Thursday, January 30, 2014

NREA's Girard Square

Since Mayor Richardson Dilworth's massive overhaul of Society Hill, Philadelphia's Center City has seen a number of hackneyed projects by urban planners, but private development has been left to grow organically. In recent years, developers have taken to emerging neighborhoods to implement master plans, some more successful than others, but from Passyunk Square to the Piazza, they've left a lasting impact.

It seems counterintuitive that developers take to the netherregions of the city to invest, but in cities like Philadelphia, those neighborhoods are home to vast tracts of affordable property and less community involvement. Most visibly, these neighborhoods offer architects the opportunity to practice and fine tune their craft, for better (the Piazza) or worse (the Piazza).

The time may have come for this creative planning to find its way to Center City. Unlike New York or Chicago, Philadelphia's proper core hasn't been exhausted. Contrary to logic, the untapped localles surrounding City Hall have always been risky. It's taken developers a long time to come to trust Center City's real estate market well enough to know we don't have a U-Haul parked in front of our apartments, ready to bolt at any moment.

In Philadelphia, we do things backwards. We're cautious. Just as developers have chosen Graduate Hospital and University City to invest, Center City developers have tiptoed around our major thoroughfares. With the exception of a few large residential projects on West Market Street, likely driven by their proximity to highways and corporate Philadelphia, it's hard to look at the should-be prime real estate of Market East and not ask, "how bad are they going to let this get?"

PREIT has tentative plans to subdivide its Kmart location and offer smaller retail. It's true, the pass-through anchor store is unusal, and in a successsful mall, PREIT's plan would make sense both financially and architecturally. But with a third floor all but vacant, what retailers will fill these smaller spaces?

Despite the Gallery's reputation, change may be coming to Market East. One of Center City's most successful changes is just around the corner. Midtown Village was a cohesive plan that transformed a forelorn stretch of Center City's Gayborhood overnight, and it's quickly spilling over to Chestnut Street. Some have even compared it to Passyunk Square and the Piazza.

NREA has joined a local developer, and owns the primary stake in Girard Square, the block bound by 11th and 12th, and Market and Chestnut, the block that makes the Gallery at Market East look like a beacon of retail success. NREA recently released a pair of renderings of a redesigned Girard Square that doesn't just redefine Market East, it redefines this part of Center City.

Bringing Chestnut Street's failed pedestrian promenade to the middle of a block where it belongs, NREA combines the success of the Piazza and numerous University City developments, and drops it two blocks from City Hall.

The key to Girard Squares success lies in NREA's proposed residential towers. Despite its proximity to Midtown Village, Center City has proven itself fickle. Without in-house residents for the development's retail and entertainment venues, a Girard Square pedestrian promenade could be a bigger disaster than the Gallery.

Still, the rendering provides some excitingly hopeful eyecandy. Midtown Village is growing with urban newbies, the kind of 30 somethings that grace the cast of Happy Endings and The New Girl, the kind that spend happy hour at Frankford Hall and Bru. They flocked to the city for the Piazza and Passyunk Square. It only makes sense to offer them a place to imbibe amongst Center City's skyscrapers, with a convenient elevator ride home.

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