Wednesday, July 1, 2015

30 Rock Rebranded

NBC's hit TV show, 30 Rock, called it years ago with a tongue in cheek joke, "how can a company from Philadelphia buy a company from New York? That would be like Vietnam defeating the United States in a ground war." 

Well, that happened, and today, 30 Rock's satirical joke became a reality set in stone (or LED lights). Manhattan's 30 Rockefeller Center has been officially branded the Comcast Building

It's really not that big of a deal. For decades, GE's neon signage has topped the building, even though many referred to it as the RCA building. Basically, it's had a a few notable tenants, but New Yorkers have still historically dubbed it "30 Rock." And that probably won't change. 

What is notable, at least for Philadelphia, is that one of our local powerhouses, perhaps the most powerful, will have a prominent place in the Manhattan skyline. So, you know, good for us. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Other Center City

Shortly after I moved to Philadelphia, ground broke on the Cira Centre. I was living in a modest studio apartment in University City and coming from DC, my impression of a skyline was Arlington, VA or college road trips to Richmond. Needless to say, Philadelphia wowed me. But still, as Cira Centre rose, I thought, "What?? A skyscraper in West Philadelphia??"

After Cira Centre grew synonymous with 30th Street Station and the west bank of the Schuylkill River, developers throughout University City became less shy about building vertically. Today, from Belmont Plateau, Philadelphia's skyline is as dramatic west of the Schuylkill as it is east of the Aramark Tower. 

For years, proposals for Cira Center South, even Cira Centre North were floated. They were fun to look at but seemed like a dream. We were sure that University City would never grow taller than Cira Centre. 

But with the FMC Tower, part of the Cira Centre South we never thought we'd see, one of "Philadelphia's tallest" will be west of the Schuylkill. And that's significant.

Let's face it, skyscrapers are built to make a statement. Working in one is a laborious hassle if your day is full of meetings. Once a building exceeds 300 feet, you can easily spend several hours a day in elevator banks. FMC Corporation needed space, sure. But its landlord, Liberty Property Trust, encouraged FMC to relocate to the yet-to-be-built Cira Centre South because Liberty knows University City is open for business, and they want other businesses to take note. 

And take note they will. Amtrak commuters from DC, Wilmington, and all points south will be greeted by FMC's crystalline skyscraper, backdropped by our growing Center City skyline. But what's more interesting than our growing Center City - the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center, 1919 Market, East Market, and the LDS Church's residences on Vine - is University City's true introduction into Philadelphia's skyline.

We're no longer a city bound by two rivers, we're a city straddling the Schuylkill. 

University City office space now costs more than office space in Center City, and University City continues to grow. And for good reason. University City is easily accessible by regional rail, the Market Street El, and the surface trolleys. It's also right on the Schuylkill Expressway, Baltimore Avenue, and Market Street, and chock full of parking. While that doesn't bode well for New Jersey; the Main Line, Upper Darby, and Media are essentially in University City's backyard. That's a lot of people. And they don't have to pay a toll to get here.

What's ever better, it doesn't seem that businesses are trading Center City for University City. With the exception of the FMC Corporation, University City is rising on its own, either growing its current base or attracting new. 

With ample sites for future development, low NIMBY intervention, and a precedent to build taller, University City's skyline may challenge Center City's in ten years or so. Imagine a complex on par with Liberty Place occupying the surface lot at 38th and Market. Now imagine what that would look like from Fairmount Park. 

As residents of Philadelphia, it's easy to discount University City. It's full of college kids. It's not "local." And perhaps that's why it's growing so rapidly. Unfettered with local politics and fueled by academic cash, University City is growing in isolation, and doing so at a fantastic rate. But while locals may be ignoring much of the growth west of the Schuylkill, the growth isn't ignoring us. 

From Drexel's proposed Innovation Neighborhood, plans floating to cap the railroad tracks north of 30th Street Station, and University City's hospital district, University City is organically growing as an extension of Center City's gridded urbanity. Pedestrianization has always been key, and development is seamlessly integrated into the streets leading to the bridges that connect University City to Philadelphia's core. 

It's exciting, and to more seasoned Philadelphians, perhaps a bit scary. Development has begun to snowball, and in a good way. As for University City, sure, it still contains a swell of college students between 30th and 40th Streets, but the way that swell is being developed is bridging West Philadelphia's residential neighborhoods with Center City. 

Once inner-burbs of Philadelphia, neighborhoods like Spruce Hill and Powelton Village are going to soon find themselves part of the cohesive, walkable fabric of Greater Center City. And that truly is a great thing.

Philadelphia's Own Ralph Roberts

Say what you will about Comcast, with the passing of its founder, Philadelphia has lost a legend. At 95, Ralph Roberts was Philadelphia's Steve Jobs. Raised in Germantown, educated at Wharton, and stationed at the Navy Yard during World War II, Roberts' presence in Philadelphia wasn't incidental.

Philadelphia was Roberts' home, and throughout the decades a major source of his philanthropy. But between all of his contributions to his city, none amount to his decision to keep Comcast headquartered in Center City. Comcast Center didn't just redefine our skyline, it redefined our city. Prior to its dominant presence, Center City Philadelphia wasn't a national name. Despite our humble collection of skyscrapers, few outside the tristate area really knew what Philadelphia was "about." Center City - our downtown - was a collection of office buildings promptly closing their doors at five on Friday. To those who worked in Old City or King of Prussia or Cherry Hill, Center City was essentially a vertically elevated, nondescript office park. 

Comcast Center changed that. With an arm reaching coast to coast and everywhere in between, 17th and JFK is full of the hustle and bustle synonymous with Midtown Manhattan. Harried consultants from Dallas and Chicago and Portland rush from full hotels, wheeled suitcases in hand, to play their part in the Philadelphia rat-race while New Yorkers flood Acela trains south to do the same. Many of them are relocating here, growing our population and changing our city.

Ralph Roberts' investment in Center City irreversibly changed our city, and for so much of the good press we've received in the past years, we have Comcast to thank. 

But does Roberts' passing signal a new era for the cable giant, one that has grown into a multimedia conglomerate with the transparent aspiration of being a power player in the information technologies game? With Ralph Roberts, Jr. still at the helm, Comcast remains a family owned company. 

This new era has seemingly been in the works for years. Ever since acquiring NBC-Universal and donning the Comcast logo with NBC's rainbow peacock, Comcast has been more than just a cable company. While the conglomerate has yet to fully integrate its parts, its ambition is evident. 

The Comcast Innovation and Technology Center promises to inject Comcast into the technologies arena. But to date, its mission is unclear. Will Comcast be bridging the gap between Philadelphia and the Silicone Valley? Will the Innovation and Technology Center be a vertical lab for software and hardware geeks to toil away on endlessly funded R&D? Will the driverless car come from 18th and Arch? Or will Comcast stick to its rigid profit-first analytical stance that resists the urge to invest in anything that can't be bundled into a sale? Will the Innovation and Technology Center simply innovate improvements and copies of the real tech coming off the west coast? 

As a geek, I hope for the former. But the latter will still be a boon for an already booming Center City. Still, to imagine Comcast bringing innovation back to the east coast, back to the Workshop of the World where American innovation began, fills me with binary-coded glee. And why shouldn't they take the risk? Unlike thriving startups throughout the Bay Area and the Cascade Valley, Comcast has more money than they know what to do with. They have the cash to do more than reinvent Netflix or offer us home security. 

They could be investing in truly effective mobile cable or wireless power. As effective and powerful as Comcast currently is, they successfully follow while they could be boldly leading us into the unknown. The Silicone Valley may be known for laptops, smartphones, and software, but their research has grown far beyond our screens and into artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and is redefining the once un-redefinable: the American auto industry. 

In Comcast's new era, the company that wants to fancy itself on par with Google should be looking at what Google is doing behind the scenes, and it should be grabbing a piece of that and taking it a step further. Comcast has plenty of well groomed suits to bring in heaps of profits, but that means nothing to a future that won't need cable internet. It's time to start spending money on the hoodie wearing nerds who are building our future from suburban San Francisco and Seattle, and bringing them to Center City.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is Blatstein Done with Philadelphia?

Has Bart Blatstein - the man behind Northern Liberties' Piazza and Tower Investments, the developer who was allegedly planning to transform the vacant lot at Broad and Washington into more than 1000 apartments - given up on Philadelphia?

Not long ago he had conceived of the vacant Inquirer Building as a hotel and casino and an abandoned PECO power plant along the Delaware as a destination resort.

But in a recent Huffington Post article, Blatstein seems to imply that his days in Philadelphia - or development in general - may be coming to a close. It's no secret he's been spending time focused on his planned investment in Atlantic City. The town is in trouble and could use an injection of creativity, perhaps the kind of dynamic intervention that transformed Northern Liberties. It's also no secret that Bart Blatstein has a house nearby in Margate, NJ. 

Could he be cashing out and going home?

He told the Huffington Post that he views Atlantic City as his "last hurrah," one the Post referred to as "his last chance to make a mark in an urban area." Those remarks may mean little to the Post's New York and New Jersey readers, but it says a lot about Philadelphia and Blatstein's plans for his portfolio of prime lots and vacant icons here. 

If he's done, it's odd that he ditched the momentum. Tower Place helped bring North Broad Street back to life, an avenue that's about to boom with the renovation of the Divine Lorraine. Renovating his Inquirer Building would have been a logical next-step in Blatstein's reign over Broad Street, one that could have been bookended at Broad and Washington, bankrolled by his success on North Broad. 

If he really is finished with Philadelphia, let's hope his properties change hands quickly and smoothly, and fall in the lap of someone ambitious. The lot at Broad and Washington and the Inquirer Building aren't your average urban meadow and North Philly shell, they're significant sites that need serious maintenance, even when vacant. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Old City is its Own Worst Enemy

You don't need to be a history buff to know that Old City was once Philadelphia's central core. From the city's beginnings as the second largest in the British Empire to our last days as an industrial powerhouse, Old City housed everything from commerce to manufacturing to shipping to residents - both wealthy and not. 

Between its final days as a slum and its rebirth as a haven for moderately wealthy New Philadelphians, Old City essentially sat dormant, essentially suffering a Cold War identity crisis. In the 80s and 90s, the birth of the yuppy gave renewed purpose to Old City and similar neighborhoods throughout the nation. Young urban professionals bought affordable homes in struggling neighborhoods chock full of the ample parking they enjoyed in the suburbs. With commerce and industry relocated to the far ends of freeways, the concept of urban living in Philadelphia's most urban address began to shift again.

Over the last three decades, our most historic neighborhood has been adding to its ongoing historic narrative, evident in the fact that Old City is home to some of the city's most argumentative and seemingly misaligned advocacy groups. 

A modest, 6-10 story residential project has been proposed on Arch Street near 2nd, technically on Arch and a small street called Little Boys Court. In any other neighborhood, such a proposals would be humble, and residents might even be asking for more. Even in the small streets of Washington Square West and Rittenhouse, neighborhoods consisting of much greater architectural and historic cohesion, Stephen Varenhorst's collection of lofts would be an end concession, not a point of contention. 

If it weren't a rendering, you'd assume it had been there all along.

But in Old City, its residents still clinging to the Thirty-Somthing era in which they set down their carpeted bags, any development without 1:1 parking is bad development. I typically don't delve into the comments section below articles, but PhiladelphiaSpeaks' Cro Brunham lifted a gem from a recent article on this proposal that really exposes the hypocritical mindset of some of Old City's most absentminded residents. 

One user asked, "Where are these people supposed to park?" continuing, "Someone needs to put in regulations similar to...the suburbs...Philadelphia is starting to look like a hodgepodge of crappy looking buildings. All of the historical aspects are going away."

Sure, the author can't be personally faulted for an off-the-cuff remark made in the comments below a article. But the comment echoes a common theme throughout neighborhoods riddled with suburban theory. In any city, the first question should never be about parking. But for these people, it's not a question of parking, it's a question of change. People go to parking the way readers go to the comments section: they want to complain but they're not exactly sure what to complain about. They want to be heard, but they're not quite sure what to say. They know they don't like the impending change, but they're not yet sure why.

Does the naggingly irrelevant question of parking rear its head in other Center City neighborhoods? Of course it does. But even in more congested neighborhoods like Market East, Washington Square West, and Rittenhouse, the conversation has begun to evolve. From the redevelopment of the Boyd Theater site to East Market and East Chestnut, the discussion of style and design has finally begun to trump the tired parking debate. But where other Center City residents learn to embrace the urban life they chose, Old City residents refuse to acknowledge the fact that they are at first, Center City residents, opting to fight for ample parking and to stagnate any change, however progressive. 

City living is a compromise. For those who want suburbanized concessions, the suburbs exist exclusively for those who enjoy the luxury of isolation. But the city is as much a melting pot of people as it is of ideals, and your opinion will - or should - never carry the same weight beyond your front door as it does throughout a planned community in Cherry Hill. 

If you need a car to get to work, Old City has an abundance of parking garages. If you insist on parking on the street and need to get to King of Prussia by 9am on Monday, rent a space in a garage. If you can't afford it, look for another neighborhood. Philadelphia is growing, especially Center City, and it will continue to do so. As it grows, its' economic demographics will change, the cost of living will rise, and its build environment will evolve. 

What's perhaps most unnerving about the Old City parking debate is that Old City is not a low-rent neighborhood. Second only to Rittenhouse Square, Old City is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Center City. We're not talking about the Gayborhood or Chinatown where people are spending $750 a month for a studio in a converted brownstone, we're talking about a neighborhood building new $850,000 brownstones for one family.

For those spending $2000 a month in rent or mortgaging a million dollar condo, what parking crisis are they talking about? It's entitlement, plain and simple. They have it all but want perfection, as they see it, and that is exactly the suburban mentality. But - perhaps with the exception of those living along Delancey Street or in penthouses overlooking Rittenhouse Square - entitlement has no place in an urban environment. And even Philadelphia's oldest money seems to understand that parking comes at a cost. 

No urban neighborhood from Old City to Passyunk Square to North Broad Street will ever indefinitely exist in a vacuum. Old City lived in that vacuum throughout its' mid-20th Century identity crisis and no one but the slumlords and the pawnshops wanted a piece of it. Old City's suburban crusaders are no different than the land hoarders who fought to keep their property values low enough to avoid inspection, only today's residents are fighting to preserve another kind of blight: the suburbanization of Philadelphia's most urban address.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Boyd's Next Chapter

If you thought the Boyd Theater, or at least its remains, was about to fade into dull obscurity, guess again. This is, after all, Philadelphia. Locals fight tooth and nail over vacant lots atop unused piers, scream "shadows!" at prominent intersections prepping for high-rises. Few projects pass the first round, even the second or third, without facing a litany of lawyers, design reviews, and community concerns. And that's just in the nether regions. 

Rittenhouse Square, on the other hand, well you better hope for an Act of Congress - or God - if you want to break ground. For years, Live Nation and Pearl Properties have been putting their chess pieces in place to redevelop the Boyd Theater, first as a modern theater with an Art Deco apartment building, and now with some dull retail and less than desirable residences. 

All too often, neighborhood organizations - NIMBYs - are an unwarranted thorn in the process of progress. But the redevelopment of the Boyd site is not progress. Our neglectful Historical Commission allowed the historic auditorium to be demolished amid false implications that it would be replaced with something befitting the site's history. When the wrecking ball hit, the plans changed, and the city was presented with a design that looks more like creatively sheathed student housing than anything befitting one of the nation's greatest city's greatest address.

But something unique has happened and Inga Saffron, ever vigilantly crusading against the "it's better than nothing" philosophy, has the scoop. As Saffron points out, and as we've seen dozens of times in the past, neighborhood organizations typically lawyer up in the face of mediocrity. While a bevy of lawyers can stall projects for years, or even indefinitely, all to often we ultimately wind up with the status quo. Our selective memories have a short half-life, and when buildings like the Boyd fall, developers only have to wait for the vast majority of us to forget what we were ever fighting for. 

Perhaps neighbors of the Boyd have recognized the ineffectuality of the courtroom, or perhaps they're just so pissed off at what happened to the historic Boyd Theater, that they've finally designed to turn the game on its side. 

Neighbor Richard Gross decided to use the neighborhood's cash fueled passion to enter the design game, offering architects at Cecil Baker a number in the "low five figures" to either consult with Pearl Properties and Eimer Architecture, or come up with a better design altogether. What will happen with this unprecedented course of action remains to be seen. Pearl Properties reluctantly agreed to enter an agreement with Gross and his neighbors.

I don't know what construction-ready plans cost for a high-rise apartment with a retail component attached to a one hundred year old theater lobby, but I would imagine that $10-$14K would get you very little. If Gross manages to woo Cecil Baker - a deal that has yet to be made - it's possible that the firm will act as a consultant to Pearl and Eimer. But in an industry with no shortage of ego, it has to be quite a blow to find that neighbors are willing to pay out-of-pocket to fix your subpar design. 

Perhaps if Eimer walks, or is fired, the neighborhood's contribution will simply supplement Cecil Baker's total bill. It's uncharted territory and anyone's guess.

What is just as interesting as the concept - and maybe even as uneasy - is the precedent it sets. It doesn't necessarily tell other neighborhood organizations to pony up the cash for better design, but it does tell a less-than-stellar Historical Commission that some residents are willing to resolve the mistakes made by the city.

In a perfect world that would be a strong message, one where the Commission realizes that they failed to do their job, the job of representing the best interest of the city and its history. But in Philadelphia, city operated agencies are better versed in excuses than resolutions and the chip on the city's collective shoulder can take unsolicited criticism as a personal attack. 

It will be interesting to see how this new chapter in the Boyd drama unfolds. On one hand, a neighborhood organization has finally decided to step outside the box, proactively instead of reactively. That doesn't mean we won't wind up with dull infill at 19th and Chestnut, but it does show moxy. What is perhaps most important will be what the Historical Commission decides to do with this new coarse of action. I guess we'll find out sometime next week when they receive the telegram.

Monday, June 15, 2015


Are you tired of renting a ZipCar every time you want to go to Target? Ever since Kmart closed on Market East, Center City's been devoid of any large discounter. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you know where to look, Philadelphia is still chock full of local markets selling cheap paper towels and kitty litter. But given Philadelphia's popularity explosion, it's surprising that a name like Target has yet to grace Center City, even University City. 

Well, fret no more. TargetExpress will be opening at the former Boyd next summer, Pearl Property's once-ugly, now-too-boring-to-be-ugly, proposed redevelopment of the historic theater's site. Personally I'm not a fan of Target. Not because they don't have cool stuff. They have very cool stuff, and they're great at making me buy it. That's why I'm not a fan. I go in looking for nails and come out with a lamp, some bath soaps, a few superhero t-shirts...and oops, I forgot the nails, so I go back in to take a look at those hip barstools I saw.

Jest aside, the scaled presence of this TargetExpress sounds like a hybrid between Walgreens and a full-size Target, so it will likely not include home furnishings and clothing. Strategically between West Market's office workers, densely packed Rittenhouse Square, and convenient to University City, 19th and Chestnut is a smart location. 

Still, a TargetExpress is a far cry from what the Boyd Theater once was, and what we were all-but promised its redevelopment would become. A discount department store, even a miniaturized incarnation of one, is about as far as we can get from a luxury movie theater and a towering Art Deco apartment building. 

And still no word on the Boyd's Art Deco lobby.