December 8, 2005

Philadelphia: Neighbors Help Condo Tower Makeover

Here's an interesting response to the problem of government planners falling down on the important job of ensuring pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.

It wasn't planning officials in Philadelphia who are responsible for revising a proposed condo tower that originally shaped up to be "500 feet tall ... hunkered like King Kong atop a nine-story garage podium that was so unpleasant, it would have sent pedestrians scurrying across the street. Those garage decks would have spewed exhaust into the apartments at the Penn Center House, a few feet away on JFK Boulevard," writes Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron. "Fortunately, the design for 1919 Market Street was subjected to early intervention by neighborhood activists. ...

"Most of the parking will be tucked underground or heavily camouflaged. There will be bright shops facing both 20th and Market Streets. The tower has been pushed to the site's Market Street side so residents of Penn Center House will still see glimpses of sun."

How did those changes occur? Saffron notes that "the city Planning Commission played no role in the condo tower's makeover. All the design changes were pushed by volunteers from the Center City Residents Association and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association over several months. The story has a happy ending because the developer, Opus East, responded constructively to the criticisms."

But how could residents - even highly motivated residents - come up with practical ideas to improve a poor design? Partly because "they had already articulated clear urban-design values. They knew that above-ground parking podiums cast a pall over the pedestrian realm and divorce the tower's residents from the surrounding city. They agreed that Market Street between 19th Street and the Schuylkill River, where the city's sleek office corridor runs out of energy, needs lots of sidewalk activity.

"But the civic groups also had the benefit of professional advice from Kise Straw & Kolodner. The CCRA hired the design firm last year because it felt that city planners were unable to provide any meaningful help with the staggering amount of development being proposed for Center City."

Typically, neighborhood groups turn to professionals (usually attorneys) when they're trying to keep development out. Here, they paid professionals to help make development better.

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