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 fa├žade, 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.

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