Two key development sites in Philadelphia are hijacked by McMansion builder Toll Brothers and this morning, on the front page, the Inquirer swoons with delight. “Both ends of the city’s most irrepressible district will be capped by shiny new condo developments,” the paper says, apparently with a straight face, of the impending neo-neo-colonial, anti-urban, farcically regressive condo developments at Headhouse Square and in G-Ho at 24th and South.
That statement, which concludes the paper’s lede, itself full of inaccuracies, is revealing on the fundamentally retarded city-wide conversation about architecture and design. The Toll projects might be welcome in Richmond, VA or Frederick, MD, but they have no place in a city that seeks to present itself on the cutting edge.
So wonderfully sophisticated and progressive on issues like food and beer, arts and cultural programming, and landscape design–and even shopping–Philadelphia remains trapped in architectural Kindergarten. And not because we lack talent, ideas, or motivation. This city is home to dozens of firms with a forward-thinking urban vision. We just don’t get to hear from them often enough.
What we do get is this drivel, loaded with myths and anecdotes masquerading as authoritative news and taken out of context.
Let’s start with 2400 South Street. Toll Brothers originally purchased the former milk processing plant the Inquirer simplifies to “Graduate Hospital’s parking garage,” a heavyweight concrete industrial building exuding potential for mixed-use residential or live-work conversion with plans to do just that. Reinvented, the project was to be architectural counterweight to Toll’s brick 18th century fantasy Naval Square. Somehow, when the project was reinvented post-bust, it was necessary to demolish the milk plant, leaving us with a cartoon reenactment of a Boston or New York street, circa 1819. This musty, soft-focus junk is what the Inquirer calls “shiny.”
Both projects have squandered opportunities for retail development. There is none on Headhouse because Toll didn’t want to be bothered and Society Hill residents, after Chestnut Hillers the most angrily repressive and restrictively small-minded neighbors in the city (this despite their wealth, which certainly allows them to travel to those widely admired cities of the Old World with charming street life and round-the-clock amusements), refused to allow it.
To rationalize building a major project in a key location without retail, the Inquirer recalls the horror of
the multi-use 1970s New Market development that stood on the Toll lot, as if the issues of trash and noise that project anecdotally raised couldn’t be simply rectified with adequate facilities and regulatory control.
But what’s worse is the tone of the article, which takes this narrow experience and expands it into proven doctrine. “A fundamental paradox of urban development,” notes the paper, paraphrasing a Toll Brother vice president, “is that neighborhoods want and need restaurants and dry cleaners and boutiques, grocery stores and gas stations and pharmacies,” but–now quoting the Toll employee, Brian Emmons, the only source of authority in the article–”not across the street from their house.”
This is NIMBYism turned into policy, corporate desire imbibed and spit out as truth. Never mind that it’s the exact opposite of present-day thinking on urban design. Never mind successful and influential projects like the Piazza and the Navy Yard, where officials are busy planning for progressively-designed mixed use developments that do exactly what Toll, and the Inquirer, tell us people don’t want.
Never mind, indeed, the city’s new zoning code, which encourages mixing uses precisely because our experience tells us rich urban life can not be achieved without it.
The only positive I see from either project, and hardly mentioned in the paper this morning, is that the Headhouse project incorporates underground parking–probably because the site has an enormous foundation already dug. But in a city that routinely allows builders to construct parking decks on the first floors of major projects, this is a step in the right direction.
Architects, lay-people, planners, urban visionaries: we want to hear from you about how to move the city’s architectural conversation forward. All around us, other cities build projects that stretch our imagination and make us feel wonder and delight. Architecture can deliver this promise–and it can do so in the guise of creating a contemporary Philadelphia vernacular. Neo-neo-colonial no more.
About the author
Nathaniel Popkin is the co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior script editor of the documentary film series "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." He's the author of Song of the City: An Intimate Portrait of the American Urban Landscape and The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia.