Monday, January 24, 2011

Towing Wars

In Philadelphia's endless battle between the city and our cars, it's hard to imagine that City Council would choose to introduce another way to make life in the city worse for those who need to park.

I'm no fan of the car, but I accept them as a necessary evil for many. And for those who pay for the luxury of avoiding the Parking Authority, they should be able to rest easy.

But no more.

Yesterday afternoon after hitching a ride to Ikea from a friend who lives in Callowhill, we arrived back at his condo and private gated parking lot to find someone in his parking space. Now I don't want you to think my friend is petty. This parking space is private property owned by the occupant of the condo, and the culprit is a repeat offender...and Lew Blum told us why.

Apparently in Philadelphia right now, private parking is a free for all. That's right. Feel free to drive your car into any parking garage, any private space, in front of private garages, or on top of some Fairmount begonias, because there is absolutely nothing Lew Blum can do about it.
At least that's what he said when we called him to have the offending SUV towed.

City Council passed a bill that bars any private towing company from towing a vehicle until the police have been dispatched and a citation has been issued. Even on private property. What a good use of resources in a city strapped for cash.

And to those of you ranting all over the comments sections of various business reviews that may be applauding this decision: stop parking in illegal spots and you won't have to deal with these "cash only pariahs". You'll be rethinking your position when you come home to find a stranger's car blocking your driveway.

After being denied a tow, one finds himself confronted with the awkward decision of whether or not to clog up 911 with frivolous non-emergencies. Never mind how long it will take - if ever - for an officer to be dispatched to the location.

I once reported illegal drug use taking place on my property, two blocks from the 6th District police station, and an officer never showed. I hardly think a cop is going to promptly show up to ticket a car blocking a drive way.

Good luck.

It doesn't seem that bad when you think about the absurdities involved with parking in Philadelphia, absurdities that have been deemed worthy of reality television. But when you think about it from a black and white, private property legality, this is a pretty strong statement that City Council hasn't clearly thought through.

We aren't just talking about blocking an urban garage door or parking in a privately rented spot in Old City. If someone parks in your suburban Chestnut Hill driveway, you can't move - or hire someone to move - that car until the police arrive. If some drunk kids park on your lawn on prom night, you have to call 911. City Council has chosen to punish rogue tow truck companies by sacrificing your private property rights.
That isn't right.

Until enough people realize what a bad idea this is, I would like to offer a suggestion to Lew Blum and other legitimate towing companies being punished by City Hall. Find the addresses of each and every Council Member that approved this bill (it's public record), drive your tow trucks to their homes and park in their driveways. After spending the day trying to find a cop willing to process their request, they might rethink exactly what they've done

Friday, January 14, 2011

Homewood Suites

Hilton Worldwide's Homewood Suites in University is under construction at 4109 Walnut Street. Designed by Alesker and Dundon Architects, the hotel will be open in the spring 2012 with 136 extended stay suits. The project is being developed by Campus Apartments.

The site is being developed with the anticipation of an additional 150,000 office building as a second phase.

It's not the most exciting new construction but it's a pleasant enough looking piece of infill.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chestnut Street Transway

Following the second World War, urban planners like Philadelphia's Edmund Bacon were attempting to change the way Americans interacted with their city landscapes.

Being responsible for The Gallery at Market East, Penn Center and the removal of the Chinese Wall, Society Hill, and the Vine Street Expressway, his projects were hit or miss.

He proposed a number of other controversial endeavors which, as his career progressed, seemed to become more destructive, including an additional expressway on South Street creating a downtown loop. Even though the man once suggested demolishing all but City Hall's clock tower to ease traffic around Penn Square, not all of his projects were aimed at turning Center City into an asphalt labyrinth of freeways and interchanges.

The Chestnut Street Transway was intended to reconfigure Center City's Chestnut Street into a trolley bound, pedestrian promenade. In 1959 Ed Bacon published "Philadelphia in the Year 2009," an essay proposing a number of his ideas, including many that have already been executed.

While his quasi futuristic ideas were aimed at preparing Philadelphia for a 1976 World's Fair that never arrived, his Transway did...sort of. In 1976, Chestnut Street was closed to traffic between 8th Street and 18th Street to develop what was being called The Chestnut Street Transitway.

Immediately after construction began Chestnut Street began to decline. A bustling retail corridor well into the 1970s, upscale shops began closing, moving to Walnut Street, or leaving the city all together.

Like a mall, the Transitway took life from the street. Councilman DiCiccio pointed out the importance of window shopping and the similarity between the Transitway and The Gallery, "we killed a major artery...window shopping is always important and we took that away."

The irony of course is that Chestnut Street was negatively impacted by a pedestrianization scheme intended to increase foot traffic. Whether Chestnut Street's decline was an inevitable sign of the times, or whether the discount stores we see today were ushered in by a failed concept, we will never really know.

The concept of eliminating streets has seen success in smaller towns across the United States. In the 1980's, the college towns of Charlottesville, VA and Burlington, VT transformed major downtown thoroughfares into pedestrian malls bringing life back to stagnant retail corridors.

But it's clear that in order for large, dynamic cities to succeed, idealistically accommodating one type of traffic doesn't work. Wide roads and lots of cars scare away pedestrians, but most of those pedestrians get here in a car. Urban planning is a compromise of ideals which needs to accommodate a broad range of wants and needs. This complexity needs to be understood as the city progresses and we continue to entertain new ideas.

While we dream about pedestrianizing the waterfront and making our small streets bike-friendly, implementation will be key in these concepts succeeding. It's obvious that Interstate 95 and the Vine Street Expressway scarred the urban landscape, but no one would have guessed that a massive pedestrian oriented project would have been just as detrimental.

Saving the S.S. United States

While it's safe to assume Philadelphia won't be getting another casino anytime soon, it's also safe to assume that the most promising proposal to save the S.S. United States is just as dead.

Philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest has pledged the cost of the ship, and once the EPA approves the sale, it will be donated to the S.S. United States Conservancy, along with the money to store the ship for twenty months.

Stephen Varenhorst Architects released a number of renderings and a model showcasing the retired cruise ship as the crown in a waterfront redevelopment plan between Reed and Tasker. And although Foxwoods or any unnamed casino was not officially part of the study, it was obvious that any possible movement on such an endeavor would be heavily funded by a gaming house.

As if it should come as a shock, the Pennsport Civic Association, another economically clueless NIMBY, supported the proposal but opposed any casino involvement.

With little interest in retail or residential development on the river, particularly south of the city, it's unfortunately doubtful that we will ever see Stephen Varenhorst's grand design on the banks of the Delaware.

It looks as though the S.S. United States Conservancy and Gerry Lenfest will ultimately save the ship from being scrapped - which is good - but as the organization entertains offers from cities with more capital on their shores, it may end up on the banks of the Hudson instead of Philadelphia.

Civic Seal Finds its Way Home

As architects continued with the massive City Hall restoration project last year, they found that several pieces were missing from a pair of matching seven foot doors. While one door was adorned with the the Civic Seal of Philadelphia, the other was bare.

Thanks to Jorge Danta, a planner with the Historic Commission, the pair are reunited. Danta, having interned at Eastern State Penitentiary eight years ago, recalled seeing the seal on a dusty shelf at the Fairmount attraction.

More on this oddly serendipitous story can be found in the Inquirer:
Case of the missing crest

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Steal of the Month

Think a penthouse apartment with a rooftop garden has to cost a lot? If you're content with simple amenities and plain gray carpet, it doesn't have to break the bank.

The Adelphia House, designed by Horace Trumbauer as the Adelphia Hotel, is home to a one bedroom, one bathroom penthouse with its very own private terrace for just $1370 a month.

With some paint and a little imagination, this brightly lit apartment with original woodwork, loads of windows, and unique views, would make a great home.

The Adelphia House is currently listing several large apartments with outdoor space that drastically undercut similar rentals in the area.


Monday, January 10, 2011

10th Street Plaza

At the north end of Chinatown, perhaps the more visible end as it's seen from those exiting 95 onto Vine Street, a poorly utilized concrete park has been transformed into a proper entrance, and destination attraction, for Philadelphia's rapidly growing Chinatown.

As businesses and residents move north of the Vine Street Expressway, two foo dogs will welcome pedestrians and drivers to Chinatown at 10th and Vine.

Six years in the making, the 10th Street Plaza was started by the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation and cost $300,000.

Although mostly complete, the plaza will soon be home to a statue of Lin Zexu. From Fujian, in return for erecting the monument to Zexu, a Fujianese association will provide the plaza's required maintenance.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Jamaican Jerk Hut vs Boring Rich People

I've never been crazy about the Jamaican Jerk Hut. I have nothing against it, but it's just not my
scene. The popular outdoor space reeks of hipsters and they don't sell Pepsi. But again, nothing personal, it's just not me.

However, as a local icon, cultural institution, and a small business representing the eclectic diversity all cities are designed to embrace, it's an important attraction in Center City's Avenue of the Arts.

Unfortunately residents at the Symphony House, Center City One, and Academy House don't see it that way. While bragging that these properties offer a lifestyle amidst a fast paced pantheon of urbanity, apparently our city's diversity should be limited to what these elite residents are comfortable with. At least that's what Gary A. Krimstock, a lawyer representing the residents of the three properties, would have you believe.

For two years Lisa Wilson, owner of the South Street landmark, has been struggling to battle Krimstock in and out of court. Krimstock notes, "not everyone enjoys the's disturbing the other residents in the area."

By "other residents" Krimstock clearly means rich, urban newbies. A number of affluent venues along the Avenue of the Arts call loud crowds to their doors and their dance floors. Affluent venues that are even closer to the doors of his clients and nobody seems to mind.

The Jerk Hut's outdoor space, featured in the hit comedy In Her Shoes and owned by the internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, silenc
es its music at 9:30PM, much earlier than many nightlife venues who often close their patios at midnight, or in some areas as late as 2AM.

Krimstock's legal maneuvering and surplus of cash is clearly aimed at running Wilson's venue out of business. While Venturi, Scott Brown has partnered with Wilson in transforming her outdoor space into a unique oasis in the middle of the city, it would be nice to see the firm - which prides itself on unique urban solutions - step forward and aid Wilson in her legal battle.

Perhaps they can remind the out of touch residents in these Center City high rises that they live in a city, and that the bland suburban luxuries they seem to feel entitled to are readily available elsewhere.

The city is for the living. In fact, despite the hipsters, I think I'll be checking out The Jerk Hut very soon. You should too.

A Room Fit for a Princess

According to Hot Pads, a bedroom is for rent in the childhood home of actress Grace Kelly, Princess Grace of Monaco. For $900 a month, you can live at this stately East Falls home at 3901 Henry Avenue.

The room is furnished, and rent includes parking, electricity, heat, and water. Cats are allowed.

Holy Snow Day, Batman!

Well this was an unexpected and pleasant surprise. I guess I should have looked at the weather report yesterday.

Blizzard 2010

Call in sick or stranded. Go make a snow man. Or just go sit in a coffee shop and watch it fall.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Lenfest Plaza

As the Pennsylvania Convention Center prepares to open its new entrance on North Broad Street, its neighbors are already planning improvements to street that will soon be seeing a lot more foot traffic.

When Lenfest Plaza opens in the Spring of 2011, it will improve the pedestrian experience of North Broad Street by closing the street to a pedestrian mall directly across from the Convention Center, between The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, an architectural landmark designed by Frank Furness, and The Hamilton Building.

A restaurant (TBD) is planned for current gallery space in the Hamilton Building that will compliment the plaza and bring nightlife to an underused yet centrally located part of the city.

The Olin Studio will design the space, which will host a rotating series of outdoor art.

1200 Bank

DAS Architects is designing the proposed billiard hall in the vacant Beneficial Bank building at 12th and Chestnut, designed by Horace Trumbauer. Despite preliminary complaints about a possible rooftop dining feature from neighbors who are less vocal about the colony of bums (who are, by the way, the most angry bums in the entire city) that have taken up residence on the building's porch, a canopied roof remains a part of the plans.

Surprisingly the interior of the bank - empty for over a decade - appears to be in great condition. 1200 Bank will be a welcome addition to Chestnut Street, where improvements are inching outward from Broad Street. Not only did the Historical Commission unanimously approve the plan, but the idea is so popular it already has its own facebook page.

Lubin's Nickelodeon

When it comes to the history of motion pictures, few would think of Philadelphia. But like so many other uniquely American innovations, Celluloid's roots are right here.

In the tradition of wealthy eccentrics, Siegmund Lubin died bankrupt, but in 1897, this unassuming optician set out on a cinematic venture that would change the country.

Siegmund Lubin

After immigrating from Prussia in 1876, Lubin's first office was located at 237 N 8th Street in 1885, and in 1890 he moved to 21 S 8th Street. The leap from optician to movie mogul might seem strange, but given the emerging technology at the time, the science of the eye and the camera do have some striking commonalities.

In 1896 Lubin began making his own movies. In 1897 he patented the Cinegraph, an early projector. While other pioneers of the lens fought for exclusive rights to the industry, Lubin was laying the framework for our modern Hollywood studios.

Lubin Films were "Clear as a Bell" and the world's largest film manufacturer. While many of the moving pictures were little more than, well, moving pictures, he capitalized on a new medium that was arguably more influential than the internet.

Lubin Nickelodeon - Chestnut Street

Lubin opened his first theater in 1899, the world's first purpose-built movie theater. He continued making movies and opened a studio on a Tenderloin district rooftop.

Unfortunately Lubin's creativity was limited to products and marketing. Not the most original of writers, most of his content was hijacked from competitors and he spent much of his career caught in litigation, with a notable lawsuit from Thomas Edison severely tarnishing his reputation.

By 1900 Lubin was turning out one movie a day. He found much of his original content in the newspapers and in his personal heritage. Released in 1908, Yiddisher Boy was written to address anti-Semitic views.

Lubinville - 1911

His studio, Lubinville, at 20th and Indiana in North Philadelphia was opened in 1910, though nothing remains today. In 1912 he constructed an even larger studio at Betzwood Estate in Valley Forge, and continued opening studios around the globe. His empire was short lived as an explosion in Lubinville destroyed his archives in 1914, forcing him to close and sell his remaining studios.

Although bankrupt, his optical company remained in his wife's name and was not subject to his debtors. In 1917 Siegmund Lubin was an optician again and died in 1923.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Legendary Blue Horizon

On the lesser known north side of the Avenue of the Arts, this former Moose Lodge was originally three brownstones built in 1865. Converted to the lodge in 1914 by Carl Berger, the building has served as the Blue Horizon boxing arena since 1961.

Since boxing became at the Blue Horizon, it has become the #1 boxing venue in the world. In 1998 Veronca Michael became the first African American Female Boxing Promoter, becoming co-owner of the Blue Horizon in 2002. The building was restored by Domus in 2004.

Carmichael Auditorium

The Blue Horizon is available for private functions, consisting of the Carmichael Auditorium and Blue Diamond Ballroom.

Rendell Says CasiNO More

His days numbered, the Pennsylvania Governor who championed slot machines across the state is saying "no more". Could Rendell be trying to leave office looking like a good intentioned family man? With no political obligations, is he showing his true colors, or perhaps just bored?

The political way of getting things done in the United States seems to be to stuff a bunch of jargon into a bill, hope nobody reads it, and birth a mediocre version of what you were trying to accomplish. The problem with gaming in Philadelphia is nothing more than a microcosm of that problem, and the problem with gaming across the state.

Both Pennsylvania and Philadelphia take a Soviet approach when it comes to development. Introduce a vice into the mix and you can bet that the state and city will regulate it with an iron fist. Nearly a century after prohibition the state is filled with dry towns and limited access to alcohol. There is no way the state would allow gambling without complete, inhibitory control.

What we ended up with was the product of this control: a state filled with crappy slot barns tainting quaint towns across our landscape. Instead of concentrating the gaming licenses in towns and cities that could have benefited from a destination attraction - let's say Chester - the state required these parlors to be spaced out, guaranteeing absolutely no competition. Without competition, these slot barns will never be anything more than what they are today. In fact they'll decay, and in an absence of competition, find only room for minimal maintenance.

The same thing happened in the city. Requiring the two casinos to be spread apart instead of locating them in a concentrated entertainment district insured the status quo. And now, with the rejection of a second casino, Sugarhouse can rest easily knowing that they will never have to grow, never need to improve, never need to provide better transportation or accommodations, because they're the only game in town.

Poor city planning confounded an already bad move on the part of the state. As City Council and NIMBYs bickered over locations, the casinos were free to move forward with shoddy renderings and absent community interaction. Instead of arguing over the inevitable, the city could have been charging the casinos with improvements to the surrounding areas.

Both casinos could have been charged with the task of providing Delaware Avenue with a light rail or trolley, connecting the two venues and forcing them to compete, while solving a transportation problem that the city is currently investigating on its own. Not to mention what kind of development may have been kindled along Delaware Avenue if transportation was eased between two popular entertainment complexes.

PHL Expansion

The FAA has approved the expansion of Philadelphia International Airport, including a new runway and UPS facility. The expansion will require annexing 72 homes and 12 businesses in Tinicum Township over which the airport does not have imminent domain. The 13 year project will cost an estimated $5.2B.

Big Phila. airport expansion approved

Recycled Design or Artistic Inspiration?

When Cesar Pelli's Cira Centre first graced the University City skyline six years ago, it prompted many Amtrak passengers to question, "What on earth is that?" A friend from New York once asked me "What is that Buck Rogers building?" It's not just the building's odd, crystalline shape that draws attention, but also it's relative isolation and juxtaposition against the Art Deco 30th Street Station.

Philadelphia's Cira Centre

Since then, a surprising number of similar buildings have sprouted or been proposed around the world, many designed by Cesar Pelli as an evolution of Cira Centre itself. Madrid's Torre de Cristal, standing at 819 feet, is the results of Pelli's further experimentation with Philadelphia's Cira Centre which stands about 400 feet shorter.

Madrid's Torre de Cristal

Proposed at 30th between Chestnut and Walnut is Cira Centre South, in which Pelli expands his geode across Market, lining the west bank of the Schuylkill River.

Cira Centre South

Wilmington even got in on the action, proposing Two Christina Centre.

Two Christina Centre

As Cesar Pelli expanded upon his concept, firms worldwide began implementing this asymmetrical design in denser downtown areas. Cook + Fox Architects' Bank of America Tower in New York (which has topped our Comcast Center as the nation's tallest green building only because of its erection) was completed in 2009.

Bank of America Tower

Downtown Los Angeles' renaissance has drawn proposals from two firms. A. C. Martin's Wilshire Grand Hotel looks like an elongated Bank of America Tower, while Richard Keating's Maguire Office Tower looks suspiciously identical to Cesar Pelli's Cira Centre South.

Maguire Office Tower in Downtown Los Angeles