Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Fate of the Metropolitan Opera House

The Divine Lorraine isn't the only beleaguered relic on Philadelphia's once - and briefly - grand North Broad Street. And I'm not just referring to the building's time worn glory, but also the development hell in which it sits.

The Metropolitan Opera House, which is probably more remembered for its role in 12 Monkeys than any opera it ever showed, stands nearby, barely recognizable from its former panache. 

Both are owned by developer Eric Blumenfeld, and both sit under giant question marks. 

The Metropolitan Opera House's ownership is a unique headache. Previously owned by the Holy Ghost Headquarters Revival Center at the Met, Inc.," presided over by Reverend Mark Hatcher, many were under the impression that the theater's renovation was to be a joint venture between the church and the developer. 

Say what you will about an "incorporated" church, the agreement certainly reeks of a shady deal. 

According to a recent article in the Daily News, Hatcher relinquished the $20M building's title to Blumenfeld for $1 in 2013. Whether or not the deal was insidious will be up to the courts. Hatcher is currently suing Eric Blumenfeld for fraud. 

Considering developers typically have a team of lawyers allocated to just this sort of claim, it may come down to one very expensive case of "seller beware." But as ridiculous as it is that a church is operating out of the basement of a building so large, and as naive as Hatcher may have been to assume that Blumenfeld ever saw a place for his church in such a costly project, I doubt Blumenfeld will ultimately wind up keeping the title for $1.

But just look at the building's condition. There is no way the building's proposed $10M renovation could cover the cost of truly restoring the opera house without divine intervention, perhaps something Hatcher was hoping for.

Philadelphia has demolished bigger buildings in better condition, and in better neighborhoods well within the 21st Century. Did Eric Blumenfeld ever intend on getting into the theater business, or did he take advantage of someone sitting on a piece of property in a part of the city just begging to pop? 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Jay Walker

Do you know Jay Walker? If you're a Philadelphian, chances are, he's you. You've crossed an intersection mid-block or against a light, likely annoying a taxicab or a white BMW with yellow license plates gunning for you.

The term dates back to 1905, perhaps sooner, and refers to a "jay," or a bumpkin from the country who has never seen a car. Throughout the early 20th Century, a campaign emerged to discourage pedestrians from meandering into the street. At the time, jaywalking was a true safety concern. With cars quickly replacing horse drawn carriages, unaware pedestrians became bullseyes for beastly hunks of loosely controllable metal that didn't come with the technological safety packages we take for granted today. 

But has the time come to once again tolerate Jay Walker. Inga Saffron pointed to the European mentality that jaywalking actually creates safer streets. And if you really think about it, it does. Traffic is least likely to speed in places that see the greatest amounts of pedestrians and tourists ogling the skyline. They're most likely to gun the gas across bridges, through tunnels, and where roads widen to allow the greatest acceleration. And drivers do so, even if it means getting to the next red-light two seconds earlier. 

Our suburban highways and interchanges serve a completely different purpose than an urban grid. The goal of a suburban highway is to create efficiency and generate speed, and many of them were designed with no room for pedestrians. 

But downtown, the grid does what it always has. It primarily provides pedestrians a mode of transportation while simply accommodating cars as an afterthought. If you've ever ridden a bike across town, you know what it's like to traverse our gridded map on what is essentially a horse. Without a keen knack for timing traffic lights and avoiding police cruisers, most cars can't make it across Center City significantly faster than a bike. Isolate that down to one specific neighborhood, and you might make it two blocks on foot faster than a car.

We can do better.
Unfortunately, Saffron's article carries with it a nagging, "but wait, what?" caveat. Citing a study that shows Philadelphia's pedestrian fatalities are more than double the national average, it allows the naysayers the opportunity to point out that the national average includes suburban and rural areas, as well as cities that actively discourage pedestrianization. I'd be curious to see how Philadelphia stacks up to cities like New York or Boston. 

But statistics are moot because data is far to easy to manipulate, especially when comparing cities. The bottom line is, Philadelphia's residents are trending away from cars and towards their bikes and feet. Regardless of where the city falls in any national study, its target demographic is demanding wider sidewalks and narrower streets. Jay Walker is back, Suburban Sandy is just a guest. The city should be doing everything it can to accommodate its citizens, not those fleeing at five on Friday.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Rebranding 30th Street Station

With University City becoming Center City's western skyline, 30th Street Station's soot stained and aging facade is finding itself a relic amongst sleek skyscrapers, enhanced pedestrianization, and a neighborhood that's finally starting to look like the city it should be. 

But it's not all bad. Philadelphia's 30th Street Station is unique. Unlike New York's Penn Station or D.C.'s Union Station, 30th Street is still exactly what it was when it was built in 1933. 

Commuters are mesmerized by 30th Street Station's historical uniqueness, whereas Manhattan and Washington greet them with sterile pragmatism that echoes an early 90s Greyhound Station. 30th Street Station is a train station first, its retail presence second. 

But that could soon change. Senator Bob Casey recognized 30th Street Station as the welcome mat it will become during the city's upcoming Papal visit and Democratic National Convention, and its need for a makeover. Unfortunately he did so with a nod to Washington's Union Station, a train station both loved and hated for the same reason. 

Union Station is by no means subtle. Its grand in the most European or Gilded Age of ways. But it's also been reinvented. It is a grand shopping mall with an incidental train station at its uninspired rear. 

There is no question that 30th Street Station could benefit from better - even more - retail. The retail experience is basic, it serves the needs of those looking for fast food and a newspaper. But it doesn't do much more than that. 

Is Union Station's mall-like experience the answer to 30th Street's necessary improvements, or is the suggestion a dated quest to fill a need that died thirty years ago? Union Station succeeds, thrives even, because commuters are stuck with an infrastructure established three decades ago. They shop at its stores because they're saddled with what's in front of them.

But people - especially savvy rail commuters - aren't looking for Express and Barnes & Noble on their layovers. They're walking outside to soak up the skyline and the local flavors. Downtown train stations like 30th Street, Penn Station, and Union Station offer that. But inside, if 30th Street wants to maximize its potential, the answer isn't a shopping mall full of predictable chains. It's a train station that happens to be full of the retail synonymous with Philadelphia. 

New York did this.

Here, that means a nostalgic shoeshine stand with an Urban Outfitters backdrop. It's a Rosa Blanca express and kiosks full of local vendors. Maybe even an Amish pretzel stand. 

Turning 30th Street Station into just another Amtrak mall is a shortsighted solution to an urgent need, and it doesn't need to be. If you want to generate revenue by enhancing the retail experience at 30th Street Station, great, it needs it. But there are enough innovative businesses and entrepreneurs in Philadelphia to offer commuters a truly unique experience. 

Let's be honest, the only reason people shop the shops at Union Station is because they're waiting for their train. If we want to do the same, why not offer them a uniquely local experience?

Gay Hooters

Boxers PHL, the Gayborhood's answer to Hooters, has found success uncharacteristic of a city with a rigid stance against corporate chains. Sure, Boxers only has three locations - two in New York and one in Philadelphia - but unlike other small, regional chains, Boxers feels and behaves corporate. 

Philadelphia's gay community is far from small, but it's centralized and connected. From the Gayborhood's coffee shops to its bars and restaurants, Philadelphia's gay owned and operated businesses are places run by familiar faces. When the Westbury was forced to close following a fire at the Parker Hotel, many of its employees were offered shifts at other bars and restaurants in the neighborhood.

These businesses compete where they can, but first and foremost they serve the city's gay community. 

So it's not surprising that many were perplexed to see few to no familiar faces operating Boxers when it opened last fall. These weren't the bartenders and waiters we've come to know in this tight community. Were they beef shipped in from New York? Were they straight men cast for their bodies? 

Probably a little of both. 

What's most unusual is that it seems to be working. The bar is wildly popular with men and women. Has Philadelphia reached the tipping point in its Disneyfication that locals consider the Chili's of gay bars entertainment?

The worst part is, it's actually a really fun place and I can't explain why. Like the episode of Always Sunny where they gang visits Sudz, wanting to hate it, I found myself intoxicated by its cliche corporate antics. Even when you know it's fake, the scripted revelry taking place behind the bar at Boxers is a refreshing departure from the often cranky or unfriendly staff of our local pubs.

Flair works. The flirtatious winks and smiles from the Adonises reenacting cheesy scenes from Cocktail are as genuine as those from the girls pushing buffalo wings at Hooters, but smiling employees make smiling customers. 

Have Philadelphians grown tired of excusing curmudgeonly service as uniquely local charm, or has the city found enough New Philadelphians who don't remember a place that survived on the status quo, finally demanding and appreciating more. 

Perhaps our local bars will take a page or two from Boxers' success and why it works. It's a shame that a corporate chain - however small - has to lead the way, but chains succeed and multiply because they deliver consistency and know their markets. 

But Boxers hasn't been immune to its own missteps. A recent calendar campaign - exactly what you think it looks like - is currently raising funds for a noble charity that assists homeless LGBT youth, but only those in New York City. Likely a shortsighted error and part of a growing company's growing pains, it implies that the company hasn't embraced its neighborhood, but rather graced it with its presence. And it isn't the first time it's done so. Branding it "Boxers PHL" from day one brands it with the implication that we should be so lucky to have a gay bar from somewhere other than "PHL."

While our local pubs could perhaps learn a thing or two from why businesses like Boxers thrive, Boxers could stand to learn why bars like Woody's, Tavern on Camac, and Venture Inn have been around for so long. People like consistency, but they love loyalty. And Philadelphians, whether native or new, love this city too much to tolerate a business that continues to labor under the impression that our city is second-best, even to New York.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Penn's Perry World House

Universities are no stranger to experimental architecture. Academia has the money to burn and the connections to push anything through the approval process. From the College of William and Mary's sunken gardens to everything Drexel built in the 1960s to my first dorm we affectionately dubbed "Kibrini Green" (because that's what it looked like), colleges build things that leave lasting impressions...for better or worse.

Frazer Dorm

Modern architecture has a shelf life of about ten years, sometimes twenty. Erdy-McHenry's monolithic apartment blocks in University City and North Philadelphia may look funky, even kind of cool, now. But they're also foreboding and unfriendly fortresses. That won't age well. But if a building manages to weather a few decades of unpopularity, it eventually earns appreciation in retrospect. 

After all, Philadelphians spent decades demolishing the works of Frank Furness and Willis G. Hale to make way for "clean" glass curtains. City Hall spent some time in architectural detention. But today, people are even beginning to embrace midcentury Brutalism for its artistic uniqueness, however cold. We love retro. It just takes time to get there.

But there are some buildings that will never find their place. And more often than not, these places are the product of universities and governments with the cash to spend on architectural theories that sound better in words than realized brick and mortar. 

And some just don't make any sense whatsoever. 

Perry World House

Construction on the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House has just begun on the campus's beautiful Locust Walk. Its purpose as a meeting place to discuss global issues is unique and innovative, but the building itself, well it doesn't make a lot of sense. Its Locust Walk facade is a clear attempt to juxtapose the humble, existing structure against a modern interpretation. But it falls short of balancing old and new by devouring its host. 

But worse than its overwhelming Locust front, it sprawls meaninglessly northward like the rump of a 1976 AMC Pacer. Architecturally speaking, one thing worse than an ugly building is a building that isn't interesting enough to be ugly. And the only thing worse than that is one that doesn't make sense. The Perry World House drudges up images of houses built by the richest family in a small town: it's trying way too hard to address a very simple need. Penn has the resources to know better. 

Pennovation Center East

On the flip side, Penn nailed the Pennovation Center East recently granted approval just across the Schuylkill River. It not only pays homage to the area's industrial roots, it does so in a wild way. With its crystalline windows emerging horizontally from a brick factory, it takes a simple building and stamps it with a wow factor. Like a Loft District warehouse impregnated by the Cira Centre, it blends styles, eras, and purpose in a perfect balance that the Perry World House missed. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sigma Sound Studios

The Sound of Philadelphia is coming down to make way for Carl Dranoff's towering SLS International Hotel and Residences on South Broad Street. Philadelphia International Records was definitely a Philadelphia institutions, and an American one. But uptown in a forgotten pocket of Center City, perhaps the last pocket to be terraformed by new condos and hotels, Sigma Sound Studios is also no-more. 

BizJournals has the skinny.

The small building that gave us Macho Man and Disco Inferno, the latter a song that never seems to end, has been sold and will be converted into apartments. It isn't clear yet whether the building will simply be renovated, grow, or like the Sound of Philadelphia, demolished for something larger. Sigma Sound Studios isn't a huge building, and in an emerging neighborhood literally steps from City Hall, its redevelopment would likely profit from additional space.

This neighborhood - the place I've called home for almost eight years - is a unique one. It's long-gone warehouses once housed films from studios like Warner Brothers and MGM throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s. But throughout much of the 20th Century, it was also a notorious red light district. Rumor has it, in the early 20th Century, sailors docked on Delaware Avenue were forbidden from walking the streets of what was often called the Furnished Room District, so named for its abundance of flop houses, brothels, and drug dens. 

As late as the early 2000s, XXX book stores occupied Arch Street and loosely named "massage parlors" still play a part in what's left of a neighborhood clinging to its seedy past. Likely because of its history, the district bound by Broad, 11th, Market, and Vine was targeted for reconstruction in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Unfortunately its history - the good, the weird, and the untoward - has been scraped from the historical narrative of Philadelphia with very little record. 

While I'll miss my cheap rent and a garden a stone's throw from City Hall, it will be exciting to see how the neighborhood evolves and how its unique inhabitants choose to remember it. Wedged between the Convention Center and the growing Loft District, change was inevitable. Hopefully it won't soullessly embrace the convention center but also retain a little bit of its heart, however jaded. Things in Philadelphia tend to do just that.

Is Center City our Region's Corporate Hub?

Center City Philadelphia is the architectural and transportation hub of a metropolitan region of more than six million people. Looking at West Market Street, University City, and our rapidly changing skyline, it's easy to assume that - like many cities with a thriving downtown - Center City is also the region's business hub. 

But scattered throughout the suburbs, in King of Prussia, Plymouth Meeting, and along Swedesford Road, are hundreds of unassuming office parks that dominate the region's corporate business market. 

Comcast was smart to take advantage of Center City's centralized location, and with any hope, other tech companies will follow suit. It enables corporations a true cross section of the entire metropolitan area's talent pool. While many in South Jersey may be reluctant to search for jobs in suburbs west of the Delaware River and vice versa, all trains and highways point downtown. 

With construction on a second downtown skyscraper, Comcast has perhaps been thriving from the benefits of a Center City headquarters. Benefitting more than just its local employees, its location also allows business partners from D.C., New York, and Boston easy access to 30th Street Station, and a lively city to embrace when they arrive.

But Comcast may also be banking on the hope that Philadelphia will recognize what companies as successful as Comcast already know: that job candidates take a location under serious consideration.

The "other" Philadelphia
Center City may offer easy access, better restaurants, and a broader range of talent, but it also comes with financial constraints. Job candidates don't just consider commute time and where they'll lunch, they also consider the wage tax. And in Philadelphia, the wage tax is a big consideration. Not only does the city charge commuters an additional 3.7% tax on their income, it charges those who choose to live here almost 4%. 

Companies are in the business of making and saving money. Better employees equal higher profits. While many businesses would spend more money for a location that could easily cater to savvy resources, and more of them, Philadelphia is essentially telling our region's corporate powerhouses to keep their suburban office parks.

At best, the city seems to assume that location is enough. Like a worn billboard from 1999 that reads "if you lived here you'd be home by now," City Hall doesn't seem to understand that business needs are far more dynamic than a catchphrase. 

It's shortsighted and simplistically indicative of the city's decision makers. And with the city's residential base growing and becoming more affluent, Center City runs the risk of becoming a bedroom community for our sprawling suburbs, one synonymous with pricy condos, tax exempt hospitals and universities, and a few token companies asking for tax breaks to stay put.

Of course that isn't unique to Philadelphia. From Seattle to San Francisco to Washington, D.C., American cities are no stranger to suburban islands of e-commerce and technology companies that offer their central cities little more than high rent and new restaurants. 

What is unique to Philadelphia is that it hasn't happened yet. We don't have a Silicone Valley, a Reston or a Redmond, a quasi-independent city born from aging bureaucracy, corruption, and tax burdens. Our largest technology company has embraced Center City, and if the city is willing to embrace what that actually means, Philadelphia could be in a position to offer corporations a rare opportunity that few cities have: a level playing field financially on par with the suburbs, but logistically and geographically unmatched.