Saturday, October 12, 2013

Neighborhood? What neighborhood?

When Pennsylvania decided to move forward with a convention center expansion tentatively planned since the 90s, a number if iconic and historic properties were lost. In the 1980s this neighborhood without a name was virtually indistinguishable from Callowhill to the north. Monolithic warehouses and turn of the century factories-turned-offices butted right up against Philadelphia's City Hall.

We've all heard what happened. 676 tore a chasm between Center City and Callowhill, a new Market East Station rendered the Reading Terminal headhouse irrelevant, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center eradicated what remained.

Of course there are countless ways this could have been done better. The PCC could have straddled the Expressway. It could have made its home somewhere in the wasteland of North Broad closer to Spring Garden. Reading Terminal could have been renovated instead of moved, incorporated into the convention center instead of being relocated underground, leaving the viaduct unused and unmanaged, and acres of surface parking too costly to cap.

I suppose we're lucky that the state decided to incorporate the headhouse and terminal into its convention facilities considering the city once toyed with the notion of tearing it down.

But the wounds of poor design have yet to heal. The convention center's northern façade, if you can even call it that, hovers over Race Street topped with unflattering utility equipment. It's windowless walls and sterile sidewalks point a middle finger at what's left of the neighborhood it destroyed, calling landhoarders to demolish what's left for parking. Parking that the center inexplicably wasn't required to provide for itself somewhere within its three block sarcophagus.

The first blows came at a time when few fought to preserve Center City, and those concerned citizens were busy fighting city planners from dropping the wrecking ball on their own neighborhoods at places like South Street and Chinatown. City Hall had an itchy trigger finger and to them, our historic architecture was synonymous with an era they wanted to forget.

Much of that attitude lingers on Market East and North Broad Street. It's easy to forget that politicians don't write for architecture blogs, and many of their citizens share the same blind eye toward our abandoned infrastructure. When most see an abandoned warehouse or factory, when they see the old Robinson's Department Store on Market Street, they don't ignore the grime and only see blight.

Comment sections and message boards are filled with the same rhetoric when it comes to the neighborhoods around the convention center, Market East, or North Broad, "bulldoze it all." Of course the assertion is ridiculous to anyone who remembers the fact that we already did, and the deplorable end result of our destruction is a city calling for more.

With the exception of several historic buildings on Arch Street, the nameless convention center neighborhood is as bland and unrecognizable as the center itself. The Metzger Building and Lithograph Building are gone. A Herculean feat was employed to demolish the massive Odd Fellows Building. Perhaps the most tragic loss was the Race Street Firehouse, historically significant in more ways than one. Its bizarre gargoyles were removed, put into storage, briefly fought over by several historic institutions before being as forgotten as the building itself. A few short years later, it's unclear where they ended up or if they're simply collecting dust somewhere.

It's almost fitting that the neighborhood's soul would be lost when the six creatures charged with warding off evil were removed and locked away.

Luckily the misdeeds of city planning have shown little interest in Callowhill and its organic development remains largely in the hands of private developers. Unlike Northern Liberties or Passyunk Square, Callowhill stands to be more than an island of self sustainment.

While many of the neighborhood's former industrial relics remain vacant or underutilized, its most iconic landmarks haven't met the wrecking ball of haphazard development.

Post Brothers Goldtex Apartment building is a large investment in not only Callowhill's community, but also stands to bridge a long lost gap between Center City and its neighborhood. With small, pricy units comparable to Rittenhouse or Washington Square, the endeavor is a risky one. But if it proves successful it will pave the way for other developers to tap the neighborhood's vacant land and unused warehouses, as well as ask why the blocks between Race and Vine aren't lined with restaurants, bars, and apartments.

No comments:

Post a Comment