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McClatchy-Tribune  06/19/2014 12:27 PM ET
Planning the new Comcast tower, from large to small [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: ]

June 19--What restaurant should go on the top floor of the second Comcast Corp. tower?

How many whiteboards might the Comcaster of the future use?

What keeps staffers in Center City from doing their best work?

How can Comcast create an urban vibe that competes for talent with suburban West Coast technology campuses?

"When you have a project of this magnitude, there are a million moving parts," said Karen Dougherty Buchholz, the woman who choreographed Philadelphia's 2000 Republican National Convention and is now the Comcast senior vice president leading the new tower project.

Just in the last week, Buchholz and Liberty Property Trust's John Gattuso visited two restaurant architects in New York to see if they had what it takes to design an eatery 900 feet in the air with panoramic views -- a Windows on the World for Philadelphia. They expect to speak with a third.

Last Friday, Buchholz sent e-mails to 5,000 Comcast staffers in three Center City buildings asking about their hours, habits, equipment they used in meetings, and other work-related questions.

The answers are due Friday, and will be used to help configure what Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts has said will be a merging of the two towers -- the original Comcast Center and the technology tower -- into a vertical urban campus.

"It's an opportunity for everybody to have a say," Buchholz said of the surveys.

Comcast disclosed its plans for the new $1.2 billion high-rise in January, saying it hired Britain's Norman Foster, one of the world's leading architects, to design it. Since then, the cable-TV giant's proposed deal to acquire Time Warner Cable Inc. for $45.2 billion and its extension of Olympic TV rights through 2032 overshadowed the construction project.

But a lot has been going on. Hundreds of professionals -- from lawyers to structural engineers -- have been working on the project at Arch Street between 18th and 19th Streets, now a parking lot, Buchholz and Gattuso said.

Philadelphia City Council approved five ordinances for the tower's construction, which Mayor Nutter signed this spring.

The company has hired civil engineers, interior architects, and a schematic drawing firm, and has assembled internal and external teams looking at everything from security to staffing.

Comcast expects to break ground within a month. "You'll start to see activity," Buchholz confirmed. Excavators will dig a 30-foot-deep hole for the tower's foundation, removing 85,000 cubic yards of dirt and asphalt -- the equivalent of 4,000 dump trucks.

There won't be any work above the street level for about a year. The project has gone "amazingly well," said Gattuso, regional director and senior vice president for Liberty Property Trust, "even smoother than the first project."

Liberty Property Trust constructed the Comcast Center, with Comcast as an anchor tenant. The building opened in 2008.

Comcast and Liberty Property Trust are joint-venture partners in the second tower, which will become the tallest building in Philadelphia. Comcast owns 80 percent of the venture and has agreed to lease three-quarters of the office space. Liberty Property Trust owns the other 20 percent and is the tower's developer. Comcast has the option to lease the additional office space by September 2015. If it doesn't, Liberty Property Trust will find other tenants.

Because of the early involvement and financial stake, Comcast and Roberts have participated from the beginning in the design. Roberts doesn't feel that he fulfilled his vision of a vertical campus with the Comcast Center and is doing that now.

"There's no question that having Comcast as a locked-in partner as a majority owner greatly reduces risk and allows you to push the envelope," Gattuso said of the new building.

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