Philadelphia: A City Develops a Vision for the Next Century

February 14, 1993|By EDWARD GUNTS

Their hometown has just come through the worst recession in 50 years.

Its unemployment and office vacancy rates are alarmingly high.

Its municipal government has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, and cut services drastically.

Yet instead of wallowing in their immediate problems, the civic leaders of Philadelphia gathered recently to ponder possible locations for a new wave of high-rise development in the 21st century.

Instead of bemoaning the scarcity of office tenants, they're exploring ways to take advantage of the new high speed trains planned for the northeast corridor and to lure national and international headquarters.

In the process, they are providing a lesson for Baltimore and other urban centers still looking for their own paths out of the recession.

The impetus for this focus on the future was the unveiling of "New Visions for Philadelphia," a multi-media exhibit featuring a series of design ideas that could help the city better realize its development potential over the next 40 years.

It was produced by Edmund N. Bacon, executive director of Philadelphia's Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970 and a nationally-known urban visionary. (He is also a longtime FOB -- Friend of Baltimore -- and his daughter Elinor has a development business in Baltimore.)

Its primary focus was a strategy for encouraging Center City development to leap across the Schuylkill River, to an underused area Mr. Bacon considers a frontier for 21st century development.

The magnet to draw development across the Schuylkill, as Mr. Bacon sees it, is the recently refurbished 30th Street Station and the promise of high-speed rail service from Boston to Washington.

(In a fortuitous coincidence, Amtrak officials tested the experimental X2000 high-speed tilting trains just after the exhibit opened -- underscoring the prospect that rail travel time between New York and Washington will be cut significantly before the turn of the century.)

Once the Metroliner is replaced by magnetic levitation trains or another technology that makes rail travel competitive with air travel, Mr. Bacon contends, Philadelphia will be poised for a resurgence of development activity because of its central location along the northeast corridor.

"Philadelphia must expand the horizons of its thinking to see beyond its present regional boundaries," he argues. "It must see itself as part of a complex extending from Boston to Washington, with the great pulsating spine of the Metroliner binding it all together."

To symbolize this leap across the Schuylkill -- and Philadelphia's concurrent leap from a 17th century city to a 21st century city -- Mr. Bacon joined with Philadelphia architect Bernard Himel to propose two office towers, one on each bank of the river. Identical in appearance but set back to back, so one faces north and the other south, the towers would be joined by a suspension bridge for pedestrians only, a poetic symbol of the unity of the two sides of the river.

The idea for the million-square-foot complex came from a developer who controls the eastern parcel and is negotiating for development rights to the western one as well. Mr. Bacon believes it could provide a logo for the new "Center City West" development area and help make Philadelphians more conscious the rail corridor's significance to the city's economic future in a "post-petroleum era."

To build on that vision, Mr. Bacon enlisted architecture students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was a visiting professor during 1991 and 1992. He asked them to think of ways to redevelop a two-mile stretch along the banks of the Schuylkill and a 65-acre development site north of the train station. The result was a series of proposals for a new office district -- soaring crystalline towers of various shapes and sizes that would line up with Market Place and provide a new western gateway to the city.

Displayed at the Mellon Bank Center until the end of January, the "New Visions" exhibit also included ideas for a monument to William Penn at Penn's Landing and laser lighting to re-establish the dominance of City Hall. All were meant to build on the city's recent development achievements, including construction of the $523 million Pennsylvania Convention Center that opens this summer.

Other ideas have been floated for the Amtrak property near 30th Street Station, including a new ballpark for the Philadelphia Phillies -- an idea prompted largely by the success of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. A new civic arts center and expansion of the University of Pennsylvania campus also have been proposed. Mr. Bacon says his ideas would be compatible with any of them -- since the key is making the leap across the Schuylkill and taking advantage of the rail improvements.

In his second year as mayor, Edward G. Rendell admits he doesn't believe many of Mr. Bacon's visions will materialize until the real estate market improves significantly. But he's happy to promote discussion about the city's future.

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