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Taking a walk in the clouds

A peek inside Philadelphia's highest peak, the Comcast Center

It's a cafeteria with a view: Ralph's Cafe serves Comcast employees and their guests from the 43d floor ofthe Comcast Center. Chief executive Brian Roberts says he regards it as the building's heart and soul. (Clem Murray/Inquirer)
It's a cafeteria with a view: Ralph's Cafe serves Comcast employees and their guests from the 43d floor ofthe Comcast Center. Chief executive Brian Roberts says he regards it as the building's heart and soul. (Clem Murray/Inquirer)Read more

Soaring 51 stories above the Philadelphia streets, and made of glass, it's not the stairway to heaven.

It's the stairway to Brian Roberts' office.

This see-through staircase climbs several top floors of the new Comcast Center. Sunlight shines through the windows and the steps that hang in the air. Says one of the designers: "It makes you feel as if you're walking on clouds."

Which at this elevation, you are.

Ten floors down is the city's highest company cafeteria. Looking out, you can almost touch the top of One Liberty Place or the Mellon Bank Center. "We thought we'd make a cafeteria unlike anything you had seen before," an animated Roberts said last week during a tour of the gleaming Center City tower.

The normally circumspect Roberts, 48, chief executive and chairman of the nation's largest cable company, gave a first inside look at the skyscraper - the tallest between New York and Chicago, and the talk of Philadelphia. For two hours, starting in the unfinished subway concourse, where he poked behind unfinished walls, to the topmost floor, 56 stories up, Roberts played tour guide.

He bopped in and out of an elevator to show off its red, orange, blue and green interior. Other details: glass-fronted executive offices that allow sunlight to pour in; airy rooms with 11- and 13-foot ceilings; a 240-seat conference center; the 400-seat cafeteria; and, of course, the environmentally friendly flushless urinals.

The building's interior has the feel of a brightly colored electronics store. Flat-panel TV screens recessed into walls beam news and entertainment. Poster-size art of Bon Jovi, Denzel Washington and other celebrities enlivens hallways. The corridors seem strangely uncrowded and quiet.

"The overall vision was to build a vertical campus," Roberts said. "When you go out and see Google, Microsoft or Vanguard, they are suburban campuses, and that's very nice. But we did not want to leave the city."

The first 20 floors of the glass tower house some Comcast customer-service operations, phone services, product development, and marketing and sales, said Karen Buchholz, a Comcast vice president who led and managed the headquarters project. Floors 20 through 41 include content networks such as Versus, regional sports networks, PBS Kids Sprout, and human resources. The 42d through 45th floors house the cafeteria, the conference center and Comcast University, the company's learning and development unit. Finance, legal, accounting and executives round out the top floors.

About 2,900 Comcast employees have emptied out of five other downtown offices and other Comcast facilities, establishing themselves in the $750 million skyscraper, which looks something like a giant computer thumb drive. Roberts and his executive team relocated about a month ago. His office is on the 52d floor.

Hammering and drywall installation on the top and ground floors are minor inconveniences at this point. The Suburban Station concourse connects directly to the building, but concourse extensions north to Arch Street and west to 18th Street are still works in progress.

About two-thirds of the leased retail space will be open in the Market at Comcast Center by the grand opening June 6, said John Gattuso, a senior vice president with Liberty Property Trust, which developed and owns the building in a joint venture with CommerzLeasing und Immobilien AG.

A Rolex watch retailer, L'Uomo Italian men's fashion store, Ardmore Produce, Ardmore Seafood, a Bucks County Coffee Co. shop, a Di Bruno Bros. food store, a Termini Bros. bakery, and an electronics store are planned.

Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, who designed the Comcast Center in collaboration with Comcast and Liberty Property Trust, said in a phone interview Friday that the idea was to create an icon. Philadelphia skyscrapers built in the 1980s had a "twitchy" feeling, Stern said, and he was aiming for clean lines with his "simple obelisk."

"It's as friendly a skyscraper for pedestrians as has been built in a long time," he said.

Stone was first chosen as the facing material, but Comcast picked a glass exterior for its high-tech look. The building cost $500 million to construct, and the tenants, mostly Comcast, spent $250 million for furnishings, Gattuso said. Two other tenants are Center City Film & Video and Citizens Bank. Comcast leases about 90 percent of the building.

Daroff Design Inc. in Center City and Gensler of New York designed the interiors. Karen Daroff, president of Daroff Design, said the result "celebrates modern communication and technology."

Joshua D. Katz, Gensler's lead architect on the project, said low workstation partitions, lofty ceilings, and the glass-front offices encouraged employee collaboration and conversation. They also let more sunlight reach employees, which studies show increases productivity, he said.

Comcast employees around the building Friday afternoon described it as "fabulous" and mentioned the cafeteria, called Ralph's Cafe. Several mentioned the orange floors as unpopular, because of brightness. "They keep you awake," one joked. The employees asked not to have their names used because they had not sought company permission to speak.

"The view is just amazing," said one female Comcast worker in entertainment programming. "Sometimes I just find myself staring out the window, which is probably not great for work."

Standing in the winter garden on the ground floor - which lacks plants but is adorned by life-size sculptures of people walking - Roberts called the building "understated high-tech" and said he hoped people found it elegant. It was designed to fit into the Philadelphia skyline, he said. "We realized this wasn't Shanghai."

"I hope there is real pride when people look at the building. We want someone to think that at Comcast we are focused on innovation," Roberts said. "We want to attract employees who think this is an exciting environment to work in."

Showing a mastery of the building's layout, Roberts zipped through it. He stopped at the coffee shop in the sixth-floor atrium. "There are lots of cool spaces. It's not like a rectangular glass box," he said, calling this area an "architectural treat" from Stern.

He showed off Comcast University on the 42d floor, where the company will bring thousands of employees for training and instruction on the corporate culture. A time line of Comcast history wraps the walls.

On the 51st floor, Roberts asked the security guard to raise the blinds on the spectacular city view. Referring to the glass stairway there, he said the idea had come from a smaller version in an Apple store in New York.

"We Comcastized it," Roberts said.

But Roberts' greatest excitement was reserved for Ralph's Cafe. For many, the word cafeteria conjures images of warmed-over pizza, stale french fries, and soup of the day simmering for hours in an institutional setting. Ralph's Cafe is more like subsidized fine dining.

Lunch choices range from macaroni salad and sandwich wraps to crispy-crust pizza with goat cheese. A sushi chef starts tomorrow on the second floor of Ralph's, which one employee compared to the city's glitzy Stephen Starr restaurants - except that this one is for only Comcast employees and their guests.

Partially inspired by Google Inc.'s cafeteria, along with one at the New York law firm where he has negotiated cable deals over long hours, the cafeteria is the most important space in the building, its heart and soul, Roberts said. It will bring employees from different floors and division together, he said.

He named it after his father, Ralph, 88, the company cofounder and a board member. Ralph is a dapper and formal man, his son said. "He didn't really think this was the most gracious gesture. I had to say, 'Trust me, Dad.' "

In an e-mail Friday, Ralph Roberts said he thought his son had made a good choice. "I wasn't sure I wanted my name on the cafe," he wrote, "but now I am thrilled."