade also comes with an expiration date. If Stein doesn't start construction within 12 months, he loses the height bonus. That feature is intended to keep the developer from trying to flip the property. "We're not in the land-speculation game," Altman says.
This new approach to planning works partly because Stamper Square is an impeccable test case. Architects at H2L2 sited the building so it defers to its colonial-era neighbors, and they included a generous public courtyard that ties into Society Hill's lovely greenway. Everything about the design, from the facade treatment to the materials, is quietly elegant. City planners shouldn't have any trouble approving the project, as is.
Ironically, Stamper Square's asymmetrical condo towers might look slightly less bulky if they were a bit taller. The architects lopped off two floors from their original design in an earlier compromise with neighbors. Would planners dare demand that they raise the height?
And what happens when a more problematic project comes along, like Castleway's super-tall condo-hotel for Rittenhouse Square? You can bet the debate over the height-busting 550-foot tower and the demolition of two historic buildings won't be resolved so smoothly.
Some people, like Planning Commission vice chairman Alan Greenberger, argue that these complex design issues could be handled better by creating a design-review board, perhaps as a subcommittee of the commission. Developers of large, high-profile projects - more than 100,000 square feet - would be required to submit their proposals to the design board first, instead of starting off by haggling with neighborhood groups. After all, big projects have an impact on the whole city.
Councilman Brian O'Neill has offered to sponsor legislation creating the review board. It's a good idea. But it's worth remembering that you can't legislate taste; you can only apply community values. Not everyone likes modernist glass, Robert Venturi's historical jokes, or the color purple, but they don't constitute bad design.
To prevent a design-review committee from becoming the design police, the Nutter administration first needs to articulate its values. Those might demand that buildings come to the street line, that they include street-level retail, underground parking and quality materials, and that they incorporate sustainable design.
Development may be a business, but architecture is an art. You can't predict when a Howe and Lescaze will come along with the next landmark PSFS tower. When that does happen, we want to feel confident that a new design-review board will be the first to applaud.