Friday, October 30, 2009

Philadelphia's Thriving Market Street

Until the end of the 20th century, Market East was Philadelphia's bustling center for retail commerce. It wasn't always pretty, but the eclectic collage of ever changing businesses illuminated in neon succeeded as the urban equivalent to the sprawl enjoyed by suburbanites.

Seen here in 1953, 13th and Market was a bustling and dense hub of commercial activity. The NE corner of this intersection is now occupied by the block-wide Marriott hotel while the NW corner is occupied by a surface parking lot.

So what happened? It's easy to blame urban flight, but Market East's real estate stock didn't completely crash until the late 1980's, perhaps even the 1990's. Before that the gritty patchwork of businesses and merchants successfully served commuters and locals alike.

In 1965 Snellenburg's department store spanned the south side of Market Street between 11th and 12th in what is now known as the Girard Block, a two story placeholder that has been holding a place for several decades.

As a wave of "improvements" for the surrounding neighborhoods began, it is almost as if Market East's intended renaissance was exactly what sealed its coffin. While large corporate entities such as Aramark, Marriott, and Loews succeeded in bringing a large number of employees to Market East, many of the street's original merchants who at one time serviced these employees had been removed in anticipation of larger development which never came.

Howard's department store, seen here in 1966, is now the site of Aramark headquarters. The lot in the foreground was made for The Gallery at Market East and is now the site of Burlington Coat Factory.

As Gimbels and Snellenburg's closed, the Gallery's JCPenny and Clover were replaced with Burlington Coat Factory and K-Mart. Closing Strawbridges left many Gallery merchants without residual clienette forcing the closures of stores such as The Gap and Guess.

Seen here in 1966, Gimbels department store was demolished for anticipated development and is now the site of surface parking lot nearly the size of an entire city block. It is controlled by predatory land developer Ron Rubin - who has no intention of developing it further.

Today very little remains of Market Street's namesake. Real estate on Market East is so affordable that space formerly occupied by large variety stores such as Woolworth are now occupied by convenience stores such as CVS or Rite Aid. Many businesses use their upper floors for storage or simply leave it empty.

The upper floors of Robinson's space age department store are now used for storage or simply left empty. Surprisingly this uniquely early design is not historically protected.

Unfortunately the fate of Market East seems to rest in the hands of private developers. While several years ago, many could not have imagined it getting much worse, it now serves as a worn example example of what happens when you try to fix something that isn't broken.

The Gallery at Market East today: It isn't aesthetically - or philosophically - worse than any other mall. But as made evident in recent years, it is hurt by the declining, surrounding real estate.

Although it's certainly not the time to start fielding new businesses to rent questionable or risky real estate, it is the time to start looking at what used to work and what we can do at little cost that make places like Market East a little more desirable and look a little less like Thunderdome. While a very small gesture, Burlington Coat Factory seems to understand this and is in the process of renovating the space and improving its curb appeal with new signage, entrances, and window displays. While it's hard to ignore the gaping holes along Market East, many other businesses would be wise to follow suit, and property owners would be wise to encourage it.

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