Saturday, February 6, 2016

Why are we still talking about Bart Blatstein?

At the height of the building boom, Bart Blatstein, the developer behind the Piazza at Schmidt's, was lauded by locals as a pioneering visionary. His quasi-public plaza in the not-quite-there-yet Northern Liberties was seen as a daring and risky move, and Erdy-McHenry's architecture cradled that. Philadelphia's press and bloggers couldn't get enough of Blatstein.

He was the man that was going to reinvent the city, the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg.

His company, Tower Investments, has managed to make a name for itself. The former State Office Building on North Broad was renovated and rebranded Tower Place, and several of Tower's other projects handsomely compliment the Piazza. 

For years, Blatstein taunted the press with his next move. He got his hands on the Inquirer Building and proposed the Provence Casino. He snagged the long vacant corner of Broad and Washington where he pitched twin towers and a shopping complex. He partnered in a deal for the Delaware Station to convert the industrial relic into a massive event space. 

Then he set his sights on Atlantic City, began renovating the Pier Shops at Caesars, and it seemed he had abandoned Philadelphia and anyone who gave a shit about his portfolio of unused properties. 

But the truth is, he never left. Whenever we thought he was gone, he'd find himself an unintended voice in a story involving local development. Just two weeks ago he told BizJournal's Natalie Kostelni, "It's time" for North Broad Street, yet half of his vested interest in the Avenue sits vacant. Maria Panaritis dedicated an entire article to the man dubbing him a risk taker, opening exclusively with a love letter to the man's private Rittenhouse mansion.

Meanwhile, developers like National Real Estate Advisors are moving mountains on East Market. Brandywine is redefining the University City skyline with a renowned architecture firm's skyscraper. Liberty Property Trust is partnered in building the tallest building between New York and Chicago. 

While NREA, Brandywine, and Liberty are faceless entities, perhaps it's a man the press is enamored with. Eric Bumenfeld is a similar developer who garners similar attention, but he's hardly a celebrity in the local press. Carl Dranoff, though he's never done anything exceptionally daring or reinvented the wheel, is consistently building and clearly loves working more than attention. 

As someone who made one good move and a few decent ones over the past decade, why do we still care so much about Bart Blatstein? Like someone who just won the lottery, Bart Blatstein can't seem to focus his attention on one purchase, project, or investment. He sprays a sense of capitalistic ADHD across the Jerseyvania Triangle in disordered chaos, that is until he wants to grab a headline. 

Unlike Blumenfeld or Dranoff, and certainly straying from the formality of NREA, Brandywine, and Liberty; Blatstein has become Philadelphia's Donald Trump. Wherever there's a reporter, he's there to tell us what we want to hear: Broad and Washington will be amazing, the Inquirer Building will reinvent North Broad, and that abandoned power station on the Delaware River will be the East Coast's Coachella. 

He's a showman through and through, and it's beginning to look like the one thing he did smashingly perfect - the Piazza - was nothing but a fluke. 

But it wasn't a fluke nor was it that risky. There are a few pieces of Blatstein's portfolio that strategically lack a photograph on his company's website, namely River View and Columbus Crossing, that prove he isn't the urban trailblazer that brought feet back to the sidewalks of Philadelphia.

Neither an indie developer who rewrote urbanism nor one who altruistically saved a piece of North Broad modernism, Blatstein is a calculated businessman who bankrolled projects like the Piazza by first solidifying Columbus Boulevard as a piss-poor suburban wasteland by making strip-malls the new South Philly normal. 

With Blumenfeld bringing the Divine Lorraine back to life and Dranoff keeping urbanism tight, why is Blatstein still the press's Man of the Hour?

Like so many other charismatic moneymen, years of reveals for "the next Piazza" have been nothing more than a dog and pony show. Flashy renderings of towers flanking Broad and Washington and defunct plans for a casino atop the Inquirer Building serve to both distract and divide the public while the media, knowing how easy it is to jingle a set of keys in front of its readers, is his worthy partner. 

Past the pomp and soundbites, he's up to his old tricks. It was recently announced that Blatstein has proposed another strip-mall at Columbus Boulevard and Washington Avenue, a car-centric project that will put the kibosh on the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation's plans to replicate the success of the Schuylkill Banks on the eastern shores of the city. 

Unfortunately for Blatstein, his proposal was almost universally panned. Drexel University's Harris Steinberg called it "a regression." Jason Bock, who helped Blatstein plan the damn thing, even said, "it's going to be an urban development that's going to look like a suburban development."

These aren't words many Philadelphians this side of the New Millennium really want to hear. Given Bock's comments and Blatstein's vision, it would seem that the man who invented the American Piazza doesn't necessarily get urbanism or the New Philadelphians who largely make up his market. Inga Saffron was even more blunt on Facebook, posting, "Guess Bart Blatstein has given up on that new urbanist stuff."

While it's true that the Piazza may never have happened without Columbus Crossing or River View, that doesn't mean either had to happen, and certainly doesn't mean either should happen again. The success of the Piazza and Tower Place have proven that urbanism isn't risky. In fact, it's exactly what Philadelphia wants right now. 

But old habits die hard.

Strip-malls are cheap cash cows, at least for now. If another one on Columbus Boulevard can fund the transformation of Broad and Washington, I'll take it. But with so many other developers truly embracing Philadelphia's urban roots, why is the man who built one good thing once upon a time still the public's go-to guy when the latest thing he's released is so uninspired and architecturally irresponsible? 

We don't need to make any assumptions when it comes to Bart Blatstein and his attitude towards the better city we'd all like to have. Take his own words on the Delaware River Trail, 
"In spirit, I am for the river trail. In reality, it would be sold for a fraction of the market value of the property."

That's no architectural superhero, and not a Philadelphian we should be idolizing. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

S.S. United States Revisited

If you've been following the fate of the S.S. United States, the "big ship down by IKEA," you probably already know that it's been given a stay of execution. Forgive me if I'm not as optimistic as the internet, by Crystal Cruise's interest in returning the ship to service is far from a done deal. 

Personally, I think returning the historic ocean liner to service is the option most befitting her history. Permanently docking her on the Delaware in Philadelphia a la Long Beach's Queen Mary would be a boon for the city and tourism, but that's kind of like embalming a race horse and putting its shellacked corpse in the Kentucky Derby parking lot. 

For the S.S. United States to set sail again would be a true testament to her greatness, but also an unprecedented one. Today, Cunard's RMS Queen Mary 2 is the only true ocean liner in service. "But wait," you say, "there are hundreds of cruise ships floating around the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. What makes Queen Mary - and the S.S. United States - so special?" 

Christened in 2004, the Queen Mary 2 was built for transatlantic crossings. Launched in 1952, the S.S. United States was designed for European and American tourists who had not yet fully embraced air travel. When planes took over the travel industry, true ocean liners all by died. The ships we have today, magnificent and massive as they are, are not designed for choppy, intercontinental travel, at least not with thousands of passengers on board. 

Despite the S.S. United State's transatlantic record, there simply isn't a huge market for tourists who want to spend two days in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And there is next to no market for round-trip intercontinental travel. The Queen Mary 2 spends the year traversing the globe. Its passengers either fly to a port and sail home, or endure a plane ride home from their destination. Very few have the means, time, or desire to spend a year on the ship. 

None of this means that Crystal Cruise's interest in the S.S. United States is a lost cause, and returning her to transatlantic travel is probably only a quizzical curiosity in the company's business plan. Throughout maritime history, a number of ocean liners have been refitted, renovated, or gutted to serve as cruise ships that slowly bobble throughout the islands, and that's likely what Crystal Cruise has in mind for the S.S. United States. 

What is more worrisome is what will become of her once Crystal Cruise signs the deal, purchases the ship, and carts her off. The S.S. United States became a local cause exclusively because she was so visible. IKEA placed its cafeteria in direct sight of the behemoth complete with a massive picture window solely so customers could take a look and snap pictures. If she had been rusting away in Norfolk, dwarfed by Naval vessels and visible only from the highway, she likely would have been melted down for scrap years ago. 

Her visible position is what piqued the interest of Philadelphians, and it's Philadelphians that have staved off her execution. Once the S.S. United States leaves Pier 82 for Crystal Cruise's headquarters in Hong Kong her fate will be in the hands of a new set of local aficionados, maritime enthusiast, and a company interested in making her profitable. Will our historical attention spans endure the entirety of our planet, or will most of us Philadelphians simply forget about the S.S. United States if and when she leaves our port? 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Priced out of the Gayborhood

With residential high-rises encroaching from each direction, Center City's hottest neighborhood is inarguably the Gayborhood right now, and it's been no stranger to the causalities of development and rising rent. Just last Sunday, the neighborhood's oldest gay bar, Venture Inn, arguably the nation's oldest, served its last stiff cocktail. 

With the exception of Venture, much of the change has been welcome, to varying degrees. Long vacant storefronts have begun to fill out and 13th Street's strip of hoagie shops were replaced with some of the best restaurants in the region. But the gentrification tipping point in this southeast corner of Center City is coming sooner than later, and it's being pushed by the promise of large chains like Target and a mammoth entertainment and residential complex at 12th and Market. 

Both may mean little to the quaint streets of the Gayborhood, at least to the brick-and-mortar, but they are rapidly eroding the cultural balance between the area's newcomers and those who haven't left. What it does mean is rising property value, which may encourage some business owners to cash out and pressure others to relocate. 

The latest hit came to I. Goldberg Army & Navy, which has stood at 13th and Chestnut for almost a century. With PMC Property Group asking for $600,000 a year for the three story retail space, I. Goldberg will be packing up and looking for a nearby location. 

However, of all the changes unfolding from the "Midtown Village" assault on the Gayborhood, I. Goldberg may be unfortunate, but not exactly surprising. My father, who used to take the West Chester train downtown in the 1950s to sift through the militariana in I. Goldberg's basement, recently payed the store a visit only to say "it hasn't changed a bit." 

What's unfortunate is that I. Goldberg, which is a very unique store for Center City, has been regarded by many New Philadelphians and Millennials as just another Shirt Corner, a ruff-n-ready nonsense store that inexplicably survived fifteen years into the 21st Century. And while the comparison is far from true, part of the assumption is I. Goldberg's fault. 

Nostalgia can't sustain itself on the fact that it exists, and with Philadelphia evolving, I. Goldberg needs to do the same. The store's most unique gadgets - the kinds of things you'd expect to find in a surplus shop - are buried in the basement. It's most marketable products - jackets, coats, boots, and outdoor gear - are upstairs. Meanwhile, the main floor is a crowded mess of oversized flannel shirts and Dad Jeans shoveled behind a security guard. Its first impression doesn't exactly sing the same tune as those renting $1500 a month apartments upstairs. 

What's ironic is just how easily they could. They have some great products. But if I was heading back from a few mimosas at Green Eggs on a cold January day and looking for a NorthFace jacket, I'd have no idea that I. Goldberg sold them, unless I stared at chaotic window display for about fifteen minutes. And even then, I'd probably assume they were second-hand. Plus they close at 5:45PM and don't open on Sundays. 

If they scaled back their inventory, right-sized their space, and merchandized their supply properly, they could easily compete with Center City sporting goods stores, and even still manage to offer a few of the unique products that the hipsters covet, like Soviet era military watches. 

Gentrification may be quickly terraforming the Gayborhood, but this loss is on us. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Innovating a Place for Innovation

A few weeks ago I took the subway to the end of the line and decided to check out the Navy Yard. I've mentioned the district on Philly Bricks before, but aside from renderings and development news, I knew very little about it. After all, with the exception of architectural curiosity, I never had any reason to go there. My understanding led me to believe it was a quasi-urban office park, and in a way it is, but one that works better than any other. 

Unfortunately the subway ends a few, long blocks north of the formal Navy Yard gates. Because of the city's gentle slope towards the Delaware River, water tables are too high to extend the Broad Street line all the way to the Navy Yard, at least underground. But despite the boring walk past some of the largest surface parking lots I've ever seen and under the roaring interstate, passing through the gates is a journey into a very unique place.

Massive decommissioned Naval vessels loom overhead, moored to concrete docks with knotted ropes the size of a body builder's bicep. These rusted hulks aren't what you'd expect to find in our local beehive of innovation, but the location's history is exactly what sets it apart from other Millennial brainstorming hubs, and they're what make it so exciting.

Venturing further into the sprawling campuses, along the glistening headquarters donning names of soon-to-be-known pharmaceutical companies, and URBN's historic warehouses, it quickly becomes apparent that Philadelphia's Navy Yard is our own Cupertino. Big Pharma is big business, and Philadelphia owns it. The Navy Yard is taking what makes places like Cupertino work, only it's been dropped in the middle of a major city. 

While tech commuters treck to the Silicon Valley, the Dulles Corridor, or King of Prussia, or resign themselves to live where they work, the Navy Yard has taken what works in those suburban pockets of genius, condensed it, and put it in the middle of the action. 

As a fifteen veteran of the technology realm, I can tell you from experience exactly why large companies opt for sprawling campus headquarters in lieu of pompous Center City skyscrapers, and it has little to do with cash. There's a certain amount of prestige that comes with working in a place like Comcast Center or 30 Rock, but that's where it ends. To get the job done right, an agile work environment requires numerous meetings every day and that doesn't jove with elevator banks and stacked floors. Techies commute to the 'burbs because the architectural spaces that makeup Google, Facebook, and Apple foster a creative mind. 

Large footprints and grassy grounds separate employees from the distractions of the urban American city, and allow planners to strategically create the specific kind of distractions that keep those employees engaged: jogging trails, fitness equipment, outdoor conference spaces. When you leave GSK or URBN on your lunch break, you're not entering the hectic and hostile streets of Center City Philadelphia, a world that will immediately take you away from your work. Instead, you're entering a corporate wonderland designed to make your break a relaxing reprieve that doesn't take you away from your work. 

With room to grow, the Navy Yard is offering a microcosm of the environment that makes places like Cupertino work, and offering it at Philadelphia's doorstep. As word spreads and the Navy Yard continues to fill out, it would not be surprising if some of the nation's greatest innovators come home to the Workshop of the World. And why not? Will all the pluses of the Silicone Valley unfolding within the confines of one of the nation's biggest cities, what advantages to suburban campuses continue to offer?

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Last Call: Venture Inn

With Venture Inn closing next weekend, I can't point out the exact reason I'm so torn up. Perhaps that's because there are so many things about its closure that break my subtly jaded, yet big gay heart. 

It's not like I "came out" at Venture Inn, or in Philadelphia for that matter. It's never been a must-see social spot for visitors. It's not a house pumping danceteria like Woody's or a musclebound hookup joint like U-Bar. It's not even "Gay Cheers" like the quietly shuttered Westbury. 

What it was, and is for the next nine nights, is the Gayborhood's cozy neighborhood bar, one that happens to put on the best drag show in Philadelphia (sorry, Bob and Barbara's).

It's also a microcosm of a Philadelphia - and a Gayborhood - that is slowly fading amid cultural shifts, an influx of new residents, and massive development. Change is inevitable and it's necessary for a city's evolution. Places that don't change or fall in line with the trends of the time are often casualties of progress. 

For the past forty years, Venture Inn has been "the other gay bar," and for the past forty years Philadelphia has remained relatively frozen in time. Until recently, that worked in Venture Inn's favor. Philadelphia's gay bars were windowless fortresses, many tucked down tiny streets like Camac. If you wanted to go to a gay bar ten years ago, you couldn't help but feel a little seedy. But when real estate brainiacs decided to callously rename the Gayborhood, "Midtown Village" in some attempt to quell the nonexistent homophobia of buyers they thought wouldn't be too keen on raising their kids in a gay ghetto, the game changed. 

It started when an admittedly crappy stretch of 13th Street was packed with some of the best restaurants in the tristate area. Then came Green Eggs where chicks in Jackie O glasses could nurse their hangovers in bottomless pitchers of heartburn. And finally, Nest, because you're never too young to start CrossFit, even if you're two. 

Today, those new to Philadelphia have no idea just how gay the Gayborhood used to be, even when its most lavender venues didn't even have windows. 

Business-savvy gay bars took advantage of their revived (albeit homogenized) neighborhood and the public's curious interest the LGBT community and reinvented themselves. Woody's renovated. Uncles and 12th Air changed their names to U-Bar and iCandy. All of them traded their soulless speakeasy walls for windows. With Philadelphia rebranded as the 21st Century "it" town, our gay bars followed suit. Most of them.

Venture Inn has redecorated over the years, but it's always ended there. Today, to New Philadelphians and their concept of cool, Venture is a venue that clings to a time newbies are desperate to amputate.

Part of Venture's reluctance to rebrand itself might simply be because it worked. On any given night it's packed. It's not just a gay bar, it's the Gayborhood's industry bar. When the restaurants close, waiters and even a few notable chefs sidle up to Venture's bar for a stiff cocktail and some attitude. Despite those who refuse to venture in (ha, get it?), it's hard to imagine why Venture Inn needs to close. It might not cater to those constantly seeking out the next hot fad, but it has a niche. 

It's a second home to Gen Xers and Babyboomers who never really needed a reinvented watering hole, and Millennials who tire of the vapid dominance of today's fickly disaffected iPhone holders. In that regard, Venture Inn is the perfect dive bar, and not in the pejorative sense. The jukebox is loaded with a mix of Motown, disco, grunge, and '80s era electronica, and after a few drinks, it's hard to remember if it's 2016, 1970, or a future that never happened. Instead of inundating its customers with the inexplicable insurrection of 21st Century pompousness, it's exactly what the crowd makes of it. 

For me, Venture Inn holds a special place, mainly made from memories. In a changing city, I suppose that's all we have, and all we should try to make of innumerable, upcoming iterations. But I'm not someone who likes change or takes it well. Perhaps that's because I didn't grow up in a city, but rather a place where time stood and still stands still. When I make friends, go on a date, or find a place like Venture Inn I want it to last forever. It's naive, I know, but it's a habit that's hard to kick.

To many, Venture Inn's closure is just a sign of the times or worse, irrelevant. But to me, it's a passing. The loss of a place where I met some of the most amazing people in Philadelphia - hell, the world - and looking around, it's not a place that's going to be replaced. Quickly approaching forty, like Venture Inn, I've come to the realization that my Philadelphia, my Gayborhood, and my neighborhood bars are products of another era, relegated to the annals of history and time. 

I wouldn't be who I am without Venture Inn. Whether that's good or bad is debatable, but it's where I am and I'm happy. My life may not be complete, but it's content, and part of that is thanks to performers like Sandy Beach, bartenders like Henry, and the crowds of proud misfits at Venture Inn. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Hyde Hotel

If you've been buried under a rock like myself, you might have missed a few things. I know I did. I thought that Dranoff's SLS Hotel proposal was dead. Apparently I'm not right, just impatient. But I'm also still skeptical. 

It's apparently happening, and its footprint is growing. Like all hotel conglomerates, SBE Entertainment Group understands you can't just cater to one demographic if you want to breed moguls. I mean what is this, the Roaring 20s? SBE wants to put another one of its' brands, the less pricy Hyde, on the same block of Broad at Pine Street.

If you don't know what is at Broad and Pine, don't worry. It's a parking garage that houses a Starbucks, and neither will be missed by this guy (go to Cafe 12, please). A preliminary rendering shows the Hyde as a handsome if dull 22 story hotel - think Boston in the '90s - with some apartments (because everyone's doing that now), and a seemingly stunted SLS International. Let's hope the latter is just a drafting glitch because that corner deserves some height. 

Dranoff, the developer behind both hotels, hopes to start construction on the Hyde in 2017, so, you know, we've got a while. Projects this large take time to get off the ground and go through dozens of redesigns in the process. We'll likely never see the SLS International we've seen in renderings, and the Hyde's introduction may be a litmus for vested parties to gauge the market. Swapping a parking garage at Broad and Pine for a new one at the should-be site of the SLS International wouldn't be unheard-of. 

But Philadelphia's so hot right now (say that in Mugatu's voice) we could see both sooner than we expect. Philadelphia's recent success is locally unprecedented, at least in any of our lifetimes. Just look at what's happening on Market East and the Schuylkill River. SLS and Hyde aren't household names to most Americans, not like Marriott and Hilton. But their interest in Philadelphia says a lot what's happening in Center City. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

2016 Mummers Day Parade

I tended to my Philadelphian obligation and went to yesterday's Mummers Parade, for about ten minutes. To be honest, that's a new personal record. I get it. It's a fun and uniquely local tradition, and if I was accustomed to binge drinking at 10am, I'd probably do a little more than show up for one picture. 

Besides, I'm there for the costumes, and they're easy to see on social media, so that's where I went next. And believe me, social media's reaction to this year's festivities was certainly present, and vocal.

One of the unfortunate traditions that seems to plague the Mummers Parade every year is an amateur knack for insulting various cultures and races, most notably through blackface. This year's targets by two of the bands were Mexicans and Caitlyn Jenner. What's truly unfortunate is how the actions of a few boobs can ruin a good time for everyone.

If you were to read Facebook or Twitter today, you'd think that the Mummers Parade was solely dedicated to mocking minorities and Caitlyn Jenner. It even made it to PerezHilton, where the celebrity blogger repeatedly confused the actions of one band with the entire parade, stating "this year the parade poked fun at Caitlyn Jenner." To anyone outside the Philadelphia region, you'd think that this were a parade put on by professionals, that the city was promoting bigotry, and that the entire parade was a hateful tribute to Caitlyn Jenner. 

This makes us all look bad. 

Let's get one thing out of the way, Caitlyn Jenner is a superficial fame-whore. She's primed for parody. But resorting to tasteless jokes and witless memes doesn't make you clever, it just proves you're as shallow and vapid as she is. Further proving that Finnegan's performance was not simply a tasteless joke, one member decided to shout "Fuck the gays!" at a camera. 

It shouldn't be too hard to figure out who this idiot is.

While Finnegan's Captain repeatedly apologized for the words of one member, pressured apologies have become routine on social media. It's difficult to determine what apologies are sincere, and that sincerity is certainly suspect in Finnegan's case following its choreographed routine that mocked the transition process of a member of the LGBT community. Was it really the words of one man, or just one man's words caught on tape? What kind of environment does Finnegan's social club foster, and where the motives behind their performance cluelessly ignorant or deliberately hurtful.

Finnegan's wasn't the only offensive culprit this year, either. The Sammar Strutters went with a Mexican theme, which in itself might not have have been so offensive...if one didn't dress up like a taco.

This is why we can't have nice things.

Social justice is swift and often unfair. It only take a few hours for Social Justice Warriors to tap into a cause, vicariate the city involved, and move on. In one day, social media has unraveled all the progress we've made rebranding our city's image. We're no longer the hip new "it" city, we're now a city of bigots, all thanks for a very small group of ignorant morons. 

Keep in mind, there are 10,000 performers in the Mummers Parade, and 99.9% of those Mummers put on a wild and wonderful show, including the Miss Fancy Brigade of drag queens. 

I'm not going to apologize for the hateful actions of a few idiots anymore than the drunken slobs pissing in the street all day, because they are not my Philadelphia. My Philadelphia is the city that recently received a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index. My city is the one that embraced same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court of the Unites States did. My city is the one that effectively ended veteran homelessness last year. And my Philadelphians are the roughly 1.5M residents who cooly embrace diversity with a, "Yeah, so what? Let's go grab a Lager." 

My Mummers are those who spend months crafting meticulously colorful costumes and live to play a role in the nation's oldest surviving folk festival. 

This is what it's all about.

Residents who confuse insults with comedy are bigots, and when a Social Justice Warrior's cause ends with one broad stroke of reactionary hate, they are an equal offender. Philadelphia is an amazing city and the Mummers Parade is one of many reasons why.