Images courtesy of www.phillyskyline.com
By Thomas J. Walsh
The American Commerce Center, a mixed-use tower proposed for 18th and Arch Streets, which would be among a handful of the tallest buildings in the country and a third again the height of the spanking new Comcast Center, will be back on the table Tuesday for the next meeting of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
The developer, Philadelphia-based Walnut Street Capital, will showcase more detailed views of the 2.2 million-square-foot building at the public meeting, along with plans for an ambitious underground concourse connecting the 1,500-foot tower to Suburban Station.
Gary Jastrzab, the Planning Commission’s acting executive director, said it would be another opportunity for commissioners to ask questions and get more input from the community. “I don’t anticipate the commission taking any action,” he said. Much like the first presentation, “it’ll be more of a listening opportunity.”
“Before, it was just heads-up to the development,” Jastrzab said. “There were a lot of undefined details. At this point, the development is a little bit more firmed-up. There have been a lot of community meetings with neighborhood associations and with the residents of adjacent buildings, so the developers have had feedback from those groups and from the staff of the Planning Commission to adjust their plans. They made some tweaks and introduced some public benefits.”
With a spire topping out at 1,500 feet, the American Commerce Center could edge out Chicago’s Sears Tower as the tallest building in the United States. The office portion would come to about 1,200 feet.
Perhaps the highest profile public benefit from the project was hinted at during the initial presentation – the extension of the SEPTA public transit concourse, west from Suburban Station. Jastrzab said this was included in legislation introduced by City Councilman Darrell Clarke on June 19. Clarke’s bill would grant the necessary zoning changes and require consistent oversight from the Planning Commission throughout the process.
“This will have a whole lot more detail in terms of plans and specs,” said Peter Kelsen, a land use and zoning attorney representing Walnut Street Capital. “It will be a much more in-depth briefing, with the architects (Kohn Pedersen Fox) and other consultants we’ll bring.”
Kelsen said Eugene Kohn would be present at Tuesday’s meeting. Kohn Pedersen, which operates internationally, also designed Philadelphia’s Four Seasons Hotel, the Wharton School’s Jon M. Huntsman Hall, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the airport’s International Terminal.
Concourse via the Comcast Center
With regard to the concourse, Kelsen said, “We took it up three or four notches in terms of that extension and how far we’ll go. Certainly the Suburban Station concourse is pretty viable and the plans we have are very exciting and dramatic.”
Kelsen is also a member of the city’s Zoning Code Commission. He said that several impact studies commissioned by his clients, some at the request of the Planning Commission, are complete and will be presented. The tower, with an office portion, residential space, a 30-plus story hotel and conference center, high-end retail shops and a movie theater, would occupy most of the 1800 block of Arch Street, where there is now a surface parking lot.
The concourse is being designed to link the proposed tower to the Comcast building along 18th Street, then turning north and wrapping around the entire site of the American Commerce Center, according to Garrett Miller, president of Walnut Street Capital.
“We refined the investigations they asked us to complete,” said Miller, referring to the “quagmire” of traffic, loading and parking issues. “We’ve created better linkages for the vertical public spaces [and rooftop gardens], with a very large, prominent lobby space, not too dissimilar from the Comcast winter garden lobby.”
Miller said that the Logan Square Neighborhood Association was “intimately involved” in the neighborhood discussions that took place.
“We’re in mid-stage,” said Rob Stuart, LSNA’s president. “We asked a lot of hard questions about traffic, parking, noise, wind, and we’re at the stage where the developers still have to provide detailed answers. The Planning Commission is working on getting down to the real issues … of whether or not a project of this size and intensity can work on this small a site.”
“We’ve taken their input and looked to address their concerns,” he said. “But am I looking to have a neighborhood group do my planning and design work? No. The primary design changes have been driven at the behest of City Planning.”
In that sense, the American Commerce Center, if it comes to fruition, could well be the first major construction project in the city to be undertaken within the planning mandate laid down repeatedly by Mayor Nutter since January – that all developers must make the City Planning Commission their first stop in the approval process.
“We’re sort of taking the directive of the mayor. We’re basically doing what we’re told,” Miller said, with a laugh.
Miller said there is a ballpark development cost in mind, but would not discuss it now, only that it would likely be higher than that of the Comcast Center, which is generally believed to have cost about $523 million.
“It’s a different market, but not so drastically different that it’ll be impossible to build,” he said. “You really can’t look at [the financing] today. I mean, we’re in zoning. We’re really out of the credit markets. Are the credit markets bad right now? Yes.” But two or three years from now – possibly longer – when shopping for additional funding, the story could be entirely different, he said.
Garrett said he could not comment on partnerships or tenants, but the commissioners will likely quiz him about demand for the space on Tuesday. Asked if there were any companies interested in being anchor tenants at such a signature building, he would only allow, “Possibly.”
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