O’Neill goes to bat against “Ugly Buildings”

April 9

By Matt Blanchard
For PlanPhilly

It’s been a week since his idea to fast-track the creation of a design review commission got a distinctly cool reception from the new administration.

But Councilman Brian O’Neill is still running hot: Frustrated with the number of “ugly buildings” going up around the city, O’Neill has asked the Planning Commission to draft legislation to create a design review commission – an appointed body of professional architects and planners that would vet new projects before they mar the skyline.

“You can’t find anyone who disagrees with the basic fact that not having design review is wrong, and that we’re living in the past,” O’Neill says.

Earlier this month, Nutter planning czar Andrew Altman told The Inquirer such a board might not be the answer – and any tinkering with the city’s planning system would take time.

“Everyone wants to do it quickly,” Altman had said. “We have to do it thoughtfully.”

But on Wednesday, O’Neill continued his campaign before the Zoning Code Commission, on which he sits, urging members to speak up for design review now: “The mayor may veto it, city council may not like it, but this commission should let the council know how they feel about it,” O’Neill told the group.

O’Neill rarely comes off like a design wonk. He wears no fancy glasses, and his councilmanic district in Northeast Philly is far from the architectural cutting edge. So what makes him so urgent about urban design?

 “It’s the frustration,” he said on Wednesday. “And it’s the ugly buildings.”

“I have asked the planning commission over the years: What can be done about this?” O’Neill said. “The answer has always been the same: ‘We’re just advisory. We have no teeth. We can’t force anything.’… Well, in other cities they can, and they do force things. Many other cities have design review – it’s required.”

O’Neill has a point. Design review boards are well established in cities like Baltimore, Boston, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Phoenix. Most are advisory, providing useful suggestions on how to humanize big projects.

But other boards, like Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel (UDARP) have unfettered veto power over plans they don’t like; UDARP once sent a major developer back to the drawing board because his $80 million mixed-use project was “too dark and simple.” Newspapers cover UDARP as they would any city agency, generating public involvement in design issues that get little air time in Philadelphia.

O’Neill would stop short of giving a Philadelphia board the power of UDARP, but not far short.  “I want teeth,” he says.

“The administration says ‘Oh, this is going to take a long time to get design review in place.’” O’Neill said.  “Well I don’t think we’re inventing anything here. Let’s get it in front of council, let everybody weigh in and come up with something. If it’s not perfect, we have three years or so to perfect it.”

Finally, PlanPhilly had to ask: Which “ugly buildings” have upset the councilman so?

O’Neill hinted toward South Broad Street, but as an experienced politician, he ultimately declined to name names.

Contact the reporter at blanchard.matt@gmail.com

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