PCPC: Plenty of info, question of authority

July 21

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Tuesday’s monthly meeting of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission was packed with seemingly significant development proposals, zoning implications and policy. But observers were left wondering what much of it will mean in the long run.

There was a bill introduced to the Commission today, sponsored by City Councilman Darrell Clarke regarding the American Commerce Center, that gives City Council the ultimate green light authority on that proposed multi-use project – and taking that authority away from the Planning Commission. The ACC, slated for 18th and Arch Streets, is the largest single building ever planned in the city.

Clarke’s bill was approved with very little comment, despite the fact that earlier this year, in accordance with the wishes of Mayor Michael Nutter, bills were passed that put final approval for plans-of-development squarely with the planning professionals – that is, the Planning Commission.

For developers, then, the buck, evidently, does not stop with the Commission after all – at least not yet. Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger (now also Acting Deputy Mayor of Commerce) said the body did not even necessarily seek out that responsibility when it was granted, earlier this year, by City Council.

Planning staffers said the move by Clarke did not represent a “slippery slope.” Greenberger was not immediately available for comment Tuesday evening.

“The [Philadelphia City] Charter does not allow the Commission to have the last word on plans-of-development – it only grants the Commission the ability to recommend matters to Council,” commented Paul Boni, a Center City lawyer. “This was what the Development Workshop (a group of real estate developers) convincingly argued about the [Central Delaware] overlay, and it is obvious that the American Commerce Center backers were listening.”

Boni, a Society Hill resident and attorney for Casino-Free Philadelphia, is a familiar figure to the Commission, and said he was present Tuesday only on behalf of himself. He has also been outspoken against the Stamper Square development approved for Head House Square near South Street.

“One wonders why the Commission is not similarly amending the [Commercial Entertainment District rules] to reinsert Council review there, too,” Boni said. “Their inconsistent positions on these various projects is a clear indication that something more is afoot.”

In unrelated matters, two agenda items for other major development proposals – one for Rittenhouse Square and one for the site of the soon-to-be-razed Spectrum – got the Commission’s thumbs-up. The former has been explained in detail, has been examined carefully, and was given an approval that was actually delayed for a month after the Commission sought to make sure the developer had fully communicated with as many neighborhood residents and businesses that it could.

That project is about to move on to the Zoning Board of Adjustment on July 29, where it carries the Planning Commission’s blessing, despite the objections of the influential Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. The project, from Chicago-based developer The John Buck Co., is a 30-story mixed-use tower planned for 2116-32 Chestnut Street, to be built on the site of the Sidney Hillman Medical Center.

The latter was more abstract – much more abstract.

The art of “information-only”
That would be the on-again, off-again Philly Live! mega-entertainment project, slated for a large area of the South Philadelphia stadium district, including the land where the current Spectrum sits. The 42-year-old arena is due to close soon and be demolished to make way for a large hotel, massive amount of retail, restaurant space and entertainment options.

Comcast-Spectacor is teaming with Baltimore-based Cordish Development Co. on the project, which has been in blueprints of one form or another since 1994. Formal plans for Philly Live with the highly respected Cordish, though, were publicly introduced in January 2008.

Philly Live, exclamation point, in its latest incarnation, was presented in “information only” mode to the Commissioners, which means it carries no recommendations from the Planning Commission staff. The concept is to get developers in the door early, with the Planning Commission the first step for developers in the process of bringing a project to fruition.

Gary Block, vice president in charge of Philly Live for Cordish, said the development would be one of the company’s “lifestyle urban entertainment complexes” that have become “kind of our forte.”

He showed renderings of what the gleaming facilities would look like from various angles. Block and an architect showed what was described as “a market-style building that opens up to park-like seating before or after the game.”

Philadelphia is the only city in the country right now with a stadium complex where all four major American sports have home teams. Block said that there is at least one event at the complex more than 300 days a year. “When you talk to prospective tenants, their eyes just bug out of their heads” at that fact, he said.

“The district will feature a distinctive canopy covering the center plaza area of the development and will offer visitors a unique mix of culinary, retail and entertainment experiences,” the Cordish Web site says. At that Web site, an aerial, “virtual” tour of what is envisioned can be seen.

But as detailed as it seems, the project is far from certain. And aside from a mild request from one Commissioner asking that the developer do what they can to incorporate the Broad Street subway station into the plans, no questions were asked.

“I think because it was informational, that’s why not many questions were asked,” said Commissioner Natalia Olson de Savyckyj, a transportation planner who sits on both the Planning and Zoning Code commissions. “It’s kind of at a beginning stage, they still have to vet it through the communities.”

Currently, Olson said, she sees mainly positive possibilities, calling much of the stadium complex “a wasteland of parking.”

“I think this type of development will be good to create a balanced area, with more life and activities,” she said.

The master plan of development would still need to come back to the Planning Commission for approval, with possible additional legislation, zoning or otherwise.

A local attorney at Saul Ewing, representing Cordish, said the Tuesday discussion “was the result of a series of meetings that we had with the developer, with the developer’s architect, with members of the Planning Commission, representatives from the city’s Commerce Department and other departments of the city, so it’s been a collaborative process up until now.”

“Too early”?

Commissioners, it should be noted, were given detailed drawings of the plans, along with full packages that were not available to the public. The accompanying PlanPhilly video captures a fair amount of architectural detail that was verbalized with the Cordish renderings.

With previous “information only” presentations from developers, the current group of Commissioners, taking the lead from former Commerce and Economic Development Deputy Mayor Andy Altman, have shied away from asking about how developers will finance their plans. The justification has been that it is not their job to make such inquiries at such an early stage.

Attracting and retaining high-end national developers – or at least not scaring them away – has been another priority. And in an economic environment where the credit markets are frozen solid, even the best and biggest of commercial real estate firms cannot get permanent financing, especially for large-scale, multi-year efforts that require lots of capital and plenty of pre-leasing.

Things are bad all over, but in the overall commercial real estate industry, about $1.5 trillion of debt comes due in the next few years, and lenders – those still standing – are nowhere close to being willing to re-finance loans. The amount of commercial real estate foreclosures nationwide has been spiking in recent months.

The Philly Live project is estimated at about $100 million.

No time frame was given or asked about – for construction, length of construction, or dates – targeted, desired or remotely realistic. There was no query on the number of jobs, either – construction or permanent – or the number and kinds of jobs to be created.

“The thing that got me with this one is that there’s a expansion development agreement with Comcast-Spectacor and PAID (the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development) on that site,” said Craig Schelter, a consultant who currently represents developers in the region, Schelter was a longtime executive with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC), where he was heavily involved in what he called “incredibly complicated” deals for the development of Lincoln Financial Field, the NovaCare Eagles Practice Facility and Citizens Bank Park.

Neither PAID nor PIDC were mentioned during the presentation. There were no comments or questions about other forms of tax-related funding that have been main instruments of redevelopment efforts for the past 15 years, such as tax-increment financing (TIF), tax abatements or state- and city-backed special “opportunity” zones (much of the Navy Yard, for instance, is controlled by PIDC and constitutes one of the region’s largest “Keystone Opportunity Zones”).

“I didn’t hear any of the nature of what the development agreement is right now, or any amendments that may have taken place,” said Schelter, who is also a former City Planning chief. “I guess I would’ve expected what updates [are in place]. But the fact that Cordish has been at this for two years now is really a sign that they are saying they are advancing, and have a vision now.”

Schelter’s list of unasked questions was similar to PlanPhilly’s. Though Block said the company would furnish many more parking spaces than called for in the plan, there was no mention of how parking and traffic at Philly Live would impact parking and traffic during home games for any of the teams.

Other factors which will presumably be made public later:
•    The impact on existing infrastructure (specifically, but not limited to, the subway, the surrounding surface streets and interstates 95 and 76)
•    Impact on the Navy Yard and port
•    Impact on the surrounding neighborhoods (though there was an assurance that neighbors’ “reaction has been fantastic,” there was nobody representing a neighborhood or the South Philly Sports District who testified)
•    Details on the 300-room hotel, or if there is a hotel company onboard, or interested
•    Any mention at all of eight other buildings mentioned on the agenda for the meeting
•    Retailers, and types of retail
•    Environmental factors, such as possible remediation, or green buildings

The agenda’s description of the information-only presentation for Philly Live said, “The structures are proposed to be constructed in a fashion which will provide a practical and visual connection between the existing Wachovia Center and Citizens Bank Park. The development will reduce available parking by approximately 700 parking spaces however the proposal will still exceed the required parking for the District.

“This development was approved as part of the 1994 Master Plan for the District which was part of the approval process for the construction of the Wachovia Center. In 1994 the floor area and uses were approved as part of the development process and this proposal is consistent with the Master Plan approved in 1994.”

The presentation, then, informed the Commission that in some form, a 15-year-old plan-of-development, approved by the 1994 version of the Planning Commission and the 1994 version of the Philadelphia City Council – during the near-bankrupt days of the first Rendell mayoral administration,  and before the Wachovia Center, the Linc or the Bank were in existence – is back, again.

“The  Planning Commission is now considered the place to get started, to get going, so I am assuming that’s why [the Comcast-Cordish plan] was shown today,” said Olson. “From that, they receive guidance and direction from the Planning Commission’s executive director and/or staff as to next steps, and what approvals they need to get.”

21st & Chestnut tower
The 30-story mixed-use tower slated for 2116-32 Chestnut Street, to be built on the site of an existing medical and office building, finally got the Planning Commission’s green light. The developer now moves on to see the Zoning Board of Adjustment on July 29.

The residential tower would have 322 units and related spaces, with more than 9,200 square feet of retail, about 44,000 square feet of office space (to include the continued use by the Sidney Hillman Medical Center, the building’s owner) and 119 above-grade parking spaces. The Rittenhouse Square project is bounded by Chestnut, Samson, Van Pelt and 22nd streets.

No time frame has been given for a start date should Buck receive ZBA approvals, as expected.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission approved the design, but the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia has spoken out against it, along with the demolition of the existing 1950 structure, and has appealed the Historical Commission’s decision to accept the developer’s claim of financial hardship.

Though the Planning Commission’s staff, at its June meeting, recommended approval of the zoning variances sought by the Buck Co., the commissioners decided to wait an extra month because a group of residents and business owners on 22nd Street claimed they were not informed of the demolition and re-build until just days before the meeting.  (PlanPhilly, June 24, 2009: http://www.planphilly.com/node/9184).

Two nearby churches – the First Unitarian Church and the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion – were opposed to the project, but voiced support at the June meeting, saying the developer had worked very closely with them to iron out difference and make changes to the design.

The Preservation Alliance, on its Web site, says the proposed building is “incompatible in height and character with the historic district.

“In addition, Alliance Executive Director John Andrew Gallery has suggested that the proposal may be in conflict with zoning law as indicated by the Commonwealth Court decision in 2005 regarding One Meridian Partners. In that case, the Court ruled that substantive changes in [floor-area ratio] require a re-zoning of the site, not a variance. The Court also ruled that substantial evidence of hardship in the development of the property had to be demonstrated. No such demonstration of hardship has been made by the developer or property owner.”

The Alliance noted that the revised design “slightly lowers” the original planned height and shifts the base of the building, along with the widening and landscaping of Van Pelt Street (at the rear of the property, where loading docks would be located).

Gallery, who spoke out again at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, also said the plan fails to comply with preservation guidelines set by the Secretary of the Interior, and that the Buck Co. “failed to make a sufficient case of financial hardship as required by the city’s historic preservation ordinance.”

Part of that is that the property “was not thoroughly marketed for sale,” as required by law, Gallery maintains.

The Chicago-based developer is a national heavy hitter, with numerous high-profile office, residential and mixed-use projects in New York and Chicago to its credit. It is currently redeveloping the Sears Tower for that iconic building’s new ownership.

Before his departure last month, former Deputy Mayor Andy Altman said that the John Buck Co. is “exactly the kind of developer we want to attract here.”

Tudor East Falls Historic District nomination
A proposed historic district for a portion of East Falls that includes 210 homes on the 3400 blocks of Midvale Avenue, West Penn Street, and West Queen Lane was promoted at a “review and comment” presentation before the Philadelphia City Planning Commission at Tuesday’s monthly July meeting.

The case for a “Tudor East Falls Historic District Designation” – which could be added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places – was presented by Jonathan Farnham and Erin Cote of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

Farnham and Cote explained that the district meets at least four criteria (of 10) outlined in the Historic Preservation Ordinance of the Philadelphia Code. They said it:
•    Reflects the environment “in an era characterized by the distinctive Tudor Revival style”
•    Embodies distinguishing characteristics of that style
•    Represents “an established and familiar visual feature” of East Falls, owing to the “singular uniformity” of the designated blocks, “in particular the cathedral and cottage rows”
•    Exemplifies “the cultural, economic, and social heritage of the community, as East Falls was going through a fundamental shift from housing for workers to a bedroom community”

The Planning Commission staff recommended approval of the designation, a move that was first suggested in 2005. The Commissioners themselves agreed, subject to continued further public input.

Olson asked what had taken so long for the designation to reach this stage. Farnham, the Historical Commission’s executive director, said that during the real estate boom, the number of applications for historic designations had tripled.

“The Historical Commission had essentially imposed a moratorium on historic designations,” he said, adding that his staff’s capacity was overloaded and could not handle the backup.

“We’re seeking to set up an informal community meeting in late August,” said Farnham, who was present at the 2005 meeting and said most residents were in favor.

More on East Falls: Midvale Ave. stormwater design
Commissioners also heard an information-only presentation from Alan Urek, of the Planning Commission staff’s strategic planning and policy division, Joy Lawrence of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and José Almiñana, principal and landscape architect of Andropogon Associates.

The three informed the Commission of a “collaborative process including a broad range of stakeholders, professional expertise, and a design charrette,” to come up with solutions to stormwater runoff problems along Midvale Avenue while accommodating more shared uses of the public right-of-way while improving the “quality and character of the neighborhood.”

The project is being supported by a grant from the William Penn Foundation, and in partnership with the East Falls Development Corporation. Along with Andropogon, Meliora Environmental Design and Associates is providing technical support and expertise.

“The project partners are working toward design development and a first phase of implementation through a unique process of community and professional collaborative design, involving a broad range of public, private, nonprofit, and institutional stakeholders,” according the Commission staff agenda item.

Italian Market Revitalization
Members of the Passyunk Square Civic Association presented another “information only” presentation to the Planning Commission for an area of 9th Street south of Washington Avenue.

The group has plans for development and infrastructure improvements in what is known as the southern portion of the Italian Market area – a forlorn area roughly stretching to Federal Street through to Wharton, where the large Capitolo Playground is situated on a full city block to the west, and Geno’s and Pat’s Steaks on the east side of the street.

The plan also incorporates the blocks reaching to 8th Street to the east and 10th Street to the west.

“Once the Italian Market started to make the transition from a local, daily shopping market to a shopping destination, the Lower Italian Market was the first to decline and the hardest hit, as evidenced by its vacancies and underutilized storefronts,” the PSCA says in its executive summary for the project’s report, published in August 2008.   

Interface Studio and Econsult are working with Passyunk Square as consultants on the project, which is said to have funding of an undisclosed amount from the city Commerce Department’s Commercial Corridor Support Program.

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

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