Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dranoff's Broad Street

In spite of a bad economy, it's evident that Center City is still looking for tenants. And while Carl Dranoff's soap opera sets won't earn a place next to the PSFS tower, he's filling the voids on South Broad Street, a place with no right to the vacant lots it owns.

While critics painted his Symphony House a Nightmare on Broad Street and others had little praise for 777 South Broad, the man knows how to get things built. In a city that contracts those defiant of development, Carl Dranoff knows how to dance.

South Street is Philadelphia's "strip," so it's a mystery why this iconic intersection is home to a community garden. This will soon end. Dranoff outbid P&A's superior design for Broad and South and will soon be erecting 777-light.

Its faux art deco facade isn't bad, at least on paper. But given Symphony House's misleading brick renderings and 777's plastic and cardboard construction, any critique should be reserved for its opening.

New Loft for Callowhill Rivals Expectations

For the past decade one couldn't traverse the Vine Street Expressway without noticing the graffiti covered building at 12th and Wood. Kid Agua's tag had almost become synonymous with Philadelphia when a developer finally saw a silver lining in Callowhill's crowned jewel.

I'll be the first to admit that architecture is not without its popular trends, but at the same time, I am a product of my times. Sheathing buildings in a "modern" skin never lasts. It conjures images of South Broad brownstones clad in steeply pitched vinyl faux shingles.

And in all honestly, that's how we'll see the renovations at 12th and Wood in a decade or two.

Still, in a city as architecturally diverse as Philadelphia, the juxtaposition of Brutalism and Classicism often warrants "ugly" architecture a place in the textbooks. More to the point, a building so popularly styled, trendy or not, in a neighborhood all but forgotten is sure to attract not just residents, but businesses and developers.

Look Up: Chinatown

Our skyline might get a new addition, and not where most would expect. Pedestrians and commuters might be looking up in Chinatown, both vertically and northward. As Chinatown continues to expand despite the Vine Street Expressway, those managing stock footage might have to update the pictures of Philadelphia's Chinatown gate.

Chinatown CDC was granted approval by the RDA to develop a lot at 10th on the north side of Vine Street. A 23 story building with groundfloor retail has been proposed for the site complete with a community center, offices, and apartments. AK Architecture is designing the site.

From the Skyline to the Streetline

While the corporate trainwreck that redefined city skylines across the world grinds into second gear (kind of like the theme from Friends for urban development), public projects have become too numerous to keeptrack. From Race Street to University City to Manayunk, one could easily question, "Where is all this money coming from?" We left the definition of the city up to private developers in the 90s and early twenty-first century, but now, inexplicably, the city seems to be doing the work itself.

UCD's 30th Street Station Plaza will officially open on November 2nd, just before Dilworth Plaza's renovations are expected to begin. Overnight we seemed to welcome more miles of bike lanes than Seattle and Portland combined, and the Reading Terminal Viaduct Park almost seems like it might be more than the idealistic dream of the hipsters that can't afford to live there.

30th Street Station Plaza

The Parkway is being redefined as America's Champs-Élysées with enough artwork to make those dining on its Parisian counterpart choke on their baguettes in jealousy, the Schuylkill River Trail is being expended into territory that hasn't been explored since South Philadelphia was home to natives, and perhaps more shocking than anything, Philadelphians are actually exploring the Delaware River...recreationally!

Greening JFK

As national news syndicates continue to run headlines about our grim economy, without the cranes and scaffolding of progress, Philadelphia appears to steaming forward without hesitation. Perhaps we owe our lowered expectations, those fostered by the shadows of New York City, more credit than they often receive. There is no doubt that these public projects are taking place around the country, often funded with federal stimulus money, but in a city accustomed to leaning on private corporations to pick up the tab for civic inefficiencies, it is almost heartwarming to see our money at work.

Greening America's City

I have to admit, when I first saw this I was blown away by the rendering and ignored the article. Someone at had a field day with PhotoShop, and with my neighborhood as the subject, I loved it.

When I got past the rendering and read the artical I was even more shocked. Back in June, Philadelphia approved the Green City, Clean Water program, that will put $2B into improving our environmental infrastructure. South Philadelphia has even become home to our first pourous street, which literally absorbs water instead of requiring it to be funneled into outdated and often clogged storm drains.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Dilworth Plaza

I am all for a crackdown on Wall Street. However Wall Street is 100 miles northeast of our nearly bankrupt City Hall, which is why it's understandable that those protesting corporate greed in Philadelphia quickly realized that their voice at 15th and Broad was nothing less than preaching to the choir.

They came looking for a fight, and all they got was, "I hear ya." Of course zealous protesters rarely have little else to do, so with an absence of discourse they decided to go rogue. 

It's hard to say whether those camping at Dilworth Plaza had any clue that it was about to undergo a makeover starting in November. It was certainly convenient. Once they realized they weren't getting the kind of press they were looking for they decided to target the $55M project.

Joshua Albert told Metro Philadelphia, “The fact that they’re going to spend $55 million to renovate this when there’s so much else to spend the money on, I don’t think we’re leaving...not peacefully.”

What are they protesting? Wall Street or public beautification projects in Philadelphia?

Metro went on to quote Sean Rose, “They want to turn it into an ice skating rink. They didn’t pass a bill to make new libraries, but they passed a bill to make a rink.”

The Dilworth Plaza renovations are made possible by money designated for projects designed to bring tax revenue to cities that can go towards things like...libraries. A large portion of this project was funded by a grant set up for projects specifically like this one. 

If you want to protest social spending, the new site of the Family Court is right across the street. The Parkway is under renovation. We've laid down hundreds of new bike lanes. We opened Race Street Pier. We're expanding the Schuylkill River Trail. 

Why Dilworth Plaza? 

Because they just happened to be there.

Stating that the money allocated for the Dilworth Plaza renovations should be funneled directly into a library fund is like telling me I shouldn't buy a Halloween costume when there are Philadelphians without new shoes. I feed my cat while people are starving in other countries. I own a car yet some people can only afford to take the bus.

Are they protesting an unethical corporate influence on Congress, or the very idea of capitalism?

Are they mad at GM for spending our tax dollars on private retreats, or are they upset that it's being used to clean up our city instead of funding unlimited unemployment for those too proud to apply for a job at Starbucks?

Occupy Wall Street had a message, one that Occupy Philly lost. If your gripe is with Wall Street, I can sympathize. But don't demand fiscal accountability in one breath and ask for a handout in the next. 

I want to see more jobs. 

I want to see responsibility. 

I want to see action. 

Dilworth Plaza's renovation is a weak and easy target, and one that will employ hundreds of people, and potentially bring thousands of tax paying tourists to 15th and Market. 

There are public projects taking place all across the city right now, and none of them have anything to do with the criminal acts that led to our bleak economic climate. In fact, these projects are in an attempt to revive a little of what we lost. 

As a socially minded, publicly funded project, using Occupy Philly to protest Dilworth Plaza's renovations is hypocritical, flying in the face of their overall message of social welfare. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What Could Have Been...

While West Market Street and JFK Boulevard give Philadelphia its impressive skyline, one of many master plans proposed following the removal of the Chinese Wall was never implemented.

It's hard to say if our central business district would serve more than the 9 to 5 crowd it does today had it met with a cohesive design, and one can even argue that its organic development serves Philadelphia's diverse architectural history better than it would have had it been immediately developed in a continuous singular style.

More than a half century later the district is only now filling the voids left by Broad Street Station's move to 30th. Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White proposed the district's redevelopment as a grand Art Deco promenade leading travelers and pedestrians from City Hall to 30th Street Station.

Whether or not this approach would remain as impressive as its rendering today, it's still fun to imagine what could have been. Capping the remaining regional rail line that keeps people off the sidewalks behind the Murano would certainly bring pedestrians closer to the river.

Our most recent attempt to do so was in the less than inspired proposal of Philadelphia River City that would have towered over the Schuylkill like an 80s power suit. Where has all the panache gone?

Philadelphia River City

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Horror Story

It may not be in Philadelphia, but there's a big, scary house on your television right now that is likely to remind us of some of our own ghostly stories this Halloween.

If you're a fan of the macabre - and if you're a fan of Philadelphia you are - and you haven't seen American Horror Story yet, get online and watch it. Those glued to Twin Peaks in 1990 who happen to own the Amityville box set will love this nail biting hybrid. With all of the cliche elements of your horrific favorites wrapped around a bizarre cast of characters you're not quite sure you want to like, this Amercian horror story offers a refreshing break from the insipid debutantes and perfected discourse that plague your television, but somehow manages to offer the same guild laden pleasure.

American Horror Story is set in the Alfred Rosenheim House in Country Club Park, Los Angeles. The house, built by resident architect Alfred Rosenheim in 1908, was entirely reconstructed for the series. Perhaps with its own ghosts, the house has been on the market since 1999. The 15,000 square foot home at 1120 Westchester Place was originally offered at $7.5M, and now at $4.5, most recently served as a home for nuns. Its detached ballroom formerly served as a chapel. It's easily understandable how this mansion would be a tempting treat for one with means, ghosts and all.

Better Than Nothing?

Hilton Home2 Suites released its rendering for the corporation's second spot on the Pennsylvania Convention Center's Arch Street strip and it begs the question, is something better than nothing?

As the Roaring 2000's brought us back to an era of opulence few remember and architectural experimentation headlined our newspapers, the answer was certainly a resounding "NO". Only in recent history have few chains of hotels attempted to rival the decadence and luxury of the Gilded Age, but for the most part, even historically, hotels do little to serve those who make their homes in the shadows of these businesses.

It makes sense, at least business sense, especially around convention centers, arenas, and corporate hubs. Hotels are in the business of serving those who don't live here, and unless you're one of the few who can't travel without courtesy robes and a plasma screen TV displaying a crackling fire, your hotel room is going to be remembered as little more than a comfortable bed and a convenient location. That's where Hilton Home2 Suites is better than nothing.

In all reality, most cities are filled with nondescript boxes that can be easily sold and rebranded when they change hands. Only in our rosie memories of the past 10 years are buildings like this less than par. While one would undoubtedly prefer the W Hotel's previous proposal for 12th and Arch, one can't guarantee that this robust economy will return anytime soon. One also can't guarantee that a W Hotel at 12th and Arch would be more than an empty edifice in this economy had it been built without a business savvy consideration for its future.

As the decade continues, middle class families are cashing in their frequent flier miles for road trips to the Poconos in the Family Truckster. The trips we remember from our childhood weren't bad, but it wasn't a time that warranted boutique hotels in every neighborhood.

Hotels like Hilton Home2 Suites serve a market, and the fact that the market is there is a very good thing. While you won't be overwhelmed by a new skyscraper across from Reading Terminal, the new hotel will put a few hundred beds in proximity of dozens of local businesses.

Infill isn't evil. Passerbys will still be greeted with groundfloor retail, and when they look up, they will still see the beautiful Reading Terminal Headhouse and the PSFS Tower.

Philadelphia and cities across America were offered a reprise from the architecturally mundane for one of the brief periods that only come along when investors are reckless and banks fail to watch their reserves.

These short timelines of opulence leave us with dazzling wonders of engineering muscle, but they're financed by the dreams of those asleep at the wheel.

Could Hilton Home2 Suites be better? Of course it could. But now that we've awoken from the dream, practical infill will increasingly become the best case scenario. This doesn't mean we should stop campaigning against the status quo, but it does mean that the resources of those who campaign for a better city should go where they are needed.