Changing Skyline | Prized site is sold, but city not in the loop

Posted: September 21, 2007

The Irish developer Castleway Properties closed on its purchase of a coveted Rittenhouse Square site last week for - sit down, please - $36.7 million, but it already has a well-connected zoning lawyer, a top-shelf Philadelphia architect, and the outlines of a tower design. Company officials have presented themselves to all the right power people. Now, they are plunging into talks with the neighborhood group, the Center City Residents Association (CCRA).

Indeed, it seems the only significant player not yet in the loop is the planning department.

"We haven't gotten a call about it," chief planner Janice Woodcock said when I rang the other day to discuss the evolving design. She appeared grateful for the tip.

Why is it that Philadelphia city planners always seem to be the last to know?

Easy. That's how the city's throwback, '60s-era bureaucracy works. But it's not how a modern metropolis ought to run its affairs.

This isn't some brownfield on the fringes. Castleway's wide-open, 0.83-acre property, which it bought from the Parking Authority, is located on the 1900 block of Walnut Street, overlooking the most gorgeous urban square in America. You can't find a more desirable location in Center City than Rittenhouse Square, and this is the last buildable site.

When you pay a lot for land, you want to get your money back by stacking it with as much stuff as possible. The Dublin-based Castleway appears to be thinking on a grand scale: Early concept drawings call for a T-shaped skyscraper that could include one of the tallest residential buildings in Philadelphia, a 200-room hotel, shops, open space, and an underground parking garage. It's not a neighborhood-changing project; it's a city-changing one.

Yet, unlike its counterparts in other big cities, Philadelphia's planning commission is simply an advisory body. Developers are not compelled to meet with the trained planning staff. While some do present their designs to the planners, they come as a courtesy. And since the design has usually been hashed out in advance with neighbors, it is pretty much a fait accompli.

Everyone knows the real power in Philadelphia lies with the district council person, the civic groups, and the erratic Zoning Board of Adjustment, which Democratic mayoral candidate Michael Nutter likened this week to the TV show Judge Judy.

Developers have become skilled at playing the groups off one another, treating each project as an isolated "neighborhood" concern. They divide and conquer, and Philadelphia's precious, humanly scaled residential districts get stuck with the results.

Ideally, the Zoning Reform Commission, which was approved by voters in May to revamp the obsolete system, should give city planners more clout. Philadelphia now functions under rules fixed during the Great Society era, when most large urban projects were federally funded affairs and the planners' role was mandated. One of Mayor Street's great failings has been his inability to recognize that American cities changed utterly during the boom of the last decade.

These days, the private sector dominates downtown construction. City planners have been reduced to helpless bystanders while neighborhood volunteers are sent to do battle with heavily armed developers and shape major urban designs. Even savvy groups such as the CCRA, which raised $100,000 to produce its own master plan, are no match for a crafty zoning lawyer.

A better approach would be to make the planning department the first stop for builders of large, high-visibility projects. Neighborhood representatives could team with trained planners to guide the results.

But nothing will change as long as Street refuses to fill his five allotted seats on the reform commission.

None of this is to suggest that Castleway is up to no good on Rittenhouse Square. It's way too early to judge, but its owners appear to be smart real estate people with a sophisticated understanding of the site's importance to Philadelphia. "There are some beautiful historic buildings on Walnut Street," says Jim Osborne, the company director. "We feel an obligation to create something that is great."

Castleway, which chose Carl Primavera as its attorney, had the good taste to hire architect Bradford Fiske of KlingStubbins, a Philadelphia firm that raised its design profile lately with several award-winning projects. Fiske was the lead designer on the 1991 Bell Atlantic building, the ziggurat that is the most elegant product of the city's late-'80s office boom.

When Philly's real estate market went into a slump, Kling hit the road, producing crystalline glass buildings for discerning corporate clients. The question is whether Fiske can accommodate his talents now to an old-line residential neighborhood studded with masonry buildings. As good as his Bell Atlantic looks against the sky, its ground floor and plaza never jelled with the surroundings.

Even if city planners do get more involved in guiding the Castleway project, the public's position has been weakened by the Parking Authority's handling of the sale. Having spent nine years insisting that the best use for the site was a parking garage and movie theater, the authority decided to auction the parcel to the highest bidder.

The authority made a killing on the straight transaction, earning $31 million over its purchase price. Yet it didn't impose any design controls on the buyers, Osborne said. The authority acted more like a land speculator than a public agency. Better to have earned a less dazzling profit and retained more control over the public landscape.

It's hard to say whether the $36.7 million price is a Center City record, because the property is unique. But it's clear that other developers are paying big bucks for the few remaining open sites. On Monday, a 1.5-acre parking lot on the south side of 18th and Arch, near the Comcast tower, went for $30 million.

Maybe someone should alert the city planners?


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

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