In recent months, four major new skyscrapers have been announced for Philadelphia — three in Center City and one in University City. Two more are already under construction in West Philadelphia. The new projects are a sign of renewed confidence on the part of developers, many of whose plans were put on hold or destroyed by the recession, though it remains to be seen if and when economic growth will return to poorer parts of the city.
Comcast announced its plans for the tallest and most expensive of the towers, the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, on January 15. Designed by the famed British architect Norman Foster, the 59-story, 1,211-foot tower will be by far the city’s tallest and the tallest in America outside of New York and Chicago. With a price tag of $1.2 billion, it will also be the largest private development in Pennsylvania’s history.
Comcast completed its 975-foot headquarters building, currently the city’s tallest, just five years ago, but the company has already outgrown the building and currently rents space around Center City to house additional employees. The company will consolidate those employees to the new building, which will stand just a few hundred feet away from its headquarters. Comcast recently acquired NBC Universal, and plans to relocate the two TV stations it now owns in the region to the new building. It also says it will offer space in the building to local technology start-ups. The top floors of the building will be dedicated to a relocated Four Seasons hotel.
Unusually, the elevator core will sit on one side of the building instead of in its center, which will allow for open floors and large, loft-like spaces. In renderings, casually dressed laptop-toting young people gather around informally on colorful chairs. One appears to show a three-story twisting slide through one of the loft-like spaces. Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron described the building as “a glorious vertical atelier where employees can make a mess while they invent and build stuff.”
Foster, who also designed the Hearst Building in New York City and the Millau Viaduct in France, and is working on Apple’s new headquarters building in Cupertino, CA, said he wants the building to be “an engine for the city’s evolution as the kind of leading technology hub associated with Silicon Valley.”
“With this project, Comcast stands to reformulate the architectural imagery of the technology industry,” Saffron wrote. “An urban icon for the wired world has been long overdue. Foster’s design promises to provide it.”
City leaders hailed the project as a sign of corporations’ renewed interest in investing in Philadelphia. Once the East Coast’s industrial powerhouse, in the past fifty years the city has struggled with loss of jobs, poverty and population decline. Since the 1990s, the population decline has reversed and the city’s downtown has grown considerably as a destination for high-end shopping, restaurants and the arts. In recent years, the city’s poverty and crime rates have declined, but many challenges remain — chief among them sluggish job creation. Comcast has become the city’s shining star example of a Philadelphia company’s success in the 21st century economy.
The second new tower, announced in late October, is a headquarters building in University City for FMC, a specialty chemical company currently headquartered in Center City. The tower will complete the Cira Centre development, a cluster of skyscrapers around 30th Street Station planned by the architect Cesar Pelli in the early 2000s and developed by Brandywine Realty. Pelli also designed the first Cira building, an angular crystal-like block north of the station, and will design the new tower, to be located a few blocks south on Walnut Street, overlooking Penn Park. Its design will echo the angular glass forms of the earlier building, but the forms will be more muted and one side will be slightly curved.
The tower will also house offices for the University of Pennsylvania, and luxury condominiums. It will rise 47 stories and 650 feet to become West Philadelphia’s new tallest building and the seventh tallest in the city, signaling the explosive growth the city’s universities and hospitals have brought to the area. A block north, another Cira Centre building, a 33-story tower housing luxury student residences for the wealthiest of Penn’s and Drexel’s students is almost complete. Drexel is also building a new 24-story dormitory near the center of its campus.
The last two of the proposed towers are both luxury hotels proposed for South Broad Street, or the Avenue of the Arts, in Center City. One, to be called the SLS International Tower, will house 150 hotel rooms and 125 condos. It will sit directly across the street from the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and next to the Wilma Theater on the current site of Kenny Gamble’s historic Philadelphia International Records building, which will be demolished. The architect will be the well known New York Firm Kohn Pederson Fox. The developer is Carl Dranoff, a longtime champion of the Avenue of the Arts who has already completed several projects along it.
The last tower, a 700-room combined Element by Westin and W. Hotel, is proposed for a surface parking lot next to the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton. Only one rendering of the building, which will be designed by Cope Linder Architects, has appeared so far. The developer has said the building will be 58 stories, though its height is unknown.
The project generated controversy when developer Brook Lenfest requested $33 million in tax breaks from the city in order to build it. Some, including city councilman Wilson Goode, Jr., have argued that the city shortchanges poorer residents who rely on city services funded by tax revenues when it grants the tax breaks. The program under which the W. Hotel’s tax breaks will be provided was designed to spur development of blighted properties. Proponents say the city stands to lose nothing by offering the breaks, since the breaks only apply to the value added to the property by the developer, and will gain significant revenue after the ten-year tax break window ends. Critics assert that the promised gains don’t materialize and that the city loses out on revenue from developers who can afford to pay more.
In the end, City Council voted 15-1 to grant the subsidy.
Philadelphia came to tall skyscrapers fairly late in the game. Though it’s home to America’s first modernist skyscraper, the famed PSFS building, until the late 1980s there was a gentleman’s agreement among developers that no new building was to rise above the statue of William Penn at the top of the City Hall tower — so no taller than 548 feet. One Liberty Place, the iconic 945-foot point glass tower designed by Helmut Jahn that finally broke the tradition, drew a great deal of opposition from city residents and lead some to believe that a curse would befall the city’s sports teams: none would win a national sports championship until William Penn again sat atop the city.
And indeed, for twenty years, no Philadelphia team won a national championship. Finally, in 2008, a tiny statue of Penn was placed on top of the newly completed Comcast Center. Then the Phillies won the World Series.