Changing Skyline: Harmony over planned riverside high-rise

The site as it appears today, looking north with the Schuylkill at left. The site has been slated for a high-rise for decades, but market conditions haven't been right until now.
The site as it appears today, looking north with the Schuylkill at left. The site has been slated for a high-rise for decades, but market conditions haven't been right until now. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: April 21, 2014

Usually when neighbors and developers lock horns over a project design, things turn ugly and stay ugly. There's a happier ending for One Riverside, a high-rise that Carl Dranoff plans to build on the Schuylkill next to the popular riverfront trail.

First proposed last summer, the project at 25th and Locust has undergone a major redesign at the insistence of neighbors, who bitterly objected to the design - and even to the tower's very existence. Now the blank walls on the ground floor are gone. So is the aboveground garage. But the big surprise isn't just that the new version is superior; it's that both sides enthusiastically agree it's better. Dranoff says he will break ground in the fall.

No one would have expected such consensus in August when a meeting of the Center City Residents Association erupted in fury over Dranoff's plan for the site, a tiny triangle squeezed between the Schuylkill River Park's community garden and the Schuylkill Banks. The original, 21-story design was literally a tower in the middle of a park.

The community couldn't understand how that speck of land had managed to remain in private hands while the rest of the waterfront was being transformed into a new signature park. Yet the site had been slated for a high-rise for decades, and Dranoff's design fit the zoning requirements precisely. Plus, he argued that he was replacing a surface parking lot with a residential building. Who could object?

Pretty much everyone (including me). Lawyers were hired. Appeals filed. Both sides steeled themselves for a long fight.

But the opponents - a coalition of residents and the community garden - channeled their hostility into a friendly conversation that has produced a better building for the park, for the Fitler Square neighborhood, for Dranoff, and most important, for the city.

Dranoff credits his architects at Cecil Baker + Partners for their creativity in reimagining the project. John Randolph, an architect who lives across from the planned tower, agreed: "It was an amazing process. I felt Carl Dranoff listened carefully."

And yet the One Riverside dispute was the kind where pro-development types initially labeled the antidevelopment types "NIMBYs." The truth is, the issues were always more nuanced.

Though a few may have hoped to derail the tower, most came around to the view that Dranoff's design should conform to the high standards of their backyard, one of Center City's most walkable neighborhoods.

Residents focused on what matters: conditions at street level. They even agreed to accept a taller tower in exchange.

The worst feature of Dranoff's original plan had been a one-story garage on 25th Street, with a dull blank wall running most of the block. Three driveways were lined up near the entrance to the trail, an attraction that gets a million visitors a year. Hardly an appropriate or safe gateway for pedestrians or bicyclists.

The tower was also uncomfortably close to the community garden, hemming in the little refuge. Now the south wall will be set back 21 feet from the garden.

In the new design, all the parking is underground. To accommodate 96 cars - up from the original 81 - Dranoff will install a stacking system and offer 24-hour valet service.

Putting all the parking underground enabled the architects to eliminate two curb cuts. Cars and delivery trucks will enter through the same midblock driveway. The two large loading docks next to the garden entrance have been eliminated. Dranoff plans to create a small park for residents in the area where the garage was planned. Unfortunately, the neighborhood opponents scotched a cafe that would have faced the Locust Street trail entrance because of fears of noise.

In switching things around, the architects ended up designing a slimmer, more elegant tower. It couldn't have been done if residents hadn't agreed to let Dranoff add another story to the high-rise.

Yet the question remains: Where were city planners during all this?

It seems clear zoning officials erred when they granted Dranoff a major height bonus for underground parking, on the theory that the aboveground part of the garage was in a floodplain. Residents argued it was a huge mistake, tantamount to rewarding developers for putting garages, curb cuts, and blank walls on the river. But officials stood by their decision.

Philadelphia is lucky to have a true urban tower on this prominent site. But it is only by sheer luck that it got one.


ingasaffron@gmail.com

215-854-2213 @ingasaffron

www.inquirer.com/built

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