Art Commission approves Family Court addition, Dilworth Plaza subway concourse

The Philadelphia Art Commission approved all three items on its agenda today in a meeting that included two rather lengthy discussions that followed up on presentations made at earlier meetings. It also offered its own take on an already much-discussed storefront sign issue on Walnut Street.

To begin the meeting, representatives from architects EwingCole and neighborhood groups once again squared off over new plans to add one more story to the controversial Family Court Building now under construction at 1501 Arch Street.

The architects said they had checked zoning regulations as requested at January’s meeting, and determined that both height and floor-to-area ratio limitations will still be met. They also presented a variety of sun studies which concluded that no discernible difference would be made with the addition of one more floor.

Jeffrey Reinhold, owner of the neighboring residential tower, the Metropolitan, came armed with handouts and a slide show to plead his case that the court building would now obstruct views from his building’s roof.

Sam Little, of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, asked for streetscape concessions on the construction site itself. (Today, though, the site looked perfectly presentable, with a bright yellow and blue scrim patterned in sun and City Hall motifs placed over the fence.)

Further,a representative from the nearby Le Meredien Hotel offered similar complaints. And, a Tisch representative came forth at the last minute with the possibility of cladding the rooftop mechanicals so that they would be more aesthetically pleasing.

Commissioner Emmanuel Kelly pointed out that since the project is as-of-right, there wasn’t really much to be mulled over, and other commissioners concurred. They approved a motion to allow the extra floor, with Chair Moe Brooker asking all parties to return once again after they had agreed upon a way to better camouflage the mechanicals and enhance the overall appearance of the rooftop.

Next up, applicants returned with revised material palettes for the subway concourse under the to-be revamped Dilworth Plaza. As requested, the designers showed plans with more glass introduced into the picture and presented more details on lighting schemes. The Commission approved the new plans.

The Commission also approved Phase III of a treetop trail for primates at The Philadelphia Zoo.

The meeting then turned to the report of the Commission’s Sign Committee, usually a routine event. This time, however, Commissioners were asked to review a highly contentious request for signage by national retailer, Fossil, as it gets ready to sign a lease for a now-empty space at 1616 Walnut St., a historically designated Art Deco treasure.

The signs have already been beaten to death by first the Architectural Committee of the Historical Commission and then the Commission itself, which ultimately approved them after several minor concessions. According to the landlord, Fossil has stated that it will not occupy the premises without the signs and specific placement it is asking for.

Brought before the Art Commission as part of zoning approvals, the whole matter was rehashed today, with owners’ rep attorney Joanne Phillips of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll and Preservation Alliance director John Gallery literally facing off nose-to-nose at one point. “This building is a work of art and it does not deserve to be compromised by this sign,” Gallery said. The signs are offer “clean, respectful design with minimal impact on a 24-story building,” retorted Phillips.

As Commissioners gamely tried to suggest already-visited adaptations and pathways, the procedure seemed deadlocked and indeed almost dead as the owners prepared to pull the application and seek new tenants.  (They pointed out that they’d been marketing the property since June of last year and that Fossil was so far the only interested party to come forth.)
 
“It drives me nuts when national chains put us in this position,” said Commissioner Sean Buffington. “I’m quite torn.”

The rest of the Commission, too, seemed torn. An initial motion to approve resulted in a deadlock. Peacemaker Brooker finally came to the rescue by suggesting that the landlord approach Fossil to see if its designers and representatives would agree to appear before the Commission. “If we can get them in to talk with us, we’ll produce a solution,” he said.

Contact the reporter at jgreco@planphilly.com and follow her on Twitter @joanngreco

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