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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sour Economy Puts Philly Skyscraper on Hold: From The Philadelphia Bulletin

Why Not Philadelphia?
By Thom Nickels, For The Bulletin

Many questions have been asked about the proposed American Commerce Center since it was unveiled by Garrett Miller in the spring of this year. But of them, the most important was the first, pondered by Mr. Miller himself - "Why not Philadelphia?"

He remembers sitting at his desk, leaning back with feet raised, late in the day on Sept. 18 of last year, having just closed on the acquisition of a property owned by Verizon. The 1.5-acre site lies directly adjacent to the Comcast Center, Bell Atlantic Tower, One and Two Logan, and the Mellon Bank Center. It sits squarely in the heart of the Central Business District and from a distance marks the missing piece in the skyline of Philadelphia.

Mr. Miller, born and raised in Philadelphia, graduated from LaSalle High School in 1995 and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in 1999. He is now the president of Hill International Real Estate Partners, the owner of 1800 Arch St. He spent nine years rowing on the Schuylkill River, is a three-time World Rowing Champion, and competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. He spent five years working in the real estate markets of New York City before returning home to Philadelphia. He is also the visionary and driving force behind Philadelphia's most exciting addition to its storied skyline, the 1,510-foot-tall American Commerce Center.

ACC, as many now call it, was born out of Mr. Miller's simple question: "Why not Philadelphia? Why not here? Why not now?" Upon hearing him speak about the project, it quickly becomes clear that it is his vision, passion and intensity that drive this project forward.

The first step was a call to Gene Kohn, a Philadelphia native and fellow graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

"Gene and I first met on a cool fall day in late October of last year on the corner of 18th and Arch," Mr. Miller said. "We walked the site while I explained my vision for Philadelphia and the site to him. He asked me many questions that day, including what I love about Philadelphia."

After an hour wandering the site, the men sat down to develop some ideas.

"I watched intently as Gene's mind went to work," Mr. Miller said. "He sketched out on a napkin a number of design ideas, and amazingly one of them was not too dissimilar from what became the American Commerce Center."

It took five months before anyone got a glimpse of the design.

"Everyone knew that the site had been sold by Verizon to a developer but I don't think anyone, other than Garrett Miller, had been envisioning this" said Tim Conrey of CRESA Partners.

Although he is young - 31 years old - you get the sense that this project is not just about Mr. Miller and his ambitions, but, rather, it is the embodiment of his hopes and dreams for Philadelphia.

"I love this city. I know this city's heart and soul," he said. "Unfortunately, we've been beaten up the past few decades, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly but regardless, we need to come together to break away from this second city mentality, we are known for the underdog mentality embodied in 'Rocky.'

"I love 'Rocky' too, but the gritty city that is portrayed in the films is not the Philadelphia of today. We've grown up and evolved into a great American city, and are now starting to be recognized as such by those looking from the outside in. Philadelphia needs to start taking the same view of itself from within, and start asking the question, 'Why settle for our past when we can embrace such an exciting and dynamic future?'

"Cities are dynamic environments," Mr. Miller continued. "They either improve or they decline. Philadelphia needs to put itself into 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 and embrace our future. The thing to remember is cities don't stay the same. When you choose to live in an urban environment, you choose a dynamic area that is always evolving."

Mr. Miller is referring to a small but vocal group opposing the ACC, a contingent of mostly older residents of the Kennedy House in Center City.

"We have received broad support for the project. However, there has been some limited opposition from a few local residents," said Peter Kelsen, the attorney for developer Hill International. At a previous City Planning Commission meeting, opponents of ACC wanted the project scrapped or the height of the tower scaled back to traditional and "safe" Philadelphia building heights. Opponents of the project apparently fear that the iconic gleaming tower, which will be one of the tallest buildings in the nation, will block views of the city from their Kennedy House windows, or cast unsightly shadows. Opponents also insist that the building's height is out of scale with the neighborhood.

The proposed skyscraper, however, is not in the Logan Square neighborhood, but smack in the middle of the city's Central Business District.

For Christopher Paliani, a resident of the Logan Square neighborhood at 19th and Arch streets, the notion that the new building is in somebody's neighborhood is far from but valid.

Mr. Paliani created a website in support of the ACC (www.LSN4ACC .com) and says that many Logan Square neighbors think that the project will be a huge benefit to the neighborhood.

"This area is really the central business district, but the opponents are making it seem like it is being stuck in the middle of Fairmount," he said. "This is one of the best places they could put this building. This is the kind of building that people would move to Philadelphia from New York for. This is not a neighborhood issue. It's a regional issue, and having one small group having veto power over something is not something that benefits the entire region."

The idea of quashing a proposed skyscraper project because it would potentially block views from another high-rise ignores the fact that all buildings in cities do just that.

"There was the same kind of opposition when they wanted to build Liberty I and II," Mr. Paliani added. "Detractors said those buildings were too big or too tall and now that they are there they are a spectacular addition to the city."

The fate of the American Commerce Center now lies in the hands of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. There have been two information-only presentations before the Commission by the development and design team in recent months. A formal hearing will be held tomorrow.

The past sessions included presentations and studies by the development team on parking, traffic, loading, shadow studies, economic impact, the architectural design and pedestrian interaction. "The most important part of the design of any building is how it interacts with the pedestrian on the street and it was my charge to the architects to create a podium and retail presence that engages and excites Philadelphia," Mr. Miller said.

The artful "ground scale" design makes the rising tower above look even more fantastic. No matter what school of architecture you subscribe to, this is no vertical glass canyon that "slams" the face of the sidewalk like a footprint left by Frankenstein. The building engages the pedestrian at the street and encourages interaction. The ACC's signature design feature is the "urban room" situated between the 63-story office tower and 26-story hotel.

"While the retail is designed to draw pedestrians to the site, the elevated green park spaces are designed to draw them into it," explained Bill Louie of Kohn Pedersen Fox architects.

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?

City Planners heard arguments like this in 1986, when the debate raged over Center City buildings exceeding the Billy Penn's hat height limit. Those debates were loud, passionate and sometimes vicious.

What are the prospects for success?

"It's a beautiful building and an incredible design. It's a piece of art," said Andi Pesacov, the broker in charge of leasing the retail space at the ACC.

Plans are underway for a gourmet food store, two or three restaurants, a boutique cinema, a theater and a high-end gym.
And what about the prospects for the always ubiquitous "anchor tenant?"

"Garrett now has a team of people with the economic capability and the expertise to do a project of this magnitude," Mr. Conrey said, when asked about the tower's prospects for success. "In a small way, you have a perfect storm of a few events happening that can make this a viable project."

That might not bode well with the opponents of the ACC, who want Philadelphia to be aware of its limitations.

The website for the American Commerce Center (www.acctower .com) bluntly states, "This Changes Everything." Truer words may have never been spoken about Philadelphia.

It might also be the perfect answer to Mr. Miller's question.

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