Cecil Baker And The Redemption Of 1900 Chestnut Street

 

Editor’s Note: When Pearl Properties unveiled plans for a 341-foot-tall apartment tower to fill the Boyd Theater site at 19th and Chestnut Street late last spring the city’s collective architecture and design worlds were appalled. Eimer Architecture’s lackluster design was so ill-conceived that it was unanimously rejected by the Architecture Committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. The Center City Residents’ Association and surrounding neighbors were dead-set against the proposal. Redevelopment of the site was contentiously stalled and appeared to be headed to where many large projects go to die–the courts. Continuous litigation between Penn and near neighbors was what ultimately doomed the Italianate mansion at 40th & Pine and why the Dilworth House project on Washington Square has gone nowhere in nearly a decade.

Instead, a group of near neighbors, including residents of 1920 Chestnut Street, The William Penn House, and Rittenhouse Plaza, chose to “architect up” and retained Cecil Baker + Partners for the new design. While Baker’s involvement in the project solved various urbanist problems, changes to the plan have also necessitated the demolition of the remaining section of the Boyd Theater’s auditorium that advocates for the Boyd had thought were going to be saved (demolition had stopped in June). Demolition began again this week. 

Contributor Stephen Stofka sat down with architect Cecil Baker to discuss his redesign of 1900 Chestnut, the value of working with neighborhood stakeholders on development projects, and the fundamental synergy between dense, new construction and the city’s existing historic fabric.

Cecil 03

Cecil Baker stepped in as architect for Pearl Properties’ development of 1900 Chestnut after Eimer Architecture’s designs were overwhelmingly panned by neighbors, the Historical Commission’s Architecture Committee, and critics | Photo: Bill Cramer, Wonderful Machine

Stephen Stofka: How did you first get involved in the 1900 Chestnut project?

Cecil Baker: I had done the same for One Riverside. That was a by-right project. A bunch of stakeholders in the neighborhood said, “We want our voice heard in the process,” even though this developer had the full right to do whatever. So we got together and went through this process with the stakeholders and it ended up being a win-win situation. The developer actually wound up with a better building, the neighbors got what they wanted, and everybody was happy because money wasn’t spent in the process.

The fellow who headed that up called me and asked if we would be willing to meet with the stakeholders connected to 1900 Chestnut whose viewshed was going to be impacted and see if there was a way that we could do the same kind of thing. It was really a design process, and not a legal process, that went towards the resolution of the site.

What makes this process a little bit different from working with a community organization, which is traditionally the way stakeholders get to have their concerns shared with the developer, is that the stakeholders accepted the fact that they would have to live with what the developer here could build by-right. Developers buy sites based on the assumption of, “This is what you’re allowed to put in,” and so that was real important for me to understand, because I then felt like I could have a dialogue with the developer and say, “Look, you will end up with something that is economically on par with what you had in mind. It’s going to be a different configuration, but your dollars are not affected. Is that fair?” And the stakeholders agreed to that paradigm.

I’ve been a developer in the past and had my own development company. I’ve built a lot of units in Philadelphia. I’ve also been on a community organization board. I sit on the Civic Design Review for the City, so I’ve seen what happens.

SS: Early reports suggested that your relationship with Pearl Properties started out a bit on the testy side. Would you describe that characterization as accurate or not?

CB: Well, not “testy,” but we’d never worked with Pearl Properties. They felt they had a perfectly good design with another architect. I think their fear or their chagrin was that, “Look, we can build this by-right. We’ve interpreted the regulatory framework and we can get zoning. So why should we throw all of that work out?”

But what I’ve come to find out about Pearl is that they tend to be players who stay under-the-radar. They do things their way. I have to say as an architect, and more as a citizen of Philadelphia, that their stuff has been good. In some cases, very good. In my community, Washington Square West, they’ve done several projects that have all become real assets because they attract a great retail presence. They are urban developers who ply their trade knowing that they have to somehow make the communities in which they are placing their stuff happy with the results. Their heart is totally in the right place. In this case, they were surprised by the community reaction. They were surprised by what they got. “Hurt is probably too strong a word, but they were sort of amazed that the anger came up, because they saw themselves as great citizens of Philadelphia. I mean, they took Bonwit Teller’s and they made it into a great building. They bought the Latham Hotel, they bought the building next to Lululemon. They’re doing these wonderful things in Philadelphia.

SS: And they were surprised by just this one project.

CB: Yes, they were surprised that everybody got up in arms. You know, they’d spent money, and they paid for the site based on what they could do by-right. But, we were new people coming in and they were on the defense. I could also add that in the process, they felt like they were saving the Boyd Theater and the Alexander building.

SS: They saw themselves as being the saviors of the site rather than the destroyers.

CB: That’s right. They really did see themselves that way.

North perspective of the new tower, the Alexander building rebuild, and the facade of the Boyd Theater | Rendering: Cecil Baker + Partners

SS: What was the guiding design principle behind 1900 Chestnut?

CB: Their building ran east-west, set back from Sansom Street. And it was a long slab, virtually cheek-to-jowl with Kate’s Place. It was casting a shadow on a big part of Chestnut Street, but it was also impacting the viewshed of many of the buildings around it. When we started we felt the building should go north-south. It minimizes the impact of shade and shadow and helps with the viewshed.

The building next to Kate’s Place, we said, should be held 25 feet away from it, and should be at the same height. Kate’s Place is a beautiful piece of architecture, so how do we keep the scale of it? They have windows on the side, people living in there, and so we said, “The building has to come away from that side.” In doing this, the building became taller and skinnier, and this is where money is coming out of the pocket of [Pearl partners] Jim Perelstein and Reed Slogoff.

When you do a building, a concrete building, which is what’s viable these days in Center City, you try to get a floorplate of around 12 to 15,000 square feet because that can be poured in one day. When you get to a smaller floorplate you lose a half day for every day of pouring. So it has the impact of making the building not only more expensive, but the process much longer.

SS: A one-two punch.

CB: Yes. This is what happened in Vancouver. Contractors and developers had been limited to small-plate buildings, and that’s accepted now. In Philadelphia, that’s a tough sell, but that’s where we ended up. In order to do the kinds of things that we’re doing, the building had to twist north-south, and, to keep the same economics, it became taller.

All of these things became issues for certain people on the stakeholders’ committee who didn’t like the idea that it was becoming taller, but they saw the other advantages. It removed the building from the immediate environs of the Boyd and the Alexander building and could all stay at basically the same scale. It twisted and became narrower and went up like a tube of toothpaste that you just squeeze.

We also minimized the viewshed disturbance, maintained light and air for Kate’s Place, and set the tower back from Chestnut Street. Another thing that concerned me was that every time I was on Sansom Street I would observe all kinds of trucks parked down here. The original scheme had all the service to the building coming off Sansom Street, which is becoming one of the more interesting streets in town because of its scale. It goes up and down, up and down, and has all kinds of neat things starting to happen on it. Why kill it by having loading docks?

There was already a curb cut on 20th Street. We said, “we’ll keep exactly the same curb cut, but let’s take the loading out of Sansom Street and bring it into the building, and amalgamate the loading for this whole complex including all the stores on Chestnut Street–Kate’s Place, 1930 [Chestnut], etc. Let’s create a service corridor within the Perelstein project that takes care of virtually every building on the block. Not only for delivery, but also for trash removal. Let’s get the trucks off the street and bring them into the heart of this block. Perelstein and Slogoff bought into that concept and have made agreements with the surrounding buildings.

This is one of the plusses that’s happened. Everybody’s got a contract with this loading dock now, and they’ll all be using the same trash remover, so it’s all amalgamated and taken care of internally, with minimal impact on the block. The curb cut that’s used for parking is the same curb cut that’s used for all the loading. We don’t want trucks backing in or out. When trucks back in or out they have those beepers going. That’s an urban noise that happens early in the morning and it’s very disturbing to people who live in the city. So we said to Pearl Properties, “We want it to be done so that trucks can turn around within your project,” so they can always head in nose-first and head out nose-first.

Initial sketches for 1900 Chestnut redesign | Drawings: Cecil Baker

Initial sketches for 1900 Chestnut’s redesign | Drawings: Cecil Baker + Partners

SS: With the loading dock: Has any thought been given to integrating it with subsequent development that would occur in the parking lot? For example, as a shared loading feature or maybe an overbuild of the loading dock.

CB: Yes. That’s a great question. The ramp comes in and the ramp goes up and down. It’s a single-width ramp to minimize the impact on 20th Street. It’s one of those that has a light on the top and the bottom so when a car’s coming up the car at the top gets out of the way. It minimizes the impact. Then the service ramp is right next to it. When it comes in, there’s a hole in the area in here, which is where the trucks turn around. This corridor worms its way through and serves everything.

SS: Would they be allowed to overbuild the easement?

CB: Yes.

SS:That begs the questions of how the Boyd’s remnants are being integrated into the site.

CB: There’s nothing being built over the Boyd or the Alexander building. It really comes down to the concourse structure on Sansom. Understand that we’re not responsible for what’s under construction right now.

SS: Basically the part facing Chestnut right now is all still the Eimer design?

CB: That’s right. Everything that’s under construction at this point. We don’t have anything to do with the Boyd or the development on Chestnut Street. That’s not in our contract.

HC: How much of a stamp did your firm put on your particular part of the design?

CB: We’re working on that right now. What I was after was creating a cradle of a structure, of architecture, that referred to the buildings in the immediate vicinity to these, specifically Kate’s Place and the Alexander building. The new one would respond to the architecture of those buildings and be a cradle to a glass tower. We’re taking the Eimer design and the materials that they’re using, which are actually very, very good materials, and weave them right into what we’re doing. We’re not turning our back on Eimer, we’re…

SS: …integrating with Eimer and adding your own mark with the actual tower?

CB: That’s right.

SS: As you mentioned, Eimer is still doing the architecture of the Target Express and the Boyd lobby. If you were to wildly prognosticate and assume that lots of things were to happen in the future–say the whole site gets up-zoned–what would the long-term future of the actual corner of the parcel be?

CB: Well, the only way that would happen is if zoning changed, because right now what is being built is to the envelope of the FAR (floor area ratio). Effectively, as long as the city stands by the rules that it’s put in place nothing can happen.

SS: That is something I pointed out in my last article about the project. The site does seem a tad underzoned.

CB: This is a conversation that’s going on in the city right now for all of us.

SS: Do you see yourself either fulfilling this particular role with an RCO–being the person that they come to in order to try and get better design solutions–or do you see yourself working with developers like Pearl again?

CB: When I took this job on it was purely advisory. The fact that Pearl selected us as architects caused me discomfort. I would do this again with the understanding that I would work with the architects that are already in place.

SS: So you would rather be a consultant or liaison?

CB: Yes, yes. I would rather not take work away from other architects. We have hard enough things to deal with in this city as it is. I think with Southern Land and the 1900 Walnut Street project there is a stakeholder process in place.

massing

From top: massing details of Eimer Architects first two designs and Cecil Baker + Partner’s final redesign | Rendering: Cecil Baker + Partners

SS: Do you think this type of process will lead to better outcomes?

CB: I think it will. My issue is when you go the normal community route, say, with the CCRA, there are so many voices in the room that sometimes you can’t cut to the chase. The advantage of the stakeholder process is that there is a narrower focus and you’re dealing with people who are immediately impacted and have strong feelings about the site, but they have to go into this conversation with the idea that the developer is expecting x out of this project and they may not be able to make it work if they reduce their x to a y. But I think there’s a real opportunity for a stakeholder process in the case of 1900 Walnut and Southern Land if there is an issue, especially if the historic buildings in the back (Rittenhouse Coffee Shop, Warwick Apartment House, and Oliver H. Blair Funeral Home) are a bone of contention.

Our city is made up of small parochial voices. It’s a city of neighborhoods, of smaller voices, which, I think, if orchestrated can create music for the city. It can become so positive, because that energy coupled with the energy of development is such a positive force for us.

SS: So, you see task forces, advisory committees, and architectural consulting as a growing trend?

CB: Yes. Instead of pitting two law firms against each other. I mean, the threat that exists, the reason these things happen, is that most developers realize that they can probably get what they want, but it’s going to take them two to four years. Or more! 5th and Walnut took almost eight years.

SS: Wow. I was thinking of the Dilworth House site as well.

CB: That’s a truly perfect example of something that can be made into a great city asset. The Dilworth House and a new building somehow integrated on a beautiful square, and we’re stopping it from happening because of the litigation process. Because Society Hill and the developers are both powerful and can’t see eye-to-eye, but both think they can outspend each other.

We all know that time is a killer for a developer. That’s the big weapon, you know? Paul Boni and people like that who do great things for the city know that the Achilles heel of a developer is time.

SS: Because the developer wants to get their site financed and built. Time spent means that the financing starts to unravel and fall apart.

CB: The other thing here, which I see as a sea change in Philadelphia, is that the Millennials have a different attitude towards living in the city. People of my generation come from a NIMBY background. We got in and we brought change, but, now, heaven forbid that anybody comes to us with further changes. Bart Blatstein once said to me that his greatest enemy out there in the city was former hippies. Smart people who got their chance and now they don’t want anything to change. The Millennials have brought a breath of fresh air. They’re seeing our city in the context of other cities. They see the energy and the beautiful urbanism that comes out of the extra density. We all want our history kept, but there’s no reason you can’t have new architecture woven in, and have both of them live cheek-to-jowl, each one reflecting off the other creating a beautiful story of what the city is.

SS: I think that the best cities in the world all have this as a feature.

CB: They absolutely do.

SS: Jane Jacobs once said, “New enterprises need old buildings.”

CB: They do. They need that framework, and Philadelphia is full of them.

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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3 Comments


  1. Interesting article as I have wondered why they did not simply exercise their right and pull permits for a build by right design. How could a judge block a project when it is already a permitted build by right design that cannot be stopped by a judge? NIMBYs were winning in the neighborhood by simply opposing anything that was a build by right as if they thought nothing should be done. Nobody, me included has respect for NIMBYs who whine and have nothing to back their claims.

    What happened was a neighbor with money took the ultimate gamble by offering to pay for an architect to redesign the plans and got the assent of Pearl. Choosing Cecil Baker to make the alternate design and giving Pearl the option to accept or reject the design obviously convinced them to go along with the plan. Unofficially, Pearl may have been told by the city they would have been kept waiting for a permit for a very long time while spending good money in legal fees and this type of extortion by the city on a by right project was the reason they agreed to let Baker redo the design.

  2. The final design might have been a redemptive compromise by Baker, but the fact remains that the block was unjustly and carelessly mangled by the actions of CCRA NIMBYs living in neighboring highrises and the Historical Commission when overbuild, even with setbacks, at the corner of 19th/Chestnut was effectively disallowed for the BS reason of “overpowering” the unremarkable and vestigially meaningless Boyd facade. The ground floor plan extends over every vacant parcel like an octupus’ tentacles just in order to collect enough FAR rights to build the tower. The Boyd thus became collateral that was forced to become demolished because of this political wrangling, and other lots simply become wasted lobby space in the process. That first sketch placing the tower on Chestnut instead of Sansom is logical, compact, did not require Boyd demolition, does not affect the neighboring Southern Land development, and is far more architecturally responsive instead of the three-story travesty of a retail building. The CCRA deserves no applause here.

  3. But in the long run this is a better solution for neighborhood and for the city.

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