Bring people, not parking, to Rittenhouse

Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square are so similar in appearance and history that you just can't help comparing them. Both started out as corner parks in Billy Penn's original Philadelphia Street grid. Both are bordered by tony apartment houses. Both serve as gateways to Walnut Street shops. And now, both of these gracious public spaces are the settings for high-visibility real estate ventures. 

So why is one square getting a glitzy apartment tower and the other a common garage? 

The answer has nothing to do with the relative merits of the two shady parks. The tale of the two squares is instead a primer on how Philadelphia-style political wheeling and dealing distorts the city's real estate market - and threatens to squander the main draw of one of America's most livable downtowns. 

On Washington Square, we have been treated during this long, soggy summer to the spectacular rise of a 47-story apartment building, the St. James. The project will invigorate the area with hundreds of new residents, while preserving several historic buildings that face the square and Walnut Street. It is being built by a private development company, which is risking its money on the luxury rental. 

Rittenhouse Square, meanwhile, is about to see the construction of a garage for 500-plus cars that is supposed to include a movie theater, restaurant and shops. (Cross your fingers, please! ) Three historic buildings will have to be sacrificed to make way for the parking deck. It is being built by the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which is risking nearly $40 million of your money. 

Never mind that the authority has no signed contracts yet with a movie theater operator or other tenants. Forget, too, that a coalition of residents, businesses and churches has been in court since 2000 trying to block the garage. The authority, which is now Republican-controlled, is determined to forge ahead. On Tuesday, it will ask the Historical Commission's architectural review group for permission to demolish the three historic buildings, including the exuberantly tiled Rittenhouse Coffee Shop and a mid-rise apartment house. 

You don't have to be a trained real estate appraiser to figure out that the St. James apartments will do more good for Washington Square's property values than this garage will do for Rittenhouse Square's. Given the extra automobile traffic the garage will generate, it seems reasonable to assume that the neighborhood's quality of life will also decline. 

Why would anyone - particularly a public agency - do such a thing to one of the loveliest urban parks in America? Rittenhouse Square is not merely a refuge for its elite neighborhood. It functions as a receiving room for the entire city by serving as a venue for concerts, picnics, dog-walking, snowman-building and people-watching. If anything, Rittenhouse Square is overused by the public and underfunded by the city. Unlike the St. James apartments, which will enlarge the constituency of caring residents for Washington Square, the Rittenhouse garage will add more stress to this beloved public space. 

Perhaps the garage would be less objectionable if it came to the square as a purely market-driven project. But the current development is the botched legacy of the former Rendell administration's effort to please several well-connected campaign contributors. 

Here's what happened, according to interviews and previous newspaper reports. After a fire destroyed a two-screen movie theater on the 1900 block of Walnut Street in 1994, a Blue Bell developer called Moreland Investments began to assemble property around the site. Moreland, which is associated with the Goldenberg Group - and which partnered with Ken Goldenberg in the failed DisneyQuest project at Eighth and Market Streets - wanted to build a hotel or an apartment building on the square, but it was unable to secure financing for the project. 

So the Goldenberg gang went to Mayor Ed Rendell for help. The mayor sent in the Parking Authority, which has the ability to raise money through tax-exempt bonds. In December 1997, the Parking Authority used $10 million in bond money to buy the one-acre site that Moreland had assembled between Walnut and Sansom Streets. (By coincidence, Goldenberg contributed $20,000 to Rendell's campaign fund, and $15,000 to John Street's the following month. )

The Parking Authority then hired Wallace Roberts & Todd to do some preliminary designs for a mixed-use development. Their drawings looked a lot like the St. James: They showed a high-rise tower perched on a parking deck. 

By 1999, the Parking Authority concluded that neighborhood opposition to a tower would be too great and decided to concentrate on the parking. Because city law requires ground-floor retail in all Center City garages, the authority made room for a 10-screen movie theater and a restaurant in the part of the garage facing Rittenhouse Square. Meanwhile, Moreland was quietly dropped from the project. 

At least Moreland and Goldenberg understood that Rittenhouse Square is too valuable an address for just a garage, even one built around a movie theater. They aren't the only ones who think the site is a natural for an apartment building: So does Joseph M. Egan Jr., the Republican stalwart who was recently appointed head of the Parking Authority. 

In an interview this week, Egan called the garage site "the best residential site in the city and one of the five best residential sites in the country. " What's more, he said that a national developer has approached him about buying the property for an apartment tower similar to the St. James. 

So, that's great news for Rittenhouse Square and Philadelphia, right? Wrong. 

Egan won't sell. Why? The Parking Authority has already secured all the necessary zoning approvals and has spent millions on design work and legal fees. Changing the design would cost millions more and take years to win approval. Most important, Egan said, the authority signed an agreement with the Center City Residents Association promising that it wouldn't build a high-rise on the site. All that, Egan argued, obliges the Parking Authority to stick with the program. 

The mind boggles. 

The head of the residents organization, Lou Coffey, acknowledged that his group did oppose the tower in 2001, but only after lengthy negotiations aimed at reducing the size and bulk of the garage. He told me that his group actually prefers to see apartments and would be happy to reopen discussions. "We've asked the Parking Authority for years to tell us what's going on, and we never hear from them," Coffey complained. 

The Rittenhouse garage clearly had a bad beginning, but who says it has to have a bad end? Egan is right in saying that redesigning the project will be expensive and time-consuming. But what's the rush? The authority's site is the last available building lot on Rittenhouse Square. A concrete garage may not be forever, but nearly so. 

Egan only has to look at the tower rising over Washington Square to find the way to go on Rittenhouse Square. 

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