Updated: Thursday, June 26, 2014, 12:32 PM
First there was the proposal for the bland condo tower on top of a parking garage. Then there was the schlocky box, slicked with stucco like a cheap motel. Now there is a shapely, Miami-white apartment building that teases Philadelphia with the possibility of real architecture.
Given how many proposals have come and fizzled, you may be inclined to ignore the latest design for the Delaware waterfront site that hugs the north side of the Ben Franklin Bridge's stone abutment. But the new version, created by a new architect for a new developer, appears to have legs. So, it's time to pay attention.
Jonathan S. Stavin, vice president of PMC Property Group, says he will break ground in July if it gets the go-ahead Tuesday from the city's Civic Design Review board. Although the board demanded improvements at an earlier hearing, the original design by the Varenhorst firm is enthusiastically supported by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. and the Central Delaware Advocacy Group. The pressure to approve the project, now called 1 Water Street, will be strong.
Let's hope the review board, which has a strong independent streak, doesn't let PMC off too easy. It will be hard not to give in, since Varenhorst's design is far better than earlier proposals - proof that it is possible to break free of the dumb-box mentality that afflicts so many Philadelphia developments.
But Varenhorst's mid-rise looks good only by comparison. This would be the first new residence on the Delaware since the adoption of the master plan, yet the design fails to heed its most basic recommendation: Help the waterfront evolve into a lively, 24/7 place.
As Varenhorst demonstrated with 1900 Arch and 2040 Market (formerly AAA's headquarters), its strong suit is arranging the pieces on the site. Here, it reduced the massiveness of the 250-unit building by splitting the apartment house into distinct 13- and 16-story sections and angling them in a way to preserve a view of the bridge's majestic stone abutment, a historic feature designed by the great Paul Philippe Cret.
The taller north wing, meanwhile, was sliced vertically, so it appears thinner. You have to give PMC a big hand, too, for slashing the number of parking spaces to 74, down from the earlier 180.
But other than housing its residents with a little more flair, PMC's building won't do much to create the nucleus of a new neighborhood on that lonely stretch of Delaware Avenue.
PMC is certainly aware of the problem. To create a semblance of activity on the street, it plans to house a fancy, double-height gym in the glassy base of the vertical tower. It also hired David Rubin, the landscape architect who created Lenfest Plaza, to design a thin, linear park along Columbus Boulevard. Those efforts don't go far enough.
The city's poobahs are always telling us that creating a "critical mass" of people is the first step to sparking the creation of a neighborhood. If that's true, then why is the zone around the Dockside apartments - a few blocks north on Columbus Boulevard - still so dead a decade after its opening?
Dockside remains an island because no one other than its residents and their guests have a reason to walk there. Its ground floor includes no restaurant, no cafe, no convenience store, no dry cleaner - nothing that might connect it to the larger world.
Just like 1 Water Street, Dockside promised that its "public space," a plaza featuring a school of swimming fish by sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, would help make it a destination. But there are plenty of friendlier places to sit and look at the water.
1 Water Street also violates the master plan's recommended height. I'm not particularly troubled by the extra stature - 135 feet on the south, 190 on the north - since it's a relatively modest increase over the base zoning's 120 feet.
What does bother me is how PMC managed to legalize the added height using the zoning code's bonus system. PMC earned an extra 24 feet for creating public space. If the public space were truly usable, OK. But to increase the height for a measly strip of decorative greenery seems excessively generous. Part of PMC's bonus also comes from landscaping the giant automobile turnaround at the north end of the site. Seriously, now.
PMC added another 48 feet for including 25 subsidized apartments, which seems more justified. One-bedrooms will rent for $980, instead of $1,600.
PMC could help remedy the lack of ground-level activity by including a cafe or restaurant facing the linear park. Stavin is resistant because he says the location is still too far off the beaten path for foot traffic. Tell that to the thousands of people who crowd the Morgan's Pier beer garden across the street or attend performances at FringeArts' spectacular new theater on the south side of the bridge. Visitors to the Race Street Pier park would surely be grateful for a place to grab a coffee.
If only a single cafe were all it took to improve the design. Despite Varenhorst's admirable effort to give the building a dynamic shape, the review board should be deeply concerned about a little thing called architecture. When they meet Tuesday at 1515 Arch, all they have to do is swivel their heads and look west, to Varenhorst's 1900 Arch project.
Clad in a random pattern of blue and gray aluminum panels, it may be the most dispiriting apartment facade since you-know-which pink tower on Broad Street. The patterning makes no sense, nor does the big flat blank expanse on the all-important Arch Street corner. There is almost zero modulation to give the surface texture and shadow. If it weren't for the windows, you might mistake it for those mountains of shipping containers you see near ports.
Imagine that metal mountain next to the massive granite stones of Cret's abutment, albeit in a more muted gray-and-white palette. Philadelphia has been so desperate for waterfront development that it's tempting to fall in love with the first decent proposal that comes along. If this is the one, it still needs work.