Skyscraper praised, rapped

Posted: July 16, 2008

A DEVELOPER'S PROPOSAL to build a 1,500-foot skyscraper at 18th and Arch streets opened up a generational split among neighbors during a City Planning Commission hearing yesterday.

Older neighbors in high-rises just south of the site opposed the size and scale of the building. Younger neighbors in lofts just north of the site said they found the design exciting and new.

The older neighbors found an ally in state Sen. Vince Fumo, who called the project an "atrocity." He complained that Philadelphia is always chasing developers like star-struck teenagers.

"We don't have to play that game," said Fumo, adding that he doesn't oppose tall buildings, but found the site unsuitable.

Fumo produced a letter from Gov. Rendell in which he vowed to withhold tax incentives and other help from state programs for the developers. And Fumo vowed to deliver state money to help opponents pay for the fight.

Walnut Street Capital wants to build the "American Commerce Center," which would be more than 50 percent taller than the 975-foot Comcast Center, recently opened one block to the east.

The project's signature is a 1,210-foot office tower topped with a 300-foot spire containing telecommunications equipment. It would be connected by a sky bridge to a 477-foot building with a hotel, stores, restaurants, an art gallery and public spaces.

The size of the tower and its footprint, on a 1.5-acre half-block, has sparked concerns from some nearby residents who fear increased traffic congestion, decreased parking and a massive shadow from the skyscraper.

Architect Gene Kohn, of Kohn Peterson Fox, urged the crowd to consider how the building could represent the city around the world. As an example, he noted that City Hall, at 547 feet, was the tallest building in the world from 1901 to 1908.

"That city then had the courage to build the tallest building," Kohn said. "It was a city that did things."

The tower would be the tallest in Philadelphia. Larger projects are planned for Chicago and New York City, but are not completed. Fran Pollock, a resident of the nearby Kennedy House, said her neighborhood should not be developed parcel by parcel.

"Do not chase developers," she said. "Chase a vision and a plan."

Joseph Beller, an attorney representing Kennedy House residents, praised the design but compared it to trying to fit a size-10 foot into a size-eight shoe. "It just doesn't fit," he said. Younger neighbors, including those from lofts at 18th and Arch streets, were more excited about the design and what it would mean for the neighborhood. "I think it's the right project for the right reasons in the right location," said Mark Flood.

Councilman Darrell Clarke last month introduced legislation for zoning changes needed to build the tower. The Planning Commission's staff recommended that any action be postponed until it had received more information from the developer.

Andrew Altman, the city's director of commerce and deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told the crowd the commission wasn't planning on voting yesterday but held the hearing to gather information and allow for public comments. *

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