Opposition to Unisys sign heard by ZBA

Image courtesy of www.phillyskyline.com

Aug. 14

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

The Center City Saga of the Sign will continue after another intermission.

The Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment continued a July 23 two-hour variance hearing at 9 a.m. Thursday on whether or not Unisys Corp. could put a red, electric, 11-foot-high Unisys logo on the façade of the 38th and 39th floors of Two Liberty Place (which are not occupied). It allotted four hours today for the company to finish with the testimony of its own witnesses and for the opposition to present.

“We’ll see how we do,” said ZBA chairperson Susan Jaffe, after the swearing in. “I’m not making any promises after last time.”

It was a prescient qualifier, because four more hours was not enough. At 1:30 p.m., the ZBA adjourned, agreeing to set up yet another special session to hear the rest of the testimony within the next two weeks – the board’s Jersey Shore vacation plans be damned. Jaffe said she’d make sure an entire day would be made available, if needed.

Bring a lunch.

“Unless you’re in Europe,” you better get here, Jaffe said.

Unisys’ last witness (and the first witness of the day) was an electrical engineer, Carl Watson, who said that the impact of the sign would be tempered by the existing ambient lighting from other Center City buildings as well as street-level lighting. He said the logo, encased in heavy-gauge aluminum and powered by light-emitting diodes, would not be visible from inside the building. In fog or moist air, any kind of glow would be “transitory and negligible,” he said.

“It’s not a very bright sign, actually,” Watson said.

From then on, it was a parade of expert testimony from witnesses describing what they consider the horror of Unisys’ proposed sign. An attorney from the company’s law firm, Drinker Biddle & Reath, Mary Kohart, dodged in and out of the proceedings with occasional cross examination, much of which prompted, “Objection – outside the scope of the witness’ testimony” from attorney Shannon Levin (of Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin) and an occasional  “Let’s move on” or its equivalent from Jaffe.

The opposition brought in a heavy-hitter – Scott Pratt, the project architect for the Liberty Place towers, of Chicago-based Murphy/Jahn. The renowned architect Helmut Jahn designed both One Liberty and Two Liberty as a set, Pratt said, though they were built and finished several years apart. But Pratt was the everyday guy, he said, interacting with the late developer of Liberty Place, Willard Rouse, often.

Because they were the first buildings to break the unofficial height limit of the City Hall tower, Pratt said that Rouse wanted buildings that “were designed as a crown of the city of Philadelphia,” approved by City Council and “above criticism of any kind.” Pratt said the buildings were originally conceived as identical, but in order to create a memorable, unique form, that was changed. “The buildings were designed as a lead actor and a supporting actor.”

Further, he said both buildings, as soaring icons of a new Philadelphia, were “never meant to incorporate signage” above the second floors. “The intent was that the building would serve as its own sign,” Pratt said. He cited similar thoughts behind Chicago’s Sears Tower and the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Unisys has signed a lease to move 225 employees – and their accompanying city wages taxes – from its current Blue Bell, Pa. headquarters to Two Liberty, and has made some noise about jettisoning the deal if it does not get its variance for the sign.

Also testifying was Salvatore Mancini, of the Boca Raton-based Falcone Group, who said his firm has invested $100 million into a handful of condominiums in Two Liberty, along with the people who live there.

“This sign has no place on that building,” Mancini said. “It will be re-branded the Unisys building.”

Other buildings with signage – the PSFS Building, the Blue Cross tower, the PNC and PNB buildings, the Aramark tower, the United Way offices and the SmithKline Beecham building, among others, were discussed in detail, pro and con, with regard to the Unisys request for a variance.

Representatives from the Center City Residents’ Association, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, the Society Hill Civic Association, the Queen Village Neighborhood Association and the Design Advocacy Group of Philadelphia were all registered on the record as against the sign.

Also testifying was Cigna Corp., by far the largest tenant of Two Liberty Place. The fact that Unisys’ lease was for just 7 percent of the building’s square footage was brought up several times by several witnesses.

The sign would “mar and tarnish the aesthetics of the building and the skyline,” said Chris Curran, a spokesman for Cigna, during the one break in the action. “We also happen to be undergoing a re-branding campaign,” he said, citing buses, billboards and other means of doing so. “There are other ways of re-branding” than putting a giant sign on a landmark building, he said.

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.


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