Pitching a super-skyscraper to PCPC

April 29
Previous coverage

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Asking for a re-zoning ordinance to erect the tallest building in Philadelphia and the fourth highest in the nation requires a certain fortitude from a developer. Calling the $1 billion project a template and guidepost for smart modern zoning, a natural border for Center City’s office district and a bellwether for future enterprise is a little beyond most presentations, in terms of cost, scale and ambition.

But that confidence, accompanied by a low-key, Philadelphia-style joie de vivre, on display Tuesday at a special meeting of the City Planning Commission, is what will be needed to build and book the American Commerce Center, its developers say. The proposed 1,500-foot tower, a 2.2 million square-foot mixed-use development of office, high-end retail and residential space, would soar above the Philly skyline and occupy most of the 1800 block of Arch Street on what is now a surface parking lot.

Philadelphia developer Walnut Street Capital and its architect, the New York-based Kohn Pederson Fox – designers of the Mellon Bank Center, the Logan Square towers, the Four Seasons Hotel and other city landmarks – say the American Commerce building is the next step in Philadelphia’s evolution to an internationally recognized city for modern design, tourism and trade.

The team is “trying to get away from project-specific legislation that we’ve seen for decades,” said Peter Kelsen, a land use and real estate attorney for Blank Rome LLP, representing the developer.

Kelsen, also a member of the city’s newly formed Zoning Code Commission, didn’t mention specific projects or developers, but planning commissioners were probably reminded – not so indirectly – of the Stamper Square development set to begin in Society Hill on the site of the former NewMarket. There, recently approved re-zoning for a mixed-use development is contingent on a “sunset clause.” If certain progress has not been made after a year, re-zoning (“spot-zoning,” is the term of its critics) is revoked.

The developer’s presentation was comprehensive for what was called an early “information only” session with the Planning Commission, and further along perhaps than many interested parties had bargained for. Within two weeks, Walnut Street said it hopes to have a major study complete that would address the feasibility of connecting the tower with SEPTA’s underground commuter tunnel, an aspect of the project that could reduce its current plan for hundreds of underground parking spaces.

Also within two weeks, it is expected that a traffic analysis will be done. A fortnight is also the timeframe for completion of a review by Econsult Corp., a Philadelphia firm which provides “economic consulting services to assist business and public policy decision-makers.” Kelsen said the team has engaged Econsult to review the effects of the new project on the market value of surrounding buildings, such as The Sterling Apartment Homes, “as well as the  ripple effect for the city globally and on a micro level.”

These studies would help with the developer’s efforts to remove height restrictions and to re-zone the property to C5 commercial. The project, with a tapered, revenue-generating broadcast pinnacle, would be a third again as high as the new Comcast Center and about three times as high as William Penn’s hat atop City Hall.

“We have homework to do with the community,” Kelsen said. “But we do have a window which is fairly finite, and we would like to come back to the [Planning] Commission well before the June recess of [City] Council.”

The above information came toward the end of Walnut Street’s time with the commission. The majority of the presentation was given by Lloyd Sigal of Kohn Pedersen Fox, who said the firm takes its design cues from the context in which it is building. “I look at it as a vertical interpretation of a Rockefeller Center type of development,” he said, referring to public gardens and spaces that would occupy two floors, at different levels, above street level. “We think tall buildings need to hit the ground in a very graceful way.”

Paramount in design and in the quest for big-name tenants is the environmental aspect of the design. Sigal said a “gold” LEED rating is the goal, with active and passive rain and gray water storage, bicycle areas with showers for pedaling commuters, “high performance facades” and “co-generation plants,” as well as the garden roofs planned for the multi-level tower.

Included in the proposal is “destination-oriented” retail. “When you internalize entrances, you make for a fairly dead exterior,” Sigel said. The building would also have a large chain health club, a supermarket and a luxury high-tech cinema among its planned 310,000 square feet of retail space.

Kelsen said development and density on this scale allows for better function and flow, even in Center City Philadelphia, where very tight spaces make for challenging building. “It’s not rocket science anymore – it’s done all around the world. I’m told density promotes sustainability,” he said, adding that a larger scale allows for more environmentally sound designs.

Planning Commission Vice Chair Alan Greenberger, himself an architect, said he thought the team presented “a very thoughtfully done set of images.” But he was dubious about the idea of the tower being a natural border for high-rise office buildings, and questioned whether plans for Cuthbert Street would allow for enough room to service so many and varied tenants to handle trash, daily delivery trucks, food and other necessities.

“A huge amount of attention for this proposal, to go forward, needs to be paid to that street,” Greenberger said. “What can we really expect for 2 million square feet of space? Is [the plan for] Cuthbert realistic? Should it be wider? Should some of your property be pushed back? … You’re packing an awful lot of life into this building.”

Greenberger added that “the other thing that warrants more discussion is the legitimacy of public plazas in the air.”

Garrett Miller, Walnut Street Capital’s president, was on hand for the presentation, and answered a few questions in matter-of-fact style. He and Kelsen said that there were no special tax incentives to be furnished by the city for the development, other than a 10-year tax abatement. The 10-year tax abatement was initiated in the late 1990s by then-Mayor Rendell and City Council for developers that turned abandoned buildings into apartments. It was followed by allowances for condominiums, and later, other types of homes.
Kelsen sees the tower as Philadelphia’s signature building, and as such, a magnet for a major company’s headquarters. “This is an example of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” he said. Those kinds of tenants “are out there. It’s a short list.”

Two representatives of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, President Rob Stuart and board member James McGrath, were on hand to express caution. City planning chief Andrew Altman asked them to keep the commission informed of their own set of planning guidelines as they are finalized later this year.

No other opposition was voiced, but questions were limited by Altman, who intimated that the session was given in good faith, or as a courtesy, to help set an early-stage precedent he’d like to see for the new Planning Commission.

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Planning Commission is May 20. That’s three weeks away, a week after the developer’s several major studies are said to be ready, and not long before City Council is due to recess for the summer.

Among the hotels

The 320 hotel rooms planned for the American Commerce Center would be among almost 1,400 new rooms slated for Center City, said David Schaaf, an urban designer for the Planning Commission staff. Schaaf, quoting statistics from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC), gave the commissioners an overview of the downtown hotel scene before the American Commerce presentation.

Currently, Schaaf said that 521 rooms are under construction, with another 843 in differing approval stages for Center City hotels, most clustered about the Pennsylvania Convention Center. PIDC says Center City could absorb another 1,100 on top of that total, Schaaf said, largely because of the Convention Center expansion slated for completion in 2010.

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com

Planning Commission: http://www.philaplanning.org
Walnut Street Capital: http://www.walnutstcapital.com
Kohn Pederson Fox: http://www.kpf.com/main.asp
Blank Rome: http://www.blankrome.com/index.cfm?contentID=10&bioID=746
Econsult.: http://www.econsult.com
Logan Square Neighborhood Association: http://www.lsnaphilly.org
PIDC: http://www.pidc-pa.org/PhiladelphiaHotelDevelopment.asp

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