Updated: Saturday, August 11, 2012, 1:08 AM
The first apartment building proposed under Philadelphia's ambitious new Delaware River waterfront master plan cleared a final hurdle Friday from the city Historical Commission, though its design violates some of the plan's most cherished urban values.
The 7-3 vote disappointed waterfront advocates and preservationists, who had been hoping that the commission would demand that the developer improve the low-budget facade and add space for ground-floor retail. An advisory committee that reports to the commission had recommended that the 11-story apartment house should be sent back for revisions.
The project's weaknesses were acknowledged even by the lawyer representing the building's developer. "I don't think anyone expects this to be a triumph for the waterfront," Carl Primavera said before arguing that the design was the best developer Louis Cicalese could afford in the current economic climate.
The 180-unit project, designed by BLT Architects, was seen as a test of the Nutter administration's commitment to the waterfront master plan. The development guidelines, which were nearly a decade in the making and involved input from hundreds of city residents, were formally adopted in March by the Planning Commission.
"What's most upsetting about this decision is that it sets the bar so low," said Richard Thom, who handles zoning issues for the Old City Civic Association. "Everything else will be made of Dryvit," he added, using the brand name for a low-cost stucco finish.
The odds that the Historical Commission would reject the project were extremely slim. It had been approved in June by the Planning Commission over the objections of several staff members and waterfront advocates. But the severe critique by the architectural committee of the Historical Commission revived hopes.
Many waterfront advocates had expected the Historical Commission to reject Cicalese's project because of its location next to the majestic stone anchorage of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Dryvit, which is often used on strip malls and big-box stores because it is cheap, can look thin and insubstantial, especially in a city of stone and brick.
It's not just the building's aesthetics that go against the basic goals of the waterfront master plan. The city's aim in commissioning the $1 million guidebook was to end years of ad hoc development of the Delaware's abandoned industrial sites and begin shaping a real neighborhood along the river's edge.
One way to accomplish that goal, the plan concluded, was to make sure new development mimics Philadelphia's traditional urban qualities. It encouraged new projects to include a mix of different uses - residential, office, retail. To make Columbus Boulevard more like a real urban boulevard, it strongly recommends that new buildings have retail or active public space on the ground floor.
Cicalese's building lacks all those things. The apartments will sit atop a three-story garage. Much of the ground floor will be a blank wall or a grassy berm. Only a small space at the north end, near the lobby, has been set aside for a retail tenant.
Architect Eric M. Rahe said the building would have needed an extra floor to accommodate the retail and its 120-foot height is already above the limit.
In an interview in June, Cicalese said he opposed demands for more ground-floor space because he believes there are not enough people living in the area to support retail - even service retail, like a dry cleaners or convenience store.
Waterfront advocates argue that Cicalese's building will be at one of the most active intersections along Columbus Boulevard. With the Race Street Pier Park and a popular beer garden just across the street, and the new headquarters of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe on the other side of the bridge abutment, the area is emerging as a destination. It also has a core of residents in a condo building across the street.
Primavera countered that "this is not Rittenhouse Square." He said Cicalese planned to market the apartments to young professionals who have just finished college, and said they were more interested in the building's ample 180-space parking garage than in having a deli or fitness studio.
"I think we fetishize retail," Primavera said. "All the world's problems cannot be solved with ground-floor retail."
Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @ingasaffron on Twitter.