Saturday, December 15, 2012

Temple Rising

Detached from Center City, it's easy to ignore the construction projects taking place at Temple University. While the economy seems to be recovering, the building boom isn't nearly as exciting as it was six or seven years ago. Nonetheless, universities seem to continue building regardless of the economy.
Penn and Drexel continue to transform University City and Temple might be finally catching up with its long forgotten North Philadelphia, where its skyline is beginning to resemble something of a skyline.

What's even more exciting are the development proposals at key North Broad intersections finally becoming reality. The State Office Building is being converted into luxury apartments at Spring Garden and a casino has been proposed for the neighboring Inquirer Building at Callowhill.

Even the Divine Lorraine and the Metropolitan Opera House near Fairmount may soon see new life. As projects inch their way north on Broad Street, we could soon forget that Temple University isn't so far from Center City.

Piatt Associates proposed Cromwell Tower designed by Agoos Lovera would stand 30 stories in the heart of Temple's North Broad campus, further defining North Broad's skyline, and with continuing North Broad improvements, help eliminate the street's detached relationship with Center City.

1601 Vine Street

The Klein Company of Philadelphia has proposed a residential development at 1601 Vine Street, Logan Place, next door to the new Mormon Temple which is preparing to begin construction.

The residential tower, designed by BLTa, would be 26 stories, have 230 apartments, and 25,000 square feet of retail space.

Pig in a Prom Dress?

Whether or not you like Erdy-McHenry Architecture, one thing that can't be denied is that the firm designs interesting buildings and doesn't try to hide their experimental presence.

Their parking garage near Broad and Arch is nearing completion and popular opinion is mixed. With the building's unusual metal curtains draped across the façade, is it a pig in a prom dress or the best way to address a necessary evil?

The architectural merits of parking garages is rarely discussed, and the discussion is a little silly because they typically all look the same. The best thing we usually hope for is some sensible ground floor retail. With construction costs making subterranean parking cost prohibitive, parking garages are everywhere and try their best to hide.

Erdy-McHenry's parking garage won't win any awards, but it's industrial, funky, and weird, and it works just fine amongst several centuries of Center City's eclectic architecture. Often, Erdy-McHenry's designs mix Brutalism and Bauhaus movements, using concrete, metal, and various raw materials with swatches of basic colors thrown in.

Their parking garage easily reflects this signature style, but with the graceful metal curtains signaling their harsh characteristics evolving. More interesting than the parking garage itself is certainly how Erdy-McHenry intends to incorporate their new design experiments into future projects.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

High in the Sky

Once home to Frank Furness's Morris Building, 1441 Chestnut Street has been the site of broken promises since it was demolished following the devastating fire that ultimately destroyed One Meridian Plaza fire across the street from City Hall. Yesterday, a plan was proposed to finally develop the lot.

Previously the site of a Waldorf Astoria proposal, its potential became a dream come true for architecture and skyscraper nerds, myself included. While the city won't earn a Waldord brand, the latest proposal seems promising and equally exciting.

The proposal calls for a $280M hotel, LEED certifications, and fifty stories on the site. In case you're not keeping track, that would make it the fifth tallest building in Philadelphia. In other words, tall.

The building would house two unique Starwoods brands, one possibly a W Hotel. Vine Street Ventures of Dallas plans to develop the property, owned by Brook Lenfest of Philadelphia.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The New Philadelphian

In a recent Philadelphia Magazine article, Patrick Kerkstra seems to have coined the term "New Philadelphian." The New Philadelphian is a growing demographic made up of upper middle class transplants and recent college graduates that call revitalized neighborhoods like Graduate Hospital, Northern Liberties, and Callowhill their home.

Kerkstra focuses on the New Philadelphian's frustration with local politics, their abysmal voter turnout, and the choice to use community organizations, non-profits, and blogs as the way to voice their opinions and enact change.

While their frustration is understandable, that frustration has always been there. It's been responsible for a terminal outlook amongst many native Philadelphians and a large part of that population's acceptance of the status quo. The frustration has been responsible for the career Council Members that continue to exploit their voters, corrupt dynasties, and now, a lack of mutual understanding between those politicians and the growing number of New Philadelphians.

However, the New Philadelphians' reluctance to engage in local politics is as indicative of an American generation as it is the simple fact that they're new to the city. Kerkstra's article deliberately exempts immigrants because they are actively engaged in politics, somewhat successfully, and the only person he interviewed that seemed to truly go up against any local machine is from Dublin.

The rest of those interviewed are involved in neighborhood organizations and non-profits, and while those organizations work with politicians, they aren't the best examples of the democratic process. It's easy to argue your case in a community meeting or a non-profit, but you have little to lose.

Is this what happens when a generation with shelves full of participation trophies enters the real world?

A generation raised in suburban high schools that have never experienced failure are naturally reluctant to go up against career politicians, to be thrust into the local media and answer to the city instead of their peers, and, even if they manage to win, forced to manage an office steeped in a century of corruption, responsible for a fraction of the population that will never think you're doing enough.

Politics puts you in a tough position that requires motivation and strong character, whether you're a good person or not, and New Philadelphians are largely part of a generation of Americans that never really had to try. Failure is hard enough on its own, but it's even harder to face the inevitable fact that most of your friends won't bother to vote. Is it really any mystery that a generation who doesn't vote has chosen to avoid the traditional path to politics?

Not that these watchdogs involved in community organizations and non-profits haven't served their vital roles in the revitalization of our city. They serve a purpose and their actions should be commended.

But City Hall won't change until someone in this growing demographic of idealists is willing to risk public humiliation, criticism, and failure on behalf of their peers. The fact that City Council harbors a bunch of cronies doesn't mean that the system that put them there is broken. In fact it's the only system Philadelphia has to elect our leaders, and opting out won't change that.

Tower Place

Bart Blatstein's revitalized State Office Building has been rebranded as Tower Place apartments. With amenities like complimentary maid service, this North Broad location will rival many of Center City's luxury apartments. No recent renderings of the apartment building have been released so it's unclear how the ground floor plaza will be treated.

Adding foot traffic to North Broad will undoubtedly assist in the successful revitalization of Blatstein's neighboring property, The Inquirer Building.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Insignificant Significance: Dock Street's Ritz 5 Theater

A common concern brought about by the possible demolition of the Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden is that it's highly unlikely that anything as architecturally significant will ever stand on the site again. It's a valid concern. The church is old and simply really, really cool looking.

It's easy to browse the "Then & Now" picture books and recoil in horror over the landmarks we've demolished for freeways, parking lots, and other architectural eyesores. Those books profit on a longing for another time but fail to showcase the progress of time, ignoring countless modern marvels that have replaced poorly built or just plain ugly buildings. In short, not everything built yesterday is good.

Philadelphia sits on a balance between slow development trends and a portfolio of priceless history that allows preservationists the luxury to save buildings that would be lost to booms in New York or Chicago, but also to get a little carried away with regard to what constitutes historical significance.

That awkward situation is already teetering at the Ritz 5 on Dock Street and nothing has even been proposed. Landmark Theaters has only suggested an expansion of its Dock Street location, admitting that it's highly likely nothing will happen. That hasn't stopped Lorna Katz Larson of the Zoning and Historic Preservation Committee from lauding the alleged historical significance of the 1970s theater, citing it as "a very modern response to the historic district."

Landmark Theaters' Ritz 5 on Dock Street

Is it? Or is it just a cheaply built theater from the 1970s? If you can interpret little more than bricks and metal as "a response" then why not interpret a parking lot as a response to the American love affair with the car? The Ritz 5 is as architecturally significant as a Safeway.

Another "response" to Philadelphia's historic district. Is it significant?

When Society Hill was redeveloped in the mid 1900s, preservationists criticized the loss of countless Victorian masterpieces and Colonial history. Dock Street was a thriving, albeit dirty, local resource to the residents of Philadelphia, and although the revitalization of the neighborhood ultimately attracted the wealthy residents of today's Society Hill, the loss of the markets on Dock Street and those accessible on Delaware Avenue before I-95 was not met without protest.

Dock Street was once a thriving market place, entirely razed in the mid 1900s to make way for modern development projects including the Ritz 5.

The Ritz 5 Theater is not a significant landmark. Like the fate of so many Victorian masterpieces, The Ritz 5 is the same inconsiderate aftermath we worry will come from the Church of the Assumption's demolition.

It's easy to imagine the residents of Center City looking across the razed prairies of Society Hill in the 1960s and 70s wondering - much like the neighbors of the Church of the Assumption - when anything as significant would stand there again. Even since the neighborhood's revitalization, only Society Hill Towers stands as a significant testament to midcentury design, and I. M. Pei's apartment project still pales in comparison to the Victorian high rises that once graced Walnut and Chestnut.

Society Hill at the height of demolition

Although Landmark Theater's plans for the Ritz 5, however preliminary, may never find a place in the annals of history, the redevelopment of this insignificant property is an opportunity for Society Hill residents to respect the concerns of their predecessors that shopped the markets and filled the offices of another Society Hill.

More Promises on Market East

With the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust consolidating ownership of the Gallery at Market East and City Council's approval of digital signage at our city's once prominent commercial corridor, a marketing campaign on behalf of the forlorn real estate has begun.

PREIT recently provided a brochure on their website complete with a rendering of a new Gallery at Market East, turning its retail space inside out to compliment its sidewalk. While the retail climate on Market East hasn't progressed, evident in a mind boggling absence of Christmas shoppers, the consolidation of the property has opened up marketing opportunities and is a huge step towards revitalizing the district.

PREIT's rendering of a new Gallery at Market East

Many may look at the Gallery and see a lost cause, but the grim state of affairs isn't that old. While the mall never was and never will be King of Prussia, it was never intended to be. Not even a decade ago, Strawbridge & Clothier anchored a mall full of mid-market retailers such as The Gap, Aldo, Limited, and Guess. And while it may not be an orgy of consumerism, it still serves a practical purpose.

That fact, despite overwhelming negative public opinion, says more about retailers' understanding of Philadelphia's customer market than it does about PREIT's inability to attract those retailers. K-mart continues to profit as the only discount department store catering to a vast amount of Center City residents without cars or Philadelphia residents dependent on public transportation. Target's lack of interest in the Center City market is based solely on the fact that other Targets already exist within the city limits.

Target continues to do business under the delusion that Center City's K-mart is in the same market, when in fact K-mart competes with large Center City drug stores and local hardware and electronics stores. As successful as the discount department store located in South Philadelphia and the Northeast is, corporate Target fails to understand that Philadelphia is a densely populated downtown city.

Of course Philadelphians are the collateral damage of any retailers' ineptitude. Have you ever taken public transportation to Target? It is literally faster to walk to Target than it is to take two buses and a subway. If Market East can attract one successful upscale, or even mid-market retail attraction that puts people on the street and in the mall, smaller retailers dependent on an anchor store will follow.

Market East is home to anchor outlets which compete and feed off each other, and that competition has recently attracted Marshalls. Sure, Burlington Coat Factory and Ross aren't glamorous, but the fact that they profit is proof that consumerism and competition is still viable on Market Street. The same environment can foster the upscale market.

PREIT's marketing campaign is aimed at changing the misunderstood impression held by large national retailers. While locals have known for years that a downtown Target would thrive, the expansion of the Convention Center, the growing success of Reading Terminal Market, a bevy of new hotels, and more apartments being developed north of Market, large retailers like Target will be forced to take another, more comprehensive look at Center City.

The Art and Caricature of Frank Furness

Although Frank Furness is a household name to most Philadelphians, one of the most creative architects of the Victorian Era may also be one of the most underappreciated. Only vaguely adhering to the rigorous design requirements of his time, his deserved recognition is often lost in the history books, often with only a brief mention.

Like most architects of the latter half of the 19th Century, Frank Furness designed more than just his buildings. He pared his work with furniture, crafted woodwork and masonry specific to his buildings and clients.

To the post-war era public, the previous art and architecture movements were a garish homage to the excessive decadence that led to the Great Depression.

Urban planners spent the 1950s razing countless Victorian examples, and Frank Furness's projects took a particularly harsh hit.

Over a century later, Furness and others are finally getting the recognition they never received, even in their lifetimes. A recent wave of renewed interest has provided a place for rogue architects like Frank Furness, Willis Hale, William Decker, and others lost to the academic definition of their time.

The Barra Foundation is currently sponsoring an exhibition on Frank Furness at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, Face & Form: The Art and Caricature of Frank Furness. The exhibition, which runs until January 11th, showcases Furness's talent as more than an architect, but also an artist. The architect's sketchbooks, preserved by his ancestors, are on display for the first time ever.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Last Call for Gritty Philly?

As the blogosphere buzzes with the promise of Avenue of the Arts improvements and a revived Gallery at Market East, Philadelphia's most dedicated architecture and development nerds have taken a peculiar interest in a neon clad corner of Center City, a relic of the days of disco and debauchery that mysteriously lingered into the 21st Century.

The Forum Theater's presence at 23rd and Market Street managed to anger its new neighbors in the luxury condos at the Murano, while standing as little more than wallpaper, virtually unseen by tenured Philadelphians in the surrounding neighborhoods and universities.

The Forum Theater before its closure, under the luxury condo building, The Murano

But why is the closure of the Forum Theater relevant? This little porn palace opened in 1975, an era in Philadelphia's history both reviled and beloved for the same reasons. The grit.

If you're not old enough to remember Center City before Liberty Place pointed its middle finger at William Penn, take a look at the opening of Trading Places or the famous jogging scene in Rocky. Neither montage is the product of poor film quality. The 70s and 80s really were that dirty.

The opening sequence from Trading Places shows another Philadelphia.

The reason the Forum's existence blended into the background for lifelong Philadelphians is simply because, relatively recently, adult bookstores and porn theaters occupied prominent real estate. Before a Marriott occupied a block of Market East, a large theater stood in the shadow of City Hall. As recent as the Convention Center's expansion, two adult bookstores managed to find customers on Arch Street. The Full Moon Saloon's sign branded 13th Street next to a swanky wine bar until only a few years ago.

While a number of seedy bathhouses, theaters, and porn shops can still be found in Center City, either in the shadows of narrow streets in the Gayborhood, or as niche boutiques catering to drunk frat guys on a South Street drinking binge, the tide has clearly turned.

While the pre-90s urban economic climate allowed nearly any business model to modestly profit and urban renewal successes have elevated our storefront expectations, the internet is an equally obvious blame for the Forum's closure. But there are other factors at work.

Imagine a remake of Adventures in Babysitting if you want to see how the new urban experience has influenced our larger cities and who that experience caters to. Elizabeth Shue wouldn't find hookers on the streets of Chicago. She'd find families pushing their strollers through Millennium Park and late night shopping on Michigan Avenue.

The new city has spread across the country. It turned Times Square into a family-friendly Mall of America. And, despite Center City Sips and a humble condo boom, the Forum's closure signals its final arrival in Philadelphia.

The Full Moon Saloon was a strip club on 13th Street. The sign remained next to Vintage wine bar until a few years ago. Danny's adult shop still remains, largely as a novelty boutique.

Of course the closure of these businesses hasn't eradicated the market for smut. Porn still accounts for the vast majority of the internet. The new urban experience is simply a farce, home to hypocrites who plead, "Please, think of the children!" on message boards while flirting with old high school boyfriends on Facebook.

It allows self proclaimed liberals to exercise their prejudices under the guise of responsibility, while patting themselves on the back for being tolerant enough to raise their kids in the Gayborhood. It gives the "socially responsible" enormous power over businesses as unsavory as the Forum, but also as benign as local bars.

The fire of urban renewal was sparked by an eccentric crew of diversity. Artists found cheap spaces to work, gay communities created enclaves of acceptance, and a large population saw a canvas of unappreciated architecture and history. Perhaps the only thing that the first wave of urban pioneers had in common was a blind eye to their neighbors' private lives. That's tolerance.

Signatures, a well known strip club at 13th and Locust, is now home to the upscale daycare center, Nest, and Green Eggs Café.

The Forum's closure was not without its own missteps. The owner is allegedly in debt and the property is simply worth too much to much to justify its presence amongst pricey condos and apartments.

But whether of not you would have ever set foot in a place as insidious as the Forum Theater, it's closure - at least in part - is an indication that the real urban pioneers have reluctantly passed the torch to the suburban refugees standing in line outside Green Eggs Café, a Benetton billboard that equates driving a Prius, donning an Obama button, and having one "gay friend" with tolerance an diversity, applauding themselves for revitalizing their community by closing businesses that cater to those that made the city the uniquely gritty and colorful place that it is...or was.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

We're So Gay

Add Philadelphia to the top of another list. Mark Segal of the Philadelphia Gay News reported on a recent Human Rights Campaign assessment of America's most gay friendly cities. Of 137 cities, only Philadelphia scored a 100 on the base issues. Not New York. Not San Francisco. Only Philadelphia.

I suppose it's not surprising. The city funded the official recognition of the gay district by branding street signs with rainbows. Hell, most online maps either label the neighborhood near 13th and Walnut as the "Gayborhood," or at the very least a Google or Bing map search for the word will take you directly to Washington Square West. 

While New York City often claims the Gay Rights movement started with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the first notable events actually began at Independence Mall on the 4th of July, four years prior.

And although Mayor Rizzo spent the following decade making "Atilla the Hun look like a faggot" (yes, he said that), the new century has seen Philadelphia host a cast of civic leaders that are not only tolerant, but embrace the gay community, often as advocates. In fact, it's hard to imagine a Philadelphia independent of Pennsylvania that wouldn't support marriage equality.

Philadelphia will soon be home to the nation's first government subsidized, gay-friendly senior living center. The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation broke barriers with its "Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay" campaign, including commercials that aired on national television.

We're gay, Philadelphia. And that's a very, very good thing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption

Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption's new owner is seeking to demolish the decaying relic. After changing hands numerous times since it was sold by the Catholic Church, the landmark cathedral has deteriorated due to neglect, nature, and ineptitude.

The saddest point in the site's fate is the inevitability of its demolition and preservationists' reluctance to accept that. Adaptive reuse has a threshold, and retrofitting churches as anything, particularly ones with such unique and unusable architectural elements, is cost prohibitive and often pointless.

Realistically, the Church of the Assumption has been dying a slow death since its previous owners began gutting it in anticipation of its demolition. At this point, any appeal to save the church will at best simply stave off the demolition for a future date.

It's a shame that the Callowhill Neighborhood Association and preservation advocates are so resistant to compromise because a demolition permit does not have to mean the complete demise of a landmark and another surface parking lot. Ironically the same neighborhood full of industrial relics creatively advocating the reuse of the Reading Viaduct has offered little to no outside-the-box solution to save the Church of the Assumption's presence in their neighborhood.

The ruins of Windsor Plantation near Port Gibson, Mississippi stand among park space.

Across Europe, countless churches and castles have been stripped of all but the necessary masonry to serve as parks. Even in the United States, Windsor Plantation near Acorn State University and Port Gibson, Mississippi remains in ruins as a testament to another time. 39 of the original Capitol Building columns stand at the D.C. Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Our situation offers Spring Garden, Callowhill, and Philadelphia the unique opportunity to conserve the easily maintainable elements of a condemned relic as urban ruins.

Nothing remains of Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire but the masonry that once upheld the structure.

The site could be saved - at least in part - as a park frequently used for art exhibits, outdoor theater space, a concert venue, a beer garden, and private events. If you accept the fact that the Church of the Assumption has reached the point at which it cannot be reused as a habitable structure, the creative uses for the site become endless.

The Sansom by Pearl Apartments

With a national lull in development it's nice to see Philadelphia still rising. And with the shelves fully stocked with condos, it's really nice to see apartment rentals rising. Pearl Apartment's The Sansom is under way at 1605 Sansom Street, replacing an eyesore of a surface lot.

205 Race Street

Back in 2004, when funky little firms like CREI were using up and coming urban neighborhoods as their architectural playground for experimental and pricy designs, Brown-Hill proposed its own avant-garde condo development for a forlorn bucolic meadow at 2nd and Race.

It didn't happen, but the sign promising the redevelopment of this inexplicably vacant lot remained for years, reminding pedestrians that a small group of idiots with nothing but idle time and the arrogance to dictate their irrational opinions really can make a difference.

At a sensibly scaled 9 to 10 stories and respectful ground floor relationship, it was good design; and adjacent to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, a noisy interstate, and a high speed rail line, it was a good opportunity to develop an unlikely location for residences. But in the heyday of financial optimism, it wasn't good enough for the Old City Civic Association and they managed to keep their beloved vacant lot vacant for another eight years.

Well Brown-Hill is back and, in the wake of the financial crisis and a more realistic outlook on construction opportunities, hoping that the OCCA has a new outlook of their own.

Brown-Hill's new design keeps the same interaction with the sidewalk that  it did in it's 2004 design, but proposes and additional six floors. At 198 feet tall it would be the tallest building in Old City. Not that height in any Center City neighborhood is a rational deterrent to development given precedents have been set in much more historically picturesque locations across the city, including Society Hill and Independence Mall. One could even argue that a high rise's presence next to a busy highway insulates the existing real estate from noisy traffic.

We'll find out the fate of the lot tomorrow at the Zoning Board of Adjustment's Hearing.