Do we really need another ersatz Oz of skyscrapers shimmering with the twinkle of countless Bloomberg terminals perched over a former rail yards? One is currently under construction in New York on Hudson Yards, and now Philadelphia wants to build its own “second downtown” just across the Schuylkill River from the real thing. I have to ask: why?
The simple answer is: Because it’s there. All 96 acres of it, wedged between a scenic (if occasionally flooding) river, the core of the country’s seventh largest metropolitan district (by population), a major transit hub, and not one, but two major universities, Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. There is a clear model for this sort of thing. Hudson Yards is not the first massive development to make use of the fact that there are fewer trains these days, while the amount of space they need is both much smaller and more conveniently located in out-of-town trans-shipment yards, while building over existing tracks creates vast acres of “new” land. Around the world such tracts, located right next to downtown, have turned into sites for redevelopment. The roots for such air rights development go back even deeper, to the Vanderbilt’s transformation of the tracks leading into Grand Central into Manhattan’s densest skyscraper core.
Philadelphia’s 30th Station Master Plan is also perfectly logical. The design team put together by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill wants to continue the existing street grid over the tracks; mass the tallest towers with sensitivity to view corridors, light, and shadow; provide more park space along the River; and be as sensitive as it can be at such a scale to the surrounding neighborhoods. The development team, a collaboration led by the Brandywine Realty Trust firm, has done its homework well in that regard, obtaining buy-in from most major stakeholders.
It might be curmudgeonly then to point out that renderings make the plan look like it could be anywhere. The 30th Street Station—a 1933 mass of railroad and civic history that is grand, rather than beautiful—will become a little relic huddling under the cathedrals of commerce housing 18 million square feet of new office space. Its inside will also be preserved, but as the atrium to a massive new shopping mall that will gain its shoppers from another of the plan’s selling points, a new direct connection between several of the city’s most important transit lines. The River will be more easily accessible and usable, but will lose some of the industrial grit that, together with the refined Philadelphia Museum of Art and carefully preserved Water Works precinct and Fairmont Park, made it have such a varied and exciting character.
What is more, this particular development will remain a place apart from the city: Rather than covering all the tracks, it makes use of as much empty land as possible, while leaving a bundle of railroad lines to continue to act as a giant moat. Only on its southern end, where it bleeds into the massive new institutional hulks of expanding universities and hospitals, will it connect to the urban fabric in any kind of meaningful manner.
The questions are whether it will do more good than harm, and whether it will, in the end, benefit the city. Like any new development, it will be questionable in terms of the use of natural resources. Even if each building meets some high LEED standard, the pollution it will cause by its very construction should be enough to outlaw it in favor of the reuse of existing structures, such as the Philadelphia Navy Yards. But, you could say the same of any new development. Exactly because of its isolation, the only detriment beyond the environmental harm inherent in any new building will be a loss of forlorn grandeur and grit that perhaps only a romantic such as myself could lament.
As to benefits, the tax incentives alone will be considerable. It will give Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania room to grow, it may attract new businesses, and the new transportation link will make daily life simpler for thousands. On top of that, the developers have been smart enough to sprinkle around the usual amenities and performance venues and tout the fact that they are giving the city back 40 acres of open space (though not all of that will be usable).
It is just that it could be better. The plan could use the existing topography, both human-made and natural, rather than obliterate it. It could honor and elevate the existing buildings. It could start from the notion of web of private and public space rather than from individual objects with their own skins, energy plants, and the developer pro formas that make them possible and turn them into cocooned precincts for the one-percenters. It could find a way to take what makes downtown Philadelphia one of the most beautiful urban cores in this country—an urban tapestry with a fine weave and big presence, with diagonal interruptions and large civic gestures next to a delicate fabric, all nestled between the crook of two rivers, a major park, and some big industry—and elaborate on it, rather than stand against it as the image and reality of another place.
I am sad to say that is not how we do business or planning in America. So, a decade from now, after all this is built out, when I arrive at 30th Street Station, I will just scurry across the bridge, keeping a bead on Penn’s hat on top of City Hall, and ignore the blandness that will seem to have followed me from wherever I started my journey. Philadelphia will still be Philadelphia. This will not.