Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Other Divine Lorraine

At one point Shift Capital had hoped to renovate the beleaguered Beury Building on North Broad Street. If you don't know it, it's the other Divine Lorraine. 

At the corner of Broad and Erie, the Beury Building wasn't just abandoned glory, it is significant architecture at a key intersection of two major arteries desperate for life.

Unfortunately, as Philadelphia Magazine pointed out, it is up for sheriff's sale, meaning it will go to anyone with the funds to buy a derelict building in one of the worst parts of town. 

Meaning strip mall at best, surface lot at worst.

Abandoned buildings do very little for their neighbors. But the ones that scrape the sky are more than empty buildings. They're beacons of hope. They signal what their neighborhood once was and could be again.

Like the Divine Lorraine, the Beury Building is an important cog in North Broad's renaissance. The best hope for North Broad isn't blind profit, it's smart planning. Like Tower Place at Spring Garden, the Divine Lorraine may soon invigorate life at Girard, and the Beury Building could do the same.

These projects have and will show that success is not merely present in development but also preservation. Even in their current states, the Beury Building and the Divine Lorraine are sources of pride in struggling neighborhoods. Losing them to suburban grocery stores or worse will only make the rebirth of North Broad Street that much more difficult, solidifying their neighbors' dignity as being worth no more than a strip mall.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Great Steps

I appreciate a good underdog story, particularly one that uses our city to demonstrate what a true underdog can become. And whether or not you like boxing movies, Sylvester Stallone, or worn nostalgia, Philadelphia has been that underdog for a very long time and we've just recently started to win.

There's a very real reason Rocky was set in Philadelphia. The city was chosen for Twelve Monkeys, Philadelphia, and Cold Case for the same reason. For so long Philadelphia was the bleak and downtrodden embodiment of something that was once great. More than that, Philadelphia continued to fight through its darkest days because it knew it could succeed.

So why now, that we're finally beginning to see the success enjoyed by New York and Chicago, are we so willing to allow one man to eradicate a pinnacle of absolute perfection, a light of stone that kept a struggling city alive throughout the Dark Ages of modern Americana?

Would you paint the White House blue?

Despite our place in Revolutionary history, Philadelphia was a smog ridden haven for crime, poverty, and corruption during our nation's Bicentennial. When Rocky Balboa ran up the Great Steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he wasn't just using a civic structure as gym equipment. He conquered seventy two daunting steps that led him to the one edifice that made Philadelphia a great city even in our worst hours. 

He turned back to the city below the Great Steps, a city faced with struggle and doubt from a point of unmolested innocence, overlooking a tarnished skyline desperate for what he had just proved he could achieve. The Philadelphia Museum of Art isn't just a museum that holds paintings. It's a Temple, in all its parts, to greatness and purity. You only need to climb its Steps to know that.

It was a symbolic feat shared by anyone who has ever visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, even those long before Rocky was a household name, one that continues to be shared by today's visitors who know nothing of the movie.

But Frank Gehry's plans to carve out one sixth of the Great Steps for a picture window isn't about history. If it were, Horace Trumbauer's greatest work of art would be granted the same reverence as a historically designated row house in Society Hill.

This is pure pomp. The Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is coupling the hype of Gehry's mere presence with an aging and irrelevant connection to a forty year old movie to encourage people to embrace anything new, regardless of what it looks like.

Cinematic history aside, the Great Steps are as relevant to the building as the collection within. The banners flanking the columns of the museum call out the title of Frank Gehry's current exhibit: Making a Classic Modern. The title doesn't just insult the posterity of the building by implying historic architecture should be altered, it insults art itself, suggesting that the Mona Lisa might be better if part of it were painted over to include an iPhone.

Making a Classic Modern

Would we allow Starchitect Michael Graves to install his postmodern columns on City Hall simply because he's known throughout the world? 

The city pitched a fit when Conrad Brenner halfheartedly proposed a mural on the windowless wall behind the PSFS Building. A grassroots organization staved off the demolition of the Boyd Theater's auditorium for more than a few years and has expanded its efforts to save the historic NFL Film Exchange on North 13th Street, a simple building in a forgotten corner of Center City. 

In a city that is so vested in preserving every last crumb of our history, where is the fight to save the gateway to our most internationally recognized cultural institution? 

While Philadelphia holds an abundance of architectural history, preservationists tend to fight fights they think they can win. We fight to save historic row houses and theaters because we know that those financially vested in the demolition don't have the city's historic interest in mind. They have no respect for the bricks and mortar, just their potential profit. 

But they're also fightable. 

Frank Gehry

When it comes to institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we assume those in charge know better. Cultural institutions are not powerhouses of profit, they're repositories of posterity. But those managing the Philadelphia Museum of Art have been mesmerized by a Lord Voldemort, a Starchitect with the power and prominence to blind us from the fact that he doesn't understand our city.

Faced with a marketing campaign masquerading as an art exhibit, Philadelphians are not asked, "Could our city's artistic legacy be better served in a truly modern museum elsewhere on the Parkway?" Instead we're being told to tolerate what Frank Gehry wants to do to the history we already have.

I'm going to keep asking until the jackhammer hits the first Great Step.

Save the PMA

Cat Urine? No, it's just New Jersey.

Residents of Irwindale, CA thought they had it bad last year when they discovered their air teeming with the smell of freshly chopped chili peppers from a nearby Sriracha factory. Obviously not too many suburban California residents are familiar with the odiferous realities of the Northeast, a region so notoriously stinky that its unique smells have worked their way into pop culture jokes.

"It’s probably just a strange wind pattern coming over those factories in Staten Island where food flavors are made." - Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock

For about a week, South Philadelphia residents have wondered about a mysterious cat piss smell, blaming everything from meth labs to raccoons.

But the Passyunk Post narrowed it down to a likely source,a  power plant being built in West Deptford, NJ, just south of Philadelphia's Navy Yard. 

Try as the Garden State might, it seems it will never shred its reputation.

GeoGuessr Philadelphia

How well do you know Philadelphia? GeoGuessr offers a new game for those cramped into cubicles to waste time on the internet, and it's addictive.

It uses random Google Street View images of your city and challenges you to guess the location, then gives you points depending on how close you are.  

Give it a go here

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Chinatown's Project H.O.M.E.

Project H.O.M.E., an organization that provides shelter and assistance to low income residents, has joined the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation to build a low-income apartment building near 8th and Arch. The building at 810 Arch Street will occupy a former surface lot donated by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. 

Philadelphia is getting more than just a handsome apartment building in a neighborhood desperate for development, Center City is getting a badly needed resource for those struggling to get back on their feet.

A Farewell Voyage for the SS United States

SS United States in South Philadelphia
Passyunk Post reported that the SS United States, the once glamorous ocean liner docked near South Philadelphia's IKEA, might be moving to New York. In 1952 the ship crossed the Atlantic in about three and a half days, the fastest commercial voyage across the Atlantic to this day.

While ideas have occasionally floated around keeping the ship in Philadelphia as a destination attraction, perhaps a casino or large entertainment complex, the cost could easily exceed $300M. 

Other cities have expressed interest in the ship including Miami, Baltimore, and even Chester. But regardless of the high cost of renovation required, such an experimental venue would also need a promising return and Philadelphia's market may simply not be capable of maintaining such a unique space, at least not yet.

Wherever she ends up, be it Miami or Brooklyn, it's nice to see that the reverence of such history is being respected. 

Despite her dilapidated condition and stripped interior, the SS United States fared far better than her sister, the SS America, which broke loose from a tugboat in 1993 and ran aground off the coast of the Canary Islands where it cracked in half and spent the next twenty years slowly rusting into the sea.

SS America in the Canary Islands

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ample Parking, Day or Night

When I first moved to Washington, D.C. almost twenty years ago, my large studio cost a modest $450 a month, development was stale, and the internet was for nerds. Today my first apartment - untouched and still teeming with more roaches than Joe's Apartment - asks a whopping $1200 a month. And that's considered affordable.

Twenty years old and raised on a farm, I was just tiptoeing my way into urban life. Put your license and cash in your sock at night, but leave a few bucks in your wallet in case you get mugged. Don't make eye contact with the beggars. And don't go in Meridian Hill Park after sundown unless you're buying drugs or a blow job. 

The neighborhood once home to abandoned embassies, one of them torched, is now full of microbrews, new families, and strollers extending all the way to Maryland.

But one thing hasn't changed, a frustrating urban ill I learned to deal with very early on: You will never find a parking space at your door. 

In Washington and many other cities, parking hassles are acceptedly traded for the luxury of living downtown. If you have to own a car for work, circling your block, even the surrounding blocks for twenty minutes is just something you have to do. 

But in Philadelphia, a city three times the size of Washington, D.C., having a car isn't largely perceived to be a privilege or unfortunate necessity, many view door front parking as a right. That attitude is expected in some emerging neighborhoods where long time Philadelphia residents spent the better part of the 20th Century living amongst abandonment when parking was a breeze. 

As the city's built environment grows, so does its population. Neighborhoods in North and South Philadelphia once vacant enough to accommodate a car for every member of the family parked along their block are quickly discovering what cities a fraction of the size have known for decades. 

Gone are the days of saving your spot with a piece of rusted lawn furniture. South Philadelphia residents may soon even find themselves faced with the fact that median parking is illegal, a law currently overlooked that will inevitably be enforced, further exasperating the parking within nearby neighborhoods.

Dead for no good reason

But where the parking gripes are even more quizzical is in the city's core. Not only do an over abundance of surface lots and parking garages adequately accommodate those living and working in Center City, the individuals who live and work here knowingly chose apartments and accepted jobs in one of the nation's densest downtowns within one of its biggest cities.

Ironically the same voices in Center City that champion better pedestrianization, urbanism, and bike lanes are the same ones who pipe up when a developer proposes a new apartment or office building, citing traffic and parking as a concern. 

Old City, a neighborhood once densely packed with warehouses and factories is now a high priced neighborhood full of charming alleyways broken up by small surface lots to accommodate both unnecessary cars brought in from New Jersey for nightlife as well as the community's reluctance to allow larger development that might bring with it a parking garage. 

But an even greater hypocrisy occurs across town near Rittenhouse Square where the Center City Residents' Association blocked the development of a sky scraping apartment tower at 19th and Chestnut. Despite a half dozen nearby high-rises, the CCRA claimed that spot zoning should not allow a building so tall, yammering from buildings that spot zoning allowed.

The larger complaint apparent in community meetings, on message boards, and the online comment Rabbit Hole regarded parking and traffic. With streets in the vicinity overwhelmingly metered, the parking grief is a nonstarter. Wealthy tenants who would inexplicably want to park on the street would need to hunt for spaces well below Rittenhouse Square. But more realistically, most who even owned a car would likely rent a space in one of the dozens of lots and garages in the area, many just a block away.

Despite being an American powerhouse that continues to grow taller and spread wider, Philadelphia's old habits dictate development in our densest pockets. The ongoing spot zoning argument doesn't validate the concerns of resident activists, rather it exposes an outdated zoning map, one that allows the tallest building between New York in Chicago on Arch Street, but nixes a high-rise apartment building a few blocks south.

Our current zoning in Center City refuses to accept the fact that the city between Vine and South is fusing into a cohesively proper downtown. There are places where height is relevant, notably in the Independence Historic District. But spot zoning in and around Rittenhouse has already set a precedent, and any debate about shadows and wind tunnels should be moot. And parking should never be considered in any debate regarding development downtown. 

The only regions within our city where development seems free to do its job is where the Atlanta-ization of our city is possible, where vast disjoined apartment complexes can provide ample parking near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and University City. Meanwhile hypocrisy and entitlement are stymying development in the one region within the city where common sense says it should touch the sky.

The day will come when logic, reason, and the quest to truly become an advanced and competitive city will supersede the lost cause of revisiting a Philadelphia that died in the 1950s, a lost cause that quells its agitation simply through the posterity of quiet streets and quaint architecture. We're a big city primed to be the next New York. Let's start acting like it.