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.
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.
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.
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.