Image: City Safari: And it died…a Philadelphia story about architecture

When it comes to Philadelphia skyscrapers that never got off the drawing board, one example comes to mind: Philadelphia, architects Gene Kohn and Bill Louie of Kohn Pedersen Fox (creators of the city’s Mellon Bank Center with its iconic pyramid top), 1,500 foot high American Commerce Center, which never became a reality. 

The project, which was to include a 26-story hotel and 6-stories of street accessible retail along 18th and Arch Streets, not to mention a striking 300 foot spire (described by most who have saw the design as “iconic and breathtaking”) that would make it taller than the Empire State building, never saw the light of construction.

For Philadelphians excited about the prospect of a mega-skyscraper as potentially changing Philadelphia’s reputation from a “connecting” city to New York and Washington to a world class destination, this was not good news. Had the idea for the project survived it would have  provided over 2,000 construction jobs to the city over the 3-year period. 

          

Philadelphia developer Garrett Miller, Vice President of the Philadelphia division of Hill International, Inc., told me when the project was still in progress that when the American Commerce Center (ACC) finally got built, it will create a dynamic new environment for Philadelphia.

“Cities are dynamic environments,” Mr. Miller told me. “They either improve or they get worse. Philadelphia needs to put itself in a position to change for the better. Although we have a great historical past that we should respect, it’s important for us to realize this and embrace our future. Cities don’t stay the same. When you choose to live in an urban environment, you choose a dynamic area that is always evolving.”

Immediately after the tower’s proposal, a small but formidable opposition group was ACC’s biggest problem. These were mainly older Center City residents who wanted the height of the tower reduced significantly. Opponents feared a taller tower would block views of the city from their JFK Boulevard high rise windows or cast so called “unsightly shadows.” These groups of neighbors also suggested that the building’s height was out of scale with the neighborhood, despite the fact that the proposed project was not specifically in the Fairmount neighborhood but smack in the middle of Philadelphia’s financial district.

Of course, Philadelphia has always had a fear of record-breaking skyscrapers. When the City Hall Tower Billy Penn height limit was broken in 1986, it was the result of highly emotional debates about the ‘character’ of the city. City Planner Ed Bacon was dead set against any building going past the traditional Billy Penn’s hat height limit. Yet once the height limit taboo was broken, and as skyscraper plans began to be realized, the buildings built were largely conservative, ‘dwarf’ skyscrapers that in no way compared to New York City’s towering monoliths.

Philadelphia was still being careful—and conservative.

  

Nothing, it might be said, is out of scale when it comes to money.

            

When I asked Mr. Miller at the time why there was a work stoppage on implementing the American Commerce Center, he could only tell me,

          

“Who knows what’s going on with the economy and with the American Commerce Center. When will the economy come around? When will the world get better? Who knows…!”

      

Many thoughts that the economy at the time killed the ACC.

      

But one city’s skyscraper requiem is another city’s hallelujah chorus. Several years ago, in New York City, Anthony Malkin, CEO of Empire State Realty Trust which owns the Empire State Building, asked New York City officials to block the construction of a 1,216-foot skyscraper at 33rd and 7th Avenue, less than ¼ of a mile from the Empire State Building.

Malkin wanted Vornado Realty Trust, creators of the new project, to scale the building back to 825 feet and put a 17-block buffer around the Empire State Building to protect its viewing province. While Malkin never mentioned “shadows,” he didn’t want the iconic structure that many know as “King Kong’s perch” to be outdone by a competitor.

But Vornado Realty Trust, unlike the city of Dubai, seems to have no worries about money. They just wanted to build—and build.

          

Mayor Bloomberg, New York’s mayor at the time who could be the voice of ill-reason on many issues but on this he encapsulated sound logic when he said, “One guy owns a building. He’d like to have it be the only tall building. I’m sorry, that’s not the real world. Nor should it be.” 

Getting back to Philadelphia, every city resident is aware of the opposition when they wanted to build Liberty Place I and II. Detractors said those buildings were too big but few would say today that they are not a spectacular addition to the city.

          

Many Center City residents were supportive of the ACC project, including those who lived in two-story houses.

Retail re-merchandiser Andi Pesacov, who designed the (first) 6 floors of high-end retail space for ACC, said that when the architects presented six possible renditions of the proposed new skyscraper, both she and Mr. Miller pointed to the one in question and said, “That’s the one!”

ACC’s design was called a piece of art.

          

Ms. Pesacov’s retail design, which included a glass floor on street level so that one can look down into another part of the store below, was an idea she got from a club in Las Vegas. While this may have a honkytonk connotation, the design was anything but.

The architects took Pesacov’s design, went over it with L&I, then flushed it out with technical details.

An impressive design characteristic of the ACC was the pedestrian-friendly street level design. The artful ‘ground scale’ design was also a feature which made the rising tower above look even more fantastic.

            

A City Planning Commission meeting is a grandstander’s paradise. At the last ACC City Planning Commission meeting opponents voiced their opinion that Philadelphia doesn’t need the American Commerce Center because “Philadelphia isn’t that kind of city.”

But what does “that kind of city” mean?

          

What is means is this: Philadelphia should always be careful and conservative and avoid bold visionary projects because it is a humble town that’s not as good as New York.    

Much like the debates over buildings exceeding the height of City Hall Tower in 1986, the debates around ACC were loud, passionate and sometimes vicious.

          

The odd intrusion of Senator Vince Fumo into the controversy only added to the confusion. Mr. Fumo, a politician and not an architect, vowed to fight the construction of the American Commerce Center and even went on record as calling the building a “monstrosity.”

The opponents of ACC were persistent in their insistence that Philadelphia needed to be aware of its limitations.

         

But this is like telling a young child to scratch dreams of going to medical school because his low elementary school grades don’t indicate that he’s capable of such high aspirations.

            

Philadelphia needs a world class building that would ordinarily be built in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. When you curtail the wingspan of a skyscraper because it might create shadows or ruin somebody’s view, you’re thinking like someone who can’t find his or her way out of a very small mental space. (One immediately thinks of the Cira Center, which was designed to be much taller than it is but unfounded fears about another 9/11 attack caused the building to be scaled down. The scaled down look did not escape the eye of critics who have criticized Cira as being “too squat, as if it had its head shaved off.”)

          

As Mr. Miller observed then, Philadelphia should celebrate its history but this doesn’t mean it has to be stuck in it. 

In the end, the City Planning Commission gave its approval to rezone the area around 19th and Arch Street for the proposed American Commerce Center.

  

But once approved, the project died, although the reasons for the project’s death were never succinctly explained, or if they were, I never saw them.

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