I've been scanning the horizon lately, trying to get a fix on the state of Philadelphia's skyscraper design, but it hasn't been easy. Back in February, when I attempted a round-up of new residential high-rises, there were 15 projects in various states of dress. Now it's May, and my list - as of this minute - stands at 32 condo projects, with 36 separate towers.
These are skyscrapers in the full sense: proud, soaring things that will be true giants in the land of lilliputian Philadelphia rowhouses. Though not all will get off the ground, it's a fair bet Philadelphia will add 25 residential towers to its skyline over the next three years, most in the 20- to 40-story range.
The boom already promises to be the largest single burst of high-rise construction in the city's history. By my count, 12 new apartment projects are either completed or under construction, and another round of building is beginning. Perhaps because Philadelphia doesn't have a strong skyscraper tradition, like New York and Chicago, many designs have been timid efforts. Architects and developers have been blowing up classical temples to skyscraper size, or worse, pasting together ugly concrete or stucco panels into charmless boxes.
But several recent designs signal a welcome upgrade in style. Thanks to the invention of more energy-efficient glass, the new towers feature bigger windows and higher ceilings. As the ratio of windows to walls has increased, many towers have abandoned masonry facades in favor of sleek glass sheaths.
Three of the best and most ambitious recent designs feature ample expanses of glass: the 43-story Murano, by Chicago's Solomon Cordwell Buenz, at 21st and Market Streets; the 41-story Mandeville Place, by New York's Richard Meier & Partners, at 24th and Sansom; and the two 22-story Loft Towers by Philadelphia's DPK&A Architects, at 13th and Buttonwood. Still, there are plenty of lumbering oafs being assembled from pre-fab slabs, like Edgewater, a 12-story condo at 23d and Race Streets.
While it has been encouraging to see more style on the skyline, what happens at street level with these towers is more important. Philadelphia is a city of gentle, repetitive rhythms, set by the 16-foot width of a typical rowhouse. The skyscrapers can shake up those familiar patterns, often to dazzling effect. But they can also destroy historic streets unless the towers are carefully integrated with their smaller neighbors.
At their best, the new high-rises increase density, concentrating a lot of people in a little space. That's good for Philadelphia because density brings livelier, safer sidewalks, more businesses and restaurants, and more potential customers for SEPTA. But you can't expect to cram all those people and their cars in the same space without any preparation or planning.
Yet projects are whizzing through Philadelphia's zoning process with almost no review and no consciousness about how they fit into the greater whole. The zoning board still insists that towers be built with parking spaces for every unit. In most cases, developers take the easy way out and build stand-alone garages, either as bases under their towers or on sites next door. Both approaches run counter to planning wisdom. Cities like Seattle are working to limit garages or encourage underground parking.
Philadelphia's zoning practices are out of date in many other ways. Most neighborhood zoning doesn't permit skyscrapers or their garages. So instead developers seek - and usually receive - major variances for their high-rises, infuriating residents and provoking bitter lawsuits. Four major condo projects are tied up in litigation. They include projects that make sense, like the Cope Linder's slim 31-story luxury tower at 17th and Rittenhouse Streets and Agoos/Lovera's eight-story apartment house on the 1600 block of Locust Street.
On the flip side, there is Waterfront Square, five 30-story towers on the Delaware River at Fairmount Avenue. Although it is the biggest high-rise development in Philadelphia, it was never reviewed by city planners. Rather, it was approved by a special City Council vote. No one seemed bothered that the five towers will be gated, cutting off a large stretch of the Delaware from the public. "We never saw a presentation of the project," said Richard Lombardo, the Planning Commission's new executive director.
It's hard to believe, but skyscraper developers are not legally obliged to present their projects to city planners. They can go directly to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. City planners are so marginalized that it hardly matters; the zoning board frequently ignores their recommendations. That's one reason two huge towers proposed for a site across from City Hall are likely be built atop 10-story-high parking garages. As such monstrous designs make clear, that's no way for a big city to plan.
The situation is likely to get even messier. Since Waterfront Square was approved, a half-dozen high-rise projects have gravitated to the city's two riverfronts. But there has been no planning to ensure that these projects provide sensible public linkages to waterfront paths. The Delaware River, in particular, has become a hot spot to build. One developer is proposing a massive 40-story tower at the former New Market site in historic Society Hill, and a Hoboken company is talking about two 40-story towers and hundreds of townhouses on a block of Delaware Avenue, between Fairmount Avenue and Poplar Street.
The Hoboken developers expect to bypass planners and go straight to City Council. Yet there are dozens of important issues to be resolved by trained planners: How will the massive development be connected to the river and other riverfront high-rises? What will be done to improve the walk between the project and the nearby entrance to the Market-Frankford line, which has all the atmosphere of a minimum-security prison?
It's not just skyscrapers. Philadelphia is experiencing an unprecedented housing boom. In March, the city issued more building permits than any other county in the state - 363. City neighborhoods are so concerned about the onslaught of new construction that some, like the Center City Residents Association, have hired planners at their own expense to sort out the logistics.
Many believe the building frenzy will eventually slow. But when the cranes are gone, it's anyone's guess what Philadelphia will look like.