A weekly series of foul-mouthed investigations into empty lots, dead-ass proposals and other design phenomena in Philadelphia. Find more stories like this at Philaphilia.blogspot.com.
2012 Chestnut Street
Though a bunch of folks hated it, I always thought this proposal for a new PHA headquarters wasn't such a bad idea. It removes a blighted building, fills the empty lot next door, and brightens up a pretty bleak Center City block. Nonetheless, the powers of hardcore preservationists and good ol' classic Philadelphia government agency sketchiness brought it down.
In 2009, the Philadelphia Housing Authority appeared to be doing pretty well for itself (publicly). They had just completed thousands of affordable housing units all over the city and successfully replaced old-fashioned mid-20th century projects with more modern and humane facilities. On top of that, the PHA was getting millions of dollars in federal aid. While they were on a roll, they figured it was time to knock over their 1927-built falling apart headquarters and build a brand new modern office building that would fill in the neighboring surface lot. After all, they were on the dreary 2000 block of Chestnut Street-- who wouldn't welcome a new and modern building here?
The PHA commissioned architectural badasses Vitetta to come up with a design. According to a letter to the Inquirer by Preservation Alliance Executive Director John Gallery, Vitetta had originally designed the building to match the surrounding architecture, but PHA Executive Director Carl Titty-Grabbin' Greene "wanted something else". The Vitetta team came back with a sleek, five-story, glass-fronted, green-roofed, $20 million facility. The first floor would have a lobby and parking lot for 15 vehicles while offices and executive suites would fill the floors above. The plan also included a re-do of the sidewalk out front and a re-wiring/plumbing of some of the utilities on the block.
Because the project would be paid for by federal funds and be within the Center City West Commercial National Register District, the project would have to be evaluated by about a million different groups and agencies, including but not limited to: the Preservation Alliance, Philadelphia Historic Commission, City Planning Commission, Center City Residents' Association, and Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. I'm pretty sure my aunt in San Diego was qualified to review the project as well. Most of those groups and agencies thought the project sucked and did not match the rest of the block.
Now let's be truthful here... being a functional idiot savant of Philadelphia history and architecture, I have a lot of personal opinions in common with most of the organizations that rejected this building. However, I cannot agree. This block already violates its own National Register status in numerous ways. First, there is a mix of 19th Century and 1920s buildings on the block, so it is already mismatched. Second, a big, ugly, hulking, abandoned, and dangerous 1950s building is located directly across the street from this proposal. That definitely doesn't match the "historical character" of the neighborhood. Third, John Gallery was quoted one of the newspaper articles about this project as saying: "Do you see anything with huge glass windows or very contemporary character around here?"Answer: YES!!! 2009 Chestnut, across the street to the northeast of the site of this building, looks like this:
Huge Windows? Check. Contemporary character? Check. Image from Google.
Despite the protests of every preservationist they could find, the PHA continued to push the proposal forward. Zoning variances were successfully acquired. The City Planning Commission kind of half-approved it but was stuck waiting on the federal government to get their shit together and get a more detailed plan for the project to them.
While all this was going on, the PHA was rife with internal problems and bad publicity. Federal investigations, dirty dealings on the part of several key players in the Authority, and director Carl R. Greene being himself. With all this shit going on, the new HQ project was becoming a lower and lower priority. In June 2011, while the Philadelphia Housing Authority was attempting to solve all these problems and get going with a new leadership, Michael P. Kelly, interim director after Greene's disgraceful exit, announced that the project would be "put on hold". The project died under this last redesign:
Its a little better-looking, I guess?
Today, the PHA is back to full operation under new President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah, one of the guys who helped root out the PHA's corrupt practices when all this shit was going on. Nonetheless, they are still dealing with the bullshit that occurred during Carl R. Greene's reign. The PHA is still headquartered in some crap offices at the top of a parking garage at 12 South 23rd Street. The 1927 building is still sitting there at 2012 Chestnut, looking like shit. Maybe in like 10 years, when all the craziness from 2010/2011 is settled and forgotten, they could being this project back from out of the woodwork. By that point, 2021 Chestnut will be built and no one will be able to complain about "large windows" and "contemporary character" ruining the block anymore.
2021 Chestnut, already approved proposal for directly across the street.
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