Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Philadelphia Boondoggle

From Penn's Landing to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia's public endeavors seem to be the definitive embodiment of a boondoggle. Twenty one years after the Pennsylvania Convention Center opened, the billion dollar money pit has yet to deliver its promises. When the Center's first phase failed miserably, the state threw more money at an expansion that hasn't unlocked the front doors of its grand fa├žade, several years after it was complete.

Now it's true, civic projects are not designed to profit but - theoretically - use tax revenue to best serve its taxpayers. They provide a necessary service or an asset. However profitability shouldn't be ignored. Adjacent development was used to pitch the PCC expansion. When the development never emerged, or emerged heavily subsidized, no one was really held accountable. Empty promises are the method operandi of the status quo.

The only new hotel to emerge near the PCC is the lackluster Hilton Home2 at 12th and Arch, its ground floor retail occupied by the first fast food options you'd expect to find next to any convention center in America, two decades after it opened.

Meanwhile the surface lots north of the PCC continue to chip away at the build environment, trading buyable real estate for high cost/low maintenance surface parking. Whether or not the PCC has recouped the billion spent on its two phased construction or if it can maintain its day to day operations with the revenue from its vendors, the center has done more harm than good. Considering the emerging revitalization of the Loft District, the Reading Viaduct Park, and the nation's overall renewed interest in downtown living, the PCC has come to find itself an unwelcome partner in City Hall's vicinity.

After all, the streets surrounding Reading Terminal below Vine Street looked a lot like today's Loft District before the PCC was dropped on us by the state. It's no stretch to imagine that the neighborhood's proximity to Washington Square West and Reading Terminal Market would have helped it evolve into one that looks a lot like Old City were it not for the PCC. And full time residents vested in its streets would have undoubtedly had an impact on our deteriorating Market East.

But ifs and buts aren't cluster of nuts, so, no granola.

Still, what about our future boondoggles? Has the city learned its lesson?

As malls go, ordinary but not bad - architecturally. Fill it with attractions that appeal to the market on the street: TOURISTS.

Speaking of Market East, PREIT may be the city's next money pit. Although the Gallery at Market East isn't owned by the city, the marriage between the two is strong. It's not surprising that PREIT's proposals for a revitalized Gallery Mall are about as lackluster as anything the city pitches. History has told us that inner city malls don't work and why, but those at PREIT can only see their white elephant as a mall.

While its layout may scream "mall," its best reuse as a mall is only by the vaguest definition. Tucked between numerous hotels and the Historic District, it should be full of tourist attractions, a beer hall, and some corny museums. But all PREIT can see is Center City's answer to King of Prussia and a Target, despite the fact that Center City already has KOP on Walnut Street and Kmart failed for the same reason a Target won't succeed.

But why should we expect innovation? PREIT, like the city and state offices vested in the PCC and its expansion, don't understand Center City and what it needs. When it comes to master plans, particularly if the word "Pennsylvania" is affixed, it's tough to expect more than a cash strapped burden.

Can it ever get better? Maybe. The Delaware River Waterfront Commission incited a bit of excitement surrounding the release of its new master plan. But "master plan" has developed a pejorative connotation when it comes to civic projects. Hargreaves Associates master plan for Penn's Landing and the vicinity is far from the first. Despite the fact that it's a good design, one that includes speculative commercial and residential development, on its own it provides no new reason to go to the river that isn't already there.

With more destination attractions, residents, and events, Festival Pier is not a bad space.
Like PREIT and City Hall, the DRWC doesn't understand its audience. It's unfortunate. More so than the PCC or the Gallery Mall, Penn's Landing is a potentially unrivalled asset for the city. But it's operated by bureaucrats that understand two things: pushing paper and maintaining the status quo. It should be filled with events every weekend: concerts, movies, exotic animals to promote the Philadelphia Zoo and the New Jersey State Aquarium, local restaurant booths, beer gardens. But the DRWC doesn't field events, it maintains those willing to return.

Unfortunately, until these organizations are employed by visionaries working with businesspeople who know how to execute a vision, we'll be faced with nothing more than renderings and master plans, and perhaps someday, a new Convention Center, Mall, or Waterfront Park afflicted with the exact same obstacles that kept them from ever succeeding in the first place.

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