Thursday, August 6, 2009

Should We Fight the Height?


By Greg

Philadelphia is no stranger to the phenomenon of community groups opposing developers who are trying to build tall buildings. I have seen numerous community groups and civic associations hold up or kill projects in the entitlement process, on the grounds that they are too tall – out of character with the surrounding neighborhood.

Many Philadelphia neighborhoods do not have very tall buildings, and in some cases proposed buildings would introduce a new typology to low, residential communities. Whether or not that is a bad thing can be (and often is) debated. However, even in Center City Philadelphia, where tall buildings abound, community groups often oppose proposed tall developments.

This phenomenon is being played out on a whole different level in New York right now. Hines, the Houston-based mega-developer, is proposing an 82-story tower (shown above) designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Jean Nouvel, for 53rd Street next to the Museum of Modern Art. The new tower would include condos, a hotel, and substantial new gallery space for MOMA. Despite great reviews from the critics, some neighbors have come out strongly against the project, due to… you guessed it: the height.

Granted this would be one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan. And also granted there are some reasons why tall buildings could create undesirable impacts for communities. Depending on the siting and massing they can create shadows and contribute to a wind tunnel effect. They alter the skyline, and can block people’s views. On the flip side of the coin, tall buildings also have the power to create stunning works of beauty that define a city and capture the imagination.

However, is height really the biggest worry for communities? Has height just become the standard offensive element selected by neighborhood groups wanting to protect the status quo? Or is there something about a developer coming into a neighborhood with a tall building that seems naturally imposing, offensive.

The problem comes when this opposition to height ends up killing projects that are actually quite good – especially ones that succeed at the ground level, or that provide important community assets (like the Nouvel tower that incorporates 50,000 square feet of art museum floor space).

Even more problematic is the issue of community groups focusing on height, while ignoring more important aspects of the project – such as gaping parking garage entrances, dead ground-floors, lack of pedestrian accessibility, and few neighborhood amenities. I have seen a number of contentious projects in Philadelphia end up with developers compromising on the height, while leaving much more offensive elements intact.

The bottom line is that in cities across America, from Philadelphia's rowhouse neighborhoods to sky-scraping Manhattan, community groups and developers alike exhibit the trend of looking toward the sky – though with very different intentions and outcomes. More complex are the questions of why, and how this trend will shape our urban landscapes.

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