Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Can the Pennsylvania Convention Center get it right this time?

As ugly as the north facade of the Pennsylvania Convention Center may be, I don't think that the block of Race Street between 11th and Broad is doomed from ever finding business, especially the type of business brought by Convention Centers.

It's true that the thankless wall looms over the narrow street and casts the Scientology Center and a small group of 19th century trinities into darkness. But like the PCC itself, hotels and chain restaurants don't typically respect their local surroundings, so it's probably safe to assume that Ruby Tuesday and Applebees won't care that they might face the brick rump of this behemoth, only that their market research says there's a successful Chili's a block away.

I doubt its neighbors can expect to see luxury lofts or Garces restaurants between Race and Vine, but even more than fancy restaurants and overpriced condos, I'd like to see the surrounding area begin to pick itself back up. And the way to do that may be in catering to the conventioneers. Philadelphia loves to sell itself as one of the few nostalgic cities that hasn't sold out. We love it, but sadly, conventioneers and tourists don't. Would it really hurt to cram these suburban delights into this little island that faces an unforgiving brick wall?

This neighborhood has always struggled. Its proximity to freeways and railroad tracks have consistently isolated it from much of the city's friendly fabric and made it the go-to locale for large civic projects that required both proximity and careless demolition.

The PCC poses both threat and hope to this forgotten corner of Center City. While the parking in this area should be consolidated into several large garages, the city allows predatory landowners to bulldoze indiscriminately. The city requires all new offices and residences to provide parking, yet the state required nothing of the PCC. Sadly the unofficial assumption on the part of the city and the state was that the surrounding neighborhood could be sacrificed by private developers to supplement the parking required of the PCC's guests and employees.

The Vine Street Expressway brings people into the city, these surface lots park them, they walk to their convention, and then the VSE conveniently sends them home.
And because the PCC caters to conventioneers from other cities, most people don't care. The neighbors' voices are few and mostly from renters.

The problem with this part of town is that its development is dictated by Philadelphia's late 20th Century in-and-out mentality. Back when City Hall was more concerned with retaining the little business it had than managing an urban experience for residents and tourists, the primary goal in city planning was to suburbanize the landscape for commuters and keep them happy. Because of that, 12th Street might as well be an exit ramp for the VSE, sending un-clocked traffic through the PCC tunnel at 50 MPH.

Hopefully now that the PCC is nearing the completion of its final phase and we see a grand entrance
taking shape at Broad and Race, developers can begin scouting the surrounding properties, landowners can begin converting some of their surface lots into garages, and a bit of the mess left by irresponsible and careless civic planning can get cleaned up.

I'd like to see a push from City Hall to avoid the type
of mass demolition that followed the construction of the initial phase of the PCC and the completion of the VSE. I'd like to see planners focus on encouraging conventioneers to stick around rather than simply getting them in and out as fast as possible. Otherwise we could end up with nothing between Race and Vine but asphalt and we're already halfway there.

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