Changing Skyline: It's up to Historical Commission to reject unimaginative Columbus Blvd. apartment building

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A rendering of the proposed apartments on Columbus Blvd.

When Philadelphia was in the throes of a building boom a few years back, the Street administration's planning commission often took the view that design shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of progress. Now that times are tough, the Nutter-era commission likes to argue that - you guessed it - design concerns shouldn't be allowed to stymie progress.

Even though cranes have started to reappear on the city skyline, the weak economy is still trotted out as an excuse to wave through almost every subpar design that comes along, from the Buck Co.'s generic glass skyscraper on Chestnut Street to the lifeless Family Court tower now going up near City Hall. It makes you wonder if there is any design too awful to pass muster in Philadelphia.

Turns out, there might be one: an apartment house on Columbus Boulevard, planned for the empty site next to the Ben Franklin Bridge's iconic stone abutment.

Back in June, the boxy, multicolored, 11-story project sailed through the Planning Commission, despite strong objections from its own staff and the Old City Civic Association. But when it came up for a routine review by an obscure subcommittee of the Historical Commission on July 24, the members refused to act as a rubber stamp. Its Architectural Committee recommended that the design for the 180-unit building be rejected.

We'll see if its principled stand holds today when the full Historical Commission meets to take a final, decisive vote on the project, which was designed by BLT Architects for Philadelphia developer Louis Cicalese. While the committee comprises architects and preservationists, its role is merely advisory. As often as not, the Historical Commission ignores its recommendations.

It won't be so easy to tune out the committee's recommendations this time. The Architectural Committee was withering in its criticism of the Columbus Boulevard project. Members complained about its rote and bloated form. They panned the facade colors, a mix of white, orange, and gray. They groaned at the prospect that the nearest neighbor to Paul Philippe Cret's majestic bridge towers would be clad in laminated panels and a cheap stucco known as Eifs. They even grumbled about the quality of the required archaeological excavation.

New buildings in Philadelphia don't normally need Historical Commission approval, but Cicalese's property is located in the Old City historic district. Because of the proximity to the landmark bridge tower, which will be visible south of the apartment house, the juxtaposition will be an especially sensitive one. In contrast to the abutment's weighty, chiseled blocks, the new facade will look as if it's covered in papier-mâche.

I've always believed that cities can tolerate a certain amount of undistinguished architecture, so long as the new buildings are smart urbanistically. This project, unfortunately, is clueless to its surroundings.

Not only is the architecture unimaginative in its aesthetics, it's unimaginative about the neighborhood. And that's the worse sin.

Cicalese's project would be the first new apartment building on the Delaware since the city completed its waterfront master plan, yet the design ignores its basic tenets about creating an active streetscape. The lack of space for service retail shows it's oblivious about the area's potential, especially given the growing swirl of activity at the intersection of the boulevard and Race Street.

Although this is a long building, with a facade spanning a full block, from Vine to the north side of the bridge, there is very little public space on the ground floor for the likes of a deli, dry cleaner, cafe, or restaurant - the kind of activities that make a building come alive. The 180 apartments will sit atop a three-story parking garage, encouraging residents to drive in and drive out, without interacting with the emerging neighborhood.

And emerging, it is. The Race Street Pier, paid for by the city and private foundations, helped make the intersection a destination for visitors. That paid off this summer when Morgan's Pier opened a riverside beer garden next to the park - and directly across from Cicalese's site. Soon, the historic brick pumping station on the north side of the bridge will be converted into a theater and cafe for the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe.

Cicalese's reason for ignoring these developments, which he outlined in a recent interview, was twofold: The building has to be elevated slightly because it's in a flood plain. He also said the site is too far off the beaten path to attract retail customers.

Certainly, elevating a building to avoid potential flooding makes it harder to design a good ground floor, but not impossible. Indeed, a 2006 version of the design by the same architects included retail space corner-to-corner, simply by including a set of stairs for each store entrance. That was a condo building, and this is a rental, but surely renters need to wash their clothes and eat as much as condo owners.

It's harder to accept the argument that the neighborhood isn't ready for such service retail, given the success of Morgan's Pier, and the condos at Piers 3 and 5. It's a chicken-and-egg problem: If you don't include the ground-floor attractions, you'll never put the place on the beaten path.

The Planning Commission should have demanded better. The Cicalese proposal was the first test of the Delaware waterfront master plan, released last year, and the commissioners blew it. After this, it will be all downhill.

Too often, Philadelphia neighborhoods oppose projects because they don't want change. In this case, Old City Civic is opposing the Cicalese project because they do want change - the right kind of change. A real building, made of real materials, that will help create a real neighborhood.

The Nutter administration's Historical Commission can support that goal, too, by sending Cicalese's architects back to the drawing board.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com or @ingasaffron on Twitter.