Schuylkill Riverfront Development Anxiety: Focus Down, Not Up

With the huge to-date success of Schuylkill Banks and the Schulkill River Trail, along with lots of extensions and expansion underway, planned, or in theory, it's no wonder that Dranoff wants to build a new residential building at 25th and Locust Streets to double down on their early investments in loft conversions on the 2400 block of Locust.  Re-use is one thing, but as the urban revitalization story often goes... new construction has many in a tizzy.

Just a matter or orientation, the development is proposed to take place on what is currently a parking lot, immediately north of Schuylkill River Park and its Community Garden.  These are connected to the Schuylkill River Trail by a new bridge over the freight railroad tracks and are a real treasure.  The railroad is immediately to the west of the site, and 25th Street is immediately to it's east, with one of the Dranoff conversions across the street.  Locust Street, which creates pedestrian and bicycle across the tracks to the Schuylkill River Trail, creates the northern edge of the site and connects the project to Rittenhouse Square and all its amenities six blocks away. Suffice it to say that I can see why anybody would want to built there.  

As Jared Brey at Plann Philly reports, some nearby residents don't want anything to be built on the property at all, expressing concern about it being too tall and degrading the character of the neighborhood and riverfront trail experience.  Some even suggest that the property shouldn't be zoned for development in the first place (something about a "quirk"of the code), and that the City should change the zone and not allow the development to proceed (possibly offering to swap with Dranoff for another piece of land somewhere).  Unfortunately for folks of that persuasion, if the development is allowed as of right and no variances are being pursued, I just don't know how such a negotiation can be made.  Frankly, I'm not sure if I want to live in a society where I can buy property, play by the rules, and then get the rug pulled out from under me (and I suspect the City will be rather cool on the prospect of paying a developer to not build, instead of soon collecting additional property taxes).  Self governance and property rights need to learn to play in the sandbox together.

THIS is precisely why planning, zoning, and regulations matter.  Debates about where development should happen and what scale/intensity it includes need to happen during that process (which the City finished not long ago), not once land is bought and development proposals are submitted, (and I'm sure this came up before, and many residents feel like this is their last chance, but sometimes that's how the cookie crumbles, I suppose).  

That being said, having reviewed the material presented by Dranoff, allow me to make a few comments regarding the plan and its urban design (all of these could be addressed through regulations on form, so developers and the communities they work in can have clear mutual expectations).

Will the height of the building degrade the neighborhood and the trail/park experience?  My guess is not.  Rittenhouse Square, the single greatest public space in the City is surrounded by buildings roughly this tall.  Four blocks away, the Carlyle rises twenty stories about its adjacent Locust Street row houses, and evidently results in the neighborhood being no less desirable.  My only hope would be that building materials keep Inga Saffron's concerns about damage to the community garden from materializing. 

Dranoff's renderings are all from an aerial perspective, no doubt exacerbating residents' concerns about its scale etc.  I really wish they had shown a street/garden/park-level perspective, to show not how helicopters would view the building, but how neighbors an passersby would experience it.  Because at the end of the day, it's the human scale that people experience that really affects quality of life... that impact decreases with every floor you go up, so how the birds eye view?

I say that, because with the exception of a cafe fronting on Locust Street at the entrance to the Schuylkill River Trail (which is a great amenity for the neighborhood/trail, and I suspect will be hugely successful), it's the sidewalk experience that leaves something to be desired for me in project, not necessarily the building's height or massing in the neighborhood.

As you can see in the material presented by Dranoff, the building itself occupies little of the 25th street frontage of the property, in order to protect the view shed (notably, of residents of Dranoff's own building across the street).  Its frontage includes the pedestrian entrance, windows to a lounge inside, and 23 feet of loading bay.  The rest of the property, north to Locust Street, will be an elevated "terrace," so that 31 parking spaces on the ground floor can be added to the to the 55 that will be below grade, for a total of 86, (despite only being required to provide 51) which means at ground level it will be a blank (with some decoration, no doubt) wall, only broken up by stairs from the sidewalk to the terrace and an entrance to the parking garage.  I suspect the developer thinks of the "terrace" as a benefit to the neighborhood, but in reality, these elevated public spaces that don't actually go anywhere tend to be used by building tenants only, not the general public... since they really don't feel that public.

An active streetwall contributes much better to a walkable street than an open space atop a parking garage.  With that in mind, my recommendation on the project would be to replace six of the parking spaces and some of the side-of-building-greenery with six modest row houses, about 16-feet wide and 25-feet deep, as illustrated to the right.  These three story buildings are completely part of the neighborhood vernacular and could each be individual units or broken up into two or three apartments.  At street level, this would make the building, which is actually rather nice and slender, not feel like it's part of a large, imposing complex, but just a taller section of a nice block.  And the at-grade parking behind would still go unnoticed.  I'd imagine the terrace would still work well for residents of the tower and row houses, and maybe or maybe not the general public.  Most importantly, the street would be much more in line with the context of the neighborhood.

But the parking! What about the parking?! Some neighbors have expressed concern that there already isn't enough parking for the project (despite providing more than the city requires), and that people will cars in these apartments will flood other coveted neighborhood spaces.  I suspect that if enough spaces aren't provided, you'll actually just have people moving in who don't own cars.  Given the city's growing bicycle culture, this isn't a great stretch of the imagination.  Just ask the developer of these recently constructed 104 units with no parking spaces.  And then the question of Dranoff is, what generates more revenue, an additional parking space, or an additional rentable unit or two?  

Again, the moral of the story here is that zoning and regulations matter.  You want development to happen without having to go through too many hoops, but you can only do that if regulations sufficiently reflect community needs and aspirations.