Sunday, December 28, 2014

Game Changer

Game Changer
1601 Vine Street has spent decades as a surface parking lot, one of many that line the Vine Street Expressway. Despite numerous proposals - some more realistic than others - it seemed that it would forever exist as a reminder of what the expressway's construction did to the surrounding blocks. 

Despite its proximity to Center City, developers are leery of taking a chance on Vine Street.

It's full of traffic. It's loud. It's devoid of pedestrians. It's risky.

The Loft District just north of Vine Street has seen a marginally successful renaissance but it still feels like another town, one a short walk from the center of the city. 

The canyon that separates the north and south is more of a mental barrier than a physical one. Other cities have highways cutting through densely populated areas but they succeed because the surrounding infrastructure allows them to be densely populated. When high-rises and skyscrapers embrace a highway, walking across it is less daunting.

That isn't the case in Philadelphia. Vine Street is lined with surface parking lots and a few structures lingering from the neighborhood's era as a slum. 

But that's changing in a big way. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is building a residential high-rise next to its new temple at 16th and Vine, and it appears prep work has begun. 

So what's the big deal? The vicinity known as Franklintown is chock full of apartment buildings. It's on the better, west-of-broad stretch of Vine. 

Well, it's a big deal because this may be one of the most undesirable lots in Center City. It doesn't just sit above the Vine Street Expressway, it sits next to the highway's exit ramp. It's also a big deal because the Mormon church has the money to build quality, and they usually do. This is a building designed by Robert A. M. Stern's renowned firm, one that could easy find a home on cushy Rittenhouse Square. 

It's changing the game, not just for Franklintown, but also for Vine Street. If it succeeds it tells developers and residents that the Vine Street Expressway isn't the barrier they thought it was, just a short, boring block to walk past. It will also bring more residents, more pedestrians to Vine Street, which means the city will be pressured to address the street's piss-poor pedestrianization, the kind of headaches finally being tackled on Washington Avenue.

In a few years, Vine Street and the neighborhoods just north might be the integrated part of the Center City they should be. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Your Christmas Watch List

If you're looking for some good Christmas movies, avoid the lists. Personally, I love The Christmas Story, but I honestly can't tell you why. The 1983 sleeper classic is cute, offers up nostalgia that most generations can relate to, and has a a couple laugh-out-loud moments that would still be funny if TNT didn't spend the last twenty years shoving it in everyone's face. But at the end of the day, this simple story that Ted Turner turned into an industry all its own, is about a whiney brat begging everyone he sees for a gun. 

So if you're home for the holidays this year and find yourself trying to stomach creepy stop motion elves and wondering if Charlie Brown is actually Kirk Cameron in disguise, check out these forgotten Christmas movies, or movies you might have forgotten are actually Christmas movies.

Trading Places

I'm starting with Philadelphia because, well, Philadelphia. You all know that this 1983 hit takes place at home. If you want to remember what Philadelphia looked like back when it was a mess, just Google it. Its opening montage pairs bougie Rittenhouse Square with gritty pictures of flaming oil drums and a porn theater sidling right up to City Hall. It's also freaking hilarious. 


Gremlins

Forgot Gremlins was a Christmas movie, eh? Yep. The 1984 hit was supposed to be a comedy, but it was a little too dark for some viewers. Because it sent so many kids screaming from the theaters, my eight year old self included, it prompted the Motion Picture Association of America to install a PG-13 rating. Remember that scene when Phoebe Kates described finding her Santa-suited father dead in the chimney? That was supposed to be funny. By the way, at 51, she's still as hot as she ever was.

Caroling

Christmas in Connecticut

I don't know if this movie is an established classic or not, I only discovered it a couple years ago. But being an architecture nerd, any aficionado of the built environment can easily become obsessed with the movie's mansion. It's also surprisingly modern, and funny, for a movie that came out in 1948. 


Christmas Vacation

The Griswold's third National Lampoon's installment might be as overplayed as The Christmas Story, but that doesn't make it any less watchable. The smutty magazine's take on family never ceases to entertain (except maybe in Las Vegas), and their Christmas adventure is perhaps its most depraved, "Don't forget the rubber sheets and the gerbils." And look closely, Julie Louis-Dreyfus plays the quintessential 80s yuppy next-door. "I don't know, Margo!"

"250 strands of lights, 100 individual bulbs per strand, for a grand total of 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights."
Scrooged

I saw Scrooged at the historic Virginia Theater in my hometown shortly before it was torn down. I don't know about you, but I find Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol to be his worst piece of literature. Maybe in 1843 people expected less. But his 1-2-3 approach to telling this story made it tedious, boring, and mind numbingly predictable. Scrooged, on the other hand, one of hundreds of retellings of A Christmas Carol, is still fresh. I don't know if it's the nostalgia of first watching this movie in a grand old cinema palace, or the fact that it's the funniest version of Dicken's inexplicable classic, but twenty four years later it still entertains me. From Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim to the Solid Gold Dancers ("Well I'm sure Charles Dickens would have wanted to see her nipples"), it's both a riot and adorable.

Merry Christmas!



Fate of the Boyd Uncertain, Again

Months ago, at the height of an effort to save Philadelphia's last surviving movie palace, the Historical Commission proved that it knows as little about history as it does preservation by approving the demolition of the Boyd's auditorium.

Neil Rodin promised he'd deliver us an iPic movie theater if Live Nation, its previous owner, cleared the way. Now that the auditorium, perhaps the building's most worthy attribute, is nearly gone, Rodin is out of the picture and the property has been purchased by Pearl.

Pearl Properties pitched a sky scraping apartment building for the now-vacant corner of 19th and Chestnut last summer, but its height and density upset neighbors. Now that it owns the Boyd, the art deco-ish apartment tower can be built without the headache of a zoning variance. 

So what about the Boyd? Well, Hamid Hashemi of iPic insists that it's still interested in leasing the Boyd from Pearl, but Inga Saffron pointed out Friday that iPic could only afford Rodin's cheap rent, and that Pearl has no interest in the movie business. 

Of all the theaters that graced Philadelphia with the birth of celluloid, it's a shame that the Boyd is the only to survive. While its auditorium is indeed beautiful, the only protected piece - its facade - is the building's least interesting attribute. 

As for the historic building, its classification only protects the facade, one that would complement Pearl's proposed tower. But at this point, does it matter? Unless Pearl intends to restore the Boyd's lobby and incorporate it into the tower as its entrance, the theater's face is its least interesting piece. Like ghost structures and shadow walls, salvaged facades can be bitter reminders of history we lost.

Even if Pearl is willing to entertain iPic's proposal and match Rodin's low rent offer, it seems like a poor business move. In fact, iPic's general business model seems like it's designed to fail, or at best, it's not sustainable. Blankets and recliners aren't innovative ways to draw fleeing viewers back to the silver screen. That's like putting a coffee shop in a Blockbuster then doubling the rental price in exchange for the experience. 

If I want to cozy up to a movie, I've got Netflix and a cat at home. I'm not going to spend twenty plus dollars to fall asleep in a room full of strangers. 

As a vintage movie theater, the Boyd's original auditorium would have offered something unique, and the vacant lot next door could have been annexed to provide another screen or two. iPic's bandaid approach to its dying industry never had a realistic future on Chestnut Street, and unless it begins to understand why Millennials would rather watch College Humor on their iPhones than sit in a movie theater for three hours, it doesn't have a future in the business.

Hollywood isn't going anywhere, but how we access it is changing. Offering amenities isn't the solution, it may just stave off the demise for another decade. Like print journalism, the movie theater we've known for a century is on its way out. What's next is anyone's guess, but iPic doesn't have it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fergie's Tower

Remember the Fergie Tower? U3 Venture's 30 story tower of Fergie, former member of Kids Incorporated and Wild Orchid? 

Just kidding. 

The Fergie Tower was/is a proposed apartment tower on Walnut Street between 12th and 13th, currently an EZ Lot that surrounds Fergie's Pub.

Goldenberg Group recently purchased the lot from U3 Ventures and plans to move forward with 300 apartments in a $100M project partnering with Houston-based Hines.

At 26 floors, the tower is ambitious, particularly east of Broad. Although it's not unheard of. The St. James on Washington Square is 45 stories with even more units. 

Between NREA's East Market under demolition/construction on the Girard Trust Block, Stantec's MIC Tower behind Lit Brothers, and Chinatown's potential Eastern Tower, things may soon be looking up in the eastern part of Center City.

And why not? Market East is finally offering the shopping it should, Midtown Village is proving itself an entertainment destination for everyone: People want to live in Center City.

Let's just hope Goldenberg doesn't mess with Fergie's classic Irish pub.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

City Hall Employees: You can walk a few blocks

Councilman Jim Kenney, the one member of Philadelphia City Council that the city doesn't unilaterally hate, has found yet another way to get on our good side. 

Remember the recent buzz about the growing number of cars parked atop City Hall's "apron," the concrete plaza surrounding the building?

Kenny has introduced a bill that would ban apron parking with very few exceptions.

Potential Renovations Coming in the New Year

With the successful arrival of Century 21, you might have expected The Gallery at Market East to roll out the holiday cheer. But with the exception of a thermostat set to "summer in Miami," it might as well be an April Wednesday in the halls of the beleaguered mall. 

No decorations, no Santa, the same classical Muzak. It's just not Christmas on Market East.

Well the Daily News has the reason. PREIT has asked kiosk vendors to vacate the Gallery 1 by the end of the year. The potential renovation is likely good news for shoppers. But some retailers are unhappy. It's not guaranteed that all vendors will be asked to return, and some are speculating that PREIT may not want some back.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

West Philadelphia is doing just fine, thanks

What do we do with the old West Philadelphia High School? It's inarguably a beautiful building. Built in the early 1910s, it was part of a movement to deliver better education to America's growing cities. With stone carvings, concrete castings, mosaic tiles, many of these schools throughout the northeast echoed prestigious institutions of higher learning like the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.

Later waves of educational investment are reflected in the Art Deco architecture of the 1930s and 40s.


But feats of architectural innovation, particularly aging ones, don't translate well in the modern world. The old West Philadelphia High School is massive, riddled with asbestos, and functionally out of date. Following the construction of its replacement, the old school has sat vacant with occasional interest in converting it into apartments, condos, dorms, or entertainment venues. 

One option may be to reopen it to education. But one company recently showed the school's neighbors exactly how to not make that happen: By being complete ass holes.

Pansophic Learning, a Virginia-based K-12 school system, has proposed leasing 90,000 square feet of the building from Strong Place Partners, who intend to convert the rest into apartments. Pansophic wants to provide the neighborhood with the Philadelphia Music and Dance Charter School. As fine as that sounds, they didn't just pitch the idea in the worst way possible, their methodology is perhaps the worst technique for training music and dance: distance learning. 

Pansophic bills itself as an "International Education Company." The word "company" is the first red flag. Commercial education belongs in the realm of undergraduate alternatives: Strayer, ECPI, ITT, DeVry. These organizations aren't useless when it comes to certification programs and business education. But they are second to the educational opportunities found in traditional four year colleges. And they do not belong in K-12.

So why exactly is Pansophic so bad? Well, besides their complete lack of engagement and understanding of the community (which I'll get to in a moment), Pansophic's goal is to deliver education to nations and communities without proper educational resources, in many cases, developing nations. When you're attending a school without basic plumbing and you have no other alternatives - say a brand new high school a block away - Skyping with a teacher in McLean, VA is a step up. But it's hard enough to learn English Literature in a classroom when you're twenty, imagine learning music and dance from a laptop when you're twelve.

Still, the methodology of this corporate school might not be its worst trait. That would be left to either its arrogance or complete cluelessness when it comes to addressing the neighborhood it fancies gracing. Pansophic referred to it as "this blighted part of western University City," claiming its school will "greatly support the resurgence of the community."

Do they mean the community that has been in resurgence for the last decade with improved affordable housing, transit, and a brand new public high school? Are they blinding peddling the canned sales pitch they've used around the globe? Or do they view the "blighted" neighbors as naive enough to spend their hard-earned paychecks on a piss-poor education? 

Maybe they're just one of thousands of companies around the nation that haven't gotten the memo, "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is." Thanks, Pansophic, but we're not a big Detroit, we're a small New York.

Ass Holes!

One thing is for sure, a company run by educators should know the definition of "patronization." 

Philadelphia has teachers, good ones. They're underpaid and overworked, and constantly fighting for the resources to do their jobs well. Do we thank them by outsourcing to virtual teachers from Virginia?

Virginia has one of the best public education systems in the country and some of the highest paid teachers. It's no mystery how Panosphic came to be. They're employing the state's surplus of education degrees in cities struggling with broken systems. But they're not the solution, they're the leach. 

West Philadelphia's community won't benefit from a distance learning system. That system only competes with our state funded teachers and schools, making their jobs even harder. Again, the word  "company" should have been the first red flag when it came to Pansophic because that's exactly what it is. They aren't a "charter school," they're a business, and their business model is to compete with Philadelphia's struggling schools and profit from their demise. 

If they were sending teachers too Philadelphia, teachers who would live in Philadelphia, that would be one thing. But that's not how these schools work. They hire low paid class moderators to maintain the peace while students stare at a somewhat interactive, virtual classroom on their laptops. They're masquerading as the savior of neighborhoods with struggling public schools, but they ran afoul in West Philadelphia because it's succeeding on its own. 

I think it would be great if Strong Place Partners leased 90,000 square feet of its space to an educational organization, but only if that organization was dedicated to education first and profit last. But that is not Pansophic. They just want to run your kids through a treadmill of standardized dynamic teaching methodologies, or some other politely worded translation of "low overhead and high profits."


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Swell of Mediocrity

A really old article found its way onto my Facebook feed this morning. Given all the stories about police brutality around the country, it's not surprising that this article resurfaced. But when I saw the headline, I had to read it.


That's a bit of a misnomer. Police departments don't actually administer IQ tests, but the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test which is used in various industries. Although shorter than most IQ tests, Wonderlic's questions do in fact mirror those in IQ tests.

What turned out to read more like an Onion article than judicially enforced fact wasn't just an isolated incident fourteen years ago in one city. It still takes place throughout the country.

The case involved Robert Jordan, a police officer candidate who took New London, CT's cognitive ability test in 1996 and, scoring a 33 out of 50, was rejected for scoring too high. New London only chose to interview candidates who scored in the 20s, and the national average is around 21 or 22.

That gives your average police officer an IQ of about 104, or just at the crest of the Bell Curve. The average IQ is 100.

Makes more sense now, eh?

Jordan sued and lost. The city claimed that "smarter" candidates may get bored, and with the costly training process, eliminating the most intellectual curbs officer turnover. In some respects, that makes sense. After all, corporations routinely ignore qualified candidates for similar reasons.

But the flaw is in the bureaucratic misunderstanding of the Intelligence Quotient. IQ tests, and tests like the Wonderlic, don't assess a test taker's accumulated knowledge or educational accumulation, they test for abstract and deductive reasoning, spatial relations, and an understanding of cause and effect scenarios. 

They test a candidate's intellectual potential

When you understand what intelligence tests assess, or what intelligence actually means, cities should be looking for candidates who score much higher than average considering the complex situations officers often find themselves in.

An "intelligence cap" may curb turnover, but only because cities have been using the cap to maintain a swell smack in the middle of the status quo. If "smart" officers leave, they're leaving out of frustration, not because they're bored. 

Cities aren't rejecting "smarter" candidates. They're rejecting candidates who dynamically understand conflict, reason, and logic. Candidates who can quickly assess a complex situation. Candidates who have the capability of understanding how escalating various scenarios may play out. 

Those are the exact candidates police departments need on the force.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Spruce Parker: Beacon of Hope

As the days grow colder, homelessness in Philadelphia becomes painfully more apparent. Holding doors, peddling their stories - legitimate or not - in exchange for change, sleeping atop steam vents to escape the cold of Fairmount Park and our abandoned underground, winter sweeps in and turns a nuisance into a heartbreaking reality for all but the most cynical pedestrians. 

With the closure of the Spruce Parker Hotel at 13th and Spruce, some former residents have found themselves with nowhere to go at the worst possible time. You don't need to interview homeless men and women to see it. You just need to walk around Washington Square West in the early morning and you'll see those who once called the Parker home, or just an occasional warm bed. 

For all the ills that came with the Parker Hotel, it offered a small reprieve for those we'd rather forget.  Some are drug addicts, some of them prostitutes, but for all the homeless, they have found themselves in a very dark world nearly impossible to escape. 

Conservative estimates state that nearly 40,000 of America's homeless are military veterans. In 2013, according to a HUD survey, there were 440 homeless vets living in Philadelphia with more than 1400 in the Commonwealth. The numbers skyrocket in sun-drenched Los Angeles where "Skid Row" appears on Google Maps as if it were simply the Fashion District. 

In Philadelphia, we have no more answers than Los Angeles, Seattle, or Miami. And whether or not we ever understand every single instance of homelessness, we have the means to give back a little more than the food in the back of your pantry. And it doesn't have to be a solely city or state funded effort. With a little good will and a sense of civic pride, Philadelphia has more than 200 rooms awaiting those in need.

U.S.Vets-Phoenix is converting a hotel in Arizona through donations. For $2000, a company or individual can pay for the renovation of one hotel room to be offered as affordable housing for one of the state's homeless veterans.

The Spruce Parker Hotel has never been a desirable venue. At best it will sit vacant for years. At worst, it will be demolished for a parking lot. Why not solicit donations to convert the place into affordable veteran housing? Similar housing exists in Philadelphia, but largely  to provide a place for those in danger of losing what they have, not those who've already lost. 

With the right campaign, the Parker could provide volunteer counseling, medical care, and security in a sober place for rehabilitation. Sure, it could become dorms, apartments, or condos. But there is plenty of land for profitable development to build from scratch. The Parker exists in tact, and doesn't need to be much more than it already is, not for those who need it. Why not turn something with such a dark and nefarious past into a beacon of something greater? Hope.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Philadelphia's First Velodrome?

Okay, first of all, what's a velodrome? Well it's an arena for bicycle racing.

I have to say, from the Rocky Balboa Run to Yoga on the Steps to Paine's Skatepark, I think it's great that America's once unhealthiest and most obese cities is truly investing in exercise. 

Project 250 has proposed a velodrome for South Philadelphia's Stadium District. But unlike Lincoln Financial Field or Citizens Bank Park, the velodrome wouldn't just be a place to host competitions, it would be a place for cycling enthusiasts to learn and practice. 

Unfortunately its public accessibility has placed it in a realm governed by the city's authority over public spaces, landing it on four acres of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. 

Common sense puts any new South Philadelphia arena on one of the seemingly endless supply of surface lots surrounding the stadiums and the upcoming Live! Casino. 

If the $100M project happens, Project 250 will convert a four acre parking lot across from FDR Park into additional green space. It's a worthy concession but one that doesn't make a lot of sense. If Project 250's velodrome becomes the World Class venue it aims to become, it will require parking, parking that will likely be provided on its four acre parcel within FDR Park. 

Why not share parking at the asphalt prairies that surround the stadiums, and add one more world class gem to our collection of world class stadiums? The district is growing along with the city, and it's become apparent that we don't understand the difference between static and dynamic parking. 

In a neighborhood that should be thinking vertically, Project 250's velodrome needs to find a place inside the city, not across it. And there is plenty of room on the east side of Broad Street.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Brutal Honesty

We've heard it all before: The Divine Lorraine is about to be reborn. Since it was sold by Mother Divine in 2000, its fate has been unsure. Still, it's local lore's most mysterious and beloved landmark. The public has been, obviously, hopeful. 

It sat vacant, it's been gutted and abandoned, it's been tagged, and it's been mined for resources. In all ways, it is a tragic analogy for Philadelphia's love-hate relationship with its history. Our last movie palace met with demolition crews this year. Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption will likely suffer the same fate. 

With the Divine Lorraine's large footprint, it's easy to guess that the only reason it still stands is because it's on a costly intersection in a not-so-profit friendly part of town. Basically, no one's bothered to tear it down for a parking lot because no one wants to park there.

Philadelphian's can have an ironically obtuse outlook on history. Many cling to aging and irrelevant institutions like unions and midcentury diners, holding on to the nostalgia of our past, not the relics. What many cling to is their Philadelphia. Row homes decked out in Christmas lights in July. Bizarrely acceptable parking rules. 

We are a microcosm of Americana, a city of neighborhoods, and too many forget that we are also one city, one of the biggest in the nation. Those archaic platitudes that allow places like Fishtown and South Philadelphia to hold onto irrelevance creep their way into the greater city and adversely impact what we should be.

The Divine Lorraine is more than a metaphor for a city that loves to hate itself, it's an example of how its residents are inhibiting its future. 

North Jersey based developer, Billy Procida, has already agreed to funnel more than $31M into Eric Blumenfeld's Divine Lorraine, primarily because he simply likes the building.

Cities with economies as robust as New York may be accustomed to this sort of situation mainly because there's little risk in a city where people are fighting to spend $2000 a month on studio apartments. But here it's rare. There's no question that Procida would like to profit from his investment, but if that's all he was concerned with he'd be purchasing a beleaguered building in a developed part of the city. He'd be renovating the Spruce Parker or the Lincoln. 

But despite his wealth and penchant for terraforming neighborhoods, Philadelphia's midcentury mentality doesn't allow too much to be built without large grants from the state. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation has approved $3.5M through the Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program. Philly.com's Joseph N. DiStefano asked, "Why do these Philly apartment projects need taxpayer assistance?" to which Procida bluntly replied, "They want everything to be union."

Despite near-daily protests at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia's development climate and its more reasonable unions seem ready and willing to embrace logic. Hotel bookings are up and that's directly correlated to improved work rules at the Center. Considering the precedent set by the Post Brothers at the Goldtex Apartment Building, Procida and Blumenfeld could likely move forward with market rate labor. 

But that means years of protests and complicated headaches at future projects. Until the more nostalgically bullheaded old timers recognize the fact that affordable labor means more work - or leave - development will continue to require what is essentially a government subsidy to accommodate unions. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How One Parking Garage Exposed a NIMBY's Ulterior Motive

The Piazza is getting a new parking garage, you know, right around the corner from that other parking garage. Despite easy access to SEPTA's Girard Avenue El, Northern Liberties residents seem deeply attached to their cars. And neighbors already turning a blind eye to heinously bizarre street parking juxtaposed against fantastic architecture seem more than willing to accommodate suburban traffic as long as there's a place to stash their beloved Priuses.

A new parking garage on land that can accommodate one may seem benign. Despite Northern Liberties should-be proximity to Center City (Spring Garden really is just a few blocks from Old City), it's been an island since I-95 was built. But residents' lack of reaction to more parking exposes neighborhood groups' own hypocrisy and what they really expect of the city.


Um...

At the height of the building boom, numerous high-rises were proposed along the river. So many so that they could have created a densely urban neighborhood on par with West Market Street. 

What happened? 

The neighborhood bitched and moaned about shadows and access to the river until the economy collapsed. Then they all retreated west of the interstate to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. 

Well fuck that noise.

These NIMBYs didn't give a shit about shadows or river access - something that still only exists in Penn Treaty Park, a park never threatened by development - but were only concerned with potential urban density that threatened their precious parking spaces.


If Philadelphia wasn't afraid of being Philadelphia, this could have happened.
I guess I just can't grasp the new urban mentality. The mentality of those somewhere between suburban and urban. By the time you've accommodated all the ills that make the suburbs so intolerable you've created a microcosm of those suburban ills: parking structures, parking lots, and a sprawling lack of density.

By then, you've killed your neighborhood and turned it into Ardmore without the charm.

As cities grow - and Philadelphia is growing - that means taller buildings, more people, and less parking. That should be exciting to anyone living in a city. You can't move to a city, applaud yourself for being an urbanite, and then turn around and expect your Starbucks drive-thru. You have to learn to enjoy the urban experience. 

If you don't like it, well, that's why New Jersey exists.

Escaping the Cold...Underground

Now that it's nut shriveling cold outside, your cardio routine has probably taken a hit. The Schuylkill River Trail is so much more inviting than a stationary bike next to twelve others that smell like feet.

Well, have you ever thought of taking to SEPTA's expansive underground concourse for your evening jog? No. That's insane. Your gym's foot smell is way better than that piss smell. 

But what if the concourse looked like this?



That's a rendering of Manhattan's proposed Low Line. Utilizing an abandoned trolley terminal under the Lower East Side, New York hopes to bank on the success of its High Line and turn it upside down. Skylights will filter sunshine into the subterranean park offering a bit of nature during New York's brutal winter.

As Philadelphia wrestles with the logistics of creating our own variation of New York's High Line atop the abandoned Reading Viaduct, others have proposed converting its abandoned extension sunken below the city at Broad and Noble that continues all the way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

While New York beat us to both the High Line and now, possibly, the Low Line, Philadelphia's potential is unique in that the two are already integrated. 

It's a tough sell. The Reading Viaduct Park has faced an uphill battle since it was first conceived but it's finally gaining a strong foothold in reality. But the proposition of an underground "park" anywhere in Philadelphia has been the butt of more C.H.U.D. jokes than actual praise.

That's understandable, but partially because it's been pitched primarily as an underground incarnation of the more logical Reading Viaduct Park. It seems hokey. "If we're using old tracks for an elevated park, why not make one in the tracks underground too?!" It's reactionary, not innovative. 

Obviously the best use for Philadelphia's abandoned rail - both above and below ground - would be to reopen it to subway/elevated trains carting people to black holes of speedy transportation like the Art Museum, the Zoo, and other neighborhoods in the Northwest.

Well, that's not happening. 

And to understand why an underground park is a good idea you have to stop thinking of it as a park. Even in New York, while the Low Line may offer similar plant life found above ground, it will likely find its best use as a well dressed concourse ferrying pedestrians throughout the Lower East Side during the winter and on rainy days. Clean, it will also offer recreationalists a unique reprieve from their boring gyms.

When you think about it that way, jogging throughout Philadelphia's concourse - and our own Low Line - don't seem like such a half baked idea. Philadelphia's abandoned tunnel, The City Branch Line, extends from Broad to Pennsylvania Avenue. It's not a long walk but the urban planning missteps that created Franklin Town make it an awkwardly disjointed one. One an underground concourse could easily address.

Unions: Lost in Nostalgia

According to Philly.com, the city has experienced a 20% increase in hotel bookings directly related to improved work rules at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. 

Record scratch - what?

Check out the numbers in the article. They're impressive.

It's also a mind blowing no-brainer the Pennsylvania Convention Center should have grasped way back when it opened in 1993. But politics and the mentality of residents have changed. The only thing that hasn't changed, it seems, are the tactics of the dying trade unions. And they're not dying because of public perception, they're suffocating themselves by refusing to acknowledge a new millennium...already 14 years old.


How effective are their weekly protests at the Convention Center? Those of us annoyed by their routined rhetoric are local, while the vast majority of convention attendees are not. Conventioneers are simply returning home with a funny story about some inflatable "Fat Cat" they saw in Philadelphia. Their presence has little to no barring on any conventions. Hell, they're even offering up some good music at 12th and Arch.

Lately they've been picketing Boxers, a new bar in the Gayborhood...at 10am. You know when customers and employees aren't at bars? At 10am. One passerby even commented on the inflatable rat, "I don't get it, are they calling themselves rats?"

They're cluelessness would be sad if they weren't trying to strangle development in the city. Protests at Goldtex Apartments at 12th and Pearl were so misguided that the developers, the Post Brothers, actually highjacked their rhetoric and used it as a marketing ploy. But those acting out were too bent on chasing their waking dream that they didn't get it.

Here's how lost they are: When I was taking pictures of some picketers at an apartment development near Race and Camac one day, a protestor mistook me for someone who gave a shit and said. "Look, dey got den damn Mexicans working up there, you know dey ain't local." 

I didn't even know how to respond. Not because of the racist nature of his remark, but because the racist nature of his remark was about two layers deep. The workers he was pointing at were Chinese...in Chinatown. So I just muttered something about all the New Jersey license plates illegally parked next to him and walked away. 

These are organizations so deeply indebted to their own dysfunctions that they can't even recognize the fact that they need guidance. Philadelphia's sidewalks are a mouse maze of pedestrians staring at their phones and listening to Taylor Swift. The 21st Century cares about a union protest only for as long as it takes to post it on Instagram.

The best thing the more rigid unions could do would be to hire a public relationship manager well versed in marketing organ slimming pills during Real Housewives marathons. Someone who understands that the only causes the modern world cares about are those with a brand and sexy spokespeople. 

But they're lost, buried beneath rhetoric that applied in an era when politicians turned a blind eye to the illegal and violent efforts that got unscrupulous results. But the truth is, politicians were never on their side. Politicians are on the side of what wins elections. And in a new world where picket lines are irrelevant, politicians who join, lose. And the delusions that keep fueling these aging unions' tactics have turned them into a nonsensical circus, and that's exactly why they'll vanish.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Uber is Here to Stay...and It's Good For Us

Yes, please.
Say what you will about Uber, or it's more affordable option, UberX. 

Rhetoric has been compiled by an industry that has been playing fast and lose with a monopoly for decades. Around the country, Uber drivers have been accused of being reckless and harassing customers. In all likelihood those accusations are 100% correct. But the fact many seem to ignore is: taxi drivers have been getting away with this for years.

It's a double standard likely caused by a multitude of reasons. For starters, taxi cabs have been reputedly disgusting since the dawn of hired carriage rides. They're rude, they stink, and they'll take you on a joy ride if you don't know where you're going. It's easy to call out an isolated disservice in an Uber car because Uber gives you a venue to call out the disservice

Your Uber driver has a predetermined route to guarantee an accurate estimate. The driver cannot claim that the "credit card machine is down" to pocket the fare. The transaction takes place in the cloud. And if - worst case scenario - you have an unseemly altercation with your driver, you know exactly who's driving you. 

The gripes that don't sidestep reason seem fixated on Uber's apparent assault on a timelessly nostalgic and struggling institution, as if you're being carted around in a horse and buggy, not a twenty year old Caprice Classic with worn shocks and bald tires. 

Industries change and cabs are by no means the struggling poster child for a dying industry. If they are dying, they're dying at the hands of their owners. 

A medallion required to operate a taxi cab in Philadelphia cost $65,000 in 2005. Thanks to an uptick in transit minded residents, DUI checkpoints, and simply more reasons to be downtown, that cost rose to nearly half a million dollars. Well surprise, surprise, that $475,000 price tag is as dead as the Studebaker. The Philadelphia Parking Authority - who in a baffling conflict of interest apparently oversees Philadelphia's taxi cabs - allowed the asking price to be lowered to a paltry $350,000.

What's more mind blowing than any of this is why, when faced with an apparent rise in demand for cabs in the last nine years, the value of a static number of medallions was raised, and not the number of medallions themselves. In a giant "f*ck you" to the consumer, the foundation of the cab industry, the PPA allowed medallion owners to sidestep the very process by which competitive industries work. And now Uber is giving them exactly what they deserve: a cold, hard reality check. 

Chalet on the Delaware

The people have spoken and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has answered. Who knew? People like being on the water. I'll set aside my snarky remarks about the torrid history of Philadelphia's Delaware Waterfront for the positive direction it's taking.

Riding the success of the Spruce Street Harbor Park, Penn's Landing is being transformed into a Swiss ski chalet this winter. The RiverRink has been a hit for years, but in the past the waterfront has offered little else in its colder months. This year, RiverRink will have to compete with Dilworth Park's much more convenient and scenic iceskating rink. And they're doing it right.


Two tents known as The Lodge will be outfitted with cozy sofas and rocking chairs, and - of course - Garces Events will be bringing the menu. Remember Stephen Starr? What ever happened to that guy?

Familiar to those who frequented the Spruce Street Harbor Park, the retrofitted shipping containers will be back and full of gifts from Art Star and arcade games.

But here's the best part, and something just so quirky and uniquely Philadelphian: salvaged materials including fireplace mantles and other architectural details outfitting The Lodge are from none other than the city's grande dame of Broad Street, the Divine Ms. L.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Can Preservation Be Proactive?

To look at Philadelphia from the river, we look like any other successful city. Office buildings dominate the skyline, historic steeples complement glassy towers, and from University City to Market East, the city continues to be redefined architecturally. 

But step inside and it's another story. We aren't a city that moves quickly. If New York and Chicago build like the Autobahn, Philadelphia's development climate can be summed up by the Schuylkill at 5PM any time of day.

We are a culture that caters to bureaucracy and neighborhood organizations that miss the mark, and it scars the landscape. As a city home to perhaps the nation's largest portfolio of architectural history and heritage, the fight to save our most beleaguered landmarks is often lost to decades of squabbles. What's worse, some of the most careless developers know this and use it to their advantage.

If you want to tear down a crumbling church for a parking lot or suburban strip mall, all you have to do is wait it out. No site in Center City knows this better than the historic Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street.

After years of on-again off-again bickering between developers, owners, the Historical Commission, and advocacy groups, a demolition permit has been issued to the building's current owner, John Wei. Considering all of the city's historical losses in the past forty or fifty years, placing a site on the city's Register of Historic Places almost seems like it ensures a building's inevitable demolition.

The current state of the church means it will almost certainly be demolished despite any appeals. It's just too costly to repair, at least in terms with what you could actually get out of such a space. Were it habitable, it would make a nice gym, theater, or nightclub. But its condition is not a technicality. It's falling apart.

The Church of the Assumption is unique. What happened to it, unfortunately is not. And I'm not just referring to the loss of a landmark. I'm talking about how it was lost. Call it what you want, but what happened to the Church of the Assumption boils down to a dysfunctional dinner table argument full of family members only tethered to each other by blood. While Grandpa was complaining about cell phones, the parents announced their divorce, and the daughter Tweeted the whole ordeal...the dinner rotted and ended up in the dog's bowl.

But this is a lesson Philadelphia's historical advocates are routinely offered but never learn. And it's going to happen again. The Spruce Parker Hotel was recently shut down after a small fire. It's not a historically designated building, nor should it be, but it's a beefy building on a prime corner. Without an eager buyer willing to upgrade the modest hotel, it will begin to deteriorate and we'll wind up with another surface parking lot in Center City.

Around the corner, the renovation of the Lincoln Apartments appears to have stalled. It may simply be that the logistics of rebuilding an aging structure from the inside out is too complex to show quick signs of progress. But it may also be that the effort has proven more complicated and costly than first thought. Old City recently learned the cost of letting a building drift into disrepair. As the Shirt Corner closed and promised a handsome 3rd and Market, it's twin burned leaving the corner with a vacant lot and a prime corner looking worse than ever.

So what's the point of this rambling rant? Well, for starters, true advocates need to be proactive, not reactive. It's understandable amongst community organizations. Members don't have time to be on top of every effort. They have jobs. But those charged with protecting history, being on top of the effort is the job. Fighting a fight at the eleventh hour rarely works, and this has been made painfully apparently time and time again. 

The Church of the Assumption will be torn down whether or not anyone wants to admit it. It's unfortunate, and I'm not being negative. I'm suggesting we looking for the next Church of the Assumption: Robinson's Department Store, The Roundhouse, The Health District Center. Start the fight before it's a fight. Proactively seek tenants not just with the means to preserve these landmarks, but with the desire for landmark properties. 



Saturday, November 22, 2014

The City Hall Parking Lot

The west portal to City Hall, Dilworth Plaza, has been reinvented as Dilworth Park. Despite critical opinion, the public has spoken: new is better, especially when there's something to do. Now that the fountain has been transformed into an ice skating rink, one flanked by architecture as diverse as this city (take that, Rockefeller Center), it's found itself full of hundreds of tourists and locals enjoying the outdoors, even when it's brutally cold.

But prior to Dilworth's rebirth, you probably avoided its cracked sidewalks and impractical sunken plaza, the one with that piss smell. So you probably also didn't notice all the city employees who've been treating City Hall's north plaza like a suburban Walmart parking lot.

Well, someone took note. And then someone else. And then someone even started a Tumblr page about it.

Of all the quips about the absurdity of draping the city's most monumental feat of engineering with a make-shift parking lot, the best came in the comments section of PhillyMag.com of all places: "We have the walkability of Paris and the car-centric mentality of Dallas." We sure do, IR, we sure do.

It may seem petty. The city is growing as we speak. We're better accommodating bicyclists, we're keeping subway lines open later, we're even offering the unheard of notion of credit cards at transit stations. Market East is finally recognizing its potential, and will soon be rising. The same can be said for East Chestnut. 

So yeah, crying about a few (twenty) cars dwarfed by City Hall seems a bit silly. But while many Center City residents have long understood that parking is a privilege, not a right, the city that North Broad faces is largely another story. 

You don't even have to go to Vine to find ample parking on North Broad, and its side streets are flanked with additional parking. And when you finally do reach Vine, still a short walk from City Hall, you'll find Center City's dirty little secret (well, not so little, it's derelict parking lots cover acres of developable land.)

Meanwhile the cretins parking on the sidewalk around City Hall as if it's the Oregon Avenue median are pointing their middle finger at anyone who thinks they should be paying for the privilege of walking two blocks. 

Why, why, oh why, does City Hall require the overwhelming majority of new development offer parking spaces for the supposed sake of traffic and parking if City Hall doesn't require their employees to use them?

By the logic that parks City Hall employees on its sidewalks, we should have torn down the Logan Square neighborhood to accommodate employees in the upcoming CITC.

Again, it may seem petty, but it's representative of a bureaucracy that governs some of the greatest walkability in the nation but refuses to encourage it, or even accept it themselves.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Is Little Pete's Worth Saving?

#savelittlepetes is now a thing. 

As the block home to Little Pete's at 17th and Chancellor will likely be rezoned to accommodate a 12 story Hudson Hotel, the diner's days are numbered. 

However, unlike the 50s-era Letto Deli recently demolished at 13th and Chancellor, Little Pete's iconic 17th Street location is only iconic in its interior and signage, all of which could be moved to another location if management chooses to. 

It could even feasibly be reopened on the ground floor of the new hotel. 

But Bob Skiba, the Gayborhood Guru of Hidden City uncovered a bit of history that will be lost with this unassuming parking garage. Like Letto Deli's location on 13th, Little Pete's was once a Dewey's Famous Diner. While Dewey's on 13th tolerated the Gayborhood's largely LGBT clientele as far back as the 1960s, its 17th location barred "a large number of homosexuals...wearing non-conformist clothing."

Civil protests were certainly not unheard of in the 60s, but four years before the famous Stonewall Riots in New York City -  events that typically mark the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement - 150 men and women staged a protest at Dewey's on 17th in 1965.

That same year, another one of the nation's first gay rights rallies was held at Independence Hall. Known as the Annual Reminder, these pickets were held until 1969 when the movement was moved to Christopher Street in New York City to coincided with that year's Stonewall Riots.

While Dewey's is long gone, the location's significance may perhaps be stronger than ever given recent strides in LGBT rights and marriage equality. Philadelphia is home to a lot of "firsts" but I'd be willing to bet that quite a few, even those active in the LGBT rights movement, know just how integral a role the City of Brotherly love has played. 

Even today, despite conservative politics in Harrisburg and throughout the Commonwealth, Philadelphia continues to lead the nation in progressive policies. From Congressman Brian Sims to the ever vigilant Councilman Jim Kenney, both more concerned with doing what's right than playing politics, we continue to be a city that pushes towards the side of acceptance, even if it's unpopular. For the second year in a row, Philadelphia has tied for first place in LGBT equality.

While we have leaders to thank, like State Attorney Kathleen Kane who refused to defend an unconstitutional ban on gay marriage, we also have a loud and opinionated public that refuses to accept injustice even when it may not coincide with their personal beliefs.

Growing up in the South I'm well versed in the hypocrisy of a region known for its "hospitality." It may seem ironic that Philadelphia, a city reputably rude, would also be so tolerant and accepting. Perhaps its because hospitality and politeness are a farce and rarely have anything to do with recognizing what's just. Anyone who's participated in a protest or sit-in knows how true that is. 

And that's exactly why Dewey's Famous on 17th Street may play a role in history, but as a building, isn't deserved of preservation. 

Our rebellious roots were alive and well in 1965. Philadelphia is no stranger to architectural lost, but we've never lost our way. Little Pete's is just a diner and the Hudson Hotel is no one's civil enemy. Philadelphia is still - and will remain - a city that fights for what's right.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Live! Hotel and Casino

It's been a long and contentious road, but the final decision has been made for Philadelphia's second casino. Whether you like gaming or not, if Philadelphia needs another one, the right location was chosen.

As opposed to Center City locations, Live! Hotel and Casino has always been a no brainer. 

The location has always been a no brainer...for all of Philadelphia's casinos. 

But because of state rules that prohibit pairing up competing casinos, each has to be a specific distance from another. In a way it makes sense. If casinos were allowed to compete for a location, Pennsylvania could end up with an Atlantic City without a beach. But the lack of competition also keeps each casino dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.

Nonetheless, the Stadium District is already a growing entertainment zone. Detached from residents and surrounded by freeways and parking lots, the area is free to offer bars, concert venues, and now a casino without annoying any neighbors. 

Whether or not Live!'s hotel materializes, like the component that seems to have been abandoned by SugarHouse, the casino will benefit from adjacent activity. While SugarHouse neither complements nor caters to its neighborhood, in fact it does just the opposite, Live! will be a marketable asset to Philadelphia's burgeoning party strip. 


Monday, November 17, 2014

Collateral Damage

In an unfortunate series of events, Philadelphia's Gayborhood neighborhood was delivered several hits in the last month. The former Letto Deli, a unique piece of 50s era Americana, was demolished. iCandy was faced with the suspension of its liquor license. And sadly, it seems, Westbury will be closing.

After a fire broke out in the Spruce Parker Hotel, the city shut it down. The Westbury, a popular gay bar, was caught in the cross fire. Without a second exit, the bar was shut down along with the hotel. 

The city has been looking for a reason to shut down the Parker for years. The hotel is a remnant of a city that no longer exists. Some call it a hostel, others a whore house.

It's by-the-day, -week, and -month rates harken us back to a time when cities were more than Carrie Bradshaw and Co. brunching with their trikes in toe. Cities were places of diversity...ugly, ugly diversity.

To be fair, the Parker has become a venue for prostitutes, drugs abuse, suicide, and other ill repute. But it was also a place for those struggling to make ends meet, newcomers, and rent hikes. The Parker represents the ugly diversity that self ascribed champions of sympathy love to love but refuse to talk about: hardship, crime, and homelessness.

As unfortunate as it is, the Westbury is collateral damage. But the Parker offered something unique: affordable housing in a city that still needs it.

For all that's been said of the Parker, I'd love to see someone rattle off the crime rates at 13th and Spruce relative to any other corner of Center City, even Rittenhouse. The Parker was a flea-bag hotel, sure, but that's all it was. It was as much a place of struggle as it was for insidious activity. 

People only want to see the worst in others.

Liberalism can be a blindly double edged sword. While many who proclaim themselves champions of cause pat themselves on the back for cleaning up their neighborhoods, they've ignored those they've displaced with nowhere to go. We liberals view community gardens as improvements, but turn a blind eye to those who strive for a warm meal from McDonald's.

What sickens me most about the Parker's closure isn't the building's closure, it's the hypocrisy behind the unofficial campaign to eradicate the occasional warm bed for those accustomed to sleeping on the street.

The Gayborhood of all places is Center City's last vestige of cause. We should know better than anyone. When a kid is thrown out of a suburban home for coming out to his parents, the Parker was a bed. Now he or she has a steam vent along Market East. 

Progress isn't measured in the superficiality of new condos and hotels, it's measured in compassion. The Parker may have been a den of inequity, but no one stopped to question why that den existed. Its drug abuse, prostitution, and suicides weren't products of the hotel, they were products of our society. Now that the Parker is gone, those atrocities won't vanish, they'll be relinquished to the streets where they'll be ignored. 

We shouldn't have been campaigning to close the Parker, we should have been campaigning to end the reason the Parker served a need. 

13th and Spruce may find itself with a new hotel, market rate apartments, or a vacant building. But erasing the Parker from Philadelphia did nothing for those who needed it. At best it traded a rare alternative to a homeless shelter for boutique hotel rooms. At worst, those who resided at the Parker will be living on the streets in exchange for an abandoned high-rise. 

Think about that, then pat yourself on the back. As so-called "progress" transforms American cities with upscale apartments and trendy cafes, is it any wonder that homelessness is on the rise?