Saturday, September 3, 2011

Divine Intervention

While Philadelphia is synonomous with Independence Hall and the Betsy Ross House, to many Philadelphians, the Divine Lorraine is perhaps our most iconic representation of what defines Philadelphia. It's macabre arches and balconies are representative of our eclectic architectural portfolio. Its mysterious history could not be a more perfect metaphor for Philadelphia's post-Colonial past. And unfortunately, its neglected state is harshly representative of City Hall's patented bureaucracy and neglect.

Ten years ago this building stood perfectly preserved. Even after being abandoned by the Peace Mission, it was home to a lone caretaker, its upper levels empty yet respected. In a city covered in graffiti and broken windows, a silent respect left this neighborhood landmark completely untouched.

Today it still sits vacant, but after a developer ripped out its soul and walked away, he took with him a sole source of pride for a struggling neighborhood and city. Concrete blocks seal the ground floor. Upper floors remain completely devoid of windows, open to the elements. Like a desanctified church, God is gone and the vandals have moved in.

With only muddy prospects in its future, the Divine Lorraine stands as a painful reminder of mismanagement and a lack of respect on the part of City Councilmembers against those they are elected to service.

The sad truth is that those representing Philadelphia have an absent connection with Philadelphians and what it means to be one. This is evident in the fact that they - one in particular - have done nothing to save a building as analogous with Philadelphia as the Liberty Bell.

One thing I have always loved about this city is our citizens' interest in our own history. New Yorkers and Washingtonians rarely know little if anything about their architectural, commercial, and industrial pasts. But in Philadelphia, you not only find people who know of buildings like the Divine Lorraine, but they will tell who built it, when it was built, and how it was used.

Our proud history has taught even the youngest and most civilian of history buffs where Broad Street Station stood, where the Chinese Wall ran, and what Dock Street once looked like. Why aren't those who love Philadelphia for its gritty corners and speckled past running this town? And why are we allowing the institution that behaves as though they despise our beloved city to run it into the ground?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Karma can be ugly...and it's covered in vinyl siding

In what now seems to be the age of Yore and Yesteryear, in 2008 Philadelphia's architectural development was booming. So much so I actually had stuff to write about. Neighborhood associations were brutal, and slammed the iron fist of NIMBYism on a potentially new skyline.

As irrational as some of their arguments against Mandeville Place, Bridgemans View, and dynamically planned entertainment and casino complexes may have been, none were more perplexing than the Society Hill Civic Association's opposition to H2L2's Stamper Square.

Center City's most picturesque neighborhood is hoarding an ugly truth behind its mahogany doors. Tucked behind 200 years of history and decades of blue haired entitlement sits a concrete slab that has been eyed by developers since the small tourist mall New Market was torn down 20 years ago.

After H2L2 proposed an interactive, midrise hotel for this trash strewn lot, some residents were relieved. Many more were stractching their heads wondering where exactly this site near Headhouse Square actually was.

What seemed most certain was that Stamper Square had the green light. And why wouldn't they? H2L2 not only designed an engaging complex with ground floor retail at scale with the history of the neighborhood, developers were reaching out to the community, altering design after design to accommodate even the most absurd requests.

Then the SHCA decided on behalf of this entire neighborhood, one that belongs as much to every Philadelphian and tourist as it does those who live there, that we were all be better off with a vacant lot. And they won.

Well, in spite of a bad economy, some developers still manage to thrive, and this ugly lot is still on their radars. Unfortunately for the SHCA, and Philadelphia, the developer is nationally renowned McMansion designer Toll Brothers. Not only is Toll Brothers proposing a gated development at this undeniably urban location, but they have the weight of a massively powerful public company to make it happen.

The SHCA isn't happy, and reasonably so this time. I'm no fan of the McMansions that now rise above the Virginia farm I grew up on, and I certainly don't like the prospect of them taking up valuable real estate in Philadelphia's most iconically Philadelphian neighborhood.

That said, how many opportunities should the SHCA be allowed to dictate what happens in a lot it doesn't own? If Toll Brothers moves forward with this project, it wouldn't be the first time the SHCA dragged its feet to secure the status quo.

When developer John Turchi bought Dilworth House, planning to restore the home and make it his private residence, the SHCA demanded this vacant home be restored and turned into a museum. Turchi then applied to have the home demolished. It still stands - for now - but what could have been a beautifully restored Colonial reproduction on one of our city's most beautiful squares, it still sits vacant.

How much weight can these neighborhood associations reasonably demand? It's one thing to request compromising details: brick, trees, store fronts. But allowing them to demand a compromising developer hit the road with no alternatives in sight, allowing them to keep a valuable piece of property vacant and unused for two decades neighboring some of the city's most prominent addresses, that's irresponsible.

Well, SHCA, here's your silver metal. And unfortunately for all of us, the economic climate is no longer affording the kind of idealism that keeps lots vacant.

What's Your Home Really Worth?

The Actual Value Initiative put in place by the Board of Revision and Taxes is coming to a close. The cities housing stock was so poorly assessed that the assessment initiative headed by Richie McKeithen is starting over.

New assessments are scheduled to be in place by Fall of 2012. This type of procedure takes place in cities across the state and country, but Philadelphia has fallen far behind, with many homes still being taxed on decades old assessments.

So far the team of assessors, expected to be increased from 50 to 106, has assessed more than 2000 of Philadelphia's more than 400,000 homes.