Changing Skyline: Where politics meets poor design

Artist's rendering of the long-planned arts walk on Cherry Street that is key to the city's tourism goals. With the oversize Family Court building, tourists would be guided past loading docks.
Artist's rendering of the long-planned arts walk on Cherry Street that is key to the city's tourism goals. With the oversize Family Court building, tourists would be guided past loading docks.

Family Court debacle shows how bad buildings rise from entrenched cynicism.

Posted: May 23, 2010

I owe the architects at EwingCole an apology for trashing their Family Court building, planned for an empty lot across from JFK Plaza, at 15th and Arch Streets.

It's not the designers' fault that the bulky, 14-story building, a clone of the original, mediocre Penn Center slab towers, will be a mean and frosty rendition of America's most noble architectural form, the courthouse.

Thanks to Friday's Inquirer article on the Pennsylvania courts' casual oversight of the $200 million project, we now know that the real architect of this affront to democracy is Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who presided over the project while it was milked for fees by a pair of political insiders, lawyer Jeffrey B. Rotwitt and developer Donald W. Pulver.

If the lax management of this important project teaches us anything, it's this: Bad civic design doesn't grow out of barren soil. It takes an entrenched and cynical political culture to provide the fertilizer. Who knows how much more money would have been available for quality architecture if Castille had done a better job policing how the pennies were spent?

Whether he understood what his real estate adviser was up to remains unclear. The Supreme Court justice told Inquirer reporters Joseph Tanfani and Mark Fazlollah that the crafty Philadelphia lawyer had duped him.

But Castille is the project's point person, and he signed off on a 2008 contract that paid Rotwitt handsomely out of a special fund meant to cover the early costs of the desperately needed courthouse - a fund, incidentally, that was accumulated by adding a 20 percent surcharge on every court filing in Philadelphia. Your divorce petition helped underwrite Rotwitt's $55,000-a-month retainer.

Castille, a former Philadelphia district attorney, agreed to that generous consultant's fee even though there was no formal contract to build the courthouse. Rotwitt, who would ultimately receive $3.9 million for his advice under the arrangement, then significantly boosted his take-home from the project by persuading Pulver to give him a 50 percent share in the future development deal.

A partner with the high-powered Center City firm of Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel L.L.P., Rotwitt maintains that Castille had been fully informed about his dual role. In the real estate business, that arrangement is known as "working both sides of the deal" and is generally frowned upon as a conflict of interest. On Friday, Gov. Rendell vowed to investigate and to put the project out to competitive bid.

Rotwitt's complete control of the project, coupled with Castille's inattention, will cost the public more than just money, however.

The 15th Street site was long considered too small to accommodate Family Court's needs. But Rotwitt, billing himself as a representative of the court system, secured from City Council a crucial 2008 zoning change that permitted a bulkier building covering the entire site. He never mentioned in his testimony that, as Pulver's partner, he had a financial stake in the decision.

No members of the public attended that obscure rezoning hearing, since its purpose was then unclear. The result was that Rotwitt would not need a zoning variance for Family Court; therefore, the design would not be made public for two more years. By the time the project came up for Art Commission approval in February, the costly construction drawings were 95 percent complete. Adjacent property owners, who are outraged by the design, were given just two minutes to comment.

That lack of democratic input is a little ironic given that no building speaks more to our core democratic values than a courthouse. This isn't China, after all, where the government simply razes people's homes when it needs a building site.

Public input isn't just about making us feel good about our democracy; it also produces better buildings. The unscrutinized Family Court will do real harm to a corner of the city that is just emerging from decades of neglect.

In the last two years, its neighbors have invested $150 million to improve their properties. When finished, some three years from now, Family Court will cast long shadows on the beautiful and historic Friends Center, which just spent $15 million to install rooftop solar panels.

The courthouse's graceless glass facade is also an insult to the luxury Metropolitan Apartments, just converted from a fleabag under the scrupulous review of the Historical Commission. Le Meridien just opened a swanky hotel this month a few steps from the courthouse site in response to these improvements.

Worst of all, the courthouse design will compromise a long-planned arts walk on Cherry Street that is key to Philadelphia's tourism goals. The walk is intended to encourage tourists to stroll from the Convention Center's new Broad Street entrance to the Parkway's cultural institutions.

In anticipation, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts just obtained approval to close a portion of Cherry Street and turn it into a landscaped plaza with a cafe. But as conventioneers make their way to the Parkway and the new Barnes Foundation, they will first have to hustle past Family Court's loading docks.

The new Family Court won't even function all that well as a courthouse. The 540,000- square-foot building can barely accommodate all the court functions, said Frank P. Cervone, who runs the Support Center for Child Advocates and lobbied for a new courthouse. "It will be too full the day it opens," he told me Friday.

That might not have been the case if the proponents had been willing to build a taller - but more slender - courthouse. Such a tower, especially one whose massing was concentrated on Arch Street, would have done far less damage to Cherry Street.

There is a tendency in Philadelphia to assume architecture and politics are two distinct and unrelated subjects. Family Court should make us wiser. It was shaped by the city's cozy insider-dominated politics. Architecture was an afterthought.

Those political insiders come and go. But the bad buildings remain with us a very long time.


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

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