Wednesday, December 29, 2010
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
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.
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.
"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 fear...so 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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Thursday, December 16, 2010
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 Philly.com.
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
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.
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?
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
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."
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
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
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.
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.
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
PhillyHistory.org 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, PhillyHistory.org pulls from an archive of over 2 million photographs.
PhillyHistory.org 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 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.
A professional rendering shows the same intersection with signage covering The Gallery's blank walls with advertising for our nearby Chinatown and Jefferson Hospital.
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.
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.