Changing Skyline: Parking garages threaten to wall off Schuylkill's east bank

Posted: March 29, 2014

Philadelphia spent the last decade working out a single, knotty planning problem: How should the old industrial spaces on the Delaware waterfront evolve? The consensus was that vacant land would be developed to resemble the rest of the city, with walkable streets, a mix of uses, and lively ground floors. No one was naive enough to think such projects could be realized without parking garages, but the expectation was that the structures would not dominate the river.

It's a shame the conversation was never extended to the city's other riverfront, the Schuylkill, which has come alive since a trail park pushed into Center City.

Like the Delaware, the Schuylkill is dotted with tracts of empty land crying out for housing, offices, and retail. But while little new has been built on the city's big river - save for the suburban-style SugarHouse Casino - the Schuylkill is now sizzling with likely projects.

Predictably, each of the three proposals would front the river with a large, unsightly garage. They range from One Riverside's modest, one-story garage at Locust Street to NP International's multilevel, mega-development at Cherry Street. If built as designed, they would turn the bustling Schuylkill waterfront into Philadelphia's own Great Wall of Parking.

It's hard to believe the Planning Commission and Schuylkill Development Corp. didn't see this coming, but there is still time to limit the damage. Plans for the largest of these projects - a new research campus for Children's Hospital of Philadelphia - will be presented Tuesday at the commission's Civic Design Review board.

The deeply flawed design includes a cluster of towers set on a garage podium so vast, it would eventually stretch the equivalent of four city blocks, from South Street to Christian Street, dividing the vibrant rowhouse neighborhood on its border from the river. At 2 million square feet, the hospital campus is a massive undertaking - bigger than Comcast's planned Norman Foster tower, but without extensive transit to funnel in workers. What happens on this key site will set the template for all future design on the Schuylkill.

Civic Design Review is a recent innovation, an outgrowth of the city's zoning overhaul, and it's meant to address the quality-of-life issues that fall through the cracks of planning and zoning. While the board can't mandate changes, it can use its moral authority to persuade developers such as Children's Hospital to do the right thing for the city.

You only have to cross to the hospital district on the west side of the Schuylkill to get a scary preview of what's in store for the neighborhood if the current design goes ahead unchanged. The district has devolved into a Dallas-style tangle of vanity buildings, separated by driveways and garages. Occasional green spaces exist, purely for decoration, it seems.

Children's Hospital seems intent on replicating these conditions on the east bank, even while it insists that it is doing something innovative. The east campus - designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli; Ballinger; and Cooper Robertson & Partners - is meant to have a cool vibe to help lure top researchers. But what's cool about a bland, 375-foot-tall, glass tower on a fortified garage podium?

The design does include several promising features, including an elevated promenade overlooking the river and a small plaza off the South Street bridge at the entrance to the first office tower. Lavish landscaping is proposed for the neighborhood side, along Schuylkill Avenue.

How friendly will these three public spaces be? It's hard to say because Children's Hospital hasn't shared detailed renderings during the 18 months of "outreach" meetings with neighborhood residents. The new campus is a complex undertaking, comprising multiple levels that step down from the South Street bridge to the riverbank. Despite the absence of an architectural model to help residents visualize how the parts fit together, hospital officials pat themselves on the back for their transparency.

Yet, because of the lack of street-level views of the project, officials from the local civic group, the South of South Street Neighborhood Association, say they only just learned that the garage facing the rowhouses on 27th Street and Schuylkill Avenue will form a solid blank wall, 17 to 38 feet high. No amount of lavish landscaping can put lipstick on this pig.

There are, however, tried-and-true architectural solutions. Both the civic association and the Design Advocacy Group, a nonprofit that champions good development, want the hospital to wrap the garage along Schuylkill Avenue with rowhouses or storefronts - much like the camouflage created for the Edgewater Apartments' garage, located a few blocks upriver from the hospital site, at Arch Street. Such mixed use would help integrate the enormous office complex into the domestic scale of the rowhouse neighborhood.

Children's Hospital, like all of Philadelphia's medical institutions, is a major force in the local economy. But that doesn't mean the city should overlook the problems with the hospital's overall design. You can see the impact the garage will have on the river simply by walking the Schuylkill trail past existing garages at Walnut, Chestnut and Market Streets. Even though a rail line parallels the river, the Schuylkill's east bank is the only one of the city's three riverbanks not blocked by a highway.

Children's Hospital, which requires only one zoning variance for the project, says it wants to break ground in June - a fast turnaround for the city's permitting agencies.

The city needs to send Children's Hospital back to the drawing board. What happens now on the river, stays on the river forever.


ingasaffron@gmail.com

215-854-2213

@ingasaffron

www.inquirer.com/built

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