By Matt Blanchard
The Philadelphia Art Commission says its approval of the Convention Center Expansion is no longer valid after the demolitions of two historic buildings that were supposed to be part of the center’s North Broad Street façade.
In a letter dated Feb. 11, Art Commission director William J. Burke Jr. informed convention center architects that wrecking the two buildings carried the project beyond what the Commission had approved, thereby invalidating the project’s building permit.
Was the letter a last-ditch effort to save the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. buildings?
“Ideally, it may have been hoped [the letter] could have caused them to pause in their demolition of the building,” Burke explained on Wednesday. “They had started demolishing the back of the buildings. I’m pretty sure they should have received it before they got to the front.”
In fact, the letter was too late. Demolition began at the rear of the buildings on Jan. 25 and had reached the façades by Feb. 8. It was entirely complete by Feb. 11.
The Art Commission now wants to know what will fill the space left by the PLICO buildings. Because the project is partially city-funded, Burke says the Commission has the power to approve or reject the updated façade. The Commission’s next meeting is Wednesday, March 5th. The convention center is not yet on the agenda.
“Before they get the permit, they need to come before us,” Burke said.
Convention Center Authority president Al Mezzaroba was unavailable on Wednesday. Another spokesperson, Toni Davis, said she did not believe new plans for the Broad Street façade have been made public yet.
Chatter among local architects holds that the space will be left empty, becoming a pocket park. Existing designs for the Broad Street façade have already been criticized as disappointingly bland. Adding a blank spot on Broad Street is unlikely to ease that criticism.
Architect George Claflen, vice chair of the city’s Design Advocacy Group, said on Wednesday it is essential for the Art Commission to act, convening an open public hearing to review the new façade.
The original Convention Center facade, large and modern, was enlivened by the inclusion of the historic PLICO buildings, Claflen said.
Any new façade without them must, “find its own way of bringing vitality and meaning to this prime site on Philadelphia’s main street.”
(Claflen said he spoke for himself alone. DAG has no position)
Leaving the former PLICO site blank, or making of it a pocket park, would not do justice to this high-profile site, Claflen added.
“An important location such as this, literally surrounded by major civic buildings, merits a site-specific design of high quality,” he said.