Changing Skyline: In Family Court project, only justice was blind

A view of the design from 15th and Arch Streets. In addition to Jeff Rotwitt's roles, ramifications for the massive courthouse's neighbors and bond funding went unheeded in the race to build.
A view of the design from 15th and Arch Streets. In addition to Jeff Rotwitt's roles, ramifications for the massive courthouse's neighbors and bond funding went unheeded in the race to build.
Posted: June 11, 2010

Now that the FBI has taken on the task of unraveling the Family Court debacle, its investigators are keen to figure out who knew that Center City power lawyer Jeff Rotwitt was moonlighting as the project's developer while enjoying a cushy gig as the Supreme Court's real estate adviser.

The answer seems to be everyone.

Everyone, that is, except Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and his trusty aide-de-camp, David Lawrence, who administers the Philadelphia courts.

Rotwitt's lucrative partnership with developer Donald Pulver was pretty much an open secret in Philadelphia real estate circles. The silver-haired lawyer was only too happy to yak about their plans to build a $200 million courthouse at 15th and Arch Streets.

"The whole design team knew about it," John C. Gerbner, president of EwingCole architects, told me.

Everett Gillison, Philadelphia's deputy mayor for public safety, was also aware that Rotwitt and Pulver were a team. He thought of Rotwitt as simply "the developer's person."

For goodness' sake, I knew. After the Art Commission approved EwingCole's design for Family Court in April, I asked Rotwitt how he wanted to be described in my "Changing Skyline" column.

"Codeveloper," the beaming papa answered.

So how is it that the news never reached the big guy at the Supreme Court? After all, Castille is responsible for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and was supposed to be leading the Family Court project with Lawrence's help.

Let federal agents figure that one out. Right now, the meta question that Philadelphia needs to explore is this: If the designers and city officials involved with the project all knew that Rotwitt was working both sides of the Family Court deal - a big no-no in the legal profession - why didn't the apparent conflict of interest trouble them?

It helps to go back to September 2008, when Castille issued a triumphant news release announcing that EwingCole had been hired to produce an initial courthouse design, for the modest fee of $250,000.

Once that effort began, everyone involved agreed there wasn't a minute to waste. The 14-story Family Court building would have to be designed, permitted, and ready for the start of construction by July 2010 - in just 22 months. Otherwise, it would risk losing a one-time-only promise of state funding.

The short time frame would be difficult enough for a private developer trying to get a tower built in Philadelphia. For a public project, the schedule amounted to a mission impossible.

The single-minded focus on meeting the deadline helped put Rotwitt, a real estate and zoning expert, in the driver's seat.

By October 2008, Castille had signed off on an agreement that gave Rotwitt a $55,000-a-month retainer to work on Family Court.

By November, Rotwitt, who described himself as the court's emissary, had secured permission from City Council to exceed the zoning cap at 15th and Arch. The extra square footage would enable the developers to build the bulky high-rise without having to go through the bothersome - and public - process of acquiring a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

By December, EwingCole had ramped up its courthouse design team. An introductory design meeting was organized with all the players, including Castille, Lawrence, a Ballard Spahr attorney, and a representative from Alta Management, according to Gerbner.

It appears that groupthink had already set in. No one stopped to question the fact that the Supreme Court's legal representative also had a financial stake in the deal. Rotwitt's dual role seemed like just one of the project's many givens.

Gerbner had no qualms about the project's unorthodox management structure. "We weren't aware it wasn't known," he explained. He even mentioned Rotwitt's dual role when he presented the project at the March meeting of the Design Advocacy Group, a citizen group that promotes good architecture and planning.

Rotwitt's development stake was hardly the only significant fact that participants repressed during the 22-month race to the finish line.

Several recognized that Rotwitt hadn't informed the adjacent property owners about the impact of the 540,000-square-foot courthouse, which will sit heavily on Cherry Street facing the historic Friends Center. Telling them would have resulted in protests, and that would have delayed the project by perhaps a year.

That's hardly the worst of it.

Rotwitt and Pulver envisioned Family Court as a "turnkey" project. The developers would build the courthouse, then turn it over to the state for its $200 million cost.

But because Family Court was to be funded with tax-exempt government bonds, the project could be developed only by a public agency, according to James P. Creedon, who heads the Department of General Services, the state's construction agency. He said he had learned of the Rotwitt-Pulver partnership only after The Inquirer shined a light on the arrangement.

As he explained, you can't use tax-exempt bonds to pay for a privately built project. "That's why we don't do turnkey projects," Creedon said.

You would think the high-priced legal brain trust advising Castille might have mentioned that detail before he committed $11 million to Rotwitt and Pulver.

Oops! Rotwitt was the legal brain trust.

Until the scandal broke, Creedon said he had no idea that EwingCole had completed a full set of construction drawings for Family Court, or had been paid $5.6 million. "I was told they were just going to do some basic schematic drawings," he said.

Because Pulver signed the contract with EwingCole, he now contends that he - not the state - owns the architectural design.

Of course, everyone knew that.


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

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