Design And Density Problems Plague Boyd Project

 

Sometimes all it takes is a handful of voices to derail a project. In the year since Pearl Properties partners Jim Pearlstein and Reed Slogoff made their plans for 1900 Chestnut Street public, it has gone from a slim, elegant Center City apartment tower to a bulky, ungainly mass that got laughed out of the Architecture Committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission meeting on Tuesday.

1900 Chestnut, tower as proposed | Rendering by DAS Architects, courtesy of Pearl Properties

1900 Chestnut, tower as proposed | Rendering by DAS Architects, courtesy of Pearl Properties

Late last April the development company presented its initial plan for the 1900 Chestnut Street–an elegant, slender DAS Architects-designed Art Deco-esque tower on a constrained parcel. The building would have maintained the historically-significant Alexander Building on the corner–a building constructed for what was once the city’s preeminent African-American law firm–and rise on the three lots between it.

The plan appeared to be a fait accompli when it went before the Center City Residents Association at the beginning of May, 2014. However, the surrounding neighbors were ambivalent about it, especially about its lack of parking, and the CCRA itself felt that the developers had failed to follow proper procedure. The project was rejected, and Pearl elected not to apply for a variance.

Half a year later, Pearl purchased the Boyd Theater. Observers were anxious, but hopeful. Some speculated that they bought the lot to build by-right. Others thought they might work out a deal with advocacy group Friends of the Boyd and near neighbors to restore the theater.

Instead, in the first flush of spring, Pearl began to raze the Boyd’s gorgeous, ornate auditorium–widely regarded as the movie palace’s best feature. So far, demolition work has been slow moving and painful to watch. Though, observers remained optimistic that the lobby and façade of Center City’s last movie palace would continue to be worked into the expanded project. So, it was something of a reality check when, late last week, an entirely new project with an entirely new architect, Eisner Design, was submitted to the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

The plans were quickly criticized. The Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron was incisive in her assessment that “Based on drawings prepared by Eimer Architecture, it appears that structure will be wrapped up with metal panels, now the default on developer-built apartment buildings. That isn’t architecture; it’s a colorful form of weatherproofing.”

According to writer Jared Brey of PlanPhilly, when the Architecture Committee unanimously denied the proposal the room erupted in applause. That doesn’t happen very often.

New 27-story tower planned for site of Boyd Theatre | Rendering: Pearl Properties and Eimer Design

New 27-story tower planned for site of Boyd Theatre | Rendering: Pearl Properties and Eimer Design

Astute as these observations and critiques are, no one has directly addressed the current proposal’s utter lack of sensible urbanism.

The proposed buildings do manage to completely fill the site, offering an unbroken streetwall of retail along Chestnut and a retail wall broken only by a loading dock along Sansom. That said, there is an all-pervasive sense of inadequacy about the project as it stands. It checks the usual boxes. Nothing more, nothing less.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Architecture Committee’s Nan Gutterman, architect and project manager of design firm VITETTA, responded to Eisner’s lack of plan detail. “You obviously have some idea, you’ve drawn something,” she said. It felt like a whipcord had caught the air in the room perfectly, summing up the lack of energy, or commitment, in the architectural firm’s overall design.

One can certainly critique the placement of the buildings on the site. Sansom is a noticeably narrower street than Chestnut, and clustering high-rises there makes the street feel increasingly like an urban canyon. By contrast, the original plan to placing a tower at the corner of 19th and Chestnut would have anchored a busy corner.

At present, the structures facing the corner are generally low-lying. Some buildings along the 1800 and 1900 blocks of Chestnut Street are even single-story. By putting what is basically a retail shed on the original tower’s site, as Pearl proposes, is to perpetuate dubious, underscale urbanism in what should be one of the city’s most valuable corners.

With Pearl’s latest proposal, the Boyd’s 1920’s façade would be swallowed by the shadow of a 341-foot-tall apartment tower | Photo: Michael Bixler

Acquiring the Boyd offered Pearl Properties room to work horizontally. Their parcel is now two-to-three times larger than the original 1900 Chestnut property. This was a mistake. The concentration of the original proposal–four parcels with three to build on–led to a simple, but lauded (with the exception of the CCRA) design. Scarcity pushed the envelope, as it had with Pearl’s project on the 1600 block of Samson Street. Space, of course, is a luxury in Center City.

Yet, at the heart of Pearl’s actions after that fateful CCRA meeting in 2014 lies a simple impetus: they sought enough space to build a project that met zoning requirements. And, ultimately, 1900 Chestnut is grossly underzoned. Even though it has the second-densest zoning, Pearl can only develop a third as much on it than they could if the property lay, say, across the street.

The reason is somewhat technical: zoning in the City’s densest districts are governed by “floor area ratio,” or FAR. A structure like the Wanamaker Building, at 13th and Chestnut, covering its entire site, has a high FAR and in fact the building’s girth set the FAR benchmark for C-5, the city’s densest zone.

When the new zoning code was implemented in 2012, C-5 became CMX-5, and its maximum FAR increased from 1200 percent (or a 12-story building with total lot coverage) to 2000 percent (or a 20-story one). The CVS across 19th Street from the Pearl site is, for example, zoned CMX-5.

The problem is that the Boyd site is zoned CMX-4, with a maximum FAR of only 700 percent (i.e., a seven-story building covering the whole lot). There is no in-between. The original DAS proposal from 2014 was designed for CMX-5 and would have required a spot zoning change. The current Eisner proposal is designed to fit the site’s actual CMX-4 zoning. The difference is staggering, and an undeniable downgrade.

This is an issue that needs to be fixed through rezoning. Either expand the densest zoning classification across more of Center City’s core, or create a new classification that splits the difference between CMX-4 and CMX-5 when it comes to density. And until that happens, we can expect more gaffes like what Pearl’s done with the Boyd.

About the author

Stephen Stofka is interested in the urban form and the way we change it. A graduate of the Geography and Urban Studies program at Temple University, he enjoys examining the architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city.

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11 Comments


  1. The zoning code FARs you gave in the article are incorrect and/or slightly more complected:

    CMX-4 allows a base 500% FAR, not 700%, with bonuses allowing FARs up to 1200%.

    CMX-5 allows a base 1200% FAR with only bonuses allowing FARs up to 2000%

    In portion of Center City/University City that doesn’t include the subject property, CMX-5 allows 1600% FAR with an additional 1200% FAR in bonuses available.

    Bonuses require developer commitments that may be untenable financially or physically for certain projects, so it helps to make the difference between the base and bonus apparent.

  2. This is a build by right project. By acquiring the Boyd, they got the right to build the tower in that location. Why did they go to the Historical Commission when their jurisdiction is limited to the Boyd’s facade as permission was already given to demo the theatre by the Historical Commission on hardship grounds? Why couldn’t they simply pick up the permit at L and I and start construction right away? Because the City decided to make them beg for approval from the Historical COmmission in order to placate the supporters of the Boyd.

    About legal options, what good would it be to sue the city only to have the project held up for years while useless briefs are exchanged between both parties. How much confidence would one have in Common Pleas judges to rule accordingly that this is a by right project and let it proceed? What happens if opponents drag it to Commonwealth Court and then the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court?

    Sadly, this is the emotionalism of a small group of people who want to “save” thge Boyd by simply blocking somebody’s project already greenlighted by build by right and then held up by the city to sate powerful groups such as them. Already, there is nothing left to make it worth it to reconstruct as a movie theatre as more is chipped out instead of demoed like it should be due to the restrictions put on it by L and I. Demo contractors know how to take down a small building without harming adjoining structures, yet that was ignored by L and I.

    • This is the harsh truth. In the interim period when Pearl first acquired the Boyd parcel to this week’s proposal, where were the Friends? Did they think this battle was already lost to iPic? Why didn’t they seek negotiations with Pearl and Eimer? And it seems like all the relevant parties have put the 1900 Chestnut proposal entirely out of mind, which Pearl has all the right to do now as it does this.

      • If the Friends of the Boyd had as much political power as you claim, the theater would be currently undergoing restoration, not demolition. Our opposition was only to the destruction of the Foyer for use as a loading dock and to advocate a better restoration of the front entrance. Opposition to the rest of the project came from the other nearby residential buildings.

        Attempts were made to reach out to Pearl properties earlier but they were unresponsive.

  3. Seems to be a lot of apartment buildings being planned or built. Nice to see the city is getting back some of the departed residents, or is this all “wishful thinking.”

  4. Plus, the Historical Commission has no jurisdiction over what is built on the site of the Boyd as they are limited to the preserved façade of the Boyd, not the new building proposed by Pearl. The city is holding on to the permit event though this is a build by right project by compelling Pearl to seek approval from the Historical Commission which it does not have to do so.

    Pearl knows it does not have to do what the city has asked them to do so, given the by right it enjoys on the site just purchased.

    • I too wonder why this proposal has to go before the HC, but I doubt its as simple as you seem to imply. If that was the case Pearl could easily get a judge to allow the project to go forward by right.
      But, I am glad that someone is trying to do what they can to make improvements in this dog of a proposal. I have yet to hear one good word for it, which doesn’t surprise me. The first proposal was so well received by everyone except some near neighbors, that if Pearl had any sense they would have built onto that plan instead running first waste of paper out into the publics eye.
      The HC will roll over, Pearl will throw them a small bone and get their stamp of approval. Meaning, the HC rarely ever stands in the way of any development that has some muscle behind it, and I’m guessing the Pearl can easily afford to buy some if they haven’t already done so.

  5. The new design is underwhelming. That said had the CCRA agreed with the original proposal the current mess probably wouldn’t exist. (They were concerned about a lack of parking for a building in Center City?)

  6. I am hopeful that my written comments had some influence on the decision to reject the new proposal. I would not object to the original proposal, even though it requires a variance, because it is a handsome building, and symmetrical to the existing buildings on the block. But, I would require, and hope the City will require that a new pair of theaters be included, rather than retail, a theater-concert venue and a small recital hall; along with a full-size supermarket on Sansom Street, preferably a Fresh Grocer.
    Too many buildings are being erected without provision for basic services, other than nail salons, dry cleaners and restaurants.
    Chestnut Street west of 19th Street is entirely residential in character, with only ground-floor businesses. It is not suitable for more retail clothing stores. The City needs to be a pro-active leader on this.

  7. The zoning at the site may be stupid but then, to propose a 27-story tower on part of the parcel and almost nothing (as low as 1 story) on others is also pretty stupid. What should be criticized is the American obsession with towers. Towers aren’t practical or pretty. Something like the Wanamaker building, with a uniform facade and building height, is far better urbanism than the hodgepodge proposed here. Uniform block architecture is what you find overwhelmingly in well-built European cities. Even if the zoning allows only up to 12 storys (with bonuses, as KH states), that could provide decent urban density.

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