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The $700 million Philadelphia Convention Center Expansion
 Appears to be Tone-Deaf to the Sustainability Movement
By Inga Saffron, The Philadelphia InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jun. 19, 2008 - --In one corner of Center City, a private developer has just completed the tallest green building in America, the Comcast Center. Three blocks east, the state is beginning work on an equally large building, the Convention Center expansion. Consider it the SUV of meeting halls.

We always knew that Philadelphia was a city of contrasts, but this pair is a study in extremes. Even though one is a soaring 975-foot obelisk and the other a low-slung, three-block-long box, both contain roughly the same floor space. Their designs were developed around the same time, beginning about 2000.

But Comcast Center's developer, Liberty Property Trust, cast its eye toward a future of peak oil and spiraling energy costs, while the Convention Center Authority stuck with the past. The result is that the Comcast building employs the latest energy-saving techniques and materials, recycles collected rainwater, includes a small green roof, and insists that its interiors be outfitted with contaminant-free paint, carpet and furniture.

Though the $700 million Convention Center expansion expects to incorporate some green features, such as an energy-efficient ventilation system and heat-deflecting window glass, its most conspicuous design element, the vast barrel-vaulted roof, will be left bare, a sprawling 18-acre urban desert. The addition is so tone-deaf to the sustainability movement that it won't even offer waterless urinals, the feature that became Comcast Center's green badge of honor.

The Convention Center's lack of green design is no simple oversight. In 2005, while then-Councilman Michael Nutter served as chairman, the authority briefly considered making the venue fully sustainable. It rejected the idea as costly and unnecessary.

A year later, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Delaware Valley Green Building Council begged the authority to reconsider, even if the only Earth-friendly change was a green roof.

They were sent packing. The authority argued that green technology would only add more upfront charges to a project that was already having trouble staying within budget.

"I think it's a huge mistake on the part of the city," said Sandy Wiggins, who was then chairman of the green building council. He noted that Comcast Center's green features increased its construction costs by only half a percent.

What the Convention Center Authority doesn't understand is that green technology is more than just an architectural fad or a way to be nice to the planet. Clients such as Comcast are choosing sustainable design these days because it saves big bucks on energy and water bills. Philadelphia's 1 million-square-foot Convention Center is taking the risk that it will be more expensive to operate than its green competitors.

When it opens in 2011, the expanded center will be going up against halls in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston and Portland, Ore., that were designed to have tiny energy appetites. The latest study of Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Center found that it uses 35 percent less energy and half the potable water of a typical meeting venue. It's also worth noting that when Pittsburgh finished the Lawrence in 2004, it paid half as much -- $360 million -- as Philadelphia for more than twice the convention space.

To be fair, the Philadelphia project is an addition to an existing building. The authority chose to replicate the original design elements and technical systems. Unfortunately, that stuff dates to the center's opening in 1993, when gas was $1.20 a gallon.

But did the authority have to mindlessly extend the barrel-vaulted roof? Even if the vaults were necessary to hold ducts, the barrels easily could have been topped with a green platform that could cool the building, soak up rainwater, provide a habitat for birds, and double the life of the roof structure. The current center's roof covers four city blocks; with the expansion, it will enclose six -- 21/2 Rittenhouse Squares. Making it green would have more than doubled the city's 11 acres of planted roofs.

To deal with the rainwater lake that will collect there, the authority decided to install massive containment tanks in the basement, allowing water to be released gradually into the city's overburdened sewer system. It's not a bad strategy. A better one, however, would have used that water to flush toilets and irrigate plants.

We should be grateful, I suppose, that the Convention Center will soon begin switching its lights to energy-efficient compact fluorescents.

There are a couple of ironies here. Mayor Nutter has made green issues one of the hallmarks of his administration, expanding the recycling program and appointing a full-time director of sustainability. Only last week, while speaking at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council's annual dinner, Nutter pledged to make Philadelphia "the cleanest, greenest city in America." He wants the zoning code to require sustainable construction practices.

A laudable goal, to be sure. But how will that go down with developers when the biggest construction project in town is being given a pass on the grounds that sustainability is "too costly?" Especially when you're the guy who signed off on the decision. Nutter says he would never approve the Convention Center design today without more green features. And Howard Neukrug, who promotes sustainability for the Water Department, vows that "it will be last non-sustainable government building to go up in Philadelphia."

Maybe it doesn't have to hold that title. Thanks to the state's wasteful decision earlier this year to destroy a block of protected Broad Street buildings, the Convention Center is obliged to resubmit its design to the city Art Commission. The center is supposed to appear before the commission July 2 with drawings showing how it would treat the gap in its Broad Street facade.

The commission's blessing is needed before construction can start. Don't grant it until the roof design is fixed.

Yes, the state will carp that the requirement is an expensive burden. So will private developers when the city makes the same demand of them. Standing on principle now will be good practice.

The Convention Center's roof doesn't have to be literally green. Why not turn those 18 acres into an energy farm by installing rows of solar voltaics? Wiggins suggested that a private company might even lease the space in exchange for the energy production.

Just don't let the city's green aspirations wither on that 18-acre asphalt desert.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or


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