Thursday, April 17, 2014


While many will be celebrating Easter with their families this weekend, I'll be spending Earth Day with my secular parents, the free spirited hippies that brought me into the world in a 1970s farming commune. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, a little bit. Still, I was raised on campgrounds and hiking trails. I could swim in a river before I could walk, and to this day grow my own vegetables on the small sidewalk in front of my house.

Needless to say, sometimes I get a little frustrated living in the concrete corridor of the Northeast. Here, AstroTurf passes for grass and faded silk flowers adorn window boxes. I find myself chatting with the Amish at Reading Terminal Market just for a little piece of home.

Of course Philadelphia is no stranger to the outdoors. Fairmount Park is one of the biggest urban park systems in the nation and community gardens have become the answer to vacant lots in some of our most blighted neighborhoods. But newly planted trees around Callowhill are stamped with a stencil on the sidewalk stating, "THIS IS A TREE." Obviously, in Philadelphia some people need to be reminded.

Last weekend, walking just a few blocks from my house, the Center City hotels were prepping for spring. That's great. How they prep is not. Loew's Hotel was replacing their seasonal creeping juniper with spring pansies. Wonderful. Beautiful. Except the juniper ended up in the trash. Even worse, along the small plaza at 12th and Filbert, five year old trees were topped, ready to be cut down and replaced with saplings.

Of course seasoned Philadelphians will claim that has something to do with underground plumbing or electricity, which is why they send their teenage sociopaths to the streets of Fishtown and Pennsport with box cutters to kill newly planted trees. But the city's underground is as mysterious to them as it is to those who maintain it.

Plus, there are ways to control the root structure of newly planted trees so that they can easily be moved when they get too big, relocated as Fairmount Park infill or along the Delaware or Schuylkill where they can mature. Sure, this may all sound like the idealistic ramblings of a tree hugger, but the new trees aren't cheap and those chopped down are even more valuable. Whether any of these plants - trees or shrubs - are being disposed of by a private hotel, office complex, or government facility, our cash strapped parks department spends thousands of dollars planting the same trees and shrubs that these organizations are trashing.

This isn't a soapbox without a point. The city's Parks Department could establish some kind of Green-Swap program, using volunteers to gather discarded plants and trees, and then replanting them in parts of the city more conducive to long term growth.

It doesn't have to end there. The city's park system is vast, with acres of unused or underused space, particularly fields. The city could use parkland to grow trees from seeds. A maple tree takes only two or three years to reach the height of those being planted around offices and hotels.

Once those plants mature or become unseasonable, the Parks Department could retrieve the tree or shrub and replace them with our locally grown saplings. While there are plenty of willing volunteers who'd jump at the opportunity to get their hands dirty, it also creates a unique experience for the city's public schools.

Dilworth House: What Happened to the Advocates?

When John and Mary Turchi purchased Washington Square's Dilworth House in 2001, they wanted to restore the mansion as a private residence. But things immediately got...Philadelphian.

Despite the building's Colonial charm, Dilworth House's historic significance lies with why it was built, not when. G. Edward Brumbaugh designed the house for Mayor Richardson Dilworth in 1957. At the time, Society Hill was a blighted slum and Dilworth decided to show confidence in his city by living amongst some of its squalor. Ultimately Dilworth and City Planner Ed Bacon helped transform Society Hill into the charming historic district we know today.

But adapting a home that has been largely unchanged since 1957 comes with all the demons one would expect, particularly when attempting to convert it into the modern and luxurious residence we'd expect to find on Washington Square.

Concerned neighbors fought Turchi every step of the way. After neighbors managed to block his proposed alterations to the house, Turchi sought to demolish the house for a tower designed by Venturi, Scott, Brown. Obviously, neighbors fought. Turchi offered a compromise, one which would require a bit of Franken-tecture, building the tower above the existing house, which would have served as the building's entrance. It was weird.

The ordeal was dragged out for over a decade, and today the house remains vacant. Those concerned neighbors who fought the initial restoration and alterations are now saddled with a vacant mansion at one of Philadelphia's most premier addresses. One has to wonder if neighbors wish they'd have let him make the simple alterations in the first place, offering Washington Square a unique showcase where you'd expect to find a modern high rise.

No one offered money or an alternate buyer, but early comments about a potential museum suggest that neighbors initially wanted the house converted into a public space. But a museum to what? The house itself is not architecturally significant or historic. It's a Colonial interpretation, not even a recreation of anything that ever existed on the site, or anywhere for that matter. 

Plenty of sites, both authentic and recreations are open to the public and nearby. But most are operated by the National Parks Service, an organization with absolutely no interest in a fifty year old house with no national significance. And of course, the city of Philadelphia couldn't afford to operate what would be one of the most boring museums this side of a wax museum that doesn't come to life and eat people.

Additionally, the Society Hill neighbors that fought Turchi have done nothing to follow up on what has become a dead proposal. The house has been saved, for now, but it's ignored by anyone who once claimed an interest. The city's Parks Department is poorly funded, and its primary focus is on parks that residents actually use. Residents typically save sites like Dilworth House by creating a "Friends of..." organization, pitching a proposal for the site that makes sense, and most importantly fields volunteers and donations to actually bring their plans to fruition.

But in Society Hill...crickets.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ground Zero: Point Breeze

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson recently blocked the sale of two lots to Point Breeze developer, Ori Feibush. Why? Well, Johnson believes this land should be reserved for Council President, Darrell Clarke's still-hypothetical affordable housing plan.

As Philadelphia's neighborhoods are experiencing a rebirth from Pennsport to Woodland Avenue, Point Breeze has become the battleground between the city's new homebuyers and longtime, low income residents. But with developers and City Council behind the joysticks, neither set of tenants have control of the game.

City Council has blocked tax hikes for longtime residents in an alleged effort to maintain diversity in revitalized neighborhoods. But when you consider the reality in places like Point Breeze, Council's efforts emerge as a less altruistic means to grab votes. In many of these neighborhoods, longtime residents are also longtime renters. Granting a tax reprieve on behalf of property owners gives slumlords a break, slumlords who will hike up rent to match the market of the improving neighborhoods.

Of course these are details that City Council understands, but you get votes by blaming "evil developers," not with the truth.

Things are even more complicated at Ground Zero, where Ori Feibush has announced plans to run against Johnson for City Council. Likely frustrated with his own development efforts in Point Breeze, Feibush wants to reform the corruption from within.

But eyeing a Council seat to aid personal profit wafts with its own kind of stink, one that could someday tip Philadelphia's economic diversity in favor of high end developers, a mistake made by the nation's more "successful" cities.

Cities like San Francisco and New York are dealing with the fallout of sending all but the region's wealthiest to the suburbs and neighboring cities. Havens for tourists, stripped of their souls, many of the locals play in Oakland and Brooklyn.

In other cities like Washington, D.C., blanketed gentrification has caused violent hostility between longtime residents and those new to neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan. We've seen this in Point Breeze and Northern Liberties. If history is any indication, it will only increase as developers and City Council continue to pit residents against one another for personal gain.

Perhaps these are the growing pains of any city that's ever been reborn, a path that Philadelphia was inevitably going to find. Of course following in the footsteps of San Francisco or Washington may seem like a long road given the sheer size of Philadelphia, but if City Council were ever to find itself in favor of profitable developers, the worst parts of the city wouldn't have to improve for developers to have control. They'd just need easy access to the land.

If City Council was run by the Feibushes of the city instead of the Johnson's, the city's pawns - its residents - would see the same city, just one hoarded by developers instead of City Hall.

Johnson and Clarke's bottom line may be votes, but maintaining the delicate balance of economic diversity should not be ignored in lieu of high end revitalization. Philadelphia is a big city, one with plenty of room for all walks of life. Unfortunately the game being played by those running the city - both from within City Hall and outside - is only hurting our streets and turning neighbors against one another.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Philadelphia Boondoggle

From Penn's Landing to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia's public endeavors seem to be the definitive embodiment of a boondoggle. Twenty one years after the Pennsylvania Convention Center opened, the billion dollar money pit has yet to deliver its promises. When the Center's first phase failed miserably, the state threw more money at an expansion that hasn't unlocked the front doors of its grand façade, several years after it was complete.

Now it's true, civic projects are not designed to profit but - theoretically - use tax revenue to best serve its taxpayers. They provide a necessary service or an asset. However profitability shouldn't be ignored. Adjacent development was used to pitch the PCC expansion. When the development never emerged, or emerged heavily subsidized, no one was really held accountable. Empty promises are the method operandi of the status quo.

The only new hotel to emerge near the PCC is the lackluster Hilton Home2 at 12th and Arch, its ground floor retail occupied by the first fast food options you'd expect to find next to any convention center in America, two decades after it opened.

Meanwhile the surface lots north of the PCC continue to chip away at the build environment, trading buyable real estate for high cost/low maintenance surface parking. Whether or not the PCC has recouped the billion spent on its two phased construction or if it can maintain its day to day operations with the revenue from its vendors, the center has done more harm than good. Considering the emerging revitalization of the Loft District, the Reading Viaduct Park, and the nation's overall renewed interest in downtown living, the PCC has come to find itself an unwelcome partner in City Hall's vicinity.

After all, the streets surrounding Reading Terminal below Vine Street looked a lot like today's Loft District before the PCC was dropped on us by the state. It's no stretch to imagine that the neighborhood's proximity to Washington Square West and Reading Terminal Market would have helped it evolve into one that looks a lot like Old City were it not for the PCC. And full time residents vested in its streets would have undoubtedly had an impact on our deteriorating Market East.

But ifs and buts aren't cluster of nuts, so, no granola.

Still, what about our future boondoggles? Has the city learned its lesson?

As malls go, ordinary but not bad - architecturally. Fill it with attractions that appeal to the market on the street: TOURISTS.

Speaking of Market East, PREIT may be the city's next money pit. Although the Gallery at Market East isn't owned by the city, the marriage between the two is strong. It's not surprising that PREIT's proposals for a revitalized Gallery Mall are about as lackluster as anything the city pitches. History has told us that inner city malls don't work and why, but those at PREIT can only see their white elephant as a mall.

While its layout may scream "mall," its best reuse as a mall is only by the vaguest definition. Tucked between numerous hotels and the Historic District, it should be full of tourist attractions, a beer hall, and some corny museums. But all PREIT can see is Center City's answer to King of Prussia and a Target, despite the fact that Center City already has KOP on Walnut Street and Kmart failed for the same reason a Target won't succeed.

But why should we expect innovation? PREIT, like the city and state offices vested in the PCC and its expansion, don't understand Center City and what it needs. When it comes to master plans, particularly if the word "Pennsylvania" is affixed, it's tough to expect more than a cash strapped burden.

Can it ever get better? Maybe. The Delaware River Waterfront Commission incited a bit of excitement surrounding the release of its new master plan. But "master plan" has developed a pejorative connotation when it comes to civic projects. Hargreaves Associates master plan for Penn's Landing and the vicinity is far from the first. Despite the fact that it's a good design, one that includes speculative commercial and residential development, on its own it provides no new reason to go to the river that isn't already there.

With more destination attractions, residents, and events, Festival Pier is not a bad space.
Like PREIT and City Hall, the DRWC doesn't understand its audience. It's unfortunate. More so than the PCC or the Gallery Mall, Penn's Landing is a potentially unrivalled asset for the city. But it's operated by bureaucrats that understand two things: pushing paper and maintaining the status quo. It should be filled with events every weekend: concerts, movies, exotic animals to promote the Philadelphia Zoo and the New Jersey State Aquarium, local restaurant booths, beer gardens. But the DRWC doesn't field events, it maintains those willing to return.

Unfortunately, until these organizations are employed by visionaries working with businesspeople who know how to execute a vision, we'll be faced with nothing more than renderings and master plans, and perhaps someday, a new Convention Center, Mall, or Waterfront Park afflicted with the exact same obstacles that kept them from ever succeeding in the first place.

Congratulations to Inga Saffron

Philadelphia's well known architecture critic, Inga Saffron, has been advocating for the city's built environment for almost fifteen years. The three time Pulitzer Prize nominee finally received the recognition she's been waiting for when it was announced that she'd received the Prize.

Saffron's critiques have been incidentally divisive, an element of good journalism. Good journalism doesn't placate and doesn't hate, it doesn't promote the politics or the sponsors of the publication, it honestly delivers the news. Critics speak from a more complicated podium. How do you criticize or praise anything objectively without citing schooled jargon from experts? After all, those trained chefs, architects, and artists that define the good and bad are critics in their own right.

Critical journalism is opinion without editorializing. Somewhere, someone will defend their McMansion and somewhere an educated architect will explain why a Brutalist monstrosity is "good design." You can't argue with facts, but you can argue with a critique.

But Saffron is more than a contrarian. You can find those writing a dozen blogs about Philadelphia architecture, including Your Truly. But Saffron is employed by the Inquirer and a Pulitzer Prize recipient because she doesn't deliver unpopular opinions to get clicks and comments. Her eye for the brick and concrete around us is consistent, even when it's unpopular.

Despite her consistent - and deserved - criticism of the Mural Arts Program, traditional design, and popular developers, she speaks to her audience as a colleague, not a teacher. Critics often school their readers from a soapbox as an elitist. Saffron may come off elitist to her audience, but only when those readers disagree. Pulitzer Prize or not, Saffron cannot definitively be an elitist because her exposure to architecture is as organic as it is to anyone reading the paper. She's not an architect. She's speaking to her audience from the seats of the theater, not the stage.

I received an email from her after my very first post on Philly Bricks, and while she didn't completely agree with me, she's as open to dialogue as anyone. She doesn't blindly defend her positions with books and citations, suturing the conversation with "you're wrong, and here's why." She has her positions and knows why, but clearly understands why others may sometimes disagree.

The media is full of obnoxious chefs who defend themselves by criticizing others and art critics who offer little more than rehashed critiques. Saffron's balance between knowledge and honesty is refreshing. She's a Philadelphian like the rest of us, one with an award winning portfolio of journalism.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Marketplace Design Center

Right now Center City's Schuylkill Banks are flanked by a touch of the city's skyline: 2400 Chestnut, PECO, and the under-construction Grove.

But the Philadelphia of tomorrow might see the Schuylkill become our own Chicago River, one graced with a riverfront park. And why shouldn't it? Developers are finally realizing that people like to be on the river. In ten years, the Schuylkill Banks could be lined with the FMC Tower, One Riverside, and several other high rise apartments and office buildings.

It could get even better. PMC Property Group (FMC Tower) and Lupert-Alder just purchased the Marketplace Design Center at 2400 Market, otherwise known as the whale-mural building.

Alder views the building as the "gateway to Philadelphia," a building that was built to withstand a few more than its six stories.

The Other CITC?

The internet may have unearthed Foster and Partners' original plan for Comcast's CITC. It's not completely clear if it is actually Foster's original design or a redesign prepared by Visualhouse. Nonetheless, I like it better.

Its flat façade makes the tower appear taller and the detail at the top looks more appropriate than a spire. Spires are a cheesy way to claim height, and unless you want to dock a dirigible, they don't serve a purpose. Even as a design element, a spire on a building with such a flat roof looks like an afterthought. CITC's alternative design carries its existing framework up, subtly tapering off in the sky.

Again, it's not clear if Foster and Partners had any role in the renderings but it's fun to see another look at a proposal that seems to be locked in place.