Friday, May 27, 2011

Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is

A number of national magazines have routinely employed various survey tactics that put Philadelphians and our city at the bottom of everything from our appearance to the toxicity of our drinking water. Most, if not all of these surveys are far from scientific. But according to the newsstands, Philadelphians are fat, sick, and ugly. 

Although a quick stroll along the river would suggest anything but an unhealthy and unattractive populous, no one bothered to mention that the cities that scored the least attractive were also the most ethnically diverse. That says a whole lot more about those being surveyed than it does about the physical characteristics of our residents.

Yet still, our local newspapers eat it up. Our journalists have a morbid infatuation with negative press and broadcast these deprecating stats as top stories on their websites. I've noticed the same trend in a lot of mid-Atlantic cities. Maybe it's because this region typically falls low in positive statics, but from DC to New York, many residents seem to be passively proud of everything from traffic to crime. 

While Portland brags about its parks and transportation system, we brag about mobsters and hoarders with dead cats in their freezers. Like the cast of Jersey Shore, attention is attention, good or bad, even if the whole country hates you.

For whatever reason, the papers ignored this one. Men's Health recently published a survey, taking into account stats like bankruptcy, foreclosures, and personal debt and established a list of where the residents of major U.S. cities stood financially. And guess what? We're not at the bottom. In fact, out of 100 cities, we aren't even close.

With Las Vegas and Phoenix bottoming out at 100 and 98 and eight other cities receiving an F, Philadelphia came in at 29 with a grade of B. Pittsburgh came in at number 10 with an A- and is one of ten cities that are actually in the black. Good job, Pennsylvania!

We live in a great city and we have every right to brag about it. San Francisco is beautiful, but you won't find a museum surrounding Ben Franklin's toilet. Boston is historic, but its skyline won't humble anyone. We're better than a lot of cities. Start bragging about what makes us great, not what once made us rotten. A little optimism might help shed our hard reputation. Philadelphia really isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is.

I don't think we're in Philadelphia anymore, Toto...

A decade or two ago, were you to wander towards the Schuylkill from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you would find what you'd expect from a once great city damaged by decades of mismanagement. The grand Victorian gardens were overgrown with weeds, paths through the hillside were crumbling, and the river's shore was littered with garbage.

But somehow the Schuylkill Banks projects and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have managed to become iconic, successful public spaces that would make any First Class city jealous. And they're not even done. 

What is most amazing about the transformation in this aesthetically dramatic part of town, is that it has taken place not only in a city known for pissing away money on projects that don't move, but that it continues to progress in spite of a dreadful economy.

As an international crowd of tourists climb through the rocky gardens behind the museum, few know that the metal gazebo they're taking pictures from is a replica of a wooden gazebo that once stood in the same spot a century ago. The dedicated attention to detail and respect for the history of this space is astounding. 

Those managing these projects need to be managing our city.

Just beyond the renovated Waterworks, right before Boat House Row lies a small, relatively inaccessible island. As you walk towards Lloyd Hall from Waterworks, you would notice it behind the small algae laden inlet. OLIN has designed a new park for the island adding a small foot bridge for access. The project will be completed in 2013.

One of the most exciting projects along the Schuylkill River is the Boardwalk. To be completed in 2013 as well, the Schuylkill River Trail will continue beyond Locust Street as a 15 foot wide pier on the river complete with access to the new South Street Bridge.

What I have finally discovered about these beautiful spaces is that the Schuylkill River does not have to be solely enjoyed from its banks. Above or below the dam, launching a kayak is a piece of cake, and the water isn't nearly as disgusting as its reputation would lead you to believe. 

Naturally, as more and more people realize what a wonder resource these spaces have become, they will attract more and more crowds. It's a universal truth any urbanite must come to accept. Of course there are ways to address any potential overcrowding. Put the brilliant minds designing and managing the successes along the Schuylkill River to work on the massive banks of the Delaware.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Bowery Presents and House of Blues

Great news for the struggling Spring Garden corridor and the former Spaghetti Warehouse. If all goes as planned, the warehouse at 10th and Spring Garden will be reopened as a The Bowery Presents....

The Spring Garden corridor is no stranger to concert venues, although perhaps not as recognizable as The Bowery Presents.... 

Additionally, a House of Blues is slated for the waterfront.

Prediction: Hipsters will criticize the corporate presence, Fishtown will complain about the quality of life in a neighborhood that is arguable theirs, Callowhill will complain about traffic, and a number of Negadelphians will say, "we don't need another concert venue". 

Well, then don't go. 

A successful venue this far west on Spring Garden will inspire local businesses to follow suit, perhaps including a potential solution for the dilapidated - now saved - Church of the Assumption. And Sugarhouse needs something to make it more than an overstuffed slots barn.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Final Countdown

For someone who predicted that the end of the world was to come in 1994 (maybe it did, remember Models, Inc.?), it's pretty surprising that Harold Camping has inspired such a buzz - both pop culture and serious - around his prediction that the Rapture will begin tomorrow evening (or Sunday morning, give or take).

People love a good disaster flick, and few compare to the Bible. You know what I love? The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on Logan Square. And if Camping proves the fine line between genius and madman, on May 22nd it will be filled with nothing but the clothes of the saved. 

Look for me. I'm sure I'll still be here.

By day, I think I'll turn the main sanctuary into a meeting place for those left behind. We will need somewhere to organize our mortal crusade against the armies of demons and the walking dead. The crypt will be a good place to store weaponry. Crow bars tend to be the accepted weapon of choice against the undead. Zombies don't posses complex reasoning skills and can't look up so the dome windows can be used to signal an oncoming attack. 

At night The Basilica's rotunda will become the hot spot for Philadelphia's heathens to mix and mingle. Kind of like the dance scene in Martix Reloaded, but with better music. Like a Lenny Kravitz video. 

We will really only need one big meeting place. Come Sunday morning, those of us still around will be in Hell. Once the Final Judgment has been made, there's no reason left to hate each other. It'll just be really hot and loud. Like a nightclub in the 90's. I can't wait.

Okay, I jest. I'm just having fun and mean no disrespect. Incidentally my birthday falls on Armageddon, so I can assure you that nothing exciting ever has or ever will occur on May 21st. But just to be on the safe side, I'd exercise caution if your cat starts speaking in Latin and your My Little Ponies start eating each other.

Deja Vu?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Attention Renters

In my casual search for a new apartment, I've come across some annoying trends:

1. There is no such thing as a "non-refundable deposit". That is a fee. 

2. A studio and an efficiency are not the same thing. Remember the movie Big? That was a studio. 

3. Putting an Ikea bunk bed in an efficiency (see #2) does not make your property a "loft". 

4. Philadelphia Management Company: Nobody likes your purple carpet. Nobody. 

5. And AstroTurf is not grass.

Thank you. 

P.S. To everyone who bought an efficiency in the Sylvania, i.e. Arts Condo, this is not a luxury kitchen. Nobody cares about stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops when your "kitchen" belongs on a sailboat.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Primary Election Results

In what the Inquirer is proclaiming an easy defeat, Mayor Michael Nutter snagged almost 76% of the Democratic primary votes. Milton Street, brother of former Mayor and social pariah, John Street, still managed to sway more than 24% of voters. That's significant. 

I'm not sure what it says of Nutter that one in four people voted for this tax dodging, former inmate. It certainly says something of Philadelphians that more than 35000 of us voted for this joke.

The good news is City Commission Chairwoman Marge Tartaglione and City Councilman Frank Rizzo are both out, perhaps a sign that new Philadelphians are starting to have an impact on an aging institution, or that seasoned Philadelphians are have finally had enough of the cronies.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Historic Church Saved!

Great news from PlanPhilly on the Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden. L&I has unanimously voted to stop plans to demolish the historic site. 

In more good news on Spring Garden's landmark, The Clay Studio has emerged as a "very serious buyer".

I find it ironic that the Philadelphia Historical Commission granted Siloam permission to demolish the church to build a parking lot while the Board of Licenses and Inspection - typically harbingers of the wrecking ball - favored the appeal of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association. 

Would the PHC - charged with preserving Philadelphia's historic catalog - have voted in favor of the CNA if the neighborhood group had spoken up sooner, or is the PHC simply not doing its job?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I'll Keep the Crown Vic

Not long ago New York City replaced its iconic fleet of Checker Marathon taxi cabs with standard, American sedans. Sacrificing a back seat built for six, the Crown Victorias were still branded in classic cab yellow.

Mayor Bloomberg recently announced the release of a new icon, and that New York City's fleet of more than 13,000 taxis will be replaced with...a Nissan minivan? Beating out bids by Ford and Karsan, the Japanese auto maker will be making the minivans in Mexico and branding them in New York.

While the roomy vans will accommodate five passengers, the choice says a lot about a top American city's opinion of its own auto industry.

True, if Bloomberg went with Ford they would have been built oversees, but couldn't they find more than three options? I mean certainly if the Turkish made Karsan was a contender, where were Chevrolet and Chrysler? London's Hackney Carriage still wears the British Austin brand, and the UK's auto industry has a worse reputation than ours'?

New York has money. With a dedicated fleet of 13,200 and growing, all requiring maintenance and upgrades, how about starting an independent auto company dedicated to cab development and rebuilding one of the region's struggling post industrial towns?

As gas prices skyrocket and less and less people purchase cars across the country, there's a market for this. The Nissan is a cheap and shortsighted option that sends needed money overseas.

Bring back the Checker. It's a cab, it doesn't need to be aerodynamic. Stream line it, make it fuel efficient and safe, and distribute it across the nation, creating jobs here.

Terraforming a Neighborhood

I've never spent much time in Northern Liberties, and my loathsome anxiety towards hipsters aside, after an evening in this unexpectedly dynamic neighborhood, I have to wonder, why? It doesn't make conventional sense. Sure, it's moderately convenient to transportation, but how did this neighborhood bound by I-95, urban blight, and the Spring Garden canyon come to rival areas that directly border Center City?

It's clear that urban newbies, artists, and starter families seeking a hip city lifestyle and low rent drove the Northern Liberties craze. Sex and the City can be praised for putting cafes on our sidewalks, and abhorred for putting the obnoxious skanks in the chairs, but this trend was carried across the nation. What's unique about Philadelphia, and Northern Liberties, is that a neighborhood at arm's length from our core, was not completely paired with successful infill in between.

Similar unexpected phenomena occurred in Graduate Hospital, Passyunk Square, and Fishtown. While young couples bought starter homes in blighted neighborhoods, opened up boutiques, pubs, and coffee shops, South Broad Street, Spring Garden Avenue, and the Loft District remain desolate, littered with surface lots, and largely abandoned.

Northern Liberties is overflowing with art studios and massive loft apartments, successfully leased as far as Cecil B. Moore Avenue, while Callowhill, within spitting distance of City Hall, sits on a half dozen underutilized or completely vacant warehouses with million dollar views. Prohibition Tap Room on 13th Street gets a great neighborhood crowd. Cafe Lift is packed for brunch. But where is the competition? Why doesn't 13th Street look like 2nd Street in Northern Liberties or Passyunk Avenue?

A number of variables have caused the splotchy development. As much as I want to think we're on par with New York and Chicago, we're not. We enjoyed moderate success from the condo bubble. Unfortunately the Callowhill's close proximity to Center City is also its crutch. Property owners are willing to sit and wait for another wave of prosperity, and with no land usage tax, the Heid Building and Divine Lorraine are allowed to sit vacant. Instead of developing prime locations like Broad and Washington with affordable apartments that attract the kind of business we see in Graduate Hospital, they sit unused.

The pot addled Reading Viaduct vision may be gaining legitimate traction. While realistic funding is still a mystery, 6 ABC has given it mainstream publicity. As it is, the rusted carcass that weaves its way through a series of surface parking lots and Bubonic meadows in Callowhill's Loft District does little more than inspire dreamers. But as a park, could it attract the kind of money Callowhill needs to be the first class neighborhood it should be?

It's hard to rationalize spending money on a park that would require the kind of maintenance needed by an elevated park. Similar parks in other cities are too new to really see how well it works. And Callowhill isn't SoHo. Its warehouses and row homes are surrounded by parking lots and vacant land that could themselves make potential parks that require little upkeep beyond community interaction and a lawnmower. The Reading Viaduct is a structure, and the city has a difficult time maintaining the structures we need and the parks that have nothing below them but dirt and bodies. Can Callowhill generate enough tax revenue to maintain another potential money pit?

Demolishing it would cost more than $30 million. A decision needs to be made. Tear it down or find dedicated funding to convert and maintain the white elephant. I would love to see Philadelphia become home to such a unique innovation. In fact, if the Convention Center attracts additional development south of Vine Street, it could even become a destination attraction.

With mayoral attention on the project, however idealistic, a Reading Viaduct park will at least receive the research needed to validate its potential success, or confirm the ugly prospect that some urban artifacts just can't be reused. One way or another, the Reading Viaduct's campaign is helping attract attention to a neighborhood that should be far more successful than it is. With or without the Reading Viaduct, its presence is bringing people north of Callowhill. Maybe some of them will stick around and signal business owners to the neighborhood's potential.

If only Broad and Washington had an industrial relic to attract a debate to tackle its surface lots and suburban fast food joints. Oh wait, it does. And it would make a great farmer's market.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Something to Vote For

Garages and surface lots throughout the city have been running a campaign that blames the high cost of parking on a 20% tax, asking voters to vote to lower it to 15%. These cretins have even created a Facebook page dedicated to their "plight". 

Don't be fooled. If anyone believes the price of parking will go down if taxes do, you're wrong. Surface lots in particular, have nearly no overhead. This means that after taxes your parking fee is nearly 100% profit.

Several garages throughout Center City charge as little as $5 a day. Lots that charge as much as $25 a day don't do so because they have to, they do so because you're willing to pay.
20% is a tax break compared to most major cities.

Lowering corporate taxes only means more profit. It means nothing to the consumer and never has. The only way to lower the cost of parking is to utilize our public transportation, convenient taxis, or to be a savvy consumer and seek out the competition.

Giving these slumlords a tax break will only encourage them to pave over more of Philadelphia until there's no reason left to park here. Ever been to downtown Houston? Do you really want to encourage more of this?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Ridic Listing of the Month - May

Real estate agents toss around a lot of terms, make up terms, and try to re-brand neighborhoods to make them sound less sinister. Ever heard of the Devil's Pocket? Maybe. But you've definitely heard of Graduate Hospital, even though the boundaries of the neighborhood have far exceeded the reach of the hospital itself.

Sometimes a twin and a duplex are the same thing, sometimes a triplex is a three story house even if it's a single unit. One of my favorite misnomers is when a row home is listed as a "detached house" simply because it's the only house left standing on a block of vacant lots.

This month's overrated listing comes from Old City. Although the neighborhood's inflated ego is finally succumbing to the pressures of the new economy, condo owners desperate to cover their mortgage are still seeking clueless New York transplants, hoping to catch them before they realize what's available in Callowhill or Northern Liberties for a fraction of the cost.

Old City's Wireworks Building might be home to the world's first microloft. The Philly Apartment Company is trying to unload this 460 square foot studio at 3rd and Race for almost $1100 a month. That's about the size of your first dorm room. 

In what world is that a loft, and in what universe should the word loft be paired with micro?

It's partially furnished, which means the last tenant didn't want to keep their crappy furniture, and the owner didn't want to move it. 

But it gives the studio, I mean microloft, the one element that allows the agent to list it as a loft, however micro. To make it feel even more like that first dorm room, a "loft", which is simply a bunk bed without a lower bunk, was left behind as well. 

$1095 MicroLoft space w/ HW flrs, seperate kit @ WireWorks (Old City)