Saturday, November 30, 2013

Freedom Tower

Break out the Champaign, a panel of architects has officially named New York's Freedom Tower the tallest skyscraper in North America. The Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat made the announcement, determining that the 400+ foot needle atop the building was an architectural element and not simply an antennae, allowing it to surpass Chicago's Willis Tower (which will forever be referred to as the Sears Tower).

Not everyone is thrilled about the decision. Chicago's Sears Tower is 1451 feet tall, while the roof at the Freedom Tower is at just 1368 feet. Determining the Freedom Tower's spire an architectural element is a gray area.

It's not new though. When the Chrysler Building was completed in 1930, it was expected to be the world's second tallest building, second to the Bank of Manhattan Trust building. At the last moment, a 125 foot tall spire was placed atop the Chrysler Building, making it the world's tallest building until it would be topped a year later by the Empire State Building.

Despite hosting a number of "World's Tallest," New York City did not invent the skyscraper. Because the construction technique that allowed buildings to scrape the sky was developed in Chicago, the Windy City is credited as the birthplace of the skyscraper.

Philadelphia, even with the Gentleman's Agreement that didn't allow a building to surpass William Penn's hat, held the honor of the World's Tallest with City Hall for seven years. To this day, Philadelphia City Hall is still the world's tallest masonry building, and given the costly construction, one unlikely to ever be surpassed.

Freedom Tower's position as the nation's tallest is in part symbolic, precisely at 1776 feet, it pays homage to the nation's founding. It also brings along with it an iconic end to the recovery following the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Whether or not Chicago decides to challenge New York City by building an even taller skyscraper remains to be seen. The city is certainly capable. But it won't erase the Freedom Tower's significance which is largely its location and what it represents.

Skyscrapers across the Middle East and Asia have far surpassed anything constructed in America, any while they're symbolic of Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and China's symbolic efforts, they're the product of poor labor conditions and exploitation.

The Freedom Tower represents more than its architects, developers, and builders, it represents an ideal, perseverance, and innovation created here, in the United States, that allowed buildings around the globe to touch the clouds.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Comcast Expansion?

A mythical "source" at CBS Philly leaked the idea that Comcast may be planning to expand its Center City campus, vertically.

The company is now commonly referred to as Xfinity or NBC Universal, because a completely nonsensical moniker or the network that brought us 30 Rock and Seinfeld are more inviting than the name that reinvented the American monopoly.

Comcast once planned an additional midrise mirroring suburban station. Currently, the site of that building is a weed filled garden that no one can walk through.

Despite the company's abysmal reputation, potential additions to our skyline are full of hope. After all, in 2008, Comcast topped our unique skyline with a giant, silver Rubix Cube. I mean Comcast owns television, they could at least run Everybody Love Raymond reruns on that static boob tube 300 meters in the sky.

The lot at 18th and Arch was the site of the grandiose proposal for the American Commerce Center. The ACC, designed by CAD hacks and embraced by no one would have been the nation's tallest building.

Comcast's expansion in Center City is 100% speculation, but I'm having fun with it because I'm tired of talking about Market East. If Comcast does decide to expand in Center City, it likely won't be taller than its signature tower.

However sources from Liberty Property Trust, who manage 18th and Arch have stated that if Comcast expands, Norman Foster could be the architect. Norman Foster designed London's Saint Mary's Axe, or the Gerkin. If Comcast employs Foster for any expansion, it won't be conventional.

China's Manhattan

China's urban planners are certainly ambitious. They've replicated European villages, parts of Venice and Paris. Although they tried and lost when it came to ripping off Disney, they've set their sights on reproducing Manhattan, not just architecturally, but actually making a better Big Apple and taking over Manhattan's role as the world's economic capital.

China's efforts to replicate the world may be more than an homage to internationalism. Historically, architectural reproduction is common in China dating back centuries. It's more than just whimsical fun, rather it symbolizes dominance over the culture being reproduced.

However, despite the fact that the nation owns so much of the West's debt, they've recently taken on quite a bit of their own. China may soon face the same realities America and Europe faced during the Great Recession.

China's Manhattan Project uninhabited and under constriction

Don't let the world's biggest construction site fool you. China found a funny way to finance a lot of "World Firsts" and tiny town disasters.

The Chinese government somewhat owns the country's land. When they want something, they take it. Like many major projects in China, Tianjin, or the other Manhattan, began as a nearly worthless piece of land seized by the government.

The government then reassessed the property for far more than it was worth, borrowed against the bloated value, and began to build. It's a gamble, a gamble that makes the American housing bubble blush. In fact, at a construction cost of $200B, it is the American housing bubble.

When Tianjin's Manhattan project is over, if it's ever complete, China will not have surpassed New York's influence as a global presence. New York's presence is not present in its architecture, but two centuries of history that could have yielded the same outcome from suburban Phoenix.

Prominence isn't made from buildings and cities, however grand. It's bred from sweat. Dubai learned this the hard way.

Skyscrapers were invented out of need, a necessity that is only necessary in the world's older cities. They work in Shanghai and Beijing because, like Manhattan, the only direction to build is up.

Many attempts to scrape the sky across the Middle East and Asia are the end result of design competitions leaving behind countless empty skyscrapers. America certainly indulged in its own attempt to reach the clouds, evident in skylines from New York to Los Angeles. But even the Empire State Building, although empty during the Great Depression, was built out of purpose.

Many may argue that America's resistance to compete with the skylines of Mecca and Dubai is the symbolic end of the American Empire, a return to a modest sense of provincial colonialism that Europe succumbed to at the birth of our nation.

That would be more likely if these vastly taller skylines were something new rather than simply taller. By replicating Manhattan, China doesn't usurp or dominate American culture or prominence, particularly to anyone outside China. In fact, to the global stage it does just the opposite. Instead of creating its own architecture, its own cities, or defining something new, it actually bends to tired design, recreating exhausted and congested street grids while America, Europe, and Japan continue to innovate.

By doing nothing more than owning its people and places, these dictatorships, monarchies, communist governments can easily afford to grow taller, but only prove why their governments don't globally work. China may feel it dominates Europe by offering its citizens Swiss villages and the Eiffel Tower, asking its people "why bother traveling to Europe when it's all right here?" But they also remove their people from global culture, which exists in the global populace, not its architecture.

Biking Philadelphia

Philadelphia recently took the top prize from the League of American Bicyclists. Those hipsters zipping along our newly designated bike lanes on fixies are leading the nation in bike commuting, and they're leading the nation by a lot.

Unfortunately the table only considers the nation's ten largest cities. Crunchier cities like Seattle and San Francisco beat us.

But thanks to our flat terrain and more bike lanes than any American city, Philadelphia has made itself the perfect city to bike to work.

We also have a densely packed core and some of the oldest and most compact suburbs in the country, biking through Belmont to the Main Line is a breeze and a comfortable alternative to gridlock.

Welcome to the Black Lodge

Light a cigarette, pour yourself a damn fine cup of coffee, and get ready for a trip to the Black Lodge. Twin Peaks is back.

Unfortunately we're not getting a third season twenty five years later. No, I'm talking fashion. Suckers Apparel has released a line of Twin Peaks inspired fashion. Pricy, Suckers' colorful duds pay homage to everything from the patterned floor of the Black Lodge to Laura Palmer's corpse wrapped in plastic.

It's hard to say if the hipsters have really embraced the early 90s cult classic for anything more than irony, but the line is sold out so someone's wearing it.

Twin Peaks has only a small link to Philadelphia, Agent Dale Cooper was from here. However David Lynch has a profound connection to the city, particularly its gritty, dangerous past.

Lynch studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, living in the Callowhill neighborhood in the late 60s. At a time when the neighborhood was still largely industrial and trains still carried commuters atop the Reading Viaduct, Callowhill was another world, one Lynch blames for his dark and disturbing stories.

Twin Peaks was clearly his most tame and most structured work. Usually consisting of short scenes and bizarre images loosely woven together, Lynch's films are more art than movie.

If you like Lynch, you're not sure why. No one can deny he's interesting.

Lynch left Philadelphia for Los Angeles in 1970. He didn't return to the city that haunted his dreams and his artwork for four decades. In March of 2012, Lynch was in town to assist the PAFA with an upcoming David Lynch exhibit and a documentary.

Homecomings can be bittersweet for many reasons. When you're a kid, places feel bigger, wilder, scarier. But those places also change. Of today's Philadelphia Lynch said, "it’s all bright and shiny just like every other city....I preferred it the way it was."

Lynch, quiet and composed, still shies from publicity. With many dubbing his Callowhill neighborhood "Eraserhood," an homage to his first major film, Eraserhead, it's hard to say how he'd feel about the recognition, particularly considering the posh lofts that have erased the character that once inspired him.

As for a Twin Peaks homecoming, not a chance. Rumors have buzzed for years, rumors Lynch repeatedly denies. Perhaps ABC can turn to Twin Peaks' co-creator Mark Frost. After all Lynch didn't direct every episode, but admittedly the best episodes.

Many shows have drawn inspiration from Twin Peaks, such as the cancelled Happy Town and the successful The Killing. Though it's going to be a while before a vision as unique as Lynch's is going to find its way to network television. Perhaps a movie?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Philadelphia's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Philadelphia seems to have more parades than anywhere I've ever lived. Okay, that's not a lot. DC, Portland, a small town in Virginia no one's ever heard of. But Philadelphia does a fine job commemorating holidays, even unconventional holidays, with great reverence. And we do it well.

Traditionally the Thanksgiving Day Parade doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving so much as it kicks off the Christmas season, and particularly the shopping season.

Although the national Thanksgiving Day Parade has its roots in Philadelphia, it was embraced by Macy's in New York as a means to push its wares for the month before Christmas.

Obviously no parade can rival Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, but Philadelphia doesn't rest on its laurels when it comes to parading down the Parkway.

However any Thanksgiving Day Parade is more than a collection of high school bands culminating in a fat white guy sitting on top of a chimney. It's a moving billboard telling people to start shopping.

That's why America's oldest Thanksgiving parade was started in 1920 by Gimbels, and paraded past its flagship store at 8th and Market. Crowds would  gather to watch the parade, then turn to extravagant display windows along Market East aglow with toys eagerly anticipated by brats on their fathers' shoulders.

It was like a scene out of A Christmas Story. It was A Christmas Story.

Of course the (official title) "6ABC - Dunkin' Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade" doesn't have the same capitalistic allure of the Macy's or Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade, nor does 6ABC or Dunkin' Donuts share the motivation. On the Parkway, our Thanksgiving parade does little more than publically celebrate one of the year's more introverted holidays.

Honestly, a Halloween parade would be more interesting.

What makes a Thanksgiving parade interesting, or even serve a purpose, is kicking off Christmas. Let's face it, unless it's full of floats decorated with pilgrims and Indians, it's not celebrating one night of gluttony. It's celebrating Christmas.

That's exactly why it belongs on Market East. Although our commercial core continues to struggle, it's home to Macy's and the city's only shopping mall. While Kmart and Old Navy refuse to appropriately decorate their display windows for the holiday season, imagine what those windows would look like if they knew thousands of potential customers would be spending Thanksgiving morning right outside their doors.

It would remind Philadelphians what Market East is, was, and will be. It would tell cynics the corridor is still very relevant. It would force the Gallery to clean up its act, at least for a month.

Scientology, Philadelphia, and one astounding New Yorker who had enough

Six years after the Church of Scientology bought the Cunningham Piano building near 12th and Chestnut promising to restore the fifteen story building as Scientology's tallest location, it remains empty.

The church has a reputation for restoring historic properties, and then submitting visitors to tedious propaganda in exchange for a tour.

Currently, L&I is planning to take the church to Blight Court over the property. While much of Chestnut Street could certainly qualify as blight, the church's tax exemption leaves the empty building contributing absolutely nothing to the neighborhood.

Of course the Church of Scientology is no stranger to the courtroom, but often as a plaintiff. Funded by some extremely wealthy people, the church certainly has access to more money than L&I is willing to spend on a blight case. It's not hard to imagine a counter suit backfiring against the city.

That's not to say the church shouldn't be challenged. Counter suing L&I won't win the church any favors when it comes time to apply for permits either on Chestnut Street or their current Race Street site.

The controversial denomination has always been a source of conversation, and being charged by L&I is by far the most benign.

The church's founder L. Ron Hubbard who died in the 80s, lived his last years in exile, largely on a cruise ship owned by the church. Throughout the 70s and 80s the church received significant criticism from major politicians and media outlets denouncing their tactics, beliefs, and secrecy.

Three decades removed from its prophet's death with support from hundreds of famous celebrities, both members and not, has managed to improve the church's reputation. Once popularly considered a dangerous cult, few today know enough about the church to regard it as anything more than strange.

Protests are still common and one would certainly follow a renovation at the Chestnut Street site. Their rigid stance against psychology and psychopharmacology has inadvertently led to many depression related suicides. 

Despite the fact that its current leader, David Miscavige grew up near Philadelphia, the church's local presence has never been profound. Funding their day to day operations comes from performing "free stress tests" at Market East Station and their Race Street site.

These stress tests typically yield negative results which the church then claims can be resolved by paying for more "auditing."

Membership in the church is not free, and their dues are not comprised of donations but required, a common source of criticism.

King of Queen's star Leah Remini recently caused a media stir by leaving Scientology. Leaving Scientology is purportedly difficult but not unheard of, and members who leave, leave quietly. However Remini, being a Brooklyn native, left with a bang.

When Remini left the church she didn't leave a D on Miscavige's desk, she took it several steps further, indirectly accusing him of murder. Miscavige's wife hasn't been seen in public for years and Remini filed a missing persons claim.

Miscavige wishes.

Miscavige and Scientology's golden boy, Tom Cruise, attempted to diffuse public outrage by claiming Remini was a low ranking member, which did more to make the church look like a bunch of weirdos than end speculation.

Los Angeles Police Chief Christopher Dorner originally dismissed Remini's claim. Following public pressure the LAPD ultimately claimed that Michele was in fact alive and well, however the Hollywood rumor circuit is still whispering. It's not surprising considering Dorner's speculated ties to Scientology.

To date, Michele Miscavige hasn't been seen in public.

Meanwhile Remini is working on her memoirs which will likely focus largely on her experience in Scientology. She might not seem like the candidate for an autobiography. Like most Dancing with the Stars contestants, her fame has waxed and waned. But considering her stint in Scientology and her grit as an opinionated and true Northeaster, the book will undoubtedly be an interesting read, one that could potentially bring popular criticism to Scientology's front door.

For us, the Cunningham Piano building is just another Chestnut Street lady in wait. If the church was ready to build, they'd build. L&I's charge likely won't do more than force the Miscavige to relinquish the property, leaving it as it is, another vacant storefront on Chestnut Street.

Perhaps in the long run that outcome is the best. With Chestnut Street slowing following in Walnut's footsteps, a blank storefront capped with a church and fronted with free pamphlets campaigning against our city's own pharmaceutical industry might not quite be what Chestnut Street is becoming.

It all remains to be seen. As someone who loves architecture, the Cunningham Piano building, and native New Yorkers railing against Hollywood nonsense, I want a front row seat to the show.

Amtrak Shrugged

It looks like a scene out of Atlas Shrugged. A high speed train carrying passengers from DC to Baltimore in fifteen minutes, to New York City in one hour. At 315 miles per hour, it would be the fastest train on the planet. And it could be America's for free.

The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe recently offered to build the first leg of the new line, DC to Baltimore, entirely free of charge.

Unable to successfully market the wild magnetic levitation technology, Japan is hoping that America's participation will excite other customers. The catch? We'd have to complete the rest of the Northeast Corridor ourselves.

The offer is more than enticing. America's involvement in the rail industry has been lackluster for years, even between DC and Boston where it's most successful. Large cities routinely struggle with state governments to maintain their subways, lightrails, and trollies because, let's face it, most of the nation just doesn't need it.

The debacle isn't unique to the United States. The car has made it simply easier for most people to get around, and highways have allowed us to spread out to locations that trains just don't go and aren't needed.

Where rail transit abounds, so do taxes and socialism. Which is why conservatives fear the word "rail," and many democrats skirt the subject. They're money pits. Dreamy, sleek money pits.

The TNEM, or The Northeast Maglev, would be a Superconducting Maglev train, or SCMAGLEV. Understandably concerned, Amtrak is worried what kind of affect the TNEM would have on its slow growth. Though the forty miles between DC and Baltimore would be built with Japanese money, the New York City extension would be costly. Funds would likely be siphoned from Amtrak's system, still struggling to find success outside the Northeast.

However, Prime Minister Abe has pointed out that the TNEM is not intended to replace Amtrak. Quite the contrary, it's intended to compete. It's a tough sell. America's love affair with a competitive rail industry died long ago. It's hard to say if we'd want to relight that fire, if it's even possible.

The truth is Amtrak's trains aren't slow. The Acela can easily exceed 200 miles per hour. The problem is it shares tracks with regional lines, so our high speed trains rarely move faster than a car.

With no competition Amtrak easily sold the Acela to the public hiding the fact that the existing infrastructure would need to be replaced for it to be worth a damn. For more than the cost of a flight to JFK you can get to Manhattan twenty minutes faster than a much cheaper regional train ticket.

However the system is subsidized and not configured for competition. Tax dollars keep Amtrak running, not ticket sales. The TNEM wouldn't just poise itself to compete with Amtrak, a Northeast SCMAGLEV could shut down Amtrak's entire national network.

It's an exciting proposal, and the free offer incredibly tempting. But weighing the potential outcome for the national passenger rail system, America's attitude towards rail travel needs to change, funding has to increase, and Amtrak would have to succeed outside the Northeast Corridor. Prime Minister Abe's offer comes with more than a caveat. It's an advertisement for Japan's technology, one that states, "if the United States can embrace rail travel again, any country can."

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hop Sing Laundromat

Pretention is an interesting thing. It's fun to get all dressed up, go out to some posh venue, have a few delicious $12 cocktails, and then brag about it on Facebook. It's certainly not a weekly occurrence, or even a monthly one. But treating yourself to something special, something unique, and being a little's alright.

Hop Sing Laundromat, Chinatown's speakeasy style cocktail bar wants to encompass all these things. It's intimate, beautifully decorated, and owner Lee's cocktails have a fine reputation.

You won't find Hop Sing easily. It's entrance sits behind an iron gate on the 1000 block of Race Street, under nothing but a subtle blue light.

You ring the door bell.

You wait.

Then someone decides if you're worthy.

It's exclusionary.

It's not unique. In many more cosmopolitan cities "in the know" nightspots abound. In places like London, New York, and Paris, nightlife is overwhelmed with high end cocktails from celebrity mixologists, crowded with suburbanites and tourists.

Finding a seat at the bar is a chore in the cultural oasis of Manhattan, buried beneath a sea of pleated kakis ferried in from Staten Island and New Jersey every night.

Unique hot spots tucked in discreet alleys, unlit and devoid of signage, were born from necessity. These are places for the true urbanite to find reprieve from the soul sucking demons of being a World Class city.

More importantly, their owners know why they exist and why their patrons are there. They may enforce a dress code, or even turn people away simply because they don't belong. But those allowed inside arrive for the same reason.

Philadelphia, for all that's right with it, is not one of these cities. Good cocktails, food, and ambiance can be found with ease, but unlike our larger counterparts, these venues can also be enjoyed with ease. If you can't find a table with a view at XIX you can slip over to Jamonera for a cocktail and some unique tapas. If El Vez isn't taking reservations you can always find a table at Valanni or Tavern.

Hop Sing doesn't exist to service cultural Philadelphians driven from their local establishments by droves of conventioneers and weekenders. If it did it's pretention and rigid dress code would be excusable. Instead it exists for the sake of being pretentious.

If people went to Hop Sing for its good cocktails and quiet ambiance, they'd simply go somewhere much easier to find, much easier to get into, somewhere severing the same drinks with the same atmosphere.

Unlike New York's quiet, unmarked lounges mildly crowded with locals seeking refuge from the bridge and tunnel crowd, there's nothing inherently unique about Hop Sing because Philadelphia doesn't share New York's unique reason for Hop Sing to be what it is.

Perhaps Hop Sing's perceived arrogance is all an accident. The bar's sparse website offers nothing more than an apologetic letter to its critics. Though many may be unhappy with Hop Sing's exclusionary tactics, none seem more upset with the reaction than the bar's owner.

Hop Sing never meant to advertise, however the age of the internet did Lee's advertising for him through the pages of Yelp and

While small speakeasy style taverns are designed to offer a piece of culture to those who will truly appreciate it, the business model's lack of precedent in Philadelphia made it a target from those it was trying to avoid.

There's no mystery why it has exclusively one or five stars on Yelp. Those who got in enjoyed themselves, those turned away, understandably did not. Fortunately Philadelphia has plenty of cozy alternatives pouring great cocktails.

Those exclaiming, "Lee doesn't want my money?" may not know their question is rhetorical. The truth is, he doesn't. Those are the kind of people who may not understand his vision. I'm not sure I understand it either, at least not in Philadelphia.

Similar to lines at Studio 54 or Mike Jeffrie's comments that he only wants attractive kids shopping at Abercrombie, it's a tactic that pisses people off, but whether or not it was Lee's intent, it's a tactic that drives mystique.

Perhaps once the allure wears off, perhaps once those driving from Cherry Hill just to see this quaint neighborhood bar decide to stop trying, Hop Sing can go back to being what Lee intended: a quaint neighborhood bar.

As a resident of not just the city, but also Hop Sing's neighborhood, perhaps once Lee's anxiety over his unwanted press wears off, I'll be allowed to enter my quaint neighborhood bar.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Philadelphia's Mormon Temple

Logan Square's Mormon Temple is beginning to take shape. And while many may not quite understand the group Homer Simpson once referred to as "America's most powerful weirdos," Philadelphia's trade unions and even our City Hall could take a page from the discipline employed at the site.

No smoking. No coffee. No cursing.

That might sound silly. It certainly sounds silly to me, particularly since I indulge in each with great reverence.

But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has its own notion of reverence, one that includes strict discipline embraced to evoke an optimism and excitement uncharacteristic of an ordinary Negadelphian.

I don't have to be religious to appreciate what the Mormons are bringing to Logan Square. The new temple is utterly beautiful. America's own incarnation of Christianity sharing the street with Christianity's oldest denomination is also uniquely symbolic.

While most of us will never be allowed inside the Mormon Temple after its completion, its architecture is worthy of the address of the Catholic Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul, and guided by more rigid design and construction standards.

Pat Gillespie's union routinely fusses with conventioneers who want to plug in their laptops, but the Philadelphia Building Trades Council has accommodated the church's unique requirements. Daily work begins with a review of the itinerary and an optional prayer, and cookies. Perhaps it's the cookies that quell the typical union nonsense. Perhaps it's the optimism. Perhaps it's the blind faith and boatloads of cash afforded by the Latter Day Saints.

Whatever it is, the construction site is easily the cleanest, friendliest, and most productive Philadelphia's seen since the Great Depression.

The new Mormon Temple will be located at the corner of 18th and Vine, next to the soon to be defunct Family Court building. Scaled and styles appreciative to the neighboring Franklin Institute and Free Library of Philadelphia, the temple is a welcome replacement for the surface parking lot it replaced.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Black Friday

The very name conjures up images of crowded shopping malls, midnight openings, and absolute hell. In fact, the day kicking off the season encompasses everything that Christmas isn't.

Corporate greed enabled by consumers who can't get enough cheap crap tear underpaid retail employees from their families after Thanksgiving dinner. Minimum wage all nighters are mobbed with hoards of sweatpanted monsters salivating over the latest game system they'll be tired of by February, and whatever toy Hasbro has decided overfed American brats are going to demand this year.

So where did Black Friday come from? Was it the brainchild of Macy's, perhaps to capitalize the high left in children following its historic Thanksgiving Day Parade?

No, although Macy's, and every other grand department store, certainly indulged.

Like most American Firsts, Black Friday started in Philadelphia. In the mid twentieth century, Philadelphia was the nexus of the American shopping mall. To this day King of Prussia has more leasable retail space than any mall in the country, even the Mall of America.

Philadelphians coined the term "Black Friday," describing the shopping scene that had swollen to the droves we see today as early as the 1960s. Retailers embraced the pejorative term and its shoppers as a means to put their profits "in the black."

It worked just fine for decades. Stores opened earlier and earlier on Black Friday, but only a select few miserly retailers dared to tread into the sacred Thanksgiving holiday.

Unfortunately over the past few years many retailers have pushed the envelope, perhaps attempting to compete with big box department stores like Walmart, stores that make no bones where their corporate interests lie and how little they care about their employees.

The tactic has been questionably successful. Big box stores in particular, certainly see increased profits by opening on Thanksgiving Day. But protests, boycotts, and social media campaigns have made an impact. Not wanting to admit defeat, many retailers blame online sales and the economic climate for missing their Black Friday projections, ignoring the fact that Black Friday sales aren't available online and the economy really isn't that bad.

It seems Americans may be developing a conscience, one retailers forced on us by displaying overworked employees hopped up on tryptophan struggling to ring up the My Little Pony playset we don't need to buy on Thanksgiving Day.

Like those workers trudging their way through a night of hell, perhaps the consumers who choose to be at Target on Thanksgiving are realizing they should be with their families as well.

Greetings From Narnia!

 Funny things happen when the temperature plummets about sixty degrees in a week.
Magical things happen when the city forgets to turn off Swan Memorial Fountain during that week.
Welcome to the other side of the wardrobe.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bringing Change to Market East

Karen Heller's recent assessment of the state of Market East and it's future is pleasantly hopeful, and its numbers informative. Market East and East Chestnut are, of course, Center City's final frontier.

We've all been there and scratched our heads wondering why. The reasons are complex but common. Almost every post industrial American city has or has had a deteriorating stretch of forgotten retail space. Given the fate of cities like Cleveland or Detroit, Philadelphia's Market East has fared better than its given reputation.

It's not pleasant but it's relevant.

SSH Investments - Girard Trust property

The end result of midcentury suburbanization and poorly planned Cold War era design, the Gallery at Market East attempted to compete with King of Prussia and Cherry Hill Mall by providing urbanites with the indoor retail amenities that city planners assumed we wanted.

Market East should have become Philadelphia's answer to Chicago's miracle mile, but the city's overzealous planning stalled when it created a canyon of undesirable street life. Market East became trapped between Center City's central business district on West Market and Society Hill's historic district, leaving it with no reason for anyone to be there.
It was a good idea but it wasn't organic. When city planners over-plan they tend to take a suburban approach. Every place takes on a role. That's not what urbanites want or what tourists want when they visit a big city. That's why West Market Street, despite its dazzling skyscrapers, is a ghost town at night.

Market East's attempt to become the region's premier retail corridor was fleeting and has long been forgotten. Salvaging what's become of it has been the primary goal for decades. We've been teased with plans to revitalize the Gallery, potential casinos, and various skyscrapers. Morale surrounding development opportunities has become so grim the simple idea of a few display windows at Kmart seems like a herculean feat.

While the Gallery at Market East is the neighborhood's largest presence, it's also a major obstacle. Still, management at the Gallery seems to be waiting for neighbors to make the first move, or the city to pull the plug.

It's like the annoying neighbor who refuses to mow the grass complaining about the neighborhood. It doesn't cost a dime to ask Old Navy to properly use its display windows. Instead of telling homeless people to stop sleeping on its desolate Filbert Street façade, the Gallery put up an iron fence. That's inviting.

SSH Investments seems poised to give Market Street the injection it needs, and the competition the Gallery needs to get its act together.

Plans for a revitalized, and tall, Girard Trust property are nothing new. Prior design studies for improvements have includesdthis spectacular proposal by EEK Architects.

SSH signed a 150 year lease with the Girard Trust, the four acre parcel between 11th and 12th, promising to blow us away in the next few years. Tentative plans include a retail complex capped with apartment towers.

Lately development and discussion has been primarily focused on the Pennsylvania Convention Center, pandering Market East proposals at conventioneers who often don't care what city they're in.

The center's numbers dwindling, massive debt, it's become the money pit everyone but those in City Hall seemed to know it would become. That's enough to prove to anyone that conventioneers are not the demographic Market East needs to accommodate.

Center City is certainly more than the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Those indebted to the site seem solely focused on the center while simultaneously discussing what a disaster it has become. This face saving dialogue is futile.

If SSH can truly pull off a successful revitalization at the Girard Trust property, one that includes residents, it can change the game at Market East and give the neighborhood more to work with than convention numbers that continue to decline.

Plans for a revitalized Girard Trust property have circulated in the past, and phased projects that promise exciting towers routinely leave us with a stump. The Gallery might be as successful as Liberty Place's shopping center if it was capped with the two office towers it was built to support.

If SSH can't bring it's game, the Girard Trust property could become the Gallery 2.0. But if it can bring hundreds of residents to 11th and Market, it brings hundreds of pedestrians to the street and, more importantly, people looking for a place to shop.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Historical Commission: Time for a Performance Review
Philadelphia's sole surviving movie palace, The Boyd Theater, is charging headfirst at the wrecking ball. Our city's agents charged with protecting worthy landmarks treat historic status as a mere suggestion in favor of flashy, disposable design. Developers write their own hardship causes with no input from challenging independent audits.

So how is Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption still standing? It's baffling, a little bit sad, and its recently revoked demolition permit somewhat bittersweet.

The church's historic status is undeniable with or without a formal designation. The Roman Catholic Saint, Katherine Drexel was baptized there. In a state of disrepair, architect Patrick Charles Keely's unique temple shines on Spring Garden's otherwise boring streetscape.

Although a Commonwealth Court judge declared the demolition permit provided by the Historical Commission invalid, the judgment does little to save the church.

Developer John Wei will need to apply for a hardship waiver and prove restoring the landmark is cost prohibitive to obtain a demolition permit.

But he did that once before. Siloam, its previous owner, did it as well. Nothing in the court's judgment stops the Historical Commission from granting another permit, it only suggests that the previous permit was poorly written.

If iPic's Hamid Hashemi can prove that redeveloping the fully functional Boyd Theater as a theater is cost prohibitive, there's nothing standing in the Commission's way of declaring a crumbling church in an iffy part of town a lost cause.

Of course it's too easy to paint developers as Monopoly champions dragging around large bags stamped with dollar signs because that's exactly what they are. They build us theaters and apartment buildings and are largely responsible for our amazing skyline. Developers are the reason we have landmarks like The Boyd to fight over.

The problem is much larger than individual examples of developers paving over historic sites for parking lots. At the source is a broader scope responsible for every loss, our city's reluctance to save sites the city itself once deemed historic.

But can we? It's hard to watch Philadelphia auctioning off its schools and then ask the city to help save a theater or a church. But the city does it all the time.

We funnel money into private projects because they stand to profit the city and create jobs. Unfortunately the city doesn't hold its historic sites in the same regard, or perhaps our politicians just haven't though about it.

This city has spared no pork when it comes to political photo ops. We've spent millions on design studies for the Delaware Waterfront, Parkway improvements, and Dilworth Plaza. When it comes to intervening in history, the Historical Commission leaves crumbling sites exclusively to their own devices and at the mercy of their owners.

Philadelphia is a global tourist attraction, an attraction rooted in history. If any politicos should understand the significance behind landmarks like The Boyd or the Church of the Assumption it would be ours'. But they don't get it, routinely siding with developers at the eleventh hour.

The reason sites are declared historic is multifaceted. Most visibly, the declaration helps dictate a level of restoration, but only if its owner chooses to or can afford to preserve the site.

Beyond that, and where the city falls short, historic designation indicates that preservation may pose a challenge. Old buildings are old, they're hard to work with, and like the Church of the Assumption, many have outlived their architectural purpose.

This is exactly why historic status is important. It's ironic that the Historical Commission grants economic hardship exemptions with such regularity when the historic status in itself means that redevelopment will almost always be economically difficult.
This is where the city's involvement, and yes, even tax dollars, is most crucial. But it's also where the city's involvement is most absent.

If the city can grant developers tax breaks and subsidies to develop hotels and apartments, where are the incentives that protect our landmarks?

The Historical Commission is lip service. Worse than an ineffectual government agency, it hinders the sites it was designed to protect. Countless private historical organizations like the Greater Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia, often confused with the Commission itself, are forced to challenge the Commission's decisions.

That should never happen.

The Commission needs to aid every site it declares historic. While that certainly means it needs to be more thorough when it comes to granting historic status, some sites will be lost. But if the Commission is going to continue to grant hardship exemptions at every site it deems historically significant, historic status and the Commission mean absolutely nothing. 

How many of the Commission's historic sites have actually been saved? How many stand vacant? How many are awaiting a hardship waiver? How many have been demolished? And demolished for what?

The Commission exists to preserve Philadelphia's history. Maybe it's time to review their work.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

New Hope for the Lincoln
Hidden City had some good news to share from Washington Square West yesterday. The long neglected shell of the Lincoln Building at Locust and Camac has a new owner.

Pelican Properties purchased the property at 1222 Locust Street in September, and Cecil Baker & Partners have secured a permit to reconstruct the building from the inside out, salvaging the façade.

A massive fire gutted the building in 2006 and it has since been embattled with insurance companies, the source of safety violations, and unclear and neglectful ownership.

Pearlman has not presented a proposal to the Washington Square West Civic Association, but the association's president, Clay Scherer stated that the redevelopment is unlikely to see any resistance.

In fact, the blighted property has become a nuisance, home to squatters, drug dealers, and vandals scarring the otherwise quaint block of Camac Street. Residents have been eager to see the property salvaged in some way, but even more eager to see the corner once again occupied.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A New Philadelphia

With all the whining about shadows and burnt tomatoes on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, University City seems anxious to give Center City a run for its money. Brandywine's recently proposed skyscraper, the FMC Tower at 30th and Walnut seems to be breezing its way into existence with no opposition. 

Even more astonishing, West Philadelphia office space is now higher than Center City's central business district.

Although FMC's name will be on the tower at 30th and Market, the district's universities are behind the district's growth. The current economic climate has driven the region's academic expansion architecturally rivaling the building boom of the early 2000s.

University City's growth is creating an exciting, new Philadelphia skyline. Perhaps part of the appeal driving up rents its more manageable infrastructure.

Philadelphia, unlike New York or more expensive, densely packed cities, is not devoid
of developable land. Most current development is taking place outside Center City. While new University City and North Broad Street projects are being developed with urbanism in mind, they lack the parking and traffic issues that impact Center City but also sit near major public transportation hubs.

With easy parking, University City provides Philadelphia with all the benefits of a new city like Atlanta or Charlotte but at the same time, provides extensive transportation opportunities.

The new developments will ultimately turn University City's corridors into an extension of Center City with all of its demons and realities, but for the time being, it's attractive to new business.

The bonus in all of this is that University City is very much part of Philadelphia, and despite the Schuylkill River, is still integrated into the fabric of our core.

While towers continue to pop up around the district, they're being built within an existing pedestrianized infrastructure.

40th and Walnut may not look like the most desirable addresses now, but putting more residents at the edge of the river will bring sidewalk improvements, parks, and bike lanes.

Soon enough, walking from University City to our city's proper core won't be a burden, but a pleasant walk across a beautiful river and a true gateway to Center City.

Bye Bye, Boyd

iPic Entertainment's President, Hamid Hashemi has claimed that an eight screen mega complex is the only way to save the historic Boyd Theater.

While Hashemi promised to restore the theater's Art Deco façade and lobby, the auditorium would be demolished. Ben Leech of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia has echoed the reaction of the region's historic community and the alliance plans to challenge Hashemi's hardship claim.

Arguing that a theater built  from scratch on vacant land would be cost prohibitive, Hashemi stated, "There is no way to take a piece of real estate and build a theater on it and justify the rents or acquisition costs. That’s why you don’t have any new theaters."

I guess the Pearl and the Bridge are figments of my imagination.

What's more, Hashemi's Boyd development is all but a complete rebuild. How is it cost prohibitive to build a new theater from scratch on cleared land, but somehow cheaper to demolish an existing building and stack a Texas style megaplex on the carcass?

iPic's claims read like an itemized list of bull shit.

In addition to suggesting that Philadelphia has no new theaters, Hashemi claimed that iPic's original plan was to restore the Boyd. That's fishy considering iPic Entertainment is a national chain solely specializing in luxury multiplexes.

If iPic intended to restore the Boyd, they're muddling their position. Restoring the Boyd obviously wouldn't turn the kind of profit a multiplex would and it may take longer for iPic to recoup their investment. However iPic's assertion that restoration would be cost prohibitive is based entirely on estimates by EConsult, a consulting firm that iPic themselves commissioned.

What's even more curious is that iPic's eight screens will only hold 744 people while the massive Boyd auditorium holds 2300. Although Hashemi's multiplex will be showing eight movies at once, it's hard to imagine he could charge that much more to make up for 1500 less customers.

Ironically Hashemi is pitching iPic's multiplex as an experience, "Everything we do today is what people used to do in the 1920s and 30s. They used to create experiences. Going to the movies wasn’t just about what was on the screen."

His statement is represented in everything that the Boyd already is, but the truth is between the lines. Hashemi's multiplexes are experiences that offer everything you have at home: blankets and 64 oz sodas. The experience he's regaling is the one he's killing, and that's where iPic's true motivations lie.

iPic is a brand. While it may be an experience, that branded experience has nothing to do with the historic silver screen, a stance that could be more respectable if Hashemi would just be honest about the company's intent because it's all too obvious.

The only real mystery is why Hashemi claims that building on vacant land is cheaper than bastardizing the historic Boyd. What kind of incentives will iPic receive with its economic hardship claim? What subsidies is it receiving for restoring a portion of the headhouse? Does "renovating" a property allow for tax breaks and parking exemptions that iPic wouldn't receive if they broke ground on clear land?

We'll find out soon enough, and much of it is in the hands of the Historic Commission that's taken iPic's every claim at face value. I don't know why Philadelphia's Historic Commission exists if not to protect this exact scenario from playing out.

Blizzards Welcome

"Chance of snow tonight, or tomorrow...maybe Wednesday. Perhaps. But probably not. But maybe. I guess"
every weather forecast ever.

Move Over, Cupcakes

I thought donuts were the new cupcakes. Or maybe it was cereal. I was hoping it would be scrapple, but I'm going to let that dream go...for now.

Genalle and Rob Day have opened Go Popcorn on 12th Street near Chestnut after opening five successful Popcorn Company's in Pittsburgh, a welcome addition to the burgeoning Washington West/Gayborhood/Midtown Village neighborhood.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Chinatown, City Hall, and Neglect

In discussions surrounding Philadelphia's growth and development, Chinatown is largely ignored. It's considered dirty, poor, and crowded. However much of the statistical research that paints Chinatown as an impoverished ghetto ignores the fact that much of its largely immigrant population are elderly or self employed.

Philadelphia claims to embrace immigrants, but when they don't fit into what we think Center City should be, many would rather relocate them if they don't come to the city with loads of investments.

Americans approach culture enclaves in a uniquely specific way. Outside looking in, we often find them interesting, but when they deviate from our isolated comfort zones some begin to view them as too Chinese, too Italian, or too gay. Of course xenophobia only exposes itself behind the anonymity of message boards, so people vocally express their discomfort with neighborhoods like Chinatown by calling it out as dirty or citing bias statistics to justify their anxiety.

The truth is Chinatown is bighted. But the city views Chinatown as an onlooker. Household trash is dumped around public trashcans, unpermitted street vendors go unchecked, and illegal parking is ignored throughout Chinatown North. This would run rampant and does in any neighborhood ignored by the city.

Despite being boxed in by the Convention Center, The Gallery, Market East Station, and the Vine Street Expressway, Chinatown's population continues to be one of fastest growing in Center City. As more residents move into Chinatown it's reputation won't get any better until the city begins to work with the neighborhood, truly accepting it as a part of Philadelphia.

The city that once attempted to drive an expressway off-ramp through the heart of the neighborhood and drop a baseball stadium just north of Vine Street seems to hold onto the notion that Chinatown has no place in Center City. The city eviscerated the Furnished Room District, Franklin Square, and the Tenderloin in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Chinatown is the sole survivor of a Philadelphia that City Hall once wanted to forget.

Fortunately the Chinatown Development Corporation has a hold on what's left between 9th Street and 11th Street, much to the chagrin of city planners who don't understand how an ethnic enclave should be addressed by a modern city.

While the city continues to push growth and private development, wildly advertising subsidies for sites like Cira Centre South and potential investments in the Delaware Waterfront, the city has mentioned nothing of the PCDC's Eastern Tower and Community Center at 10th and Vine.

The tower stands to alter the skyline of the city and bring more residents and businesses to the struggling Callowhill neighborhood. Although the city has supported residential developments on the Parkway, Franklintown, and the Schuylkill River, neighborhoods that succeed on their own, they've expressed no interest in the ETCC which is poised to bridge multiple neighborhoods, dilute the visual impact of the Vine Street Canyon, and improve a Chinatown long neglected by City Hall.