By Thomas J. Walsh
The 20-somethings at the door didn’t seem as if they were being paid, but one couldn’t help but do a double-take. It’s not every day that you see YIMBYs – Yes-In-My-Back-Yard folks – handing out professionally printed posters. It was enough to make one jittery that Election Day was not over after all.
“Build it!” the posters scream. “We support ACC.”
The ACC of their desire is, of course, the American Commerce Center, the 2.2 million square-foot, $1.1 billion, 1,500-foot-high, behemoth, mixed-use, would-be tower slated for 18th and Arch streets. Developers for the project were again on the agenda for Tuesday’s monthly meeting of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, and again they dominated the afternoon. Approval was sought for a zoning re-mapping ordinance (C4 to C5) and other amendments such as an exception to special height limits of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway controls.
Of course, NIMBYs were in the house, too. In fact, the house was a specially chosen one to deal with the expected ACC-inspired crowd: the auditorium of the Friends Select School, not far from the Planning Commission’s normal monthly meeting location atop One Parkway. Because of the amount of public comment at previous meetings, Deputy Mayor Andrew Altman limited Tuesday’s comments to two minutes. Some two dozen people signed up to speak.
“We did have a hearing before, where we heard extensive testimony,” Altman said.
The developers and architects were given as much time as they needed for full presentations, updated a bit, and they took it, with several sets of slides, a healthy amount of public lobbying and a presentation of the project’s economic benefits by a consultant, ultimately stretching the meeting toward dusk (it started shortly after 1 p.m.). There was a presentation on the environmental wonders to be employed by the building, and a demonstration of parking and traffic issues and studies.
There were good points to be made on both sides of the issue, but a big result of the ponderous, mostly redundant information sessions from the architects was a slow filtering out of the assembled public, many of whom might have had other things to attend to – such as, say, jobs.
“Really the fundamental question before us today” relates to the strict request for re-zoning, the density, the trajectory of the central business district and the incentives for the public, Altman said.
“The second set of questions get more into the specifics of the plan of development” – the plazas, the loading docks and the impact studies. “I think those, we can all deliberate on when it comes back to us. I don’t think we have to make our decision based on whether we believe all of those studies are adequate or we have to accept all the conclusions of those studies.
“There’s going to be another time to do that with the plan of development, and more conversation. As you heard many people say, ‘This is an ongoing conversation with the members of the community.’ So I think we should note those.”
Regarding the benefits, Altman said his impressions were that PCPC director Greenberger and the staff did a “very good analysis as to where the [central business district] is headed, that it isn’t just Market Street and JFK … In fact the reality is that the ACC “is appropriate for more density and greater height and can handle this kind of development as the core of Philadelphia looks to its future.”
He told Greenberger he did a very good job on the re-zoning recommendation, and that the series of bonuses that accompany the C5 re-designation are mostly appropriate, but that if certain aspects of the design are buttonholed for a while – like the verification for LEED certification and a review of the public concourse – it “does make sense to separate out.
“It’s not a huge impact, but I think if it’s going to be applied … we should look at it applying fairly across the board to all of what would be the office core. So it could benefit this development, it could benefit other developments.
“Again, this starts a process,” Altman stressed, but the ordinance would not take effect until the plan of development was approved, and with that, “many of these details get approved. “I’m very supportive of the staff recommendation. I think there’s been a lot of work done.”
Follow-up work would include a more clear definition of the line between the central business district and residential neighborhoods, he said.
He motioned to approve the staff’s positive recommendation, and it was granted.
One way or another
Steve Mullin, the former city Commerce Director and current principal at Econsult Corp., hired to assess the development, addressed property values surrounding the site, and the likely increased earnings, taxes and economic activity. “One thing we’ve noticed with Comcast and the Cira Centre,” he said, is that office-users have moved up in terms of quality, while low-end office space was converted into apartments or condominiums over the past decade.
“I know one thing – 1.5 million square feet of office space will be built in this area, in this time frame,” Mullin said. “Why not here,” instead of points north of Bensalem or way out west in Chester County? Acknowledging the current credit crisis that is freezing any kind of commercial real estate development from Boston to Los Angeles, Mullin said that the building is at least four years away.
“Timing could well be perfect,” he said, especially since it meets not only local needs, but national objectives – by maximizing public transportation, minimizing the use of cars, investing in infrastructure (all you hear right now is “Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure!” Mullin exclaimed) and the erection of an environmentally friendly office tower that is mixed-use, not closed off to the public.
Peter Kelsen, legal counsel to the developer, said the proposal was of “masterful design and an iconic piece of architecture,” and that some changes since a July presentation to the commission have been built on that. With the commission’s recommendation for zoning changes, the bill goes before City Council’s Rules Committee in early December. “Finally and perhaps most important,” Kelsen said, is that a “refined plan of development” only then would come back to the Planning Commission.
In addition to challenges posed by the Planning Commission staff to create additional substance to the concourse that would connect to Suburban Station via the new Comcast Center underground infrastructure, vertical connection to the third- and sixth-floor active public garden areas were added or improved, Kelsen said.
“Tens of millions of dollars in tax ratables” will be had during the construction period, Kelsen said, with up to 9,000 permanent jobs after that. Over its first decade, hundreds of millions in tax revenues will be the yield from the ACC alone, not to mention development that comes in its wake.
“For cities to succeed, they need to change and they need to grow,” said Eugene Kohn, the globally respected head of the architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates PC. He then pretty much repeated the classroom-type presentation he gave the commissioners and the assembled public a few months ago – the one that can now be categorized as the slightly patronizing one, including the bit about the Eiffel Tower originally being vehemently opposed by Parisians of the time. And how it is unimaginable that the Benjamin Franklin Parkway might never have been built. Or that City Hall changed the scale of Philadelphia. And so on.
Kohn did stress that the American Commerce Center would be essentially two buildings, dominated by office space in the main body and the hotel in the secondary leg, joined by a unique mid-level public garden suspended at about the height of Billy Penn’s hat. He said that the design was “sensitive to view corridors” in the way it is situated, a response to one of the big complaints from denizens of the adjacent Kennedy House and its neighbor, the Sterling, on John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
“This building will give a crescendo” to the other towers of the skyline, Kohn said. “It is the density that this project has” that allows amenities for the public.
“Density” was the key word. Commissioner Alan Greenberger, presiding over his first official meeting as full-time executive director, said that he had met with the developers, Logan Square neighbors and residents of the Kennedy House to navigate a “sense of where this ought to go.”
“The essential question, as the staff sees it, is about density,” Greenberger said. He said that the staff is fine with lifting the height restriction. Since plans call for the ACC’s massive spire to top out at half-again the height of the Comcast Center, that’s no small thing, since the limit for the current 18th & Arch site is less than 130 feet, a result of restrictions and setbacks from the nearby Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
As for the re-zoning from C4 to C5, the thinking is that it works, given the density of buildings on JFK that do not have not publicly accessible space, including the Kennedy and the Sterling. More important, office tower development since the late 1980s bunched north off Market Street and toward the Parkway, when it seems like the logical continuation would have been west, Greenberger said.
A reason it did not, Greenberger said, might be that a major transit station was planned for blocks just west of 18th Street. “In the view of the staff, had this whole area been subject to some sort of analysis” over the past decades (which Greenberger said it had not been), the area toward 19th and 20th streets would have been designated C-5. “That part of the ordinance makes sense to us.”
As for traffic and other issues, “Our instincts are that the developers are correct,” Greenberger said, but “further and more refined analysis” was needed on the extension of the underground concourse and certain environmental concerns. Any zoning changes granted would be contingent on a successful plan of development in the coming months.
There were assorted, minor questions from several other commissioners before the floor was finally opened to owners of dissenting opinions. Unlike the ACC builders, they were hampered by the buzzer, sounded when their mere minutes were up.
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A report on other matters heard before the Planning Commission will be posted here Wednesday.