Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Uber is Here to Stay...and It's Good For Us

Yes, please.
Say what you will about Uber, or it's more affordable option, UberX. 

Rhetoric has been compiled by an industry that has been playing fast and lose with a monopoly for decades. Around the country, Uber drivers have been accused of being reckless and harassing customers. In all likelihood those accusations are 100% correct. But the fact many seem to ignore is: taxi drivers have been getting away with this for years.

It's a double standard likely caused by a multitude of reasons. For starters, taxi cabs have been reputedly disgusting since the dawn of hired carriage rides. They're rude, they stink, and they'll take you on a joy ride if you don't know where you're going. It's easy to call out an isolated disservice in an Uber car because Uber gives you a venue to call out the disservice

Your Uber driver has a predetermined route to guarantee an accurate estimate. The driver cannot claim that the "credit card machine is down" to pocket the fare. The transaction takes place in the cloud. And if - worst case scenario - you have an unseemly altercation with your driver, you know exactly who's driving you. 

The gripes that don't sidestep reason seem fixated on Uber's apparent assault on a timelessly nostalgic and struggling institution, as if you're being carted around in a horse and buggy, not a twenty year old Caprice Classic with worn shocks and bald tires. 

Industries change and cabs are by no means the struggling poster child for a dying industry. If they are dying, they're dying at the hands of their owners. 

A medallion required to operate a taxi cab in Philadelphia cost $65,000 in 2005. Thanks to an uptick in transit minded residents, DUI checkpoints, and simply more reasons to be downtown, that cost rose to nearly half a million dollars. Well surprise, surprise, that $475,000 price tag is as dead as the Studebaker. The Philadelphia Parking Authority - who in a baffling conflict of interest apparently oversees Philadelphia's taxi cabs - allowed the asking price to be lowered to a paltry $350,000.

What's more mind blowing than any of this is why, when faced with an apparent rise in demand for cabs in the last nine years, the value of a static number of medallions was raised, and not the number of medallions themselves. In a giant "f*ck you" to the consumer, the foundation of the cab industry, the PPA allowed medallion owners to sidestep the very process by which competitive industries work. And now Uber is giving them exactly what they deserve: a cold, hard reality check. 

Chalet on the Delaware

The people have spoken and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has answered. Who knew? People like being on the water. I'll set aside my snarky remarks about the torrid history of Philadelphia's Delaware Waterfront for the positive direction it's taking.

Riding the success of the Spruce Street Harbor Park, Penn's Landing is being transformed into a Swiss ski chalet this winter. The RiverRink has been a hit for years, but in the past the waterfront has offered little else in its colder months. This year, RiverRink will have to compete with Dilworth Park's much more convenient and scenic iceskating rink. And they're doing it right.

Two tents known as The Lodge will be outfitted with cozy sofas and rocking chairs, and - of course - Garces Events will be bringing the menu. Remember Stephen Starr? What ever happened to that guy?

Familiar to those who frequented the Spruce Street Harbor Park, the retrofitted shipping containers will be back and full of gifts from Art Star and arcade games.

But here's the best part, and something just so quirky and uniquely Philadelphian: salvaged materials including fireplace mantles and other architectural details outfitting The Lodge are from none other than the city's grande dame of Broad Street, the Divine Ms. L.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Can Preservation Be Proactive?

To look at Philadelphia from the river, we look like any other successful city. Office buildings dominate the skyline, historic steeples complement glassy towers, and from University City to Market East, the city continues to be redefined architecturally. 

But step inside and it's another story. We aren't a city that moves quickly. If New York and Chicago build like the Autobahn, Philadelphia's development climate can be summed up by the Schuylkill at 5PM any time of day.

We are a culture that caters to bureaucracy and neighborhood organizations that miss the mark, and it scars the landscape. As a city home to perhaps the nation's largest portfolio of architectural history and heritage, the fight to save our most beleaguered landmarks is often lost to decades of squabbles. What's worse, some of the most careless developers know this and use it to their advantage.

If you want to tear down a crumbling church for a parking lot or suburban strip mall, all you have to do is wait it out. No site in Center City knows this better than the historic Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street.

After years of on-again off-again bickering between developers, owners, the Historical Commission, and advocacy groups, a demolition permit has been issued to the building's current owner, John Wei. Considering all of the city's historical losses in the past forty or fifty years, placing a site on the city's Register of Historic Places almost seems like it ensures a building's inevitable demolition.

The current state of the church means it will almost certainly be demolished despite any appeals. It's just too costly to repair, at least in terms with what you could actually get out of such a space. Were it habitable, it would make a nice gym, theater, or nightclub. But its condition is not a technicality. It's falling apart.

The Church of the Assumption is unique. What happened to it, unfortunately is not. And I'm not just referring to the loss of a landmark. I'm talking about how it was lost. Call it what you want, but what happened to the Church of the Assumption boils down to a dysfunctional dinner table argument full of family members only tethered to each other by blood. While Grandpa was complaining about cell phones, the parents announced their divorce, and the daughter Tweeted the whole ordeal...the dinner rotted and ended up in the dog's bowl.

But this is a lesson Philadelphia's historical advocates are routinely offered but never learn. And it's going to happen again. The Spruce Parker Hotel was recently shut down after a small fire. It's not a historically designated building, nor should it be, but it's a beefy building on a prime corner. Without an eager buyer willing to upgrade the modest hotel, it will begin to deteriorate and we'll wind up with another surface parking lot in Center City.

Around the corner, the renovation of the Lincoln Apartments appears to have stalled. It may simply be that the logistics of rebuilding an aging structure from the inside out is too complex to show quick signs of progress. But it may also be that the effort has proven more complicated and costly than first thought. Old City recently learned the cost of letting a building drift into disrepair. As the Shirt Corner closed and promised a handsome 3rd and Market, it's twin burned leaving the corner with a vacant lot and a prime corner looking worse than ever.

So what's the point of this rambling rant? Well, for starters, true advocates need to be proactive, not reactive. It's understandable amongst community organizations. Members don't have time to be on top of every effort. They have jobs. But those charged with protecting history, being on top of the effort is the job. Fighting a fight at the eleventh hour rarely works, and this has been made painfully apparently time and time again. 

The Church of the Assumption will be torn down whether or not anyone wants to admit it. It's unfortunate, and I'm not being negative. I'm suggesting we looking for the next Church of the Assumption: Robinson's Department Store, The Roundhouse, The Health District Center. Start the fight before it's a fight. Proactively seek tenants not just with the means to preserve these landmarks, but with the desire for landmark properties. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The City Hall Parking Lot

The west portal to City Hall, Dilworth Plaza, has been reinvented as Dilworth Park. Despite critical opinion, the public has spoken: new is better, especially when there's something to do. Now that the fountain has been transformed into an ice skating rink, one flanked by architecture as diverse as this city (take that, Rockefeller Center), it's found itself full of hundreds of tourists and locals enjoying the outdoors, even when it's brutally cold.

But prior to Dilworth's rebirth, you probably avoided its cracked sidewalks and impractical sunken plaza, the one with that piss smell. So you probably also didn't notice all the city employees who've been treating City Hall's north plaza like a suburban Walmart parking lot.

Well, someone took note. And then someone else. And then someone even started a Tumblr page about it.

Of all the quips about the absurdity of draping the city's most monumental feat of engineering with a make-shift parking lot, the best came in the comments section of PhillyMag.com of all places: "We have the walkability of Paris and the car-centric mentality of Dallas." We sure do, IR, we sure do.

It may seem petty. The city is growing as we speak. We're better accommodating bicyclists, we're keeping subway lines open later, we're even offering the unheard of notion of credit cards at transit stations. Market East is finally recognizing its potential, and will soon be rising. The same can be said for East Chestnut. 

So yeah, crying about a few (twenty) cars dwarfed by City Hall seems a bit silly. But while many Center City residents have long understood that parking is a privilege, not a right, the city that North Broad faces is largely another story. 

You don't even have to go to Vine to find ample parking on North Broad, and its side streets are flanked with additional parking. And when you finally do reach Vine, still a short walk from City Hall, you'll find Center City's dirty little secret (well, not so little, it's derelict parking lots cover acres of developable land.)

Meanwhile the cretins parking on the sidewalk around City Hall as if it's the Oregon Avenue median are pointing their middle finger at anyone who thinks they should be paying for the privilege of walking two blocks. 

Why, why, oh why, does City Hall require the overwhelming majority of new development offer parking spaces for the supposed sake of traffic and parking if City Hall doesn't require their employees to use them?

By the logic that parks City Hall employees on its sidewalks, we should have torn down the Logan Square neighborhood to accommodate employees in the upcoming CITC.

Again, it may seem petty, but it's representative of a bureaucracy that governs some of the greatest walkability in the nation but refuses to encourage it, or even accept it themselves.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Is Little Pete's Worth Saving?

#savelittlepetes is now a thing. 

As the block home to Little Pete's at 17th and Chancellor will likely be rezoned to accommodate a 12 story Hudson Hotel, the diner's days are numbered. 

However, unlike the 50s-era Letto Deli recently demolished at 13th and Chancellor, Little Pete's iconic 17th Street location is only iconic in its interior and signage, all of which could be moved to another location if management chooses to. 

It could even feasibly be reopened on the ground floor of the new hotel. 

But Bob Skiba, the Gayborhood Guru of Hidden City uncovered a bit of history that will be lost with this unassuming parking garage. Like Letto Deli's location on 13th, Little Pete's was once a Dewey's Famous Diner. While Dewey's on 13th tolerated the Gayborhood's largely LGBT clientele as far back as the 1960s, its 17th location barred "a large number of homosexuals...wearing non-conformist clothing."

Civil protests were certainly not unheard of in the 60s, but four years before the famous Stonewall Riots in New York City -  events that typically mark the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement - 150 men and women staged a protest at Dewey's on 17th in 1965.

That same year, another one of the nation's first gay rights rallies was held at Independence Hall. Known as the Annual Reminder, these pickets were held until 1969 when the movement was moved to Christopher Street in New York City to coincided with that year's Stonewall Riots.

While Dewey's is long gone, the location's significance may perhaps be stronger than ever given recent strides in LGBT rights and marriage equality. Philadelphia is home to a lot of "firsts" but I'd be willing to bet that quite a few, even those active in the LGBT rights movement, know just how integral a role the City of Brotherly love has played. 

Even today, despite conservative politics in Harrisburg and throughout the Commonwealth, Philadelphia continues to lead the nation in progressive policies. From Congressman Brian Sims to the ever vigilant Councilman Jim Kenney, both more concerned with doing what's right than playing politics, we continue to be a city that pushes towards the side of acceptance, even if it's unpopular. For the second year in a row, Philadelphia has tied for first place in LGBT equality.

While we have leaders to thank, like State Attorney Kathleen Kane who refused to defend an unconstitutional ban on gay marriage, we also have a loud and opinionated public that refuses to accept injustice even when it may not coincide with their personal beliefs.

Growing up in the South I'm well versed in the hypocrisy of a region known for its "hospitality." It may seem ironic that Philadelphia, a city reputably rude, would also be so tolerant and accepting. Perhaps its because hospitality and politeness are a farce and rarely have anything to do with recognizing what's just. Anyone who's participated in a protest or sit-in knows how true that is. 

And that's exactly why Dewey's Famous on 17th Street may play a role in history, but as a building, isn't deserved of preservation. 

Our rebellious roots were alive and well in 1965. Philadelphia is no stranger to architectural lost, but we've never lost our way. Little Pete's is just a diner and the Hudson Hotel is no one's civil enemy. Philadelphia is still - and will remain - a city that fights for what's right.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Live! Hotel and Casino

It's been a long and contentious road, but the final decision has been made for Philadelphia's second casino. Whether you like gaming or not, if Philadelphia needs another one, the right location was chosen.

As opposed to Center City locations, Live! Hotel and Casino has always been a no brainer. 

The location has always been a no brainer...for all of Philadelphia's casinos. 

But because of state rules that prohibit pairing up competing casinos, each has to be a specific distance from another. In a way it makes sense. If casinos were allowed to compete for a location, Pennsylvania could end up with an Atlantic City without a beach. But the lack of competition also keeps each casino dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.

Nonetheless, the Stadium District is already a growing entertainment zone. Detached from residents and surrounded by freeways and parking lots, the area is free to offer bars, concert venues, and now a casino without annoying any neighbors. 

Whether or not Live!'s hotel materializes, like the component that seems to have been abandoned by SugarHouse, the casino will benefit from adjacent activity. While SugarHouse neither complements nor caters to its neighborhood, in fact it does just the opposite, Live! will be a marketable asset to Philadelphia's burgeoning party strip. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Collateral Damage

In an unfortunate series of events, Philadelphia's Gayborhood neighborhood was delivered several hits in the last month. The former Letto Deli, a unique piece of 50s era Americana, was demolished. iCandy was faced with the suspension of its liquor license. And sadly, it seems, Westbury will be closing.

After a fire broke out in the Spruce Parker Hotel, the city shut it down. The Westbury, a popular gay bar, was caught in the cross fire. Without a second exit, the bar was shut down along with the hotel. 

The city has been looking for a reason to shut down the Parker for years. The hotel is a remnant of a city that no longer exists. Some call it a hostel, others a whore house.

It's by-the-day, -week, and -month rates harken us back to a time when cities were more than Carrie Bradshaw and Co. brunching with their trikes in toe. Cities were places of diversity...ugly, ugly diversity.

To be fair, the Parker has become a venue for prostitutes, drugs abuse, suicide, and other ill repute. But it was also a place for those struggling to make ends meet, newcomers, and rent hikes. The Parker represents the ugly diversity that self ascribed champions of sympathy love to love but refuse to talk about: hardship, crime, and homelessness.

As unfortunate as it is, the Westbury is collateral damage. But the Parker offered something unique: affordable housing in a city that still needs it.

For all that's been said of the Parker, I'd love to see someone rattle off the crime rates at 13th and Spruce relative to any other corner of Center City, even Rittenhouse. The Parker was a flea-bag hotel, sure, but that's all it was. It was as much a place of struggle as it was for insidious activity. 

People only want to see the worst in others.

Liberalism can be a blindly double edged sword. While many who proclaim themselves champions of cause pat themselves on the back for cleaning up their neighborhoods, they've ignored those they've displaced with nowhere to go. We liberals view community gardens as improvements, but turn a blind eye to those who strive for a warm meal from McDonald's.

What sickens me most about the Parker's closure isn't the building's closure, it's the hypocrisy behind the unofficial campaign to eradicate the occasional warm bed for those accustomed to sleeping on the street.

The Gayborhood of all places is Center City's last vestige of cause. We should know better than anyone. When a kid is thrown out of a suburban home for coming out to his parents, the Parker was a bed. Now he or she has a steam vent along Market East. 

Progress isn't measured in the superficiality of new condos and hotels, it's measured in compassion. The Parker may have been a den of inequity, but no one stopped to question why that den existed. Its drug abuse, prostitution, and suicides weren't products of the hotel, they were products of our society. Now that the Parker is gone, those atrocities won't vanish, they'll be relinquished to the streets where they'll be ignored. 

We shouldn't have been campaigning to close the Parker, we should have been campaigning to end the reason the Parker served a need. 

13th and Spruce may find itself with a new hotel, market rate apartments, or a vacant building. But erasing the Parker from Philadelphia did nothing for those who needed it. At best it traded a rare alternative to a homeless shelter for boutique hotel rooms. At worst, those who resided at the Parker will be living on the streets in exchange for an abandoned high-rise. 

Think about that, then pat yourself on the back. As so-called "progress" transforms American cities with upscale apartments and trendy cafes, is it any wonder that homelessness is on the rise?