Updated: Friday, May 16, 2014, 1:09 AM
Aided by an army of lawyers, consultants, and architects, Children's Hospital seems well on its way to winning approval for a huge, auto-centric office park in the middle of a thriving rowhouse neighborhood on the Schuylkill. All it needs is an endorsement on Tuesday from the Planning Commission; then it's off to the Zoning Board for a routine variance.
So, that's that, folks. On to the next megaproject.
After years of effort by the Nutter administration to forge a more balanced approach to planning and zoning, the likely approval of the Children's high-rise campus in its current form is a disheartening reminder of how little progress actually has been made since the any-development-is-good-development days of Mayors Rendell and Street.
The proposed campus next to the South Street Bridge, where Children's plans to conduct computer-based research, is among the largest projects that Nutter's team has evaluated in the past two years, equal in square footage to both Comcast towers. And yet city planners stood passively by while the institutional Goliath ran circles around the David-sized neighborhood groups trying to shape it into a more urban development.
The design - a joint effort by Pelli Clarke Pelli and Philadelphia's Ballinger - is little changed from the original shown to residents two years ago. Four glassy office towers, up to 375 feet high, would ultimately be built on top of a long, three-story garage, forming a solid wall beside the blossoming Schuylkill Banks park. To provide access to this monstrous structure, Children's wants to cut two driveways into the South Street Bridge. While less central than Comcast's campus, the site is served by bus, shuttles, and the University City Regional Rail stop.
The impact of the design is sure to reverberate beyond the Graduate Hospital neighborhood. Thousands of pedestrians and bicyclists cross the bridge daily on their way to jobs in West Philadelphia's expanding hospital-and-university district. The driveways will turn their commute into a game of chicken. You can also bet that the Children's garage will set a precedent for all future waterfront projects.
As a city, we talk about upholding traditional urban planning values. We want buildings that fit into William Penn's perfectly sized street grid, and have human activity on the ground floor to make us feel welcome and safe. While the complex may end up with a bit of retail tucked in a corner, the design calls for a blank garage wall at street level along most of Schuylkill Avenue, shielded by a heavily planted berm. The park that Children's calls "Bainbridge Place" is a glorified driveway.
In the phrase adopted by the design's opponents, which include the Design Advocacy Group, South Street West Business Association and South of South Street Neighborhood Association, there will be no human "interface" along the street.
Because the buildings are set back nearly 80 feet from the sidewalk, opponents had suggested that the hospital build rowhouses or an apartment house to screen the garage, much as Edgewater apartments did at 23d and Race Streets. Such mid-rise structures would have gone a long way to easing the transition from the neighborhood's rowhouse scale to the hospital's skyscraper heights, but Children's rejected the idea.
Ideally, city planners should have rezoned the site from its current industrial status to a mixed-use, commercial one. The change would have forced Children's to produce a detailed plan for what's known as a Special Institutional District. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital has one. So does Drexel University and most large institutions. Because these monocultures consume real estate at such a rapacious clip, district plans give nearby homeowners a clear idea of what's ahead.
Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger told me in an interview that he, too, would have liked to see the site rezoned for a special district, but Children's - the city's second-largest employer - declined. "They made a decision to proceed without it," he said. "They chose that path. People have a right to choose their own path."
Then why bother having planners?
In the absence of a strong hand from city planning, almost all the negotiations fell to neighborhood volunteers, who put up a valiant, informed fight to fix the design. There were none of the usual NIMBY complaints during their talks with Children's. No one objected to having skyscrapers edge their way to the diminutive rowhouse neighborhood. They simply sought the basic elements of good urbanism.
The volunteers got little support from Greenberger, who vigorously defended the Children's garage. "They need the parking, as much as we would like to think that people can get there by foot," he told me.
Meanwhile, Joseph Syrnick, who heads the Schuylkill Development Corp., the agency with the biggest stake in a lively waterfront, was also full of praise for the project. "I thought the renderings were quite handsome," he said. "We're OK with it."
The one agency that was not OK with it was the Civic Design Review board, an outgrowth of the city's zoning overhaul. Although it is only advisory, it refused to rubber-stamp the design. Instead, it issued a 10-point list of suggested improvements, all consistent with what neighborhood residents had requested. The board's chair, Nancy Trainor, also admonished Children's for failing to submit comprehensible renderings. "I'm an architect, and I'm having a hard time understanding the geometry," she complained.
Thanks to the board's courage, Children's finally agreed to a few concessions. It committed to building a pedestrian bridge connecting its campus to the riverfront, and is donating a small piece of land for the extension of the Schuylkill Banks trail. It also agreed to carve out retail space in the part of the garage next to the bridge. While these are significant additions, they do not fundamentally change the antiurban design.
None of this should surprise us. It is the nature of big institutions to push their own interests. That's why Philadelphia needs the vigorous leadership of its city planners.