Changing Skyline: $60M cheaper, still no bargain

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The Family Court building seen from LOVE Park. Cheaper, yes, but still unattractive and undersized. (Ewing Cole)

The following Clearing the Record was published Jan. 29, 2011:

The "Changing Skyline" column Friday may have given an incorrect impression of the relationship between Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and real estate lawyer Jeffrey Rotwitt. According to a representative for Castille, the chief justice was paired with Rotwitt only at a few charity golf events and did not play golf with him on a regular basis. The representative said the men were not close friends.

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Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille thinks that Pennsylvania got a good deal on Philadelphia's new Family Court because the Corbett administration just announced the project will go forward for $140 million - some $60 million below the supposedly bare-bones budget that Castille's old golfing buddy, Jeff Rotwitt, submitted back in 2008.

But even at that reduced price, the unattractive and undersized courthouse will be no bargain for Philadelphia.

Sure, Family Court will now be built by contractors who were selected according to state rules on fair and competitive bidding. The process for such an important civic building should never have been otherwise. Yet, it took a series of stories in The Inquirer to make Castille see the light.

The problem is that, despite the improved process that resulted, Philadelphia remains stuck with the same flawed Family Court design that Rotwitt picked when he was running the project in an improper alliance with developer Donald Pulver. The courthouse they cooked up has all the dignity of a State Store.

Designed by EwingCole architects for a site at 15th and Arch Streets, the new, 14-story Family Court is meant to provide new, modern space in a single location. But it will be a bland office slab, with a cramped and barren lobby that already appears too small for the building's needs.

While the people who patronize Family Court usually are unfortunate souls in need of the state's help - battered women, abandoned children, troubled teens - the architecture of the new building packages justice in cold, corporate style. The spaces will be a long way from the civic grandeur of Family Court's stately main building, a neoclassical palace on Logan Square.

Before Rotwitt's relationship with Pulver came to light, Castille dismissed the building's weak design as the unfortunate consequence of a tight budget. EwingCole's "utilitarian" design, he said in an interview last year, was the best that could be had for the allotted $200 million.

The results of the competitive bidding process now reveal the hollowness of that excuse. While it can certainly be argued that the weak real estate market caused the bidders to lower their construction prices, it's hard to believe that they dropped them a full 30 percent. The money was available for a better courthouse.

By now, it should come as no surprise that the Rottwitt-Pulver partnership would produce such a mediocre product.

Rotwitt, a longtime friend of Castille, was originally hired to locate a site for a new Family Court and represent the court system in its dealings with city agencies. Along the way, Rotwitt somehow arranged to go into business with Pulver and manage the construction of the high-profile public building. They treated Family Court as if it were just another commercial office tower to be stamped out, like the bland Tower Bridge offices Pulver has littered across the Conshohocken riverfront.

Once their improper arrangement was exposed in May, the state's Department of General Services could easily have ditched the flawed design along with the wheeler-dealers who concocted it. Instead, the agency went and bought the plans from Pulver for $1.1 million. Philadelphia deserves better than a courthouse based on a fire-sale design.

As an agency, DGS is wired to build cheaply and efficiently. Architectural quality doesn't figure strongly in its DNA. Yet surely someone in the state's top echelons - say Castille or Gov. Rendell - should have recognized that, if Family Court were ever to purge the stain of its conception, DGS had to throw out the old drawings and start fresh with a transparent architectural competition.

Both men, unfortunately, were intent only on clinching the Family Court deal before Rendell left office. DGS formally accepted the winning construction bids on Jan. 14, a mere three days before the clock ran out on Rendell's term.

Needless to say, no news release on the matter was forthcoming from either Castille or DGS.

Since no one expects Pennsylvania's new governor, Tom Corbett, to start his tenure by countermanding the chief justice, a fellow Republican, there is nothing to stop the substandard Rotwitt-Pulver courthouse from starting construction this spring.

With a good $60 million left in the budget to play with, some state officials may be tempted to glam up the generic courthouse with more marble and wood paneling, but that won't fix what's wrong with the Family Court design.

The real problem is that the site Rotwitt chose for Family Court is barely big enough for its needs. In his effort to fast-track the project, Rotwitt never sought the zoning variance that would have allowed the state to build a taller, roomier building. That decision also meant that Rotwitt never had to confront neighbors at a public hearing.

The design was compromised in other ways. The Philadelphia Parking Authority, which owns the land, insisted on making an underground parking garage part of the project. The ramps to the Family Court's parking will eat up a valuable chunk of ground-floor space that might have been used for a more gracious lobby.

What little ground-floor space remains will be taken up by airport-style security lines. EwingCole's glassy design for the ground floor - normally a virtue - ensures that passersby will be subjected to views of the grueling proceedings.

That scene, along with the anticipated human spillover onto the sidewalk, promises nothing good for the rebounding area north of City Hall, where private investors have staked $150 million of their own money to catch the tourist wave from the expanded Convention Center.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the fate of the original Family Court on Logan Square is now uncertain. After rushing a competition to find a hotel operator to take over the building, the city abruptly cut off negotiations with the winning bidder, InterContinental Hotels, in December because the future of the new courthouse was unclear. The last thing the city needs is a boarded-up white elephant two doors down from the Barnes Foundation.

So, yes, it's nice in these lean times that the state will save $60 million on the Family Court project. But the price of this debacle on Philadelphia's physical fabric? That's incalculable.

 


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