Monday, February 28, 2011

Sowing Seeds on North Broad

With the fence down at the new entrance to the Pennsylvania Convention Center and its 13th Street tunnel open to pedestrians, it's becoming more and more tempting to envision a new North Broad. Few people remember this neighborhood prior to the initial construction of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 1992. Even fewer pictures remain. With the exception of Reading Terminal Market which sat below the rusted Reading Terminal Station next to its derelict head house, few residents strolled the streets just west of Chinatown. Historically this is Philadelphia's red light district, a legacy that continues to this day in its windowless massage parlors.

But is the Renaissance at North Broad and its adjacent blocks already starting to take root? To the naked eye, it's hard to see much more than the Convention Center's newly illuminated facade, particularly when so few are familiar with the surrounding blocks which, with the exception of parking, are all but forgotten by most Center City residents. Despite the fact that developers chose to continue with the center's monotonous Race Street facade which irresponsibly turns its ass to its neighbors, new businesses are already finding their way north of the Convention Center. Considering the transformation the neighborhood underwent following its initial construction in the 1990s, state officials who approved the plans may find themselves regretting the fact that they didn't make the Race Street facade remotely inviting.

Nonetheless, the Sheraton is thriving and a new convenience store is seeing business at 13th and Race. Drexel has dressed up one of its buildings with new windows and an illuminated crown and construction is underway on the Academy of the Arts' Lenfest Plaza. Nearby, construction continues on the infamous graffiti building at 12th and Wood, and even the Watusi Charter School is undergoing improvements. Undoubtedly business franchises are researching locations surrounding the center's North Broad facade which finally gives it a formal entrance. Previously the center felt incomplete, and the retail environment around it reflected its absent presence.

With its main entrance at the unassuming corner of 12th and Arch, it didn't supply as much demand for the larger chains that could benefit from the center's proximity to more than one or two venues. I know many Philadelphians are staunchly opposed to chains, but conventioneers eat them up, and this previously unused neighborhood is the perfect place to contain them. And perhaps if the market can support a number of tourist friendly retail establishments, it can drive the property value up enough to rid this neighborhood of the predatory land hoarders operating the surface lots that litter the surrounding cityscape, or at the very least drive them to build vertically.

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