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Design committee tells two-tower proposal on Schuylkill to try again

The Civic Design Review committee had a lot to say about the two towers

A two-tower project proposed for the Schuylkill was met with criticism from the city’s Civic Design Review committee.
Renderings by Gensler

Describing the project as a “bitter pill to swallow,” the Civic Design Review committee asked the design and development team behind a proposed two-tower project on the Schuylkill to make a long list of changes and present their design proposal again at a later date.

The vote was made at Tuesday’s monthly Civic Design Review meeting, where Gensler and PMC Property Group presented the design proposal for two towers to be built on the two last-remaining developable sites along the Schuylkill River.

Plans for this project were officially announced in November 2016, although it has been at least two years in the making with PMC Property Group. The developer received a zoning extension approval earlier this year, allowing the development to be built by-right on what’s currently a parking lot.

Since the project proposes more than 100,000 square feet of new construction and more than 100 residential units, it had to go through the Civic Design Review process, which is a non-binding, advisory subcommittee of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

The developer and designers prefaced their presentation by explaining the two site’s complexities. Bordered by the river’s edge, a SEPTA rail line, Cherry Street, and 23rd Street, the two sites are located within a floodplain. There’s also an portion of the property that falls beneath an elevated SEPTA rail line.

Its location in Logan Square as one of the last-remaining lots on the Schuylkill also means that building anything here would potentially block views of residents in adjacent buildings. It’s one of the main reasons why Gensler designed the two towers to be situated perpendicular to the river versus parallel.

The design committee praised Genslers’ work generally, but pointed many of its critiques of the project to its relation to the public realm. Committee chair and architect Nancy Rogo-Trainer said, “It seems to be more of a project that is a hotel—it doesn’t seem to integrate with the city.”

Currently, the project calls for both the south and north towers to have podiums to accommodate 192 parking spaces total. This would result in a majority of the buildings’ street level to be wrapped in perforated metal, which is meant to be transparent. But designers said it tends to come off as more opaque than intended.

Said Rogo-Trainer, “You’re taking a dead parking lot and making dead walls.” She suggested incorporating more street-level retail to help enliven the edges.

Architect Cecil Baker also weighed in, expressing his frustration with the parking podiums. “This project is a bitter pill to swallow,” he said. “Why are we not asking the developer to put at least some of the parking underground?”

But Kevin Golden, representing PMC Property Group, argued that it is not economically feasible to build underground parking on this particular site, which is located with a floodplain. He challenged Baker to find a retailer that would sign a lease for a space that’s at risk of flooding.

One of Baker’s most recently completed projects includes Carl Dranoff’s One Riverside condo tower farther south on the Schuylkill River Trail. It includes underground parking, but not retail.

The committee also wasn’t a fan of the drawbridge connecting the two towers. The bridge is meant to serve as a connection for residents from the south tower to access the building’s amenities in the north tower. But it was compared to pedestrian bridges one typically finds in a hotel or a hospital.

A model of the proposed two towers on the Schuylkill.
Photo by Melissa Romero

“The most enjoyable experience is at street level,” said Dan Garofalo, environmental sustainable director of Penn’s Sustainability Office. “Drop the bridge.”

But what committee member Ashley DiCaro said was the “sad part of the project” was that the bridge and the towers would create a wall, blocking the rest of the neighborhood residents from easily accessing the Schuylkill River Trail. She suggested that other material choices be considered that weren’t so dark, warning the team that “in reality, I worry we’re creating another PECO building.”

Every committee member except Leo Addimando of Alterra Property Group voted to continue the CDR process. Gensler and PMC Property Group will be required to present one more time to the committee.

Following that, the goal is for construction to begin on the north tower first, along with the build-out of the south tower’s podium. Assuming that “leasing is favorable” in the first tower, Golden said work will start on the remainder of the south tower.