Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Our Thriving Independence Mall

As a new attraction opens on our Independence Mall to mixed reviews, some more hateful than others, the Mall's history, and the potential its real estate once had, has found its way under the critics' magnifying glasses.

One can't deny that the Mall separates Center City from Old City anymore than one can deny that Old City's relatively new Renaissance has yet to find a way to attach itself to the city's core. Whether you view the Mall as a mistake or a success, the 50 year old park is not solely responsible for dividing the urban landscape of the city.

The Gallery and a suburbanized Market East, the asphalt prairies and cold windowless government buildings between Chinatown and the Constitution Center, and the Vine Street Expressway all serve to sever the newly bustling streets of Old City from what is conventionally perceived to be Center City. Even if the Mall was a mistake, it was one of a number of mistakes inspired by a mid-century vision of suburbanization. It would be short sighted to blame all of Market East's civic woes and Old City's urban detachment on what was perhaps the most successful - or at least the most aesthetically pleasing - mistake.

Even throughout the Mall's various incarnations, it has been dealt with better than the concrete canyons that separate Center City from the waterfront and the blocks north of Vine Street.

The Mall is there and isn't going anywhere. How it progresses will depend on the surrounding cityscape, not on the patches of grass between 5th and 6th Streets.

Public parks are supplemental. Rittenhouse succeeds due to its proximity to shopping and resources, while apartment buildings fight for a view.
The Mall is not Central Park and I don't think it ever should be. We have Washington and Rittenhouse squares to service the needs of our residents.

Independence Mall is our answer to the National Mall. People don't go to DC to visit the Mall. Even if they say they do, they go to visit the museums that line the Mall and the monuments on it.

A lot was torn down to create the Mall and a lot of potential was lost. But we can't move forward by getting people worked up over what could have been 50 years ago. In the last decade Independence Mall has become significantly more popular, with 3M visitors up from just over 600,000 in the 1990s, in large part due to attractions surrounding the mall and an improved cityscape in the neighborhoods surrounding the historic area.

Focusing on further improvements to the vicinity between City Hall and 6th Street, the bridge between our hotels and our tourist attractions, will enable our Mall to become even more popular. We're never going to see Philadelphians sunbathing on Independence Mall and that is fine. But as a tourist destination to supplement the surrounding attractions, it is beginning to thrive, and perhaps with an increased focus on what could be, instead of what could have been, we may see even more fanny packs and cameras dropping their Euros around our quaint Colonial Green.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas from Philly Bricks!

Philly Bricks will be closed from now until next Wednesday. Merry Christmas, and happy holidays!

Nightmares at 13th and Wood

Those who know me know of my fascination with the Philadelphia before my time. I don't mean Ben Franklin's quaint, Colonial Philadelphia, or the Industrial Revolution's Workshop of the World.

I mean the bleak and dreary Philadelphia that can be caught in the background of
Rocky. It's the weird Philadelphia that hatched after suburban flight and before the urban renaissance. This is the Philadelphia I remember visiting as a child.

In a way, the city almost felt more alive. The streets were bustling with people, but not with boutique shoppers and dog walkers. They were bustling with harried employees in a thriving business district, and strange apocalyptic characters prophesying the end of the world.

I'm sure it felt this way because my experience with Philadelphia in the 80's was as a daytime tourist. And I'm sure my farm raised upbringing made every city feel like Manhattan.

Still, there was something unique about Philadelphia. There was a darker side of the city. The city I'd love to relive for just one night.

In 1970, writer and director David Lynch lived on the southeast corner of 13th and Wood, in what is often now pegged as The Loft District, while attending the Academy of the Arts.

13th and Wood, the site of David Lynch's home in 1970 during his time at the Academy of the Arts in Philadelphia.

The site is now a parking lot for the adjacent U-Haul facility, but twenty years ago it was the fantastic nightmare of the writer and director of Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, and Blue Velvet, and served as the inspiration for his first film, Eraserhead.

His former presence in what Lynch has described as "a very sick, twisted, violent, fear-ridden, decadent, decaying place" has led a number of residents to brand the neighborhood, The Eraserhood.

The Roman Catholic High School's annex was designed as the City Morgue by Philip Johnson in the 1920s. In the 1970's the morgue operated diagonally across from Lynch's home at 13th and Wood.

Although that name is as marketable to a realtor as The Gayborhood, it's also as uniquely Philadelphian. While Lynch, originally from Montana, has mostly negative things to say about Philadelphia and his former neighborhood, anyone who is familiar with his work knows that he finds beauty in the most disturbing images.

"It's decaying but it's fantastically beautiful, filled with violence, hate and filth," he has said of Philadelphia. He found an opening to another world in our city's decay, "it was magical, like a magnet, that your imagination was always sparking."

With the closure of the Reading Viaduct and the construction of the Vine Street Expressway, I'm sure the corner of 13th and Wood would now be a disappointment to a director known for his dark, sepia toned images of tortured souls and broken windows.

The Eraserhood is now gritty in a 21st Century way. Its soot stained masonry and small alleys are quickly becoming its charm, and it abandonment has become its parking. We may never see that world again, and perhaps that is a good thing.

While the unusual pocket between Broad and the Reading Viaduct, and Vine and Spring Garden may never again be part of Lynch's "sickest, most corrupt, decaying city filled with fear," its legacy will always find its place in his bizarre, dark, and beautiful films.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Risky Design Business

While critics encourage better design and community activists lobby for responsible development, many times the compromises yield bland results or stagnant progress. In a culture once ruled by the commercial media, an explosion of personal technologies has given everyone an immediate voice.

Blogs rival traditional news sources with opinionated diatribes. Activists protest multiple causes from their iPhones. The audience is overstimulated with what ultimately amounts to little more than white noise. These technologies aren't bad, we just haven't learned how to deal with them yet.

Operating under antiquated expectations (and by antiquated, I mean the world before the web), City Council receives arguments presented by critics and activists as if they were an angry mob standing outside City Hall in 1980.

The rules of campaigning tell politicians that these loud voices are all potential votes, but these rules haven't compensated for the white noise and the internet mayhem. Essentially, politicians haven't figured out that most of today's vocal opposition isn't as dedicated as the picketers in the last century.

One day they're protesting billboards on Market East, the next they're blogging against horse-drawn carriages in Society Hill, and the next week they're at a Prop 8 rally in California. We have it so good we'll protest anything, and our elected officials need to know how to weed out the legitimate constituents from the hot air.

Willis Hale's macabre Lorraine Hotel, known now as the Divine Lorraine, has captured the imagination of each passerby for a century.

Unfortunately, in a city once known for its exciting, experimental architecture, City Hall's inability to deal with public opinion has left us with a lot of vacant lots and boring buildings. 10 Rittenhouse, Symphony House, and even the Comcast Tower don't come close to living up to the reputation handed down to us by Willis Hale and Frank Furness.

Frank Furness challenged conventional Victorian style with exaggerated elements and colors. Shown here is the National Bank of the Republic on Chestnut Street.

William Lescaze and George Howe challenged convention and the city's skyline with the PSFS Building, the world's first skyscraper built in the International Style. Even the mid-century additions of I.M. Pei's Society Hill Towers, Ed Bacon's Dilworth Plaza, and the State Office Building on North Broad Street employed a high standard of quality in their designs that were both strong and risky.

At a time when Philadelphia's skyline was dominated by City Hall and church steeples and New York's by Art Deco spires, the PSFS Building changed the face of urban American cities.

Built in a time when professionals knew their place and a community was respectful of their vision, architects were allowed to wow us, and occasionally disturb us. But like a bad haircut, it grows back or you get used to it.

In what would seem like a complete disregard for the quaint Colonialism of Society Hill, I.M. Pei's towers gently compliment the surrounding brick row homes and parks. The towers were part of a massive, mid-century plan that turned the worst slums in Center City into some of the regions most desirable addresses.

Instead of bending over for every action group with a website or assuming every critic is a professional at architecture and history, city planners and private developers need to know where to draw a line when it comes to the influence of public opinion. Given the attention span of most of the opposition, in the end it rarely matters.

Focus groups lead to boring, formulaic television programs, and the same goes for art and design. Renderings are shopped around the newspapers, blogosphere, and community meetings, shuffled through several self-proclaimed "expert" organizations, and sent back to the drawing board to be stripped of all character.

While our voices are often important, we don't know better than the professionals. Sometimes those with a vision need to stand their ground and shock us.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Race Street Pier

The Race Street Pier in August, 1901, prior to construction of the Ben Franklin Bridge

The dilapidated Race Street Pier prior to reconstruction in February of 1931.

The Race Street Pier park, designed by James Corner Field Operations, Coming Spring 2011

Race Street Connector

As construction progresses on the Race Street Pier, designs for a better way to get people to the site continue. Designers of the park, James Corner Field Operations, are designing a better path from 2nd Street to the waterfront.

A section of the fence and lighting that will be provided along the route to the Race Street Pier.

Problems that need to be addressed by James Corner Field Operations and the project managers, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, include sidewalks, landscape, and the Interstate 95 underpass. The James Corner Field Operations design includes painted bike lanes, new landscaping, better lighting, and a metal screen that will line Race Street under the interstate.

The illuminated fence will span the width of 95.

Public art will also be included as part of this extension. It is anticipated that the Race Street Connector will be complete for the Race Street Pier's grand opening this spring.

Additionally, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has suggested that the nearby on-ramp may eventually be eliminated.

Brownstoner: Full Steam Ahead: Plans for the Race St Connector

Outing Scouts

In what has become a mess of red tape and legal fees, the potential settlement between the Boy Scouts of America and the city of Philadelphia has resulted in the potential sale of the property to the private organization for $500,000. In exchange for the low ticket price, the Scouts would drop their law suit against the city in which they obligate the tax payers to shell out nearly a million dollars in legal fees.

Well, a local real estate mogul may have offered another solution. Mel Heifetz has offered the city $1.5M, which would cover both the Scout's offer for the building and their law suit. Heifetz does not want to develop the property, but donate it to an organization that does not discriminate. Heifetz also paid off the mortgage on the William Way Center, a nonprofit resource for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

The Boy Scouts of America local headquarters, the Cradle of Liberty branch, at 22nd and Winter.

Mayor Nutter has previously supported the initial settlement saying that it will put an end to a nasty legal battle that drew national support for both sides of the case. Unfortunately the settlement also acknowledges the administration's disregard for the city's own ban on discrimination that includes sexual orientation.

The scenario's legal complications come from the fact that a private organization that operates under it's own rules, which include discriminating based on sexual orientation, has been allowed to operate in a government owned facility for nearly a century. The city attempted to demand rent from the Scouts, which resulted in the Scout's lawsuit against the city.

In the end, the building will either belong to the Boy Scouts or to Mr. Heifetz. In either scenario it will be owned privately and no longer subject to the city's anti-discrimination policies. The city now has the choice, to either pay a settlement to the Scouts and uphold its own policy, or to practically give away this historic building so that the administration may absolve itself from its own responsibilities.

Moonglo Hotel and Supper Club

The former Furnished Room District - roughly defined between Broad and Chinatown, and Market and Vine - was once the site of a very unique nightlife scene. Bars, supper clubs, and small hotels dotted the streets of Center City's industrial zone. Between factories and warehouses, in the shadow of the Reading Viaduct, in older row homes were the businesses that entertained the district's employees.

Construction of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Vine Street Expressway was responsible for the demolition of most of the more reputable businesses. Some of the seedier theaters and bookstores remained into the 90's, the most recent being demolished for the expansion of the PCC.

The Moonglo Hotel and Supper Club is shown here in 1961. On the northwest corner of Race and Juniper, it is currently the site of a surface parking lot.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Odd Fellows

Work continues at the former Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Lodge at 12th and Spruce.

With four residential floors which could either be used for two apartments each, or large full floor spaces, the two retail spaces on the ground floor were formerly the site of Spruce Street Video, and a late-night coffee spot that has long since been closed.

As Rittenhouse Square and retail spaces west of Broad continue to bleed tenants, Washington Square West (Midtown Village or the Gayborhood) seems to be thriving on its competitively priced real estate.

Originally known as The
Grand United Order of Colored Odd Fellows Lodge, the building is located at 262 South 12th Street. It was built in 1906 and designed by Watson & Huckel.

Wet Pork or Good Intentions Gone Too Far?

Plan Philly reported that accessibility advocates have recently introduced the concept of "visitability" as a proposal for legislative consideration. Visitability requires that all homes feature a wheelchair accessible ground floor and restroom.

When does our desire to make life easier for everyone start adversely affecting the quality of life for everyone? Advocates argue that accessible homes with no front steps and large bathrooms make life easier for the whole, but do they? A large bathroom eats away at available space. Steps to the front door often serve as a sight line to an architectural centerpiece.

A private home is a private home. Subsidies already pay to retrofit homes for those who require better accessibility, and tax incentives and subsidies are given to handicapped individuals to compensate for inaccessibility. City Hall can't dictate the comfortably of your guests, particularly when the majority of home owners will never need these features.

This just leads to further intrusion into private people's lives. Before long people won't be allowed to drink or smoke or watch R rated movies in their own homes. Why not restrict the display of artwork or religious iconography that guests might find offensive? If the government's intervention in my person life isn't drawn at my front door, does it exist at all?

In a similar stipulation, the 2009 International Residential Code becomes effective in townhouses this year and requires that all newly constructed homes come with a sprinkler system. The Pennsylvania Builders Association argues that this would increase home construction cost by as much as $15,000. Additionally, no mention has been made of how this additional cost may or may not be offset by lowering the cost of home owner's insurance.

During economic down times it isn't unusual to see pork barrel spending. Recessions built the Eisenhower Interstate System and removed asbestos - deadly or not - from public schools.

While sprinkler systems certainly make our homes safer, how much of our personal safety should rely on the government's intervention? And while wheelchair ramps and handlebars in the bathroom could make a small percentage of potential visitors a little more comfortable, how much of our personal space needs to accommodate those we don't know?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

How to build a successful waterfront

Why is everybody still talking about Portland, the city that stole legend Bradley Maule? That city is like coffee in the 90's. And why shouldn't it be? They do things differently there.

I like to think I beat the hype with my brief stint in the City of Roses just after college graduation. Portland was lovely in 1999. Hipsters were still Emo, you could smoke in their gritty beer holes, and the Me Generation couldn't walk yet. When you told someone you were moving to Oregon, people would ask, "Why on earth would you move there?" It wasn't overpopulated with Brooklyn refugees scarfing down Soy Joy. It wasn't full of Prius driving idiots decked out in $300 peasant jeans from Urban Outfitters. Pioneer Square was full of homeless kids from wealthy suburbs and "Vaseline Alley" lived up to its name. Like Philadelphia, it was real, albeit in a very different way.

It still retains a unique funk regardless of the transplants. Like all cities, demographics will continue to shift. The real estate market certainly fed the nomadic droves looking for something new. I assume as the economy calms down, when people start looking at their houses as homes again instead of investments, the weirdos that invaded all of our American cities will return to that strange limbo known as suburbia.

Ongoing rant aside, Portland continues to do things right. With all these proposals, renderings, and discussions about our Delaware Waterfront which ultimately amount to one giant pipe dream, Portland, roughly one third the size of Philadelphia, managed to move a major interstate across the river and implement one of the most successful urban waterfronts in the country. It wasn't rocket science, it was action.

In Philadelphia we love to talk but do little else. When discussions begin to encompass droves of unqualified neighborhoods organizations that aren't schooled in urban planning or economics, you might as well stop the conversation right there because that plan isn't going anywhere.

Portland found - after the herculean feat of moving Interstate 5 across a river - that the simplest solutions are the best solutions. The waterfront is little more than a patch of grass between Front Street and the Willamette River lined with a handful of unique fountains. Aside from the absence of the interstate, what makes it succeed isn't in what it is but in what it can do.

Almost weekly throughout the summer the park hosts concerts and events, Fleet Week, even brightly lit carnivals. Philadelphia, perhaps because of our inferiority complex, insists on doing everything big or not at all. An aerial tram across the Delaware River? Really? Instead of going grand, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation should be spending its time looking for local carnivals, circuses, small concerts that don't require a huge stage and a staff of fifty.

Give people a reason to walk across the interstate and maybe you can stir up enough money for the lavish luxuries later. I'd make the short trek to Penns Landing if I caught a glimpse of a neon clad ferris wheel.

Friday, December 17, 2010

One Meridian Plaza

It's difficult to look at the Residences at the Ritz and picture the charred remains of One Meridian Plaza that loomed over Dilworth Plaza for nearly a decade. Designed by Vincent Kling & Associates, the office building was completed in 1972.

One Meridian Plaza

On February 22, 1991, the a Twelve Alarm Fire broke out on the 22nd floor resulting in the deaths of three firemen. The fire was ultimately fought from the outside because of concerns that the building may have collapsed. The blaze didn't begin to die down until the fire reached the 30th floor and finally set off functioning sprinklers. The fire lasted nearly a full day and damaged neighboring buildings, leading to the demolition of buildings that once occupied the neighboring parking lot, including the 20 story Morris Building.

Fire destroyed eight floors of One Meridian Plaza in February of 1991

An unprecedented disaster, One Meridian Plaza was the tallest building in the world to ever be destroyed by a fire at the time. The eyesore sat vacant for eight years while its owners, E/R Partners, and insurers went to war over its fate. Neighboring property values declined, Chestnut Street shops began to close, the Girard Bank tower's water damage caused most of it to sit vacant for years, and lawsuits claiming losses rained on the owners of the remains.

For nearly a decade, the charred remains of the skyscraper loomed over City Hall, depressing properties values, frustrating politicians, and embarrassing the city.

Beginning in 1998, the unique deconstruction was required because of its proximity to other buildings. It was connected to the Girard Bank tower, currently the Ritz Carlton Hotel, and its scar can still be seen on the hotel's west wall. It was completely removed by 1999 where it sat as a surface parking lot until the Residences at the Ritz opened a year ago.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bye-bye Philly Brownstoner

Perhaps the only major blog site that regularly references Philly Bricks is calling it quits, and they will be sadly missed. Not just because they take my rants and rambles (semi) seriously, but because they have become a staple of my morning coffee read.

Often more objective than the swill found in the Inquirer, and certainly the Daily News, Brownstoner's short and sweet quips about architecture and real estate manage to sum up exactly what I'm looking for when I reluctantly send my browser to

Started this past April,
Brownstoner Philly has grown to attract a very large daily audience, and has been repeatedly referenced by major media outlets in the region.

Thank You for Having Us

Billy Sunday Snowstorm

Well, happy Snow Day #1 of what promises to be a brutal winter.

On March 1, 1914, the "Billy Sunday" blizzard dumped as much as 6 feet of snow on the region. The snowstorm interrupted evangelist Bill Sunday's revival in Scranton, stranding a number of attendees at the host's tabernacle, hence the name.

The storm saw snow drifts as high as 18 feet.

"Snowing Like Hell" on the Billy Sunday Snowstorm
March 1, 1914
South Broad Street

Foxwoods is Done!

In seemingly effortless contrast to the train wreck at South Philly's Foxwoods site, Sugarhouse Casino continued to thrive in the face of protest and economic hardship. Although it was ultimately scaled back to little more than a big box slot barn by community opposition, management and developers produced satisfying renderings, budget proposals, and above all, continued to meet deadlines in the face of chaotic adversity.

Under considerably less public scrutiny, Foxwoods has been allowed to rewrite their proposals to the point that they are no longer recognizable as the casino approved by the state years ago, and they have routinely ignored deadlines. They've proposed new locations, new investors, new names, new renderings, and spent the last four years passing the buck. The corporation has behaved like a child that tests his teachers and parents to see just how far they can be pushed. Well, finally the state has spoken. Fed up with four years of excuses, the state voted to revoke Foxwoods gaming license.

It is unclear what will happen with the available gaming license. Perhaps Gerry Lenfest can work his magic and get someone to back a casino project on the SS United States.

One big reason for the state's decision was in the way the 42% of charitable profit would be handled. Originally exclusive to local charities, Foxwoods had redirected the money to the Pequot Museum in Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, both organizations affiliated with Foxwoods Casinos. How do you say "shady" in Pequot?

North Broad's Bagel Train

North Broad's Bagel Train is finally open once again at Noble Street, just across from the Inquirer Building.

Built in 1922, car 1186 was once a dining car for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. The railroad sold the car in the 1970's and it found itself idle at its current location.

Immigration and Naturalization Services used the car as a Passport Photo Express in the 1980's. Later a diner and painted a drab green, the Philly Steak and Bagel Train was closed in 1996 and has since sat vacant.

Ibrahim Aly recently reopened the venue as The Philly Express Steak and Bagel Train, repainting it in a patriotic red, white, and blue.

I have yet to find myself dining on the abandoned car. Pointed downhill to the east, I would advise anyone with vertigo to call in a delivery.

More information on the Reading Railroad and the history of Car 1186 can be found at the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum.

Hitching a ride on a 20th century dining car

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Divine Remains

Main Line Today did an article on the International Peace Movement Mission, the mysterious cult operated by Mother Divine out of Gladwyne, PA. It is a lengthy, two part read but well worth it. Much has been documented about the life of Father Divine and the followers who continue to worship him as God, but this outward speaking article gives new insight into the inner workings of the sect and the few who remain loyal to this day, and begs the question: What happens to the wealth when a cult dies?

In addition to the mind bogglingly bizarre truth of this story - that for no other reason than that it's honest strangeness stands well enough on its own, hasn't been made into a movie - the fate of historic Woodmont may be in question, prompting some to warn of another La Ronda disaster.

Swept up in all this uncertainty is the fate of Woodmont. Its 1998 National Historic Landmark designation amounts to little unless the Peace Mission followers named on the active deed allow Lower Merion Township to list the old Alan Wood Jr. mansion as a Class I building. Otherwise, it can be sold and subdivided—or demolished. There’s fear that increased preservation pressure will put followers on the defensive, perhaps even prompting a scenario along the lines of the controversial destruction of the La Ronda mansion in Bryn Mawr. And other than a philosophical agreement, no conservation easement has been signed to protect the grounds, says Mike Weilbacher, former executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy."

Part I
Part II

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Compromising Truths

With all the unexpected controversy surrounding the development of a Presidential House Memorial on Independence Mall, it will be interesting to see how its history has been enhanced, or compromised. The thing about history is it's rarely black and white. There are many truths surrounding George Washington and the Founding Fathers. Some historical truths uphold these men as nation building inventors of freedoms, while other truths reveal them as slave owning aristocrats. The truth is they are both.

Good or bad, icons of history never live up to the legends that their reputations create. In the case of George Washington, some want to preserve an ideology while others want to demonize an extinct culture based on modern day morality. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, and that goes for the good and the bad. History is already subjective enough on its own, and whatever the angle, history becomes distorted when the modern prejudices of political correctness are applied to a different place and time.

Part of understanding history is understanding another world. Slavery is an ugly part of American history, but it is part of our history nonetheless. Bending historical fact to service modern day activism does nothing for anyone.

History has passed. Understand it, learn it, and teach it for what it is. Let's not neglect the fact that George Washington owned slaves simply because he helped found our country, but at the same time don't ignore the great man that led the Colonies from tyranny and helped build the nation that allows us the freedom to demonize him for his mistakes.

Above all, George Washington was human. There is not one American today who honestly knows what they would do in the face of history if they were raised as a part of it. No one can truly subjectify the cultures of our past. You can't take something that happened 234 years ago personally. The only way to truly understand history is to let it be what it is: History.

Reopening a House That's Still Divided

Wanamaker's Expanding Market

Wanamaker's Department Store found its origins as "Wanamaker's Grand Depot", inspired by European retail markets. It opened in 1876 as a men's clothing store and was expanded in 1877 to include women's clothing and other items. Although inspired by European shopping centers, this was the first department store in the United States.

Wanamaker's Grand Depot 1884

In 1910, the Moorish Grand Depot began to grow into the massive arcade that stands aside City Hall today. What many do not know is that the expansion was parsed out in several phases so as not to completely interrupt business during construction.

Penn Square during the expansion of Wanamaker's Grand Depot into the current Wanamaker Building. The expansion was phased. Note the absence of the building's south end.

The existing building, now occupied by Macy and various offices, was designed by Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham. It original included 9 floors of retail space in its 12.

Wanamaker's Grand Depot c. 1900

The Wanamaker Organ expanded as well. Originally the St. Louis World's Fair Pipe Organ, Wanamaker hired organ builders to expand the organ several times into what is now the largest pipe organ in the world. John Wanamaker's son Rodman had an organ factory installed in the building so that the organ could be expanded and repaired on location.

McDonalds and Starbucks and Subway, Oh My!

PlanPhilly reported on a meeting to discuss Dennis Maloomian's parking garage and retail space proposed for Arch Street across from the Pennsylvania Convention Center's expansion. The building, which would be designed by the local architecture firm Erdy-McHenry and would replace a surface parking lot, was blasted by community activists who spent the meeting spouting cliches about McDonalds, Starbucks, and Subway.

As someone who can personally speak on behalf of this neighborhood and proudly call it my own, I have to wonder where most of these rabble-rousers were coming from.

I'm usually not in favor of more parking, especially when it's so close to public transportation, but when it comes to the Convention Center, most people aren't coming in on SEPTA.

This center will require more parking, and this angry mob has done nothing but ensure more surface parking in the surrounding area. This neighborhood has proven repeatedly that it is a lot easier to tear down a handful of row homes for five parking spaces than it is to erect anything.

As for McDonalds, Starbucks, and Subway, what are these people smoking? It's a Convention Center, that is the kind of business that thrives in these types of areas and they do astonishingly well. We want more Starbucks and fast food joints around our convention spaces. Not everything has to cater to bike messaging hipsters and Rittenhouse foodies. Some of us want Fuddruckers.

This vocal minority has nothing better to do but go to town meetings and stomp their feet. They are dictating life in this town for the majority of us who are too busy to do much more than air our grievances on message boards and blogs.

I live in the shadow of this hulk and I've not heard any local opposition to this garage or any business projected to be brought by the Convention Center.

These are the same professional protesters who come into every neighborhood to stifle development, then they turn their back on us when the same developers decide to level my house for a surface lot because they drove out a parking garage just because it might come with a Burger King.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

If you're reading this blog you're probably a bit of a history nerd. And if you're a history nerd and you haven't discovered this site, shame on you.
is probably the city's largest archive of historical photography. With a no nonsense search engine that displays all available results on an interactive map of the region, pulls from an archive of over 2 million photographs. is supported by The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Water Department, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, The National Endowment for the Humanities and Institute of Museum and Library Services, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and The Free Library of Philadelphia. It has received awards from Best of Philly, URISA, and AIA Philadelphia.

This winter scene at Broad and Sansom in 1914 is one of 2 million photographs available on The database may be searched by date and location, displaying results in a user friendly interactive map.

The Mighty Ducks

Washington Square West has something to say! Well, 24 of its residents have something to say, er, maybe 22.

Brownstoner picked up on a survey put out by the Washington Square West Civic Association in which they found that a whopping 92% of their readers opposed moving the Ride the Ducks tour to the Schuylkill River. As if the Ducks have anything to do with Washington Square West - which hugging Broad Street is about as far from any river as you can get in Center City - that "92%" was of 24 people. Not a very groundbreaking sample, particularly when you consider that 92% of people who frequent community organizations' websites are looking for something to whine about.

I love the Schuylkill River and all of its parks. If anything I would like to see more boats, amphibious or not. When something succeeds it is bound to grow in popularity, and we can't expect it to be reserved for a chosen few. Tourists mean this city is getting better, and they mean more money can go towards more potential successes. The Ducks are going to be doing down the river, not down the Schuylkill River Trail. They'll also be adding a ramp into the river which will allow day sailors to enjoy the lower Schuylkill River without having to dangerously navigate the Delaware and South Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Monday, December 6, 2010

It's (kind of) Beginning to Look A lot like Christmas

Christmas on Market East was once the site of Rockwellian images of rosy cheeked children walking hand in hand with their parents, cold noses pressed against display windows over flowing with toys. Macy's still does a fantastic job of outfitting its display windows with classic robotic scenes of Santa's workshop and lavish winter scenes.

A Christmas display window at Macy's

The rest of Market Street doesn't fare so well. The Gallery at Market East was once host to a number of large display windows at J.C. Penny and Gimbels, now occupied by Burlington Coat Factory, Old Navy, and K-Mart. If City Council hopes to push through a bill for a better and brighter Market East, they should perhaps be encouraging the retail already occupying much of the street's potential canvas to start doing what they can.

Old Navy uses its display windows for neon signage, leaving much of the space behind the windows blank. K-Mart doesn't do a bad job with the windows they decorate, but they sit behind a number of unused windows and entrances. Burlington Coat Factory has made improvements to its entrance and consistently updates its windows, but they also sit behind unused upper windows which are constantly hidden by a security wall.

Gimbels display window in 1910

These are free or nearly free improvements that can easily be made. Instead, The Gallery's management allows its vendors to operate as if they are going out of business. The city still manages to decorate the trees and lamp posts along Market East but the shops who hope to benefit from its consumers seem unenthusiastic about the season.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mobile Phone Invasion

I was at The Gallery yesterday and noticed a new T-Mobile store. Then I noticed a T-Mobile kiosk. Then I noticed another T-Mobile kiosk. Then I recalled, there is a T-Mobile store at 12th and Market just outside.

Why does it seem that every time a vacant retail space is finally rented, it is another mobile phone store? True, everyone has a phone so the business is, well, potentially 100% of the public. And the purest of mobile phone junkies will replaced their device on a monthly basis, and there is no shortage of encouragement to do so.

I'm fine with my flip phone. I've got it duct taped together because I am hell bent on it finally lasting a year and getting my contractually promised "Free Phone".

But still, shopping is starting to feel like flipping through 500 channels and finding 500 incarnations of the same reality TV show. I get so excited when I finally see light coming from that shuttered space and turn the corner to see another Cricket logo, two employees, and no customers.

And does it really bring business and taxes to the city? Do these stores stay open on revenue from subscribers that aren't shopping here? When a customer visits the store to pay a bill or purchase a new phone, are taxes from that payment registered in Philadelphia, or based on the subscriber's postal code?

I guess the biggest thing that cheese's me off is the fact that these businesses put minimal effort into transforming their retail space. After a while, they start to make their surrounding properties look a little like Market East.

Good Intentions Running Amok

S.C.R.U.B., the forced acronym for the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight, found its beginnings doing just that, advocating for the removal of graffiti and illegal signage on abandoned buildings. But like PETA, SCRUB found that you get more attention protesting the President for swatting a fly than you do with sane debates and rational or fact based arguments.

SCRUB first grabbed mainstream attention several years ago for discouraging the city from accepting hundreds of free benches and trashcans from Clear Channel. These free benches and trashcans would have been maintained by Clear Channel who would have used them for advertising. I honestly can't think of another city where the benches and trashcans aren't used for advertising, and I honestly can't think of a city with less benches and trashcans than Philly. Coincidence? Good job SCRUB. Now the hipsters camp out on the ground and everybody throws their trash in the gutter. Thanks for Reducing that "Urban Blight".

These senseless objectors have chosen the attempted revitalization of Market East as its most recent and vocal protest. Councilman DiCicco introduced a bill before the Rules Committee to allow animated signage, digital billboards, and ads on blank, windowless walls left by Market East's mid-century demolition.

The successful revitalization of Toronto's Eaton Centre is often cited as a potential solution to Market East's continuing decline.

What's unnerving about these career picketers is the way that they blatantly mislead their audience with false claims and poorly Photoshopped renderings of what they claim City Council has proposed. The city has hired several design firms to prepare renderings of The Gallery at Market East after the application of these proposals, but SCRUB has released their own misleading renderings showing the corridor's few remaining historic structures shrouded in advertisements for booze and violent video games.

A misleading rendering by S.C.R.U.B. shows an historic Market East facade shrouded in billboards. Bill 100720 does not call for the application of signage to any historic facades.

The proposal to add signage to SEPTA's headquarters would have limited advertisement space to the interior of windows below the third floor. But in another misleading rendering, SCRUB has falsely implied that advertisements would cover half the building.

The subtle ad space on an unused portion of the building's facade would have provided millions of dollars in funding for our ailing public transportation system.

The three story metal walls of The Gallery at Market East could be used to display dazzling advertisements for events and businesses in and around the city.

A professional rendering shows the same intersection with signage covering The Gallery's blank walls with advertising for our nearby Chinatown and Jefferson Hospital.

As SCRUB calls this signage "Digital Blight" and argues that it demeans the street's history, they not only ignore the fact that much of that history has already been demolished, but also the fact that this street's history relied on its brightly lit consumerism. It was our nation's first "Market" street, launching a Main Street in each town across America as the commercial resource for its citizens.

SCRUB routinely ignores The Gallery at Market East in its arguments against signage on Market East, instead directing its attention at neighboring historic structures and neighborhoods, falsely implying that advocates for a better Market East wish to litter the quaint streets of Society Hill with neon and plasma billboards.

This "Digital Blight" honors the street's history. No one but SCRUB has suggested wrapping Lit Brothers or Strawbridges in Dewar's ads. SCRUB fails to mention the blighted blocks between 8th and 12th, littered with surface parking lots, cold windowless concrete, and vacant or misused retail space. SCRUB deliberately avoids mentioning The Gallery, The Girard Trust Block, or the Disney Hole. Instead they divert their audience's attention to Old City and historic buildings hugging Independence Mall. Buildings that have nothing to do with Market East or any revitalization efforts. Buildings and spaces that succeed on their own merit. Buildings that no one but SCRUB has proposed touching.

SCRUB strategically neglects the blight they charged themselves with attacking, stagnating progress and ignoring fundamental economics, all in an irresponsible effort to maintain their relevance.

Christmakwanzaakah Village

After three days of polls and blogsters painted Managing Director Richard Negrin Grinch-green for doing his job, Mayor Nutter has stepped in to save the day (and a slice of fresh baked popularity) decreeing that the word "Christmas" can be returned to the illuminated marker at Dilworth Plaza's yearly Christmas Village.

How many people would have really noticed if the sign had said "Holiday Village" in the first place? Or perhaps "Santa's Village"? As a lapsed Christian who closely abides by the philosophy, "What Would Ellen Do," I can't personally sympathize with the 3% who found the word offensive. Nonetheless, I think we could have made the village more festive and inclusive for everyone, without humbugedly leaving a void where the word "Christmas" once stood.

Hanukkah started last night. Kwanzaa starts on the 26th. A multitude of festivities could be represented at the Christmakwanzaakah Village without letting a politically correct 3% dictate a spiritless season, or believing a struggling politician's sensitivity and salvation is anything more than a vote-grab.