Last week, in the first test of the master plan, the Planning Commission reviewed three waterfront projects. All were proposed by Philadelphia-based developer Louis Cicalese, and all were low on ground-floor activity, the magic elixir that makes buildings into more than isolated islands of habitation. After some public hand-wringing, the commission gave the green light to one building, Marina View. The two others will be reviewed again at the commission's July meeting.
We've come a long way from the bubbly fantasies of the boom years, when developers were dreaming up spiraling glass towers as tall as Liberty Place for Columbus Boulevard. The new generation of housing, as exemplified by Cicalese's proposals, has less grandiose ambitions. The buildings are shorter, the architecture is more prosaic, and the units are largely aimed at young renters instead of suburban empty-nesters.
In one respect, however, nothing has changed. These projects are all big on square footage for parking cars and stingy with space for the kinds of pedestrian-oriented uses that are crucial to the difficult process of building neighborhoods from scratch. It's as if the waterfront master plan didn't exist.
Two of the projects have a good excuse. They're narrow buildings located on piers (one south of Dockside, the other next to Waterfront Square) and have very little street frontage. But the paucity of dedicated retail space at the 11-story Marina View is much more troubling. Located just north of the Ben Franklin Bridge, the 180-unit apartment house has the potential to establish a real center of gravity on the underpopulated waterfront.
Of Cicalese's three projects, Marina View has the widest street frontage on Columbus Boulevard, nearly a full block between Paul Philippe Cret's majestic bridge abutment and the vestigial stub of Vine Street. That long frontage could be used to house several businesses, such as a dry cleaner, grocery, or restaurant. Yet only a single modest ground-floor space has been set aside for a retail tenant.
It's a woefully shortsighted strategy, especially given the example set by Bart Blatstein at the Piazza, nearby in Northern Liberties. By providing plenty of room for retail tenants, and offering low starting rents, Blatstein made it possible for potential residents to imagine themselves living in that once-pioneering location. Now it's also a popular destination that draws people from outside the neighborhood.
The potential is even greater at Marina View, which occupies what may be the liveliest node on the waterfront. The apartment house, designed by BLT Architects, would be catty-corner from the Race Street Pier and the Pier 3 and 5 condos and marina. Immediately to the south, on the other side of the bridge abutment, a historic, brick pumping station is being converted into a theater and hub for the Philly Fringe and Live Arts Festival.
For anyone who still doubts the willingness of people to venture to the Delaware, stop by Morgan's Pier, a summer beer garden just across the street from the Marina View site. It was so packed last Friday night, there wasn't a single pole or railing nearby that didn't have a bicycle chained to it.
Yet doubters remain. Cicalese, a former Philadelphia lawyer who began packaging real estate deals 30 years ago, told me in an interview that he can't imagine anyone wanting to rent ground-floor space in Marina View. It's too far off the beaten path, he argued.
Those low expectations are the reason Marina View was designed with only one retail lot on the north corner and a five-foot-high blank wall along its southern half. That south end, incidentally, is closest to the activity at Race Street Pier and the Live Arts hub. It's where Marina View should be reaching out a hand to its neighbors.
The commissioners did muster some courage: They demanded that Cicalese improve the blank wall with a planted berm. They also got him to agree to another modest concession. He will set aside the building's southernmost corner to be used as a storage room for tenants' bicycles. While that hardly counts as a public use, Cicalese said he would consider renting it to a cafe or other tenant in the future. Despite all the fine words in the waterfront master plan about enlivening the pedestrian realm, the commission used the poor economy as an excuse to compromise its values.
But such token efforts won't contribute to the waterfront's awakening.
It's true that Cicalese and his architects faced a number of physical obstacles that made designing the ground floor of Marina View a challenge. Part of the site is in the flood plain, so everything but the garage had to be elevated five feet above the sidewalk.
But Cicalese and BLT encountered the very same challenges back in 2006 when they proposed an earlier version of Marina View as a condo building. Renderings of that 30-story tower show storefront entrances from corner to corner of the ground floor. To raise the shops above the flood plain, they were located up a short flight of stairs on a terrace.
So why didn't Cicalese repeat that arrangement in the new version? One possible answer is that this is a rental building. He doesn't seem to have the same interest in creating a sense of place.
The other explanation is parking. Marina View is a rote, by-the-numbers design — an eight-story, L-shaped stack of apartments on top of a three-story garage. You can find the exact same building in dozens of cities. But with a little effort, his architects could have found a more creative way to arrange the exact same components — and provide a continuous strip of retail spaces. Cicalese might have had to give up a few of the 180 parking spaces, it's true, but not every rental building guarantees a parking space for every unit.
Yes, Columbus Boulevard is not a pleasant place to walk today. But as long as developers and the commission keep finding excuses not to create retail and real pedestrian uses, no amount of residential projects will make it better.
Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, email@example.com and @ingasaffron on Twitter.