When Philadelphia's big real estate developers find a neighborhood they like, they really dig in. Bart Blatstein has made himself the virtual lord of Northern Liberties with factory-style lofts and hip hangouts. Now Carl Dranoff is firmly on his way to becoming the boss of South Broad Street.

Dranoff conquered two key corners there during the boom years, with the pink-hued Symphony House at Pine Street and the deco-inspired 777 at Fitzwater, and has plans for a development at Spruce Street. And despite his serious jones for cheap-looking architectural bling, he just managed to score yet another high-profile apartment site in a city-sponsored competition, this time on South Street's vacant northeast corner.

That contest, organized by the semiautonomous Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., is almost an exact replay of the one that won Dranoff the Symphony House site in 2002. Then, as now, he beat out P&A Associates, builders of the St. James and Murano towers. Dranoff again bid more money ($2.5 million for the 19,000-square-foot site) and partnered with a minority-owned firm (Kenny Gamble's Universal Cos.), a big selling point for the city.

The fact that P&A's proposal promised better-quality architecture - and less harm to the adjacent Rodman Street rowhouses - doesn't seem to have held much sway with PIDC, which is jointly run by the city and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

While Dranoff certainly deserves credit for helping to recast the Avenue of the Arts as a residential boulevard, the competition raises important philosophical questions about how Philadelphia auctions public land: Should victory go to the high bidder or the best design?

That seems like an easy one. Money is quickly frittered away. Bad buildings remain in our faces a long time.

You might have thought that PIDC, a nonprofit, had learned its lesson with Symphony House, the product of the last big competition it organized to jump-start development on Broad Street. While Dranoff outbid P&A for the site, $6 million to $3.5 million, the city is now stuck with a sickly pink Pepto-Bismol tower with mix-and-match window frames. It's worth noting that Dranoff's finished tower is far worse than the buff-colored design depicted on the contest renderings.

The deal for Broad and South already feels, as Yogi Berra might say, like déjà vu all over again. Although a PIDC official declined to disclose P&A's losing bid, the company's cofounder, Peter Shaw, acknowledged it was "way, way below" Dranoff's. Yet even on paper, P&A's proposed five-story rental building is way, way better.

Designed by Brian Phillips' Interface Studio Architects, P&A's is a sleeker, more sophisticated take than its competitor, a corpulent, deco-inflected neo-loft building by JKR Partners.

Still, the JKR design is the best new building Dranoff has commissioned. A modern version of a factory loft, it has a straightforward simplicity that is a welcome improvement over his usual fare. Yet, it's already possible to spot the creeping bling. Three art-deco-ish piers sprout above the roofline in an effort to make the squat building look taller, a trick that JKR employed in the design of 777. The loft's multipaneled windows, which are way too busy for what is supposed to be a simple facade, should be another warning sign.

Interface doesn't merely win the swimsuit competition. Its building is also smarter.

The architects are proposing an L-shaped footprint to leave plenty of breathing room between the apartments and the diminutive rowhouses behind the site. The developer would use that internal space as a parking lot.

To fulfill the competition's requirement for green space, Interface created a pocket park along South Street. By pushing the main mass of the building toward Broad, Interface ensured that the adjacent rowhouses would continue to receive plenty of sunlight.

In contrast, Dranoff's six-story box, which he calls Casa Verde, occupies virtually the entire footprint. Although the building is just 70 feet high, its north wall looms over Rodman Street's 35-foot rowhouses, leaving only a 10-foot gap between Casa Verde and the neighbors' rear gardens. The narrow street would be plunged into a perpetual dusk.

It's no surprise to hear that the Washington Square West Civic Association doesn't want Dranoff's building anywhere near the Rodman Street backyards. But the neighbors say they wouldn't object to a taller apartment house, as long as it was concentrated along Broad Street, sparing their gardens from darkness.

In response, Dranoff offered a second proposal that puts seven stories on Broad, then drops down to four along South Street. The wall hovering over the rowhouse gardens would be reduced to about 46 feet. But Dranoff would eliminate his proposed pocket park on Broad Street as part of the trade-off.

PIDC plans to finalize the design in August, but the Rodman Street neighbors shouldn't have to settle for the lesser of two evils. Although PIDC marketed the site as a single property, it is actually two parcels, each with different zoning. The Broad Street half puts few restrictions on height, while the South Street wing is zoned for 35-foot rowhouses.

What's outrageous is that PIDC, with the full support of the Planning Department, practically invited the winning developer to disregard the zoning, assuming it would have no trouble obtaining a variance to build higher on South Street. The implication is that it's OK for the city to break its own zoning laws.

If the PIDC had consulted with the neighborhood group before the request for proposals was published, it might have been able to spare Rodman Street. After all, those residents bought their homes expecting that new construction on the rear of the vacant lot would be rowhouse height.

PIDC is now preparing to auction another Broad Street site, at Washington Avenue. It's great that, after a long recession, the city is attracting business again. But that means it's also time to demand good design.

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