Given that architectural standards aren’t very high in Philadelphia nowadays, and developers are pretty much free to plunk down any old metal box, the Art Commission can seem like a quaint throwback to a more genteel time. Created by the 1951 Home Rule Charter, the Art Commission exists exclusively to protect the city from visual pollution. Sadly, it doesn’t have jurisdiction over all 142 square miles, just the Parkway, city-owned properties, and commercial signs that project over the sidewalks. But unlike the Planning Commission or Civic Design Review, which are merely advisory, the Art Commission’s word is law.
That means the Art Commission can just say no when designs violate the public interest.
The commission doesn’t reject proposals very often, nor should it. But its members should think long and hard before giving a green light to the current plan for a 10-story luxury condo building that would occupy a postage stamp site behind the Rodin Museum, the charming neoclassical villa that virtually defines the look of the Parkway.
The condo project, known as 2100 Hamilton, has been kicking around for years, but its latest developer, Ernest Bock & Sons, appears serious about breaking ground on a design by Cecil Baker + Partners. Bock’s vice president, Denise Collins, told the Art Commission at a hearing this week that the company is shooting for a March start date.
Considering Bock’s ambitious schedule, the details of the project remain unusually vague. We still don’t know how this all-glass building will impact the Rodin, the Parkway’s landscaping, the increasingly bustling Hamilton Street sidewalks, or plans for a park in the former rail cut that runs between the Reading viaduct and the Art Museum. Unbelievably, Bock has never done a study to determine whether reflections from the glass facade could harm the Rodin’s priceless collection of sculpture and works on paper.
Despite all those unknowns, the Art Commission gave the project “conceptual approval” last month. Fortunately, it attached a list of conditions that Bock must meet before the company can start work, including a request for a light study. When the commission learned Wednesday that Bock still hadn’t done the analysis, it wisely called for a time-out.
The need for a light study isn’t new. The Art Museum, which oversees the Rodin, has been begging for a comprehensive analysis for months. It’s right to be concerned: Seven years ago, the reflected glare from an all-glass Dallas condo tower forced the Nasher Sculpture Center — one of America’s great museums — to shut down a James Turrell Skyspace. The high-rise, which trades on its proximity to the Nasher by calling itself “Museum Tower,” has been wreaking havoc ever since, casting what the Dallas News’ art critic calls “measles-like spots” on the Picassos and Rodins.
All glass buildings create a certain amount of glare, but the design of Museum Tower was a superstorm of bad decisions. Not only was the tower given a curved, west-facing facade, it was cloaked in a highly reflective glass that intensified its light beams. Before some fixes were made a few years ago, the reflected heat scorched the plantings in the Nasher’s sculpture garden.
Cecil Baker’s building for the Bock company is unlikely to be quite so destructive, since the facade is more angular. Still, wouldn’t you want to be sure you weren’t going to damage one of Philadelphia’s great cultural treasures before you started work?
The developer has been stingy with other details, too. At Wednesday’s hearing, the architects showed just a single rendering to the Art Commission, a carefully cropped view of the all-glass building from 21st Street. No images of the Hamilton or 22nd Street facades are publicly available, and Collins declined to share those drawings with me.
According to one person who saw an early version of the project, the Hamilton Street facade — which faces the Dalian apartments and the Whole Foods megastore — was treated like the back of the building, with a hundred-foot-long blank wall. While that facade has apparently been improved, the public still needs to see where Bock is putting the garage entrance and loading docks, particularly since Hamilton Street is often snarled with Whole Foods traffic.
Because 2100 Hamilton abides by the current zoning, Bock is not required to present its plans to the Zoning Board. That makes the Art Commission the agency of last resort.
The Art Commission is also the watchdog for the Parkway, one of the city’s most beloved landscapes, and the current design of 2100 Hamilton could do serious harm to that public space.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Bock revealed that it plans to build a cap over the rail cut to create a private garden for the condo owners. Apart from the unseemliness of installing a gated park in the middle of the Parkway’s great public greensward, the cap would compromise plans for a trail being pursued by the Friends of the Rail Park, the group that oversees the viaduct and the former City Branch rail cut that runs parallel to the Parkway.
The trail is more dream than reality at this point, but the idea of threading a park through the cut’s right-of-way has been embraced by both the Planning Commission and the parks department. The section behind the Rodin would be a major entrance point and could even stand on its own as a small park.
Bock doesn’t need the cap to construct its condo building. According to Baker, Bock wants the cover so condo residents won’t have to look out on an unfinished trench. Do we really want to sacrifice a public park so 33 condos can have better views? “If someone stepped up with money for the park, [they] might reconsider,” Baker told the commission.
How about Bock? Caps are enormously expensive to build. It could cost $2 million or $3 million to span the rail trench —money that would go a long way toward landscaping the Rodin section of the trail, said Michael Garden, a member of the Rail Park board. “We believe the Rail Park would make the building even more attractive” than the private garden, he added.
The architects, meanwhile, could help protect the Rodin Museum by cutting back on the amount of glass in their design and upping the amount of masonry. Done right, the project could enhance Hamilton Street by filling in a gap in the building fabric.
On Wednesday, the Art Commission spent a lot of time fussing over Baker’s design for the railing for the private park that Bock has proposed. Instead of abetting the privatization of this heavily used landscape, the members should stay true to their original mission: Guardians of the Parkway.