Changing Skyline: Green light likely for Blatstein's hated Broad Street high-rise

When a Broadway production gets slammed by the critics, it closes. When a Philadelphia megaproject is rejected by city planners and residents, the developer simply moves on to the Zoning Board.

So far, every group that has examined Bart Blatstein's proposal for a gargantuan, mixed-use development at Broad and Washington has concluded the design is a disaster in the making. City planners hate the way the parking podium consumes the entire block. Neighbors complain the slablike tower will wall off their part of South Philadelphia. The city's design-review board begged Blatstein to ditch the goofy rooftop shopping village and go back to the drawing board. The citizen-run Design Advocacy Group decried the "forbidding" massing this week in an op-ed.

Even the city's generally easygoing development community has been quietly wondering whether the massive project is financially feasible. "I have been scratching my head trying to understand it," a prominent developer told me, "but it makes no sense."

I also didn't think much of the autocentric design by Cope Linder Architects when I reviewed the project in February. But if I were a betting woman, I would wager Blatstein will get a thumbs-up April 27 from the Zoning Board, the only city development agency with real power. The project needs two technical waivers, called special exceptions - one for aboveground parking, the other for the rooftop village. Such requests are rarely denied.

The inability of planners to shape this major high-rise project speaks volumes about the weakness of the city's review process. Despite years of reforms, the Planning Commission remains a purely advisory board, and therefore a less-than-effective one, because there was no political will to update the now-antique Home Rule Charter, adopted in 1951. The Civic Design Review board, one of the Nutter administration's much-heralded innovations, is similarly toothless.

Under the City Charter, planners can complain. They can cajole. But they can't compel. Only the Zoning Board's word is law.

The weakness of the system isn't as damaging when it involves a couple of clumsily designed rowhouses. But Blatstein's South Broad project is among the biggest residential projects moving through the review process. Spanning a five-acre city block, the 34-story, L-shaped tower is stuffed with stuff: 1,000 apartments, a 650-car garage, dozens of shops. It will dominate the pivot point connecting Center City, South Philadelphia, and the emerging Washington Avenue corridor.

But density isn't what's wrong with Blatstein's proposal. This is a big site, bounded by two wide streets. The issue is how that density is arranged on the site. And that arrangement is entirely driven by Blatstein's insistence on putting the parking in an aboveground garage.

The garage will be wrapped with three, big-box-size retail lots. (Blatstein is said to be negotiating with Target.) To accommodate those stores and the 650-car garage, Blatstein needs to build a multistory podium covering the entire site. The 34-story tower and rooftop village will spring from the top of the podium.

What's so bad about a podium? Sometimes nothing. But this one will cover a huge block. For neighborhood residents who have to walk around the structure, it will be a long, dull slog. It would be far better to divide the block into manageable pieces.

Phasing in a project can be better for the developer. The East Market project across from the Gallery will initially have only one apartment tower, but a second can be added if demand remains strong. Blatstein's project is designed so that he must construct the entire podium all at once. He's gambling he can rent 1,000 apartments at Broad and Washington in one go.

For comparison purposes, consider Lincoln Square, being developed by the Alterra Property Group and MIS Capital. The mixed-use development on the west side of Broad and Washington isn't perfect, but it is likely to sail through the planning reviews. Though the site is smaller, 3.3 acres, and contains a historic, 1876 train shed, Lincoln Square is laid out in three parts. (The project is named for Abraham Lincoln, whose funeral procession stopped on the site.)

Alterra's architect, BLT, put the apartment house where it should be: on the corner. The nine-story building fronts Broad and Washington and will have just 359 units. With so many new apartment buildings going up around Philadelphia, "I'm assuming the market is going to soften," says Alterra's Leo Addimando.

The building will be wrapped with ground-floor shops, scaled to house neighborhood-oriented businesses selling wine or pet supplies. Alterra hopes to land a supermarket but is constructing a separate retail building for that. A pedestrian street will connect Broad and 15th, dividing the site in half. Not only does the street create space for a small plaza and outdoor dining, it opens views of the train shed. Yes, there is still too much aboveground parking (360 spaces), but it doesn't dictate the layout.

For Blatstein, the main purpose of the garage seem to be as a pedestal for a French-style village of shops and apartments, something he attempted at his unrealized Provence casino. But as the owners of the Gallery know all too well, it's hard to get shoppers to venture above the first floor.

That fixation with the village-in-the-sky is the whole reason Blatstein needs a waiver for the garage from the Zoning Board.

Could the board turn down the request? Why not?

Even though technical waivers are routinely granted, there is a legal justification to refuse aboveground parking on Broad Street: It is clearly Planning Commission policy. Denying the garage, and burying the parking, would open up a range of options that would make Blatstein's project more attractive - and more successful.

The Planning Commission might not be able to give Blatstein that message. But the Zoning Board can.

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 Note: This story has been updated to include the entire Lincoln Square development team.