Monday, July 29, 2013

Ohio Bank "Accidentally" Loots House

A bank in Ohio made a big mistake it doesn't think is worth $18,000, which is likely worth far more.

Upon returning from her family's vacation, Katie Barnett found an empty house. Was it ransacked by burglars?


The First National Bank of Wellington dispatched repo men to a house in Barnett's neighborhood, and upon seeing her uncut lawn, ignored the GPS that blindly directed them to another house on the street, decided to break into Barnett's home and liquidate her of her belongings, and change the locks.

Furniture, appliances, photo albums, family heirlooms, precious memories: all gone.

The kicker: when Barnett reported the break in to the police, upon realize it was related to a bank foreclosure declared it an open and shut case, regardless of the fact that the bank hadn't intended to foreclose on Barnett's property.

Despite the fact that First National Bank doesn't even hold her deed, CEO Anthony Thorne declined her estimate for a paltry $18,000 in lost property (and family photographs and memories that can never be recouped). He stated he wants to compensate Barnett's family “fairly and equitably," but without receipts, can't deem them worth the (again, paltry) $18,000.

First National Bank might soon be wishing they had accommodated Barnett's involuntarily offered settlement for $18,000 (for her family's life) when an attorney with half a brain (and half a shred of dignity) considers the fact that banks and repo men are not above the law.

While Barnett is inevitably entitled to a civil settlement for the property that the bank destroyed or sold, First National Bank may face criminal charges of breaking and entering, burglary, and trespassing. After all, what would you or I face if we "accidentally" ransacked a stranger's house?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Perfect Scapegoat

The wife of Sean Benschop isn't the only one calling the man charged with Market Street's tragic building collapse a scapegoat. I'll call him one right now.

Michael Nutter, who has remained sheepishly quiet during his time as mayor, a puppet so afraid to ruffle feathers of any variety, has decided to come out of his shell in the most un-mayor like fashion possible and declare himself judge and jury over a man who hasn't yet gone to trial.

"Justice will only be served if Sean Benschop receives a sentence that buries him in a jailhouse forever." Mayor Michael Nutter

There are certain evils that come with being a politician, the least of which being the fact that most people will never, ever like you.

If Nutter's rabid pre-trial prosecution was an attempt to relate to a city that has repeatedly called for him and his bureaucrats to account for an ounce of responsibility in this tragedy, he doesn't just come across as someone transparently trying to scapegoat a guy who looks like the perfect scapegoat, he comes across as a First Class Dick.

Nutter's perfect scapegoat

Benschop was one of several employees on the site that day, a site he in no way was responsible for securing. Nutter's own city's 311 received calls regarding the safety of the site, calls that were ignored. L&I granted demolition permits despite the fact that a neighboring property that shared a wall was and would continue to be occupied.

Benschop had pot in his system at the time of the accident, a crime that he should be fired for and charged for. But aside from the safety of other employees insured to work at the site, Benschop was a mere employee demolishing a building.

Were pot not in his system, would he be on trial? As far as the judge and jury in Nutter's head is concerned, Benschop was wholly in charge of securing the vicinity, high or not. Accidents happen, and ones like these are very sad. But it's our leader's jobs to lead us to the most responsible way to deal with the aftermath of tragedy.

The fact that the building was able to collapse on a building full of shoppers and employees means that any demolition crew, whether under the influence of an illegal drug or not, could have made the exact same mistake. If Mayor Nutter should be doing anything he should be discouraging vigilantes from casting stones at a man convicted of nothing, not casting the first.

Shame on you, Michael Nutter. In your years of service as my elected leader I had written off your quiet demeanor off as that of an inexperienced lame duck, not as a man willing to throw his sworn duties under the bus of popular opinion.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Outgrowing Walnut Street

According to, Joan Shepp and other unique and successful boutique retailers are being "Priced Out of Posh." With national chains eyeing Walnut Street's retail success, smaller businesses that blazed the trail and being saddled with high rent.

Give it a read, Elizabeth Wellington put together a very thoughtful piece that points out the obstacles of being a independent retailer in a city that still wants more, and points out the exciting growth taking place in our city's retail market.

As long as the independent boutiques don't jump ship and leave the city, this can all be very hopeful. Center City's retail scene is obviously more dynamic than a mall, and while independent boutiques like to "glow" from the presence of high end clothing stores next door, they don't need to be right next door to reap the rewards of proximity.

A lot of people look at our shopping scene as all or nothing in many ways. We're either a city of thriving independent shops and BYOs, or we're en route to becoming a city full of chains catering exclusively to suburban shoppers and tourists who don't know the difference.

It's far more dynamic than that in New York and Chicago, and even smaller cities like San Francisco and Seattle. So why can the two business models thrive side by side, or at least within the same shopping district, in Philadelphia?

They can and will.

Walnut Street is collectively corralling big name stores because those seeking an alternative to King of Prussia like the convenience of one-stop shopping. People shopping at places like Joan Shepp are either seasoned urbanites or seasoned shoppers, and willing to stray off Walnut to Chestnut or the inevitably burgeoning shopping district east of Broad to find something unique.

And even those who prefer KOP, or visitors attracted to name brand stores will stray from the main drag and explore the adjacent blocks.

Cities change rapidly, and successful independent retailers should have enough capital squirreled away to look for these burgeoning neighborhoods before their landlords price them out of business. There's nothing wrong with Walnut Street catering to those who typically hightail it to Cherry Hill or KOP to spend their money, it generates money for the city whether it's a chain or not. 

Think of it this way. If Joan Shepp set Philadelphia's posh retail standards: she's outgrown her crib, sold it on Craigslist, and is ready lead Philadelphia's poshest to the next posh address.

Plenty of people will blow their paycheck for a label and support that label's inflated rent, but the market for those in-the-know still exists and is still growing. Shops like Joan Shepp are better than Burberry and Talbots, not solely because they're independent, but because they can succeed despite the fact that they're independent. They're friendly, knowledgeable, and define neighborhoods.

Personally I'll still be seeking out the quirky little boutiques and independent restaurants that might have to move to another block, but aren't going anywhere.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Changes for the Schuylkill

Carl Dranoff is eyeing a property adjacent to his own for a 21 story high rise set on the Schuylkill Banks at 25th and Locust. While the preliminary rendering is little more than massing, some have already challenged the location as the worthy site for a high rise.

Here's why it's great. The Schuylkill River Trail, particularly the Schuylkill Banks, has become wildly successful. After a decade in the making, countless grants, donations, and volunteers have finally managed to bring people to the waterfront, offering their bikes and legs a quick route to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Boat House Row, and beyond.

Why limit that to the few who already live there, and those who drive there?

Those criticizing the prospect of a new high rise on the river claim that it will disturb the setting, a setting that lies on the CSX rail line and is shadowed by 2100 Chestnut and the PECO tower. It's Center City. It's wear high rises belong. Those who adore the Schuylkill Banks stare up I awe at our skyline and enjoy the grit and relationship between the city and our river. Those seeking reprieve need only walk north, or soon, south.

Cities as environmentally integrated as Portland and Vancouver, BC have already lined there waterfront with slender, sleek high rises offering more urban residents a slice of the water and view. It's where we should build tall buildings.

Waterfront Square is Back On

With David Grasso assuming control of Waterfront Square, it looks like the long idle project is back on track. Although the remaining towers will not likely meet up to the original, somewhat grand proposal.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing. Grasso has accurately pointed out that Waterfront Square appeals to empty nesters and urban newbies who like suburban amenities and gated communities but hold a curiosity for city living. Waterfront Square succeeds at this.

But to most urbanites, Waterfront Square is a fortressed, suburban complex that just happens to be really tall. The architecture also leaves very little to critique, and in any art, the worst statement one can make is one that isn't interesting enough to look bad.

It's not bad. It's not good. It's boring.

It's also massive in terms of city living. Communal complexes look out of place in urban settings, especially one so close to Center City and adjacent to a very eclectic neighborhood.

Developers love to toss around the term "master plan," and Waterfront Square is as close as we've come to a privately funded "master plan" that would leave such an impact on the city.

The problem with these master plans in an inner city is they lack any integration with their settings. Waterfront Square is impressive, but it not only disengages its inhabitants from the city by refusing to interact with it, it scars the skyline the way the Renaissance Center scars Detroit's.

Under new management Waterfront Square has an opportunity to fix this. Instead of forging ahead with stunted incarnations of its two originally proposed towers, Grasso could use his capital to integrate the remaining property with Columbus Boulevard.

Throw out the blueprints.

Align scaled townhouses with the existing grid, including space for shopping, dining, and entertainment. Consolidate the remaining towers into one impressive high rise that defies the existing mediocre design. This won't only attract the eye, but the juxtaposition of design will make the current towers look less alien to the city scape.

In all likelihood Grasso will continue with the plan as designed, and decapitate the remaining towers. That's okay. It's what the current residents bought and it's a fine project. But with SugarHouse suburbanizing the northern end of Columbus Boulevard, Grasso is in the position to responsibly bring its residents to its sidewalks, not only making his project more pleasing to the eye and more successful, but encouraging new develop along the corridor thus making his property even more valuable.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Why Philly Could Never Be the Next Detroit

I read John Featherman's article for the same reason most people did: it had a catchy headline. But his insight seemed to be a lot of speculation. will run anything that gets the comments going, and saying Philadelphia could be the next Detroit did just that. It doesn't matter that it's based on very little.

He fabricates the notion that pundits are abuzz with speculation about Philadelphia's impending doom, as if this is the top story on CNN, then cites an obscure story in a weekly Republican paper.

At one point in the article I had to ask myself if Featherman had been to Detroit, either now at its worst or thirty years ago when it was pretty bad, or if he figured he could just blindly pass off this article and get people talking.

It's funny, whenever journals are looking for something to fill their HTML they rank of a bunch of cities, or publish an article like this. You'll get one camp screaming how great their city is, and another camp crying that we're about to wind up under the Thunderdome. Either way you get everyone talking about it, because we all fall for it, myself included.

Here's why John Featherman is wrong (despite the fact that he likely knows he's wrong):

First of all, Philadelphia has had a tourism industry that has thrived in one way or another for two centuries. Sure, we've had slumps, but those slumps were shared with national downtimes. We didn't see the tourist draw we see today back in the Sleazy Seventies, but neither did DC or Boston.

Detroit never saw this. I'm sure there are some tourist attractions, and there were probably more in the past, but never any that came close to rivaling Philadelphia's.

Second of all, Detroit's geographic location is unappealing and without shifting the poles of the earth, that won't change. Philadelphia's an hour from some of the most popular beaches in the country, Detroit is on a cold lake.

Philadelphia's close to DC and even closer to NYC. Detroit is somewhat close to Chicago, but their relationship doesn't trade weekend getaways the way Philadelphia does by sharing a coast with so many major American cities.

Neither of these facts are entirely reliant on our local politics. Sure, a swimmingly run City Council might attract more tourists and weekenders, but most come here knowing nothing about the city, particularly the intricacies of our tax burdens, weird liquor laws, and massive amounts of vacant properties. And most don't care.

Also, Philadelphia's aging infrastructure is part of its advantage. It's an old city, therefore central and dense. Center City has never died even in our darkest days. We weren't built around the car, so our city is compact, even many of our suburbs.

When a street or neighborhood looses a house, even in Center City, it's less noticeable than a dilapidated mansion in sprawling Brush Park. That's not to say blight doesn't hurt our cityscape, it's a real problem in Philadelphia, but it isn't as noticeable to visitors and potential property owners as it is in newer cities dotted with vacant strip malls and suburban ghost towns.

Plus, and this shouldn't even be mentioned on an architecture blog, most people are willing to put more money into a run down townhouse designed by Frank Furness than an 80's era split level.

Finally, and here's where I'll profess my true bias: Philadelphia is just better than Detroit, it always has been and always will be.

Philadelphia is America's London, our major city that laid down the political, business, and social structure of what America would become. It was, is, and always will be a microcosm of American life.

It's what kept us from collapsing like Detroit or exploding like Portland. We've never been identified with a specific industry like DC, Los Angeles, or Detroit.

This has helped us and hindered us at the same time, but more importantly it's kept us relevant. While Hollywood and the internet turned Los Angeles and Seattle into boom towns, they've all experienced the aftershocks of having nothing to fall back on.

While we've never really been a boom town, save 1776, we've never experienced a complete absence of industry like Detroit.

The economy will always wax and wane, and we might be headed down, maybe, but at worst we'll experience the 70's all over again.

But we will never be Detroit.


Next Stop: Satan's Butt Hole

As SEPTA finally put a little R&D into what commuters have been asking since the late 50's, some suburban ass wads shared their self important two cents with

SEPTA, perhaps following the success of Metro's expansion into Tysons Corner and ultimately the Dulles corridor, has begun studying the feasibility of a high speed rail connecting Center City and the region's black hole of public transportation, King of Prussia, potentially alleviating the nightmare known as I-76 which invented the phrase "bottle neck," at 3am on a Wednesday.

Of course the no brainer of expanding SEPTA to Satan's sphincter wasn't met without routine skepticism. Perhaps the douchiest comment came from a woman interviewed by, "If somebody can't get to King of Prussia by car, they shouldn't be coming at all."

Well - whoever you are - I have some choice words for you myself. Congratulations on defining the word "narcissist." As if all of us troglodytic Philadelphians are seeking a reprieve from our renowned museums and parks, pining for a fast route to your concrete oasis. My city is synonymous with history, architecture, art, and culture. I guess I'd have a little sand in my crawl if mine was synonymous with a mall.

Any high speed line of King of Prussia would predominantly benefit the endless commuters that drive to the city every day to avoid the city wage tax. Some inexplicably content with sitting in their car for four or five hours a day.

Without Lynnewood Hall, Cheltenham is just another suburb

Type "Lynnewood Hall" into Google Maps. See it? It comes right up. That's how infamous the Horace Trumbauer mansion has become.

For the past two decades, Richard Yoon, pastor for the First Korean Church of New York and a surgeon, has been battling with the Cheltenham Township over turning his property into a church. Since 1998 the township has refused any variance that would allow operating a church or school in this residential neighborhood.

But look back at that map. Why? Aside from the fact that Lynnewood Hall's land is a small reprieve of green amid a sea of sprawling suburbia, it's around the corner from a mall. How is refusing a church or school in the neighborhood's best interest, especially when you consider the mansion has been all but vacant for twenty years?

Yoon has been paying over $100,000 in taxes on the property every year, taxes that would be exempt if it were a church or school. The decision likely has to do with taxes. Taxes in Cheltenham Township are insane, and the desire to seek taxable development is reflected in commissioner Harvey Portner's statement, "it can be and should be developed into something magnificent."

There are two problems with his statement, two problems that plague politics in the Philadelphia region.

Portner is playing the part of a development speculator without actually being a developer. We see this all over Philadelphia. Politicians grant demolition licenses hoping that development will come, and it never does.

This is particularly troublesome with an historic property in a township like Cheltenham. It's not the Main Line so we're not going to see the mansion fall into the hands of a wealthy philanthropist. We're also not going to see it make way for an even more fantastic project.

Based on Portner's statement, the best he can hope for is more suburbia that will slightly exceed the tax the township currently sees from the property. At worst, it will change hands, falls into disrepair, gets razed, and never become anything. Developers aren't exactly fighting to build in Cheltenham.

This brings up the second problem with Portner's statement: the township's lack of regard for its history.

Let's be honest, the best use for this property isn't as a church or school. Ideally, a rich eccentric would buy it and live there. But that's not happening.

The most realistic way to save this property is tax exempt, either as Yoon's church or as a non-profit historic house museum.

The township's leaders don't seem to understand the benefits that come with a site like this, the pride that finds its way to its neighbors. Without Lynnewood Hall, Cheltenham is just another indistinguishable suburb. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Changes Coming on Market East

Now that PREIT has finally consolidated the last piece of the Gallery at Market East quagmire, the company that controls 45% of the leasable mall space in the region is primed for a major cohesive overhaul. In the words of Peter Griffin, "that was an ordeal."

Joe Coradino who runs PREIT, made promising remarks, comparing Center City to Manhattan and Chicago and expressed a clear understanding of the importance of the Gallery as a suburban transportation hub.

Coradino is focusing on two options: "high end fashion anchor" or "fast fashion and food." Both are a step up from what it's become. But keep in mind, the Gallery's reputation as a low end "dead mall" is relatively recent.

Despite it's brutal architecture, a decade ago the Gallery wasn't the four-letter-word of Market East. In fact, it was what kept it alive. Strawbridge's was a high end department store that did relatively well, and it anchored a mall that catered to a diverse clientele. Essentially it catered to what Philadelphia was. Whatever the mall becomes, catering to what Philadelphia is, is the marketing strategy that will succeed.

People love to crap on the Gallery, but that's largely because of what it's become. It's become Philadelphia's poster child for "why malls fail in city centers." Maybe that's true. Maybe inward facing malls that fortress themselves from the streets do fail in urban cores. But instead of focusing on the book jacket, let's focus on the potential asset we have on Market East. 

If Coradino can sign an attractive anchor that puts the mall in the black, not only will it raise the eyebrows of smaller retailers, PREIT will finally see the profits to bring the mall up to what the 21st Century says urban shopping should encompass.

With a few doors and windows facing Market Street, the architecture really isn't that bad. In fact, it could be downright fantastic. With any luck, in a few years the only question will be why the Disney Hole is still a parking lot.