Commentary: Room for improvement in two Blatstein projects

Philadelphia developer Bart Blatstein in Atlantic City on April 7, 2015.

Years ago, developer Bart Blatstein took the long view and the high road, responding to fervent opposition to his plans for a big-box shopping center at the Schmidt's Brewery site in Northern Liberties. From controversy sprang dialogue, creative thinking, and great design, culminating in Blatstein's acclaimed Piazza at Schmidt's.

Now Blatstein's Tower Investments has two new large development proposals pending, one on the Delaware riverfront and the other at Broad and Washington.

The Design Advocacy Group (DAG), an all-volunteer group of design professionals and dedicated urbanists, urges Blatstein once again to listen carefully to the voices of opposition. By doing so, he might create two more transformative urban spaces.

The Broad and Washington location, a gateway between Center City and South Philadelphia, has long been vacant. But DAG concurs with the Civic Design Review committee, which considered a slightly revised plan on Tuesday, that Tower's proposed behemoth is still wrong on a number of fronts.

With nearly 1,000 residential units (including a 34-story apartment tower), 600 or more parking spaces in an aboveground garage, and tens of thousands of square feet of retail, the project is stunningly overbuilt and out of scale. From every vantage point, its huge, lifeless facades would create vast and forbidding street-level walls, ignoring the modern public's sensible preference for walkable streets with varied and engaging street frontages. In this respect, it is reminiscent of some of the equally excessive schemes that never made it on the waterfront.

The "superblock" is another outdated urban design idea. Blatstein is missing an opportunity to reintroduce Kimball Street, running east-west to bisect the nearly 4.5-acre property, relieve the intense concentration of structures, and beckon residents, shoppers, and diners into the development.

An especially curious aspect of the project is its rooftop village, "reminiscent of a village in Provence," Blatstein says. It is more reminiscent of his rejected casino proposal on North Broad Street. The idea is to create outdoor gathering spaces with retail boutiques and dining establishments. Besides the questionable business viability of this weird location, why is it accessible, even in Tower's second design iteration, only at Washington and 13th, this time with an open stairwell?

As was pointed out in March, when the project first went before Civic Design Review, how are passersby to even know it is there unless they crane their necks (to glimpse over those blank walls)? The rooftop village that Blatstein would have built on North Broad at least had spectacular skyline views; here the tower blocks the vista.

Equally problematic are Tower's waterfront plans. The proposal of a sprawling mixed-use development on the Delaware between Reed and Tasker Streets would subvert the millions of dollars and years of hard work spent creating a shared vision - and a legally enforceable zoning overlay - of an accessible, walkable, and green riverfront designed to connect neighborhoods to the waterfront.

The auto-centric project, with more than 650 residential units and enormous "pads" for freestanding big-box retail (do we really need another convenience store on Columbus Boulevard?) neither creates a walkable neighborhood nor reconnects the waterfront to adjacent residential communities. To the contrary, the vast parking lots will be a dangerous and forbidding terrain for any pedestrians hardy enough to try to get to the required riverfront trail.

On both projects, DAG, community members, and others are ready to suggest any number of feasible improvements to the programs, site plans, and architecture. That could be the start of a real conversation.

At both of these sensitive locations, we should build something human-scale, accessible, and beautiful that brings meaningful amenities to the public and contributes to the urban experience.

Bart Blatstein has done it before, and we know he can do it again.

Elise Vider is chair of the Design Advocacy Group (www.DesignAdvocacy.org). elisevider@gmail.com