For nearly a century, City Hall, with William Penn atop it, stood as the tallest building in Philadelphia. For decades, skyscrapers there flirted with the 548-foot height of the Absolute Proprietor but never surpassed him—part of a "gentleman’s agreement," not a law, as commonly thought. In 1987, the 945-foot One Liberty Place broke the limit, but that tower, too, may soon be dwarfed. Though still in its earliest development stages, the KPF-designed American Commerce Center aspires to rise above them all, to 1,510 feet.
Beyond its height, the scale of the project is immense, nearly 2.2 million square feet of office, hotel, and retail space rising from a relatively small 62,000-square-foot lot. This density of development has drawn the ire of many locals, but the unanimous passage of a rezoning of the lot on Tuesday by the Philadelphia Planning Commission proves that, at least in spirit, the city supports the project.
All images courtesy KPF
"It’s an aggressive proposal—aggressive in a good way," Alan Greenberger, executive director of the commission, said in an interview after the vote. "They’re asking for a lot of density and that makes people nervous, and I understand that. The question is, is this the place for that density. I think that today’s vote indicates that, yes, it is."
The City Council will now hold a hearing on the rezoning December 4 with a vote due by December 10; Greenberger said he expects the council to support it. The developer, Hill International of Marlton, New Jersey, then has one year to create a Plan of Development—which fleshes out the project in more detail and allows for more specific tweaks by the commission—before the rezoning’s sunset clause takes effect. Because of the slumping economy, though, the commission will allow Hill to apply for an extension.
During the developer’s presentation, Peter Kelso, Hill’s counsel on the project, said its purpose was to allow Philadelphia to join the business capitals of the world, like New York, London, and, yes, Dubai. "We need to move into a more modern realm of office development," he said.
KPF founder Gene Kohn spoke on behalf of the architects, saying the American Commerce Center had a significance even greater than that. "Every great city has its icon," he declared, mentioning the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco and the Eiffel Tower. "Philly has one in its own right, in City Hall, which was once the world’s tallest building," he said, though he added that a new era also calls for a new icon.
(They also showed a rather intense video for the project, which has since been posted to YouTube, that offers a pretty good sense of what the project might someday look like to a bird.)
Support for the project has been evenly split between businesses and younger residents in favor, while some neighbors and preservationists tend to oppose it. Back in July, the commission heard three hours of testimony to this effect, but at the most recent meeting, opposition was more muted. The project’s strongest critics, residents of a co-op across the street, did show up, however, to give an impassioned presentation denouncing it as an overbuilt traffic disaster.
"It’s the same old story—the developer says they want the biggest in the world, or at least the city, and we are forced to wrap our arms around it," Joseph Beller, the resident’s attorney, told the commission. He added, "This is a wonderful building. If you found a place for it, I would love it. But this is not the place for it."
Not that anything on this scale has ever been built anywhere else in the city, hence the rezoning. It takes the parcel at 19th Street and Arch Street, which is currently a parking lot, from a classification of C4, with a special height limit of 125 feet, to C5. The latter allows for a floor-area ratio of 12 with a bonus of 8 for the inclusion of a public plaza covering 30 percent. (The cutout at the center of the project not only divides the office tower from the hotel but also accounts for 22 percent of this public space in an elevated courtyard). The developer is then seeking an additional bonus of 4 FAR through standard public amenities like off-street parking and public restrooms.
Under the current code, the project could not get any bigger, but because of sustainable features and other amenities, like a regional rail link, the developer hopes to secure an additional 3.5 FAR, to reach an unprecedented density of 27.5. The commission said it was not opposed to this idea, as its final vote indicated, though it would probably seek to codify such bonuses for general consumption instead of simply confering them upon a single developer. "Our zoning code has actually created more obstacles to large-scale development," commissioner Natalia Olson de Savyckyj said, "not less."
The bigger concern now, amidst the economic downturn, is whether or not the project can actually get built. "Everyone’s wondering, ‘Is it real?’" Greenberger said in the interview. But he also noted that the developer pushed for the rezoning because without it, Hill could not reasonably attract financing or tenants.
"Would we be spending this kind of money and resources putting this project before the commission and the City Council if we didn’t believe this project was coming to fruition?" Kelso told AN. "It shows a commitment on the part of the developer to see it through."