Category Archives: Philly Skyline

Vaya con Dios, Zoo Balloon

Shadow no mo'; fare thee well, Zoo Balloon | Photo: Bradley Maule
Shadow no mo’; fare thee well, Zoo Balloon | Photo: Bradley Maule

As Portland gleefully shovels out from its first snowstorm in years, Philadelphia’s still cleaning up and trying to get the power back on after an ice storm piled onto the wet, heavy snow from earlier in the week. While I’m happy for my Portland friends to have received a wintry wonderland, I’ve been very satisfied indeed with the authenticity of Winter 2013-14, my first full Philly winter in five years. But goddamn, it didn’t have to kill the Zoo Balloon.

Goin' up |Photo: Bradley Maule
Goin’ up |Photo: Bradley Maule

For twelve years, the Channel 6 Zoo Balloon has provided Philadelphia with a giant, striped* dot of fun, a visual landmark for adventurous tourists and suburbanites taking the last big curve on inbound 76 and dudes looking for some new pics of the skyline. Anyone who complained about it was just a whiny sourpuss who, clearly, never took in the view from the top.

* There were actually two Zoo Balloons. Lindstrand Hot Air Balloons, the English manufacturer of the balloon, recommends a lifespan of 5-7 years for this particular brand of helium powered aircraft. The first, of a giraffe motif, flew from 2002-08; the tiger balloon from 2008-2013. This would have been the second’s final year—Zoo officials were just beginning plans for a closing ceremony—but this week’s heavy snow put the kibosh on those plans, and 2014 altogether.

Whether the Zoo replaces it with a third balloon remains to be seen, but there are no indications that will happen, a matter complicated by the fact the Zoo is hemmed in to its 42 acres and the balloon’s site could be put to other use. In the twelve years the Zoo Balloon cast its shadow, the nation’s first zoo has kept up with modern life by painfully, but correctly, moving their elephants to more spacious zoos, and adding newer and better features like Big Cat Falls, McNeil Avian Center, and KidZooU. Not to mention the fact that the zoo, conservationist by nature, went green with renewable wind and solar energy three years ago. This summer, the big cats will join the monkeys and lemurs who already use elevated trails—catwalks—to stroll above zoo visitors. And they did their best to pretty up the ugly-but-necessary parking garage with a giant zoo-y mural and sculptures on the two-block walk under the busy train tracks to the entrance.

The place continues to improve. It would be understandable if, for example, they expand or improve habitat on the balloon’s former grounds, but to do so would take away one of the city’s unique views.

Philadelphia has exactly one official public observation deck: City Hall—a fine one indeed, even though it’s no longer free and you only get a fifteen minute block, over half of which is spent inside the small elevator. The 33rd floor of the Loews Hotel provided the worst kept secret of up-there skyline views until the temporary Level 33 restaurant blew the lid off it. R2L trades you its 37th floor views at Two Liberty Place for bad beer and zebra print furniture. And the Four Seasons atop the CITC is still three years off.

Instagrammin' in Btown: the Zoo Balloon from 29th & Cambridge | @mauleofamerica
Instagrammin’ in Btown: the Zoo Balloon from 29th & Cambridge | @mauleofamerica

The Zoo Balloon was a different beast. Here was an actual hot air balloon, one tethered to the Earth by a strong steel cable, its riders separated from the open sky by only a netting wide enough to stick a telephoto lens through. You didn’t just rise above a zoo, you rose above Fairmount Park and the Schuylkill River and Expressway, above Amtrak and West Philadelphia with just enough distance for the curving river and Art Museum to join your frame. You could even ride it, for $10, without paying the regular $16 admission to the Zoo.

I’ve heard people say ‘you can’t get me up in that thing.’ A fear of heights is one thing, but to not trust its durability . . . I mean, do you think the Zoo isn’t thinking liability first? In twelve years of operation, the Zoo Balloon never had any accidents.

As an infographic next to the ride said, it was the ultimate boy scout. Describing its attributes in zoologic measurements—the height of the balloon was six giraffes—the placards explained the strength of the winch cable, how it operated, the backup generator and hand cranks and such; an airplane safety manual while you waited in line.

Baltimore’s Port Discovery had a balloon that got stuck in the air during a windstorm(!) and had to be hand-cranked back to the ground, leaving four people injured. If there was any real complaint about the Zoo Balloon, it’s that they were a little too cautious with weather concerns.

I'm no Picasso, but do you like it? | G-Ho deck mural circa 2006
I’m no Picasso, but do you like it? | G-Ho deck mural circa 2006

As the zoo’s Chief Marketing Officer Amy Shearer told me the other day, having to put down the balloon made for a sad day at the zoo. It was also a sad day for Philly Skyline. If your browser’s wide enough, you can see the balloon on the right side of this web site’s circa-2009 master plan header graphic. And down in G-Ho, where I lived from 2001-07, the balloon danced in on its whimsy to a mural of the skyline I painted on the deck of the place I lived for four years. (If you’re walking on 24th Street between Lombard and South, look up.) Riding into the city from Mt Airy on the Chestnut Hill West line, I always take a window seat on the left side of the train for the skyline view across the Schuylkill, the moving fifteen-second window on the city ahead, the window that always closed with the Zoo Balloon, docked or aloft. And now it’s docked for good.

I’m gonna miss that Zoo Balloon.

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By my memory, I rode the Zoo Balloon three times: its inaugural year 2002, on a sunny fall day in 2006 when Comcast Center was starting to join the skyline, and last September, when I walked over from my crash pad in Brewerytown. Note the changes in the skyline and landscape in the 12 years.


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Talking CITC, Skyline, with Liberty Property’s John Gattuso

Philly Skyline, CITC enhanced, from the Art Museum | Rendering by Foster + Partners, courtesy of Liberty Property Trust
Philly Skyline, CITC enhanced, from the Art Museum | Rendering by Foster + Partners, courtesy of Liberty Property Trust

Philadelphia’s soon-to-be new tallest tower is settling in to all the usual places. The Comcast Innovation & Technology Center (CITC) already has a Wikipedia page and a Skyscraperpage discussion, six pages and counting. Inga Saffron has already reviewed it. Liz Spikol’s devoted half of this week’s Property content to it. A couple clicks over on Philly Mag, Dan McQuade has issued a proper annotated guide. Even old Philly Skyline has relaunched with a truly new Philly Skyline.

The biggest news in the 2014 local building world, unsurprisingly, involves the biggest media company in the whole world. With 48 hours to let it sink in, I have to think it’s about as Philly a building as we could get: it’s full of conflict. Its design comes from Norman Foster, at the top of the top tier of architects, but it’s not his best work. It’s very good, but it’s not the Gherkin. It shows a loyal, hometown commitment from Comcast–one of the most unpopular companies in the world, especially after the net neutrality ruling earlier this week. It’ll be the tallest building in the city–thanks to a technicality. The 125’ blade–the functional spire topping the building’s core removed to the western side–sits atop a pedestal that itself is on top of the building’s roof, which is shorter than Comcast Center’s roof.

But make no mistake, in spite of such quintessential Philadelphian conflict, the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center is an incredible project that will have eyes on it from around the globe. As Inga mentioned, California’s sprawling monsters of tech, Google in Mountain View and Apple in Cupertino, will use CITC as a litmus test against their own model. Sure, you’re working for Google and Apple, but you’re working in Mountain View and Cupertino, not San Francisco, where Cesar Pelli’s Transbay Tower (currently under construction) will give the City by the Bay its very own supertall.

With CITC, workers will come directly upstairs from a train station that serves every regional rail line and is a five minute walk to the subway, the el, and every trolley line. And where they’ll ascend to is a whole other thing: spacious ‘lofts’ whose arrangement is The Thing.

Liberty Property's John Gattuso, left, and Comcast's Brian Roberts at the grand opening of Comcast Center, June 2008 | Photo: Bradley Maule
Liberty Property’s John Gattuso, left, and Comcast’s Brian Roberts at the Comcast Center confetti party, June 2008 | Photo: Bradley Maule

Liberty Property Trust’s Senior Vice President & Urban Regional Director John Gattuso, a 25-year veteran of the Philadelphia development community who’s had a hand in so much of what Liberty has built from Malvern to Comcast Center to the Navy Yard, sat down with me on Wednesday to talk about the process that’s brought us to the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center.

“This process started in August 2011,” Gattuso says, alluding to the purchase of the parcel then owned by Walnut Street Associates, who had proposed American Commerce Center. “The conversation with Comcast started in earnest in fall 2012, and we were initially thinking in terms of phase 2,” the shorter building initially planned as Two Pennsylvania Plaza on the northeast corner of 18th & JFK. But they realized early on that the programming wouldn’t fit the site.

At that stage, Gattuso and Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts led an RFP for a range of architects–established and up-and-coming, local and international. That coalesced into a group of five firms—which included Robert A.M. Stern Architects (already a client both at the first Comcast Center and at the Navy Yard) (New York), Foster + Partners (London), Renzo Piano Building Workshop (Genoa), and Bjarke Ingels Group (Copenhagen), and Atelier Jean Nouvel (Paris)—to transform the surface parking lot at 18th & Arch into the 21st Century facility representative of a company that both produces and provides content. “This was a compensated design competition,” Gattuso clarifies, “and we stayed in active conversation with each throughout the process.”

After selecting Foster in June, Gattuso, Roberts, and Comcast Vice President of Administration Karen Buchholz began weekly meetings, often directly with Foster, to craft an invigorating workspace. “We asked ourselves, ‘what is office space today?’” Gattuso explains. “Office space used to announce status within a company, or where and how you controlled your workers; now, it’s got to be somewhere people want to work, like Glaxo for example, a place people choose to go to.” The offices Liberty built for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, designed by Stern, opened last year and achieved a Double LEED Platinum certification.

In factoring how to do that—how to design a place people want to come to work—Gattuso says technology dictated the conversation. “In this building, we’re making technology. You don’t end up driving it, or putting it in your pocket—in its essence, it establishes connections, so the building’s floors are open for those connections, for interaction.”

How much of this open space was required? “We had a certain amount of office space in mind, and we knew we also wanted a hotel,” Gattuso says. “Once that’s determined, then you can think of how it looks on the skyline, how it relates to Comcast Center. To that end, this building has been extremely deliberate in its thought process.”

Though there are clear differences between the first and second Comcast towers, they too have a connection, an interaction that feeds the other. “The new building has a different approach than the first one, but each one enhances the other,” Gattuso says. “Comcast Center is classical in its axial planning, but with a modern, glass skin. If it’s guilty of anything, it’s its emphasis on elegance. [CITC] is on an axis too, with Arch Street Presbyterian Church and Comcast Center, but it expresses itself in a more robust way. This building tells you how it’s built, with a textured skin.”

“This is a vigorous, sophisticated building,” Gattuso ultimately explains. “That’s because it’s Lord Foster himself; in it, you can see elements of Swiss Re (in London), of [the] HSBC Building (in Hong Kong).” Likewise, Inga points out CITC’s similarity to Foster’s still-unbuilt Three World Trade Center in New York, and my own first impression likened its appearance to Foster’s Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt.

L-R: Liberty Property's John Gattuso, and Comcast's Karen Buchholz, Brian Roberts, Ralph Roberts, and David Cohen (December 2007) | Photo: Bradley Maule
L-R: Liberty Property’s John Gattuso, and Comcast’s Karen Buchholz, Brian Roberts, Ralph Roberts, and David Cohen (December 2007) | Photo: Bradley Maule

Considering the first Comcast Center took the better part of a decade to come to fruition, and with the advancement of technology in the same 10-15 years since the first conversation began, surely it’s interesting to see how the development process itself has evolved since the Stern collaboration. “The only difference in that regard is a new drummer [in Foster],” Gattuso says. “The band is still the same. This team has traveled a road since starting [Comcast Center], and as you’d expect, communication is vital,” Gattuso describes of Liberty’s ongoing relationship with the communications giant.

“You don’t always have to agree, but you need to establish trust. Because we have trust, we can take risks; we can create a platform to push the envelope and build something great.”

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Upon its completion, the developer, architect, and tenant hope to achieve a LEED Platinum certification with the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center. Comcast Center received a Gold certification in 2009.

No, Seriously: New Philly Skyline!

Comcast Technology & Innovation Center | Rendering by Foster + Partners, courtesy of Liberty Property Trust
Comcast Technology & Innovation Center | Rendering by Foster + Partners, courtesy of Liberty Property Trust

1. Launch new Philly Skyline. 2. Comcast transform Philly Skyline. 3. ???? 4. PROFIT.

That’s some news, isn’t it? Ladies and gentlemen, the 1,121′ Comcast Technology & Innovation Center, by Lord Norman Foster. More images and info and analysis coming soon, but on the quick tip …

  • It looks like the love child of Foster’s Commerzbank building in Frankfurt and Mandeville Place.
  • Two months ago, the President of the United States partied at David Cohen’s house; two weeks ago Comcast SportsNet signed a massive long term deal to remain the Phillies’ primary TV provider; yesterday, a federal appeals court overturned Net Neutrality, giving content control to providers like Comcast; and today, Comcast announced, through the local affiliate of the television network they own, that they’re going to be the tallest on the skyline — again. Oh, and they’re the largest media and communications company in the world. Even Milhouse would agree that things are comin’ up Comcast.
  • The Four Seasons will relocate from a block away on Logan Square to the top 13 floors of the CTIC. (Are we calling it the CTIC yet? “CTIC.” “City I see.” Will it still be called CTIC by the time it opens?) And with the hotel, they’ll bring a new restaurant to the top of the building that will be open to the public. Remember when American Commerce Center was going to have an observation deck? Well, we’re getting it, it’ll just cost a $80 steak à la carte. It’ll probably be worth it, though, for a view a thousand feet up.
  • 59 stories, 1,121′. NBC 10 and Telemundo studios relocated from City Line Ave. Underground concourse extended (first proposed as part of American Commerce Center) to building.
  • Whoa. CTIC. Comcast. Foster. Liberty Property Trust. Major.
  • New Philly Skyline.

Oh — and don’t forget: Philly Skyline I covered the construction of Comcast Center I from start to finish. Relive the Comcastic glory HERE.

Head in the Clouds

See? Philly Skyline. | Photo: Bradley Maule
See? Philly Skyline. | Photo: Bradley Maule

When I first came across Philly Love Notes, I thought it was an ingenious way to showcase one’s city: 1. Create a platform. 2. Get other people to generate the content. 3. ???? 4. PROFIT. Well done, Emma Fried-Cassorla.

For real for real, Emma has done a great job in her role as an ambassador for Philadelphia (not to mention in her role has communications gal for the Riverfront Waterfront Corporation). She asked me not long ago to contribute my own Love Note, and I went back and forth between picking a place in the Wissahickon, High Point Café in Allen(s) Lane Station in Mt Airy, that spot on the Schuylkill next to the Turtle Rock Lighthouse where you have the sweeping view of the city and river in motion … and ultimately I realized that the PSFS Building made the most sense.

I have many memories there, of the 27′ letters glowing a perfect red 30-some stories above the Disney Hole as I walked toward Market East Station after work in the dark evening; of facing off with the same letters on my first visit to the City Hall observation deck; of the Pocono trout, caramelized brussels sprouts, Tröegs IPAs, and three-piece jazz at Solefood; of the unbeatable views from the 33rd floor. I’ve taken an awful lot of skyline photos from that perch, and from everywhere else, it just might be the best looking thing on the skyline.

So for my Philly Love Note–which as it happens, is the site’s milestone #200–I thought we oughta go see those letters up close, WAY up close, and take in the views. Head over to Philly Love Notes to read my take on the PSFS Building HERE, and click any of the photos below for a slideshow of photos from way up top on a foggy day.

And don’t forget, ye olde (version of the) Skyline includes a ten-year-old profile of the PSFS Building HERE.

Mission Statement or Something

Philly Skyline Commuter Skyline, 2000 | Photo: Bradley Maule
Philly Skyline Commuter Skyline, 2000 | Photo: Bradley Maule

On November 25, 2000, I came upstairs from Amtrak’s Three Rivers train (since discontinued) into the din of the city and inspiring architecture of 30th Street Station. My friends Bekka and Susan picked me up and we headed to Dalessandro’s for a cheesesteak en route to Germantown, where I lived for my first three months in Philly. (We also went to see The Roots at the Electric Factory later that night.)

For those three months, I’d board the R8 every morning at Queen Lane and take it to Market East, from which I walked through the Gallery and Independence Mall on my way to work at 5th & Walnut. The best part of the commute, aside from chatting with Jason Killinger on the platform, was crossing the Schuylkill River, where for 15 seconds you have a lovely, elevated view of the skyline–people shuffling on Girard Avenue, rowers on the river, city coming into view.

Thirteen+ years later, I’m enjoying the same view from the same train (Chestnut Hill West? It’ll always be the R8 to me), set up anew in Mt Airy. On May 14, 2002, I registered as a clearinghouse of sorts for my photography. It grew into a bit more than that, with commentary, breaking news, The Skinny, a first person joyride through the Phillies’ World Series title in ’08, and assists from the likes of Nathaniel Popkin and Steve Ives.

In summer 2009, I took a break from Philly Skyline to road trip across the country, recharge, and finally relaunch the site with blog software. (In all its years, I wrote every post in html live on the server via SSH.) I sketched the header graphic above that summer, with a plan to elaborate on the interactive dealie that had been the header for years. But then Portland happened.

On that cross country road trip, perfect worlds collided in Portland, and I convinced my wife that we should sell our house in Fishtown and move west, way west. So we did. A year later, we were divorced, she came home, and I was alone in my own head in Portland. (Divorce, man. It sucks, it sucks, it suuuuucks.) When Portlandia debuted a year after that, I was fairly certain it was about me: where young people go to retire, hyperlocalism, the dream of the 90s. I made great friends, I enjoyed good beer and grass aplenty, I immersed in breathtaking scenery, I really grew to love the place. But I did miss Philly; that never changed.

By the end of 2012, I was sick of the whole self-evaluation thing and decided it was right to come back. It’s taken me a while to come back around to Philly Skyline, for a number of reasons. One, there are now sixty-three blogs doing what PS used to do. Two, the internet is just different now. Twitter and Facebook have obliterated The Old Way, and I recognize that PS must also be new and different. And it will. Three, I’ve been pretty busy behind the scenes as an editor at Hidden City Philadelphia. (My own archive there is HERE.)

But it’s time to get this show on the road. Philly Skyline, 2014. Yo.

Just a heads up: the version that you see here–a plain ol’ WordPress install–is an interim thing. I’m working with a friend and developer extraordinaire, and what we have coming is going to be huge, robust, and full of information.

That’s what’s key for new Philly Skyline: information. Data. It’s still going to be photo-heavy, but posts will probably be shorter–and hopefully more frequent–as I build the back end of something I think you’ll like, and use. Think Skinny, but lots of Skinnies.

There will also be lots of Fairmount Park oriented posts, particularly of the Wissahickon. Growing up in Central PA, I often took the Appalachian scenery for granted. But Shippensburg’s proximity to the Appalachian Trail got me in touch with the woods, and three and a half years in Portland made me realize just how crucial access to nature is to me, so I moved to Mt Airy.

Architecture, development, nature, art, transit, baseball, music, food & drink … life. That’s what’s happening on the new Philly Skyline. So hey, grab a beer–there’s a growler from Earth Bread & Brewery in the fridge–relax, and please, be patient. (I have Tourette’s Syndrome, and the associated ADHD symptoms often make even tasks that I want to do seem insurmountable.) Construction updates, neighborhood profiles, penny postcards, skyline critiques … it’s all coming back. I promise.

Philly Skyline, the next generation. Finally.

Philly Skyline Commuter Skyline, 2014 | Photo: Bradley Maule
Philly Skyline Commuter Skyline, 2014 | Photo: Bradley Maule

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PS: Even as I fold the old Skyline content into a better archive with tags and such, the old version of the site will remain. It is HERE.