Saturday, February 23, 2008

Urban Dispatch: How to preserve the Rittenhouse Coffee Shop while simultaneously building a dope-ass Rittenhouse high-rise

[ From time to time, we’ll post a dispatch from another city that could serve as an example of how Philadelphia might accomplish something similarly smart. ]

The proposed Castleway development on Rittenhouse Square is something we are all about.

See, here at The Illadelph, we are proponents of smart growth. When a developer approaches the city and says he wants to build a mixed-use development that boasts a hotel, condo and lots of great street level retail, all inside a building that adheres to several core competencies of urban-friendly design, we applaud them for doing so. And say “wow, we really appreciate that. You bet you should have a C5 Zoning Upgrade.”

Because to make the effort to bury parking underground, to put truck loading and deliveries underground as well so as to not mar the vibrant streetscape of the area, and to include “ample ground-floor retail, and a potentially terrific strip park running between Walnut and Sansom” in the development are all signs that we’re dealing with a developer who recognizes the potential of the real estate they possess and who wants to add something to the built environment that will be a positive landmark for decades to come.

Hell, they’re even offering to renovate two nearby historic building as part of the development.

There are two potential hold-ups. One, that in order to have enough space for all that ugliness to be buried underground, they would have to tear down one or two buildings on the 1900 block of Sansom that have been designated historic.

And two, the C5 Zoning upgrade from C4, which would allow the condo tower to rise another 10 stories or 120 feet.

Regarding the first issue, a development in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan (above) illustrates how a developer adapted his plans to accommodate a building that could not be razed.

However, whether or not a solution surfaces that is able to successfully incorporate all of the historic structures on Sansom Street into the Castleway development, their prospective preservation does not warrant the blocking of the Castleway project.

While the preservation of those three buildings was certainly enough reason to oppose the horrifically terrible PPA parking garage project for the site, the Castleway project’s many virtues more than compensate for the loss of these two unremarkable buildings.

Similarly, the added economic development that will come with the C5 upgrade — 10 extra stories of additional condos, filled with new Philadelphia residents, bringing their new disposable incomes to spend in our fine city, and the accompanying new tax base — far outweighs any potential negative impact of a 525’ tower as opposed to a 400’ tower.

Mostly, because a taller tower doesn’t have any negative impact.

Even at this preliminary stage, it’s clearly evident that the development will be well designed. And will finally give Rittenhouse Square a taste of some quality modern architecture.

And more important, however, is the fact that the project is incredibly urban-friendly, perfectly befitting of its premier location on Rittenhouse Square, a landmark which Inga Saffron appropriately asserts is “the closest thing Philadelphia has to a town green, and what goes up on [its perimeter] will have the eyes of the whole city on it.”

A location so important should be scrutinized. But its height is not at all a problem.

And as usual, Ms. Saffron is spot on:
Castleway has promised that its hotel will stand the same height as the adjacent Rittenhouse Plaza, 220 feet, to create a pleasing, uniform backdrop for the square.

Given Castleway's urban-friendly gestures, it seems a shame to get hung up on the height of the condo tower, which would be set back nearly a full block from the square.
Instead, she thinks we should focus our efforts on perfecting the building’s ground-level relationship with the city and its environs — the part of the building that will daily have face-to-face interactions with hundreds of city residents and visitors. Ms. Saffron specifically questions the wisdom of two things: orienting retail towards Sansom Street instead of 20th Street and a one-way entrance driveway for hotel guests off Walnut Street.

These are appropriate questions because how a high-rise building like this deals with its environs on the ground-level is infinitely more important than deciding whether it should be 400 or 500 feet tall.

Philadelphia, especially Center City, is a pedestrian-oriented town. The more concessions it makes to automobiles with new developments, the worse off it will be. Across the country, downtowns are being revived by renewed efforts to prioritize pedestrian activity and quality public spaces. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s antiquated zoning code still insists upon reactionary building practices that fly in the face of many best practices of urban design and threaten to ruin the very thing that makes Philadelphia so special.

Take the Murano at 21st and Market for example — a fairly well designed condo building on the surface… until you look around back, that is, and see the seven-story, free-standing, above-ground parking garage that was built to complement the tower. It's presence was basically dictated by Philadelphia’s zoning law, which still requires every condo project to include a parking space for each and every unit. The garage basically took a decent size chunk of prime real estate some 75 feet from Market Street and made it utterly and completely useless.
Once a tool of government, parking requirements are increasingly driven by the market.

Last year, for example, Seattle reduced parking requirements for multifamily housing in three of the city’s major commercial corridors. Next month, the City Council will vote on a proposal to eliminate minimum parking requirements in Seattle’s six core urban districts and near light-rail stations. In June, San Francisco replaced minimum requirements downtown with maximum standards allowing no more than 0.75 parking spaces per unit. In Portland, where central city parking minimums were eliminated six years ago, developers are breaking ground on projects with restricted parking.
A free-standing, above ground parking garage like the Murano’s (below) is the biggest waste of urban real estate since the idea of surrounding ball parks with seas of asphalt parking lots.

The god-awful parking garage at the MuranoGarages like the one above add nothing to the urban environment and make sure nothing else positive can be built on the same space.

Which is just further cause for the newly appointed Zoning Code Commission to get their asses in gear and fix the city’s Zoning Code as quickly as humanly possible.

But as far as the Castleway project is concerned… proceed good sirs.
It would be nice to see more details of Fiske's design. But even in its fuzzy beginnings, it shows signs of being an important building that will make Philadelphia proud. The challenge now is to solve the down-to-earth urban concerns, while still allowing room for the architecture to soar.
I.e. the architecture looks incredibly promising — all we need to do now is help with some minor tweaks to its ground level design and Rittenhouse will finally have a new star.

And deservedly so.

They Didn’t Use a Shoehorn [ New York Times ]
Some Devils in Skyscraper’s Details [ Philadelphia Inquirer ]
Development News or Demolition Blues [ Plan Philly ]
New Plans for 19th and Walnut Garner Community Support [Weekly Press ]
No Parking: Condos Leave out Cars [ New York Times ]

[ Murano photo via Philly Skyline ]

the three sanson street buildings on the 1900 block designated as historic, inlcuding the rittenhouse coffee shop

1 comment:

Morty said...

Nice Post. Everybody with their pet issues always screwing up developments. Citizen- based parking-induced insanity is a killer. Have you ever been to a community meeting about a larger scale development? Or even a smaller one?