Proposed super-tall tower shows some promise

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The 1,500-foot mixed-use American Commerce Center office tower would sit on a five-story retail base at 18th and Arch Streets.

On the American Commerce Center design

From Inga Saffron's blog, "Skyline Online," http://go.philly.com/skyline

While it's a long shot of a project, the proposed 1,500-foot American Commerce Center at 18th and Arch Streets signals that Philadelphia is entering the age of super-tall towers. The project is being shopped around by Joseph Grasso and Garrett Miller's Walnut Street Capital, which spent $30 million on the site. Their ambitions for American Commerce Center are very grand, considering.

First, there is a 1,200-foot office tower (topped by a 300-foot spire) that would include 1.3 million square feet of office space (same as the Comcast Tower). But there is also supposed be a 477-foot-tall cubular doughnut that would house 300,000 square feet of retail in a five-level base, and a hotel located in the southern leg of an open rhomboid.

The architects, Kohn Pedersen Fox of New York, envision three plazas, which would host various cafes, a movie-theater complex, and the hotel ballrooms. The dense array of activities could, theoretically, be a smaller Philly version of the shops at Time Warner's building in Manhattan. There's even space set aside for an upscale supermarket in the lower level, just like Time Warner's Whole Foods space.

The architects have done some clever things with the design, such as hollowing out the lower structure to preserve some views for the Stirling on JFK Boulevard. The top level of the open rhomboid would have gardens and meeting rooms that could do double duty as a conference center for the office tenants and ballrooms for the hotel.

But it would be nice if designers Eugene Kohn and William C. Louie had worked out the architecture beyond this schematic form. You would think they'd be a little embarrassed at stealing the idea for the crown from Daniel Libeskind's original pass at the Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan. And while the architects say they haven't begun to work on the details of the facade, it's disheartening to see their starting point is the same bluish glass used at the Cira Centre and half the new office buildings in New York.

Kohn Pedersen Fox, which designed the cool, angular One Logan Square and the far-less-cool, postmodernist Two Logan, as well as the Mellon Bank Center, does seem to have a good recent track record of manipulating glass curtain walls to give them depth and shadow. Of course, most of their recent clients have been in places flush with money, like Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. We haven't seen any Philadelphia developers willing to spend money on the detailing necessary to make a glass facade more than a vertical ice rink.

My greatest concern, however, is the boxy mass of the tower. It appears to slam down hard on the ground at the corner of 19th and Arch Streets with no setbacks and no grace notes. If you've walked around to the back side of the Comcast Tower, then you known how these sheer glass skyscraper walls can easily become an urban cliff.

Given that Ron Caplan, et al, are assembling land for yet another tower immediately to the west, on Arch Street between 19th and 20th, Philadelphia needs to plan now to avoid building a forbidding palisades of skyscraper walls.

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