At 4th and Race, design review committee wants a little gravitas

“You are on the most historic acre in the United States,” said Cecil Baker, pounding his hand against the conference table. “This is not a place for broken-down architecture.”

Baker, an architect and member of Philadelphia’s Civic Design Review Committee, was addressing Christopher Todd of Priderock Capital Partners, the developers of a proposed 216-unit residential complex on the block bounded by 4th, 5th, Race, and Florist streets, just off of Independence Mall. He was saying that the design of the building and the choice of materials—a mixture of metal and synthetic paneling and brick—is disrespectful of the proposed location of the development.

The site is on its own block, surrounded on various sides by historic Old City, the U.S. Mint, and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. The Planning Commission staff said the site should be considered a gateway into (and out of) the city. It is currently occupied by a low-slung brick building, which the developers plan to demolish. Developers had previously proposed building a controversial hotel project on the site.

“This building has to look like an important, civic-minded building …” said Baker, who has designed the luxury condo tower rising at 500 Walnut Street, as well as Carl Dranoff’s One Riverside development on the Schuylkill. “Go back to the architecture and think about what it means to be on Independence Mall. It has got to be a great goddamn building.”

Todd defended the proposal, which would also include 184 mostly-underground parking spots, saying that cities should be able to evolve and grow without clinging to the past. Baker said Todd had misunderstood his criticism: an all-glass building at that site would be more appropriate than the design that Barton Partners, the project architects, have proposed. It doesn’t have to be historical, Baker said, it just has to have “gravitas.”

Other committee members seemed to agree. Anita Toby-Lager, the Committee’s resident landscape architect, said the proposal looked a little suburban.

“It’s sort of sad to me,” Toby-Lager said.

Anne Fadullon, a Committee member and president of the Building Industry Association, said that as a developer she understands the need to keep material costs down. She also praised the scale of the proposal, saying it fits well at the site. But she agreed that the design was lackluster.

“This is one of those sites in Philly where there’s an opportunity to let loose a little bit,” Fadullon said. “… This is an opportunity to say, ‘Welcome to Philly.’”

Nancy Rogo-Trainer, the chairwoman of the Committee, said that the renderings submitted in the developer’s application lacked context and didn’t provide enough information to make a proper review of the project’s impacts on the public realm. She recommended that the developers enhance the quality of the details and do more to match the importance of the site.

The Civic Design Review Committee only has an advisory role in the development process, meaning it can’t deny permits or force builders to make changes to their designs. But on Tuesday, it played its only real card: requiring the developers to return to the committee a second time, hopefully after considering its comments.

Ron Patterson, an attorney representing the developers, said after the meeting that the team is considering its next move. The group, apparently, hadn’t expected any delays. The Planning Commission is supposed to consider the project at its meeting later this month, and a zoning board hearing is scheduled for August 5, which is the day after the next scheduled Civic Design Review meeting.

Get more information about the proposal here.

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