Friday, August 28, 2015

The Skyscraper Race: Is America Done?

It's easy to look at the feats rising from Asia and the Middle East and wonder if North America will ever again host a "World's Tallest." The last time we held that title was in 1998, when Kuala Lumpur's twin Petronas Towers beat out Chicago's Sears Tower by a few meters. American developers, fueled by a renewed challenge - one that hadn't really been visited since the 1970s, and one that primarily existed in North America - began quickly working with architects to volley the ball back to Asia with something even taller. 


But a series of unfortunate events put a wrench in our efforts to further scrape the sky. Even before the dot.com crash, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the global housing crisis, 9/11 had devastated our nation and forced us to question the vulnerability that comes with reaching so high. 

New York's World Trade Center became North America's Tower of Babel.

By the time we started building again, the Burj Khalifa was slated to surpass the height of New York's Freedom Tower by nearly twice its proposed height. Buildings like Taiwan's Taipei 101 and those that seemed poised to at least briefly hold the title of "World's Tallest" were quickly relegated to a vast architectural catalog of skyscrapers roughly the height of the Sears Tower. 


Today, development in the United States has seemingly dropped out of the global height race, opting for unofficial local rivalries. When we do compete, it's New York versus Chicago, or Philadelphia and Los Angeles battling over who will become slightly taller than the rest. Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center will become an architectural symbol of Philadelphia's renaissance, but when it's mentioned in the press, it comes with the caveat, "tallest outside New York and Chicago."

Perhaps the tragedies and obstacles that kept us out of the race in the early 2000s didn't just make us question the vulnerability of building so tall, but also the practicality. In most major American cities, skyscrapers top out around 300 meters, roughly the height of Comcast Center and its upcoming partner. 

Using technology that hasn't fundamentally changed in more than one hundred and fifty years, most of the world's tallest skyscrapers still use the same Otis elevators invented in 1852. Until someone created a truly new technology to take us more than one hundred stories into the sky, elevator banks become clogged and traveling between floors begins eating into valuable business hours. 

With business becoming more mobile, it's often less remote. Tech geeks meander through suburban campuses on Segways and scooters in the Silicon Valley, tethered to tablets and smart phones. New project management methodologies born in the world of information technology are spreading from the West Coast throughout the rest of the world, and they require days filled with brainstorming sessions, sprint meetings, and most importantly, mobility.

Emails and texts are being hastily addressed while waiting in long lines for elevators. It's no surprise that the world's most successful technology companies still favor the sprawling suburban campus. 

In that regard it's easy to understand why American corporations have opted out of the international race for height. It's also easy to wonder if Asian countries, and more specifically, sprawling Middle Eastern cities really get skyscrapers. 

Born from a need during the Industrial Revolution, the perfection of Otis's elevator provided an answer. Cities like New York and Chicago finally had a way to cram as many people as possible into a finite amount of space by building really, really high. For those who invented the skyscraper, it wasn't a luxury, it was a solution. And with a renewed sense of urban living and employment, density is being brought back to cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami by building up, not out.


But to developers in the Middle East, to those building the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, skyscrapers straight out of the pages of the best science fiction novels are becoming a reality for something entirely different. While the floor count seems to have no ceiling in today's global skyscrapers, there is nothing technologically unique about the Kingdom Tower or the Burj Khalifa, except for purpose. Throwing practicality into the desert, Middle Eastern developers are scraping the sky to cater to an exclusive clientele, a global 1% with nothing but time on their hands, plenty to wait for an elevator.

For the United States, Canada, European nations, and other more pragmatic countries, we didn't quit the race, we're just waiting for technology to make something as tall as the Kingdom Tower make sense. When that happens, the game is back on. 

New York's World Trader Center wasn't the Tower of Babel. It made sense. It served its purpose, it was tragically destroyed, and it was rebuilt. In fact, the story of the Tower of Babel makes no mention of its destruction despite so many modern references. It was simply a towering city so large that chaos ensued and the tower was abandoned. I'm certainly not a Christian, but the analogy is historically apt, and much more attributable to cities a little bit closer to its namesake. To buildings like the Burj Khalifa, the Kingdom Tower, to building's that just don't make sense...yet.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Old Navy at the WCHU Building

You know that wacky Art Deco building across from Liberty Place? The one fittingly home to the Art Institute? You know the one. It looks like a cross between something from Ghostbusters and the opening from Lynch and Frost's short-lived On the Air.

Today (although somehow timestamped "Friday, August 28"), the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Pearl properties purchased the property between 16th and 17th Streets with plans to lease the lower floors to Old Navy.

Hmm. What to think of that?

It's an obvious no-brainer for Gap Inc. With Gap and Banana Republic outlets already on Chestnut Street, a Gap and Banana Republic around the corner, the conglomerate may need to seek a new Old Navy location once renovation begins at the Gallery...and Chestnut is where it's at right now. 

But why the historic WCAU Building already branded from top to bottom in its original 1922 facade, and more importantly, what does Gap Inc. intend to do with that facade. Old Navy isn't the kind of up-and-coming retailer that panders to hipsters that appreciate kitschy architecture. They're the CVS of cargo shorts, and when they want to be seen, they want to be seen from a block away. 

It's hard to imagine Gap Inc. embracing the building's unique character by diluting Old Navy's branded architecture, they're not Uniqlo. Perhaps we just need to look at Old Navy's dull impact on the Gallery at Market East. The beast that seemed to keep expanding until it was nearly one of the mall's anchor stores never did much to enhance the street beyond letting you know they were there. In fact, in the last few years, their window displays have gone unadorned with the exception of several signs reading "Old Navy," only occasionally even advertising sales.

Their contribution to the Gallery's facade could have been a unique opportunity to gussy up the bland concrete with something bespoke. Instead they hung the same stock signage they use in strip-malls around the world.

Now sure, you can't compare the Gallery at Market East to Chestnut Street, at least not this year. If Gap Inc. arrives at the WCAU Building with three floors of branded architecture, neighborhood activists will likely speak up. Let's hope so. 

But that doesn't mean they won't try, and they have a precedent to do so. Although Gap and Gap Inc.'s two outlets contribute decently to the sidewalk, they only do so because Gap and Banana Republic's stock design is better suited to the posh streets of this emerging shopping destination. Why should Old Navy be saddled with restrictions any greater than Modell's or Five Below?

The answer, of course, is because Pearl Properties and Old Navy chose the WCAU Building, not one with a facade beleaguered by decades of reinterpretations and neglect. It will be interesting to see how this goes down. 

While very few people can truly call Market East home, thousands of residents showed up with virtual pitchforks and torches when PREIT proposed digital signage on the Gallery, even it's worst walls. With far more eclectic charm and Philadelphia heritage on Chestnut Street, will its residents step up and insure the preservation of the WCAU Building's entire facade, or will they let it slide as Chestnut Street becomes further annexed as our sky scraping downtown's retail hallway?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Radnor Hunt Concurs d'Elegance

In less than two weeks, Philadelphia's countryside will become a playground for some of the most valuable, historic, well preserved, and expensive automobiles in the region. The Radnor Hunt Concours d'Elegance is part of one of the most historic automotive traditions in the world.

If you're unfamiliar with the Concours d'Elegance, it simply means the Competition of Elegance, and that's exactly what it is. In the 17th Century, French aristocrats would build lavish horse-drawn carriages and parade them through Parisian parks in an effort to outdo one another. When automobiles began replacing horse drawn carriages, these parades evolved into competitions. 


More than four centuries later, cities around the world began hosting their own unique Concours, showcasing the world's rarest and most astonishing modern automobiles. 

The Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, held at the Pebble Beach Golf Course in California, is largely regarded as the most exclusive auto show in the world. The competition is fierce and comprised of many cars you will never see anywhere but Pebble Beach, some truly unique models valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But that doesn't mean Radnor Hunt's Concours is anything to belittle. With cars worth twenty to thirty million dollars on display at the oldest fox hunt in the United States, it's a spectacle well worth the $40 cost of admission into the show. 

The three day event also hosts a barbecue, a black tie affair, an after party, and a rally race through the rolling hills of Chester County. The latter is perhaps the most exciting. Find yourself a prime spot along the course and you'll see the region's most preserved exotics winding their way through Philadelphia's picturesque countryside. 


You don't have to be an automotive enthusiast to enjoy the Radnor Hunt Concours. As the finest Concours in the region, anyone who appreciates Philadelphia's history will undoubtedly enjoy this unique event at the Radnor Hunt Club. Splurge on the black tie dinner and you might even rub elbows with some of the Main Line's most elite. 

Even throughout the competition itself, history buffs will experience a bit of the region's automotive history they never knew existed. Radnor Hunt is the only Concours in the United States to still feature horse drawn carriages. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Day Philadelphia Stood Still

With a month before the Papal Visit, Philadelphia and the Secret Service have finally released their strategies for dealing with the impending ass ache, or so it seems. And to the surprise of no one, it's going to be a royal nightmare. 

Is it going to be a zombie apocalypse? No. Will visitors have a bad time? Probably not. Is Philadelphia going to be dragged through the mud by the mainstream media? We're used to it.

This is a unique event. Upwards of two million pilgrims are expected to descend upon Philadelphia over the last weekend in September, and that's exactly why it's not going to be as bad as some expect. If this were the world's largest software expo or just ordinary tourism, yes, it would be an epic disaster. 

But those shelling out $500 a night for a chance to see Pope Francis aren't coming here for Beyonce or Madonna, they're coming here as devout Christians, the most devout. Yes, the mainstream media is going to cherry pick those most vocally frustrated by the city's stifled services and spin a few expected - and isolated - incidents into catastrophes. But overwhelmingly, what we can expect is the world's biggest, and dullest, Comic-Con. 

In that regard, the city did one thing right. Hats off to City Hall and the Secret Service for securely pinning in a bunch of docile puppy dogs. 

Unfortunately, neither organization was charged with the job of solely protecting two million peaceful parishioners. Their task was to secure a massive event within a working city of 1.5 million people, within a metropolitan area of more than five million. But they've treated it like the Catholic equivalent of Burning Man, one that equates Philadelphia with a desert that happens to have subways. 


Closing schools and office towers is one thing. We're simply getting a free holiday. We'll work from home and make up class time. We'll be fine. What has been ignored and perplexingly continues to go unmentioned are the thousands of service employees that will be expected to work overtime over the course of the weekend, and expected to find a way here.  

Many hotel and service employees rely on minimum wage, and thusly don't live within walking distance of their Center City employers. They live in North, South, and West Philadelphia, in Fishtown and the suburbs, in New Jersey. Many more work in the suburbs and rely on the Schuylkill Expressway and regional rail, and until recently, didn't know the extent to which major suburban corridors would be affected by Pope Francis's Center City visit. 

Those tasked with servicing the Pope's two million visitors should have been given dibs on SEPTA's limited trans-passes, but they're expected to play the same game as those visiting. And if they don't land a pass, they're not quite sure how they're getting to work. 

It's not surprising that Philadelphia's City Hall has managed to neglect its own citizens. Since the visit was first announced, City Hall has been focused on two things, and neither are its own citizens: securing the tourists and how the city will look on CNN. Why should we expect more from a City Hall that has addressed the Parkway's homeless problem with a plan to put a few tokens in the front row during Pope Francis's mass while booting the rest to, well, no one knows. 

I'm certainly not religious, but I was baptized Catholic. In my limited understanding of Catholicism, I know that charity plays a big role, and barring underpaid service employees from jobs they need to perform and hand picking a few of our city's thousands of homeless residents as tokenism seems to be about the most un-Catholic thing you can do. 

On September 28th, the trifecta of the mainstream media - CNN, Fox, and MSNBC - will probably do an in depth analysis of a catastrophe that didn't happen, and our own bozos at Philly.com and Philadelphia Magazine will troll the blogosphere. But Philadelphia will return to business-as-usual and within a week, the world will forget about The Day Philadelphia Stood Still.

But over the course of one weekend, underpaid employees will be camping out in broom closets with no way home and even more will fear losing their jobs with no conceivable way to get to work. One of the nation's biggest events, one allegedly rooted in charity, has proven itself to be nothing but a spectacle, and Pope Francis and his cohorts no more noble than a Kardashian. 

Maybe I'll be proven wrong. Maybe the Pope will bypass tokenism and delve into the city's very real homeless problem and expose it for what it is. Maybe he'll hop an El train to Kensington and the Vatican will reimburse the city's minimum wage employees for their lost earnings. Prince Charles wasn't above greeting locals in Mantua in 2007. 

People keep talking about how different Pope Francis is. Philadelphia could be his chance to prove it. Will he come here and do what's dryly expected, or will he color outside the lines? 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Diner en Blanc: the Polarizing Fantasy

It's that time of year again. 4,500 Philadelphians are decked out in white, with picnic baskets full of white place settings and table linens, white tables and chairs in tow. 25,000 runner-ups are sitting at home plotting their way into next year's event. And more than a million more of us are looking for a catapult and 10,000 rotten tomatoes. 

Diner en Blanc, the muti-continent traveling flash mob that charges almost $40 a head to BYO-Everything, has a guest list and dress-code more tediously contrived than a fetish party at the White House. And it's insanely popular. 

So what is it about this simple dinner that has managed to attract so much criticism? Monica Weymouth gives the question a go in a charmingly diplomatic rant on PhillyMag.com, resigning herself to the notion that there are two types of people: those who like Diner en Blanc, and those who - politely put - don't.

But it's certainly more than that. In a Philly.com article, Samantha Melamed interviewed the event's two planners, Natanya DiBona and Kayli Moran. Both are quick to point out that, like parades and other street festivals, Diner en Blanc isn't really that structurally unique. Private organizations routinely use public spaces for events, and once the space is reserved, they're relatively free to operate it however they see fit within reason.

And there is certainly nothing unreasonable about Diner en Blanc, at least if we look at it as a dryly bureaucratic use of public space. 

For those who still have a bad taste lingering in your mouth - myself included - it doesn't just boil down to envy or jealousy. That's too easy. And really, what is there to be envious of? This isn't an invite-only event catering to the region's Who's Who. It's simply a dull circuit party. If you have a tech-savvy teenager who knows how to land Taylor Swift tickets, you can probably get a pass into next year's Diner en Blanc if you move quickly enough.

The divide between the enamored and the disdained comes down to the two simple things Weymouth was talking about: those who love it and those who hate it. Some people coast through life enjoying simplistic beauty, cohesion, and have a knack for matching their clothing to the wallpaper. They host designer birthday parties for toddlers too young to remember how well baby-blue and brown go together. They're educated, healthy, shop at Whole Foods, and move to the Gayborhood when it's safe enough for a Target. They use "brunch" as a verb, vote a solid Hillary, and probably have a stick-figure family on the back of their hybrid. 

They're good people. And while they may run to Home Goods the second their bichon spills merlot on their white sofa, they don't ruffle any feathers. 

But the rest of us are plagued with a nagging question: Why? We might not like discourse, but we appreciate and understand it as a way of life. And those who embrace Diner en Blanc are our nemeses. When we see something as simplistic as Diner en Blanc, we see couple's therapy and a whole lot of Xanax. To us, nothing can be that perfect. Adults don't have tea parties with stuffed animals unless they're struggling with something

We need to understand why things happen, purpose, progress. Does Diner en Blanc raise money for a charity? No. Are guests being served a fine dinner from a renowned local chef? No. Is there any historical significance to the event? No. Not unless you consider a French picnic historic. Did I mention that the first picnic took place in 1988, the same year Critters 2 came out? So, not exactly Toulouse Lautrec.

It serves no purpose. But maybe it can?

Despite its hefty cover charge, lack of any dinner but the one in your picnic basket, and Diner en Blanc's convoluted mission, perhaps it does have a purpose. If you look past its most basic guests and planners, Diner en Blanc does offer an opportunity for a very unique experience, at least for those who embrace it as something unique. 

Many Philadelphians continues to struggle in a lot of ways. While Diner en Blanc may have an exclusively short guest list, the list isn't exclusionary. There are undoubtedly a few guests who got a golden ticket and then saved up for the fantasy. For those few guests, Diner en Blanc offers a Cinderella story: one night to escape Philadelphia's cynical reality and pretend to be someone, somewhere else. 

Maybe there's nothing wrong with a grown-up tea party.

With all the negativity in the world, why look at Diner en Blanc as one more reason to bitch about traffic? Perhaps we should all be putting on our Sunday best, packing an Igloo cooler with a few Wawa sandwiches, and enjoying lunch with our friends and family in Fairmount Park this weekend, having our own fantasy, our own Diner en Blanc. 

Instead of cynically bemoaning a harmless event, maybe we should be taking a page from something that happens once a year and asking what it could mean to us every day. Did you have lunch in your corporate cafeteria today, or did you pack some prosciutto and a baguette to take in the breathtaking views of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and City Hall from Logan Square or Dilworth Park? Did you spend your break at Taco Bell, Facebook-complaining about the easily-ignorable Candy Crush invites from an aunt who doesn't know any better, or did you soak up the tiny streets of Society Hill?

Despite Diner en Blanc's tedious laundry list of rules, it's a simplistic event that asks us to look at our surroundings and enjoy our lives for no other reason than the fact that we have one. If we cynics have a problem with the way 4,500 Philadelphians choose to enjoy their Thursday nights, we should probably ask ourselves, how are we choosing to enjoy ours? Because I'm betting it has something to do with frozen pizza and Netflix. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Day Tripping: Saint Peter's Village

If you've never been to Saint Peter's Village in Chester County, take a Saturday afternoon and treat yourself to something...simple. The Village is located between West Chester and Lancaster along French Creek. 

It's history is typically Pennsylvanian, established as a company town servicing its quarry from the 19th Century to the 1970s, it went through a lull of uncertainty before preservationists restored nearly the entire village.

To say Saint Peter's Village is charming is an understatement. It feels like the kind of quaint New England villages that nondescriptly adorn the puzzles you did with your grandmother, and it's only 45 minutes away. It's also located just beyond the formal suburbs of the region, so it's not surrounded by gated communities and plagued with traffic. It's a bit of a secret, and I was hesitant to even write about it.

When you enter the town you're greeted by the Inn at Saint Peter's Village, a local wedding destination, and ample, yet discreetly tucked away parking. Atop a hill to the right is a rock quarry filled with water. Due to accidents it's been unattractively fenced off and tagged with graffiti, but that doesn't diminish the town's charm.

After parking and taking a few obligatory photos of the quarry, walk the town's lone street. To be honest, past the Inn, there isn't a lot. Some nicknack shops, a bakery, ice cream parlor, and a vintage arcade. But it's just so cute. If you're adventurous, there are biking trails through the aptly named Hopewell Big Woods beginning at the far end of the town. 

If you want to trek on foot, circle back towards the town across the enormous boulders that top French Creek. Some landed in the creek naturally while others were dumped there when the town operated the quarry. It's treacherous so be careful, but it's also a lot of fun. Leaping from rock to rock, grappling for trees and branches, you'll engage your primal roots. 

The creek itself offers beautiful views of the village. Each of the village's buildings have large decks overlooking the boulders, with a few local spectators likely wondering which day-tripper will bite the dust this day. When you get back towards the Inn, you'll find a classic swimming hole, complete with a rope to swing out into the deep water. 

We decided to have lunch at the Inn today. I was skeptical at first. Like I said, this Inn is the definitive bed and breakfast and I was leery of even looking at the menu. But it's modestly priced for lunch, offers live music, a fun crowd, and perhaps the best burger I've ever had. 

The funny thing is, I had been to Saint Peter's Village when I was a teenager. In my twelve years living in Philadelphia I have been searching for this town, always assuming it was upstate near Williamsport. Who knew it was in my own backyard?

So if you find yourself a Saturday with nothing to do, frustrated with the hustle-and-bustle of the Big City, hop in your car (or rent one) and head west. Be sure to take a camera, because you're going to want to take pictures. You'll probably even find quite a few classic cars parked throughout the town. Bring quarters too, because if you're a Gen Xer like me, you'll have a lot of fun in that vintage arcade. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

The New Headhouse Square

Have you ever thought, "I can't get enough of Headhouse Square?" Probably not. Do you know where Headhouse Square is? Maybe not.

It's a block-long, open air market between Society Hill and South Street. You've walked through it a dozen times. Sometimes there are vendors, sometimes they're aren't, but it's one of those unique and unassuming old Philadelphian structures that make us love Philadelphia. 


Headhouse Square's summer markets - sometimes crafts, sometimes antiques - have grown in popularity and spilled over into the oddly suburban parking spaces just above South Street. Well, neighborhood organizations have taken note, and they're discussing everything from a cafe to an expanded market.

This is great news, people. Not just because the city may be expanding its footprint of open air markets (Pennsylvanians love our junk), but also because the revitalization of our public spaces is trending beyond the city's core. City planners are proving that our public spaces are more than a token nod to tourists and commuters (take that, New York and D.C.), but a public service to those of us who love living here.