Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Chinese Lantern Fiasco

Between Stephan Salisbury's Philly.com article, Victor Fiorillo's piece in PhillyMag.com, and Inga Saffron's comments on Facebook, it seems the media has spoken: Franklin Square's Chinese Lantern Festival was a failure before it even opened. 

If you're not clear on what the festival is, you're not alone. It's essentially a light show that consists of about two dozen Asian themed lanterns. However, despite being hailed as "the first ever in the Northeast," its cultural or historic relevance is scattered. Historically, Chinese Lantern Festivals are held on the fifteenth day of the first month in the Chinese calendar, or in 2016, February 22nd. Franklin Square's festival opened last night and will run through June 12th. 

With the exception of a "sponsored by" logo for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation on the festival's site, it has very little to do with neighboring Chinatown, if much else. In fact, the PCDC's website doesn't even mention the festival despite it occurring during the organization's 50th anniversary. Chinatown's tourism website doesn't say anything about it either. That's because the company running the show, Sichuan Tianyu of Zigong, didn't consult with the Chinatown community on the project. 


But what really fired up the media wasn't the festival's murky relevance or shoehorned history; but the park's closure, cover charge, and the foreboding black curtain that now lines almost the entire perimeter of Franklin Square. This isn't just a privately operated festival occupying a park for a week to generate some spending money for the non-profit Historic Philadelphia, it's being walled off from view for two full months, not including the absurd amount of time it's taken to set up.

Entrance to the park after 6pm will cost a whopping $17, blocking evening access to the historic merry-go-round and putt putt golf course. Historic Philadelphia was quick to point out that the park closes at 7pm this time of year. But the festival run until June, and the park has never closed earlier than 9pm during the summer. And although all of Philadelphia's public parks technically have a "closing time," they're open to pedestrians passing through twenty-four hours a day. 

The worst abuse of this space, though, is the black tarp running around the park. What would Rittenhouse residents say if the city's most popular square were not only closed, but blocked from view? The city would lose its mind. But this isn't just a Pope Fence or one of Independence Hall's security walls. In fact, Franklin Square already has a fence in place. This wall serves one purpose and one purpose only: to block the festival from unpaying eyes walking the sidewalks around the park, and ultimately Sichuan Tianyu's wallet. It's offensive and an insult to neighbors, particularly the hardworking Chinatown community that might not want to shell out $17 to see a festival that I have to assume was situated nearby specifically for them. 

If you really want to see this festival, I suggest you head here and buy yourself a $40 drone. It's still legal in Philadelphia and - unless Historic Philadelphia and Sichuan Tianyu decide to built a tarp over the park - there's nothing they can do about it.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Purple Rain

When I stepped out my front door and looked up, the Mellon Building turned Purple...then I felt a drop of Rain.

East Market Might Grow Before It's Even Finished

NREA's director, Daniel Killinger, said a decision will be made next month on whether to move forward with East Market's second residential tower. Considering the changes taking place on Market East and the nearby Gayborhood, the transformation Center City itself is undergoing, and the growing rental market in Philadelphia, it wouldn't be surprising for NREA to maximize its footprint. 

If you recall, one of the original renderings showed two residential towers, one on each retail podium. At an additional twenty stories, East Market is tall. Many have expressed concerns about its impact on the view of the iconic PSFS Building, but East Market isn't what most would consider a skyscraper, and its setback from the curb is likely a deliberate decision to avoid swallowing the historic building across the street. 

In every way, NREA's East Market is what's right with development. Its flashy signage, retail, and entertainment is positioned near the convention center and hotels where it's expected, while quaint Ludlow pays homage to the narrow streets of nearby Washington Square West. 

Many developers, particularly those from elsewhere like NREA, could have simply planted a towering glass curtain that detracts from the corridor's history, but it chose to break up the block. NREA could have incorporated a parking garage into its retail podium, but it put its parking underground. It salvaged and renovated the old Family Court Building instead of razing and starting from scratch. And while it could have just built one windowless podium for a Big Box chain or two, it is creatively interacting with the street and offering pedestrians an urban experience instead of something to simply walk around. 

It seems the planners and architects at NREA looked at the land and designed something they themselves would live in. 

I'm not an architect, but when I worked for what was then the largest and most successful dot com in the world, we had a saying, "If you wouldn't buy it, don't build it." This is exactly what is required of good planning and design, or any creative business. The second you start cheaply cashing in, and cashing out, is the moment you collapse.

It's a rewarding lesson local developers like Bart Blatstein would be smart to learn. With his monolithic apartment towers, massive parking podium, and windowless Big Box stores proposed for Broad and Washington, a near carbon copy of East Market would be a massive win for both his wallet, his reputation, and the neighborhoods that surround Broad and Washington. But as it is, it's a bit ironic that a local developer would lack any care in crafting a project that truly benefits his own town at the most granular level, while NREA, a company with no personal investment in Philadelphia has chosen to set our bar for us. Perhaps NREA is just a better planner than those we have in-house, and if so, we could use a few more like them.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

North Carolina and the American South

North Carolina recently made some big headlines and, unfortunately, none of the news is nearly as pretty as its pristine beaches. In fact, the state's sweeping anti-LGBT legislation is downright hateful. It's not that hateful legislation is new to North Carolina. It seems like anytime the LGBT community makes national headway, North Carolina is on the front lines to stop it by any means possible.

"First in Flight, 48th in Education" - Family Guy

The quote isn't true - North Carolina is #36 in educational attainment - but there's a very strong correlation between education and LGBT acceptance, and North Carolina helped prove it. When the state voted to ban same sex marriage in 2012 (a decision overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States' 2015 ruling), a map showed counties that voted against the state's discriminatory legislation were those with major universities

Mind you, this wasn't a vote to legalize same-sex marriage, but to ban something that didn't even exist in the state. 

But it doesn't take a map or statistics to recognize the relationship between education and acceptance. Education exposes you to diversity and enlightens you with a world beyond the one in which you were raised. North Carolina's - and many other Hate States' - resistance to same-sex marriage, hate crime laws, and inclusive legislation have nothing to do with religious ideology or any other half-baked rhetoric they use to excuse their hate. It's simply an ignorant fear of the unfamiliar. 

I'll start with the worst of North Carolina's recent decisions so as to leave you with a laugh.

No Gays Allowed

As a reaction to recent legislation passed in Charlotte to protect LGBT citizens - similar to laws already in place for racial and religious minorities - legislation was hastily drawn up and an "emergency session" was held and Governor Pat McCrory signed into law legislation that will ban any LGBT protection laws throughout the state. . Representatives were given so little time to read the details - five minutes to be exact - that many walked out, including all Democrats, leading to unanimous victory for the Hateful majority in North Carolina. 

What does this mean? Well, it means businesses are free to put up "No Gays Allowed" signs and actually back it up. It means any government office or public school that offers gender-neutral bathrooms is breaking the law. And it means a hell of a lot to the state's booming technology industries in Research Triangle, companies that stake their reputations on inclusiveness, powerhouses like Google and IBM. 

That could be good for Philadelphia. They're all welcome to make Drexel's Schuylkill Yards a reality. But that's not the point. What makes Philadelphia great should make America great. This law essentially turns North Carolina into a Russia within the United States, one where homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgender citizens are reluctantly accepted as long as they don't make themselves known. 


It's also - like so many laws enacted in the South - insanely hypocritical. When I was in college in Virginia, we drove to North Carolina to buy grain alcohol, so they have no problem with vices, as if you can call homosexuality a vice. This is purely about hate fueled by ignorance. 

I grew up in the South, and I know it very well. I know the tagline, "Ya'll can be ya'll's selves, just don't show it off where my kids can see." 

"Well, okay, then can you tell your bathsalts-addled sister to stop humping my tailpipe every night?" 

Fucking. Hypocrites.

Unfortunately there's no silver lining, but it does get more amusing, because...

Freddy Got Fingered

James Meyers Jr. - a law abiding citizen, or so he thought - was pulled over for a simple traffic violation near Charlotte. He isn't Mexican, Muslim, Caitlyn Jenner, or whatever the hell else terrifies these people, but he still ended up in handcuffs at the precinct. His crime? An arrest warrant had been issued for him because he forgot to return a VHS copy of Freddy Got Fingered in 2002. Okay, renting that movie should have been a crime in itself, but I don't know what's worse: the fact that North Carolina is so liberal in its issuances of arrest warrants that an overdo rental from 2002 became one, or the fact that a North Carolina police officer would take it seriously. 

Let's Tie It All Together

For a few weeks, North Carolina will be stopping cars breaking the speed limit, all cars breaking the speed limit. Despite the cost to taxpayers in providing room in traffic court for every speeder doing 66 in a 65, and despite police departments across the state speaking out against this because of the obvious absurdities, the state has spoken. 

Gee wiz, the Southern notion of "Small Government" really makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? Where the hell is the "sarcasm" emoji? I can't wait for the first trans-person to be pulled over for doing 69 in a 65, "What's the hurry, sir?" 

"Oh, I'm trying to get to Virginia so I can take a piss."

Is It a Bad Place?

Well, despite the harsh words against North Carolina, words the state continues to bring upon itself, it's always been one of my favorite places. When I was a kid, the beaches along the Outer Banks were my family's go-to vacation spots. My grandparents had a hunting lodge on the Albemarle Sound and if I believed in Heaven, that's what it would be. 

The state's irony goes hand in hand with its hypocrisy. Unlike shore towns in the Northeast, nearly all of the North Carolina coast is a protected refuge. Plastic bags are illegal, the dunes are meticulously preserved, and you won't find any casinos or five star resorts on the sand bars dotting the coast. In fact, you'll find very few hotels, if any, rising more than three floors. 

Its western region's mountains don't disappoint either. The state's artsy Asheville has even earned a reputation as a small San Francisco with its surprisingly hip liberalism (for the South) and its quirky downtown villages, named after its unrivaled Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned house in the United States...ever (sorry, Lynnewood Hall).

If you're outdoorsy and seeking sandy beaches or pine topped mountains, you'll find it all from Ocracoke to Asheville. Even as I write this, seeing that Albemarle and Ocracoke aren't recognized by my spellcheck, it's evident that Apple has not deemed this state as relevant as a Kardashian. And that's sad. North Carolina is one of the most beautiful states in the country and, perhaps someday its people will realize that we gays aren't out to ruin it. 

Until then, their legislative process is doing nothing for business in the Tarheel State. Bruce Springsteen, Cirque du Soleil, and PayPal are all boycotting North Carolina, and they seem to have spurred a sense of solidarity calling more to do the same. Personally I don't completely agree. Bruce Springsteen himself was the one who rocked The Berlin Wall in 1988 shortly before it came down, and dedicating a concert to LGBT North Carolinians (and asking bigots to leave) would have been more inline with The Boss's M.O. It's a tricky situation, and while there are greener pastures for the disenfranchised in North Carolina, it's also understandable why many would be reluctant to leave such a beautiful place. 

Having grown up on a farm in Virginia, I've given up on my South. And while Pennsylvania may not be perfect, the way ethnic, religious, sexual, and gender minorities are treated here is a stark juxtaposition to what I've experienced living in and traveling throughout the South. Knowing firsthand what it's like being gay in a Hate State, I have nothing but respect for those hellbent on sticking around for the fight. 

French Fry Wars: a Rant

Not long after the Canadian French fry chain, Smoke's Poutinerie, set its sights on Philadelphia, another is slated for Rittenhouse. Shoo Fry, being billed as a "French fry bar," because, well, why not? Add the word "bar" to your model, throw in the word "artisan," and serve things Gwyneth Paltrow loves, and New Philadelphians will line up around the block then circle back with a hand crafted Yelp review.

Apparently French fries are the new popcorn, which was the new doughnut, which was the new cupcake, which was the new cereal, which was the new bagel...which takes us back to the '90s when cities were nightmarish war zones that actually made sense.

So where's that rant I promised?

Well, I declare in my best Andy Rooney impression, why is everything being dubbed a "bar"? I'm not asking why does everything serve booze (more on that when I rant about Be Well Philly's obsession with Beer Gardens), because they don't, which is exactly why I'm asking why they be called "bars." 

The trendiness with bars started with smoothies, which kind of made sense, as sexy health nuts were serving up cocktails of fruits and veggies to customers who wished they were hot enough to work at Jamba Juice. But then came cereal bars, ice cream bars, burrito bars, and anything that could be Chipotle-fied with an organic trough of toppings to slop on top of top of your burger, hot dog, or other various and sundry carnival food items. Which brings us back to the root of the bar: the salad bar, a feeding frenzy from the world of Golden Corral that turned every salad in America into a carb, sodium, and fat laden nightmare from Atlantic City to San Diego. Not something with which any reasonable businessperson - or customer - would seem to want to associate.


Of course today's urban business logic doesn't make a lot of sense. The ironic hipness of linking healthy smoothies to Golden Corral is long since dead, or should be. Just as it was once hip to refer to a business by one vaguely relevant word: Fork... or stylize it in all lowercase: needful things... or pair two nonsensical words with a plus sign: Lapstone + Hammer, it's not hip to do it again... and then again, and again, and again. French fry stands aren't bars. They're restaurants that serve French fries - fried potatoes, literal poverty food - at a 1000% markup. 

Which brings me to the food itself, and the second leg of my Rooneyan rant. Why is "poor" food suddenly all the rage, or rather why is it still the rage? Is it because Millennials will pay $13 for literally anything? Is it because New Philadelphians feel like their embracing "the real city" by eating fried potatoes? Or do the newly urban think it's ironically cute to drop a ten spot on fried potatoes? I mean let's just cut to the chase and start serving frozen Tombstone pizzas on high school cafeteria trays to outer-borough transplants for $15 a pop. How do you sell Toaster Strudels to Millennials? Build a toppings "bar," play a 20 year old commercial in the background, and jack up the price.

And sadly that's what the price point comes down to. Even if these kitschy here-today-gone-tomorrow food trends wanted to offer their organic, non-GMO, locally sourced carny fare for a reasonable price, they'd go out of business. Today's urban spendthrifts equate pricy with value, and little more. If Bareburger or BurgerFi charged a fair price for their meat, they'd be relegated to the annals of McDonald's and be done for.

Of course, now that the rant is out of the way, and gazing at pictures of cheese smothered fried potatoes, all I really want is a greasy heaping helping of disgustingly delicious fried potatoes...and a Tombstone pizza.





Friday, April 15, 2016

Blatstein's Odyssey

Despite being panned by every check and balance laid in front of a building before being granted approval, Blatstein's towering domino is headed for its last stop: the Zoning Board. Inga Saffron had some choice words for the man she once advised in his much lauded Piazza at Schmidt's, and rightfully so. Every step of the man's quest to build this monstrosity at Broad and Washington has been backed up by his Piazza to claim, "I know what I'm doing." Yet he continuously fails to mention that were it not for Inga Saffron, Erdy-McHenry, and an uninvolved builder, the Piazza at Schmidt's would be a strip-mall, and Northern Liberties wouldn't be what it is.

The worst part about this ordeal isn't that this building is ugly or out of scale, or even the developmental anarchy Saffron outs in her article. It's that these five acres are integral in connecting Center City and South Philadelphia, and the transformation is being led by Blatstein's unchecked ego. The idiocies in this project are too numerable to mention and it's easy to wonder if the only thing letting it slide through the approval process is the fact that no one can condense the project's flaws into one coherent sentence. 

From its two towers lining the block's smallest streets instead of flanking its proud corner, its Kowloon-esque 1000 units, massive parking podium, to its retail rooftop Tiny Town that doesn't even offer any views, it's really hard to sum up a short and sweet explanation as to why it's so bad without simply saying, "it sucks." 

Broad and Washington

Designed by Cope Linder, well known - and well respected - in Philadelphia, it's quizzical as to how this happened. Cope Linder doesn't have a reputation for being as inventive as Erdy-McHenry, the firm behind Blatstein's Piazza, but they're certainly better than what we see headed for Broad and Washington. Considering Blatstein's smug arrogance aimed at the Design Advocacy Group, city planners, and the neighbors surrounding the block, it's not so hard to imagine how conversations between Cope Linder and their client may have gone down behind closed doors. Perhaps the firm simply threw up their hands and said, "if you want to bankrupt yourself with a money pit that will piss off the city, here it is!"

Unfortunately, were he to simply reinvent the Piazza at Broad and Washington, or bring something on par with NREA's East Market to the table, he'd not just be building something people want to live - and shop - in, he'd be bridging neighborhoods and driving complimentary development in its wake, exactly what happened in Northern Liberties. 

But this doesn't seem to know what it is. I'm all for height and density, but no one builds something so tall in an established low-rise neighborhood unless they're building low-income housing...in the 1960s. The comic book nerd in me can't help but look at this proposal without seeing a Mega City tower in Judge Dredd while my pessimist sees Kibrini Green, and neither is hopeful. If we learned anything from the building boom of the Bush era, it's that too many residential units can break a city. Miami is still struggling to fill its apartments and the average rent in Chicago is now lower than Philadelphia. We survived, and now thrive, because we didn't "pull a Blatstein" in 2005. 

But does Blatstein really want to put 1000 units at Broad and Washington? There's so much wrong with this project, and so many parties complaining, we really need to step back to see exactly what's happening here. Even an egomaniac like Blatstein must know that he'll never fill these towers, that his Tiny Town is a gamble, and a bad one. The only component that seems financially feasible, despite its impact on the surrounding communities, is the project's parking podium and big box retail spaces. And that, kids, is the bait-and-switch we'll likely see shortly after ground is broken. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Be Well Philly?

With summer approaching and a Personal Training certification under my belt, I've been building up a list of healthful fun in the sun. While there are plenty of great outlets for outdoor activity, Philadelphia's reputation as a not-so-healthy hamlet has kept it from providing much in the way of one-stop shopping. In fact, taking to the Schuylkill Banks to look for trails and talking to strangers will yield a better log of activities than so-called health and fitness blogs found online. 

One particularly frustrating health and fitness blog is also one of the city's most prominent: PhillyMag.com's Be Well Philly. If you're looking for places in the park to get your swole on, you won't find it, and if you want a truly healthy recipe, you've got to dig. Instead what you'll find is: run, run, run, yoga, run, yoga, yoga and beer, run, run, vegan mac-n-cheese recipe, run, run, beer run, yoga on (in) the river, run, run, beer. I know Philadelphians love their beer, but I've never seen such dedication paid to the paradoxical combination of beer and fitness.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with running and yoga, or the occasional beer. And there's a likely reason so many free outdoor activities are limited to yoga, and that's insurance. Yoga on the steps is a cool concept with humbling views, and it doesn't require a liability waver. That would be another story if free kickboxing classes were being held in public parks. But that doesn't mean Philadelphia's fitness community is solely relegated to the fast and free.

All of PhillyMag.com's blogs are heavily rooted in click-baiting sponsored content, evident in advertisers' hyperlinks buried in each article. But Philadelphia's rise to national prominence brought with it countless private gyms, CrossFit studios, boxing clubs, not to mention our longstanding paddling teams and kickball leagues. Where's their mention in the annals of Be Well Philly? Where's the trainer or the week, gym or the week, or club of the week? 

Even beyond fitness centers and private clubs, the Fairmount Park system itself - the nation's largest network of urban parks - is a hotbed of free recreation that isn't exclusive to yoga and marathons. Where's the best trail for mountain biking, hiking, or the best watering hole for those hot summer days? 

If any of these are listed in Be Well Philly, I haven't found it.

PhillyMag.com has a platform to reach thousands of Philadelphians desperately looking for real ways to get fit, and because of its position it also has an obligation to those readers to live up to its claims. Philly wants to Be Well, but PhillyMag.com is just giving us PlanetFitness, a fitness community in name-only that caters to our vices and weaknesses, and says it's okay to treat yourself to some mac-n-cheese, it's vegan!