Dropping Anchor 

click to enlarge street47_arch_phillip_morris_100.jpg

There's a striking new building on the downtown skyline and, surprisingly, it doesn't face the river. In fact, it doesn't face downtown either. And it's fairly isolated from either.

The Philip Morris USA Center for Research and Technology, just north of the Coliseum, faces the interstate highways and north Jackson Ward. As motorists veer off I-64 and onto the Fifth Street ramp, the sprawling Philip Morris complex comes into view. Its mostly flat roofline gently swoops upward near Fifth Street, and its broad Jackson Street facade is broken with alternating window bays and deep-set balconies cast in a menu of handsome materials -- glass, metal and cast stone.

The overall impression of the 450,000-square-foot structure, designed by CUH2A of Princeton, N.J., is that of a great, shiny cruise ship at dock, physically overwhelming its port. Regularly, gleaming vessels from the Carnival or Holland America lines dock at ports in Key West or Venice, where they dispatch hundreds of passengers to wander and spend money. By dusk, the temporary skyline evaporates when the ship sails on.

While the Philip Morris building may look like an elegant cruise ship, it isn't going anywhere. Its arrival in the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park has local pooh-bahs salivating with a projected 500 employee base and the tax-generating potential of its $350 million physical plant. Those who waited half a century for this desolate tract of real estate to be developed stand ready to rejoice that the area is repopulating and might begin functioning as a downtown.

But hold the enthusiasm. The Philip Morris interior spaces are reportedly varied in scale, light and airy, and cheerfully furnished to encourage clear thinking among its scientists, engineers and support personnel. But from the sidewalks and streets the building is a walled fortress. Its elegant, modern structure is set up and back from the street on a raised, one-story, mostly windowless stone podium. As such, the building breaks important rules of good urban design: Address the sidewalk architecturally, encourage pedestrian activity and announce the building's function.

Worse, while the building's mass adheres to the surrounding streets and sidewalks, the complex extends beyond its footprint, encompassing two contiguous blocks bounded by Fifth, Seventh, Leigh and Jackson streets. It forms an even larger "L" by claiming the two additional blocks bounded by Sixth, Seventh and Jackson streets where the building is attached to a large parking garage by a block-long pedestrian skywalk. The approach is moonscape, not urban. And the message is clear: People who work here need never touch the city sidewalks or become a part of downtown life. This four-block, self-contained environment thumbs its nose at what contributes to making downtowns lively.

Urban areas should have short blocks to encourage pedestrian and vehicular circulation and urban vistas. Instead of the main structure encompassing two blocks, it might have been built on just one block. This would have left Sixth Street open. Granted, Sixth ceased being a circulator route some time ago (when Leigh Street was depressed as it passes the Coliseum), but the block of Sixth just north of the Coliseum could have been connected to the south bank with a pedestrian bridge.

Worse is the second-story, over-the-street skywalk that links the research building to the parking garage. If 500 more people will be working here, who would know? The building contains retail, dining and recreational facilities inside, so there's no need for employees to set foot on the sidewalk. Why couldn't some of those amenities have been shared with the surrounding community by placing them at sidewalk level?

Instead, something akin to a medieval walled city occurs at the street level. Only downtown's Federal Reserve Bank is more fortified.

The fortress has been "softened" somewhat by a brick wall with intermittent trellises of greenery, and some park benches. Brick sidewalks have also been installed. While these tend to blend the building with other mostly red-brick buildings in the BioTech Park, they are apparently afterthoughts because they are stylistically different from the metal-and-glass modernism of the main building.

At the corner of Seventh and Jackson streets, in the open space between the building and parking garage, Philip Morris has created a walled park. It appears attractive enough, but gratuitous, a kind of guilt-check for the oppressiveness of the structures looming nearby.

Perhaps the best part of the Philip Morris building is its rear. Here, a basically flat facade acts as a foil to the flying-saucer design of the nearby Coliseum. At the ground level, the service entrance adjacent to the depressed area of Leigh Street has been screened by generous landscaping.

The disappointment with the Philip Morris center is that a grand opportunity for reweaving this part of downtown was lost. That, of course, was not a corporate goal. But the company has announced that this is going to be a place of creative thought and innovation. While that may be the environment that's been created inside the complex, the exterior projects quite the opposite: They are a little freaked out to be here, scared of the neighborhood, and the best they could do was to circle the wagons with high walls and segregated pedestrian skyways. S

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