Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Bright Side of the Pennsylvania Convention Center

After two unions failed to meet a deadlined agreement with the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the massive exhibition space covering three full city blocks may finally have the opportunity to reinvent itself. Given the damage already done by more than two decades of costly union headaches, it will take time for the facility to recover from the reputation it's developed. 

But beneath that sullied reputation, complaints that would make Comcast blush, and the politics that plague its administration, stands a building that's hard to ignore but easy to forget. One that, perhaps aside from much of its architecture, really is great. Sure, scissor lifts and cranes loom over Race Street, lined with parking garages and windowless brick. Chinatown's 11th Street greets pedestrians with vacant store fronts too costly and shallow to find tenants. Even Arch Street, although the center's most used facade, is lined with three blocks of dated monotony. 

However, some buildings can be above architecture, but only if they manage to serve their intended purpose and serve it well. And the Pennsylvania Convention Center could be one of those places.

I was talking with a friend of mine who attended a volleyball convention in Philadelphia a few years ago. Not the biggest of conventions by any means, this year it was held in Washington, D.C. The reasons for moving it to D.C. are obvious and gripes about the Pennsylvania Convention Center have been discussed ad nauseam here, in the media, and message boards.

What was much more surprising was the praise that the Pennsylvania Convention Center received despite its cost. After a few minutes of sharing the usual complaints about its unions, our conversation segued to the uniqueness of the facility, namely its location. It truly is as good as it gets.

D.C.'s Walter E. Washington Convention Center is located across from Mount Vernon Square near the newly gentrified Shaw neighborhood. It's surrounded by the suburban creature comforts we may soon find on Market East, within walking distance of hotels and the National Mall, but it's not near the heart of Washington D.C. which largely lies in its unique series of independent neighborhoods. What's worse, Dulles International Airport is not supported by Metro Rail requiring an expensive and often lengthy cab ride. 

This isn't unique to Washington, D.C. The Los Angeles Convention Center is located downtown, a moniker attributed solely to the city's skyline. Even closer to home, Pittsburgh's  David L. Lawrence Convention Center may run circles around Philadelphia's center both architecturally and environmentally, but it's removed from the city's heart, located on the Allegheny River downtown where life ceases at five on Friday.

The Pennsylvania Convention Center's uniqueness is largely due to the uniqueness of Center City itself. I've often said that the center should have been placed in the demolished Convention Hall and Civic Center west of the Schuylkill River, removed from the heart of Philadelphia "where conventioneers belong."

But its presence at Broad and Arch may be exactly where such a venue belongs. SEPTA carries conventioneers directly to its door from Philadelphia International Airport and 30th Street Station. The Philadelphia Marriott is connected to the center. It's two blocks from City Hall, Midtown Village, and Chinatown, and a short stroll to the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall. 

Soon, East Market and a revitalized Gallery at Market East will offer conventioneers those creature comforts they're accustomed to in their bedroom communities. And unlike those convention spaces isolated on corporate islands, in cities that compartmentalize everything from activities to lifestyles, Philadelphia's Center City offers guests the same activities, lifestyles, shopping, and entertainment conveniently situated in the short space between Vine Street and South Street. 

We don't call Center City the "city center" for a reason. It's not a neighborhood. It truly is a Center City, a city within a city at the Pennsylvania Convention Center's doorsteps. If the center's administrators can maximize their freedom from the confines of the Carpenters and Teamsters and recognize the space's unique location, the Pennsylvania Convention Center may finally be what many had dreamed it would be.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

More Convention Center Surface Parking?

It's not clear what's happening here, but given the fact that the building is mid-block on a small street, it will likely become more surface parking. This is a block of Juniper Street between Race and Vine and the second building on this block to be recently demolished. 

It seems the powers behind one of Philadelphia's most nefarious purveyors of unsightly surface parking will not be content until their footprint is as big as the Pennsylvania Convention Center itself.

A word of advice thanks to the piss poor planners in my small hometown. When one property hoarder demolishes entire blocks or even neighborhoods for surface parking, a funny thing happens. Businesses flee and suddenly no one's left looking for parking.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Power of Words

The term "euphemism treadmill" is applied to once relevant terms that have since been outdated. It's been most notably applied to psychological terminology representing the mentally challenged. "Idiot" and "Moron" were once applied to the mentally challenged, then spent some time as pejorative terminology when they were replaced by "Mentally Retarded," which is now on the treadmill as it's been replaced by the more sympathetic "Mentally Challenged."

Cliches like "words have power" and "choose your words carefully" are true, but ironically many who embrace these statements ignore the words within. Context means so much more. Ask anyone who refers to the President as "Barrack Hussein Obama." It is in fact the President's name, but the context with which conservatives attribute the word means more than the letters that make up the very common name.

At the other end of of this passive pejorative is what has become the antithesis of political correctness. A world where we tiptoe around the most benign vernacular in an effort to be sympathetic, so much so that our sympathy becomes meaningless, and true respect is replaced at best with a fear of our own perceived prejudice, and a worst, pity.

Tiffany Green and Tim Hannah of Black Communities United, members of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, have taken offense to the word "master" in the city's various planning strategies. Obviously the organization is noting the term's use in slavery.

Commissioner Chairman Alan Greenberger took a more diplomatic approach to the notion, citing that "master" may falsely imply that each piece of the plan is in place.

The most deliciously ironic piece of the story (which would've have been news if PlanPhilly hadn't written about it) was from Commissioner Manny Citron. Citron said he had discussed abandoning the term when he was studying planning at Ohio State University. What degree was he working on? His Masters Degree.

The campaign to eradicate the word "master" from the planning process to quell those who claim offense is absurd, and this is just the last in a long line of attempts by the Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze to throw a wrench in the real estate progress taking place in their burgeoning neighborhood. Green and Hannah are simply trying to complicate the process, to buy time before the inevitable.

But Green and Hannah made this absurd claim, so I'm going to jump headfirst down this Rabbit Hole and ask them what it would mean to add "master" to the list of words that dare not be spoken. 

Should Master Lock change its corporate brand name? How about the use of "Master Drives," "Slave Drives," and "abort" in software engineering? Should we rename Masterman High School the School for the Blindly Sympathetic? Of course not, we'd rename it the School for the Visually Impaired and Sympathetic. How about Master Street in Philadelphia or its namesake and his family who share the surname Master?

English is one of the most complex languages in the world. Thousands of words have multiple meanings. Homonyms like "dike" can raise an eyebrow or two. Cigarettes are occasionally referred to as "fags" by British visitors. Corn Hole is a popular game in the South. 

There are plenty of problems in this city, many in the neighborhood from which Green and Hannah hail. But refusing to acknowledge the context of simple words only points to one's own ignorance. But Green and Hannah aren't stupid and what they are doing is worse. They're using very real prejudice as a pawn in their own political maneuvering. By lumping the word "master" in with the vilest of monikers, they're making light of truly hateful words, words with a sole context rooted in bigotry. If this absurd argument were to realistically gain traction, it asks he truly awful bigots, "If you're willing to utter the offensive term, 'master,' why not utter the rest?"

CBRE's Market East

Commercial real estate advisors at CBRE + Fameco created a forecast report for the Great Philadelphia Area. It's full of really exciting ideas (PDF), but the true gem is a reborn Gallery at Market East which includes a theater, several high-rise caps, and even shows a Filbert Street brimming with retail activity and nightlife.

Of course this report is an overview, not in anyway a series of proposals. But it shows what needs to be done to redefine Market East.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Making History

History was made in Pennsylvania today, history that will play a role in our nation's 238 year road to being the the true Land of the Free. U.S. District Court Judge John Jones III overturned the Commonwealth's 1996 decision to restrict marriages to one man and one woman, effectively banning marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. 

At the moment of the decision, same sex marriages granted by other states are officially recognized and same sex partners in Pennsylvania are free to be married in the state. City Hall granted marriage licenses until 5:30PM today and will stay open until 7PM tomorrow.

Liberal or Conservative, Pennsylvania is not a state that takes decisions lightly, and our legislators are often reluctant to overturn antiquated ideals. We still pay a special tax to help the relief effort for a flood that ravaged Johnstown...almost 80 years ago. It's no exaggeration to say that we hold on to our past.

It would not be characteristic of Pennsylvania to relinquish such unjust laws with legalese and technicalities, but with the fine words of Judge Jones, who was put in office with the support of Pennsylvania's own purveyor of hate: Rick Santorum.

"We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history." It befits Pennsylvania's unique political culture that Judge Jones recycled Ronald Reagan's own words to decry a demoralizing conservative effort. But it's not ironic. Reagan was no theocrat.

The decision was pushed to the U.S. District Court by couples across the state seeking marriage licenses or recognition within the state, and it's not short of its detractors. Brian Brown, President of the National Organization of Marriage said, "The ruling unilaterally makes an end-run around the democratic process." 

What he and other opponents fail to recognize is that civil rights as they apply to individuals are inalienable and not subject to a vote. If segregation and integrated marriages were put to a vote, there are many parts of the country that would choose to turn back the clock. This decision was made in the interest of freedom for all, not the opinions of some.

As I stood on North Broad Street watching newly married couples emerge from City Hall in celebration, I watched this freedom unfold. But my heart was most touched as I watched my Facebook feed unfold. Friends and family members, some I haven't seen in years, offered their congratulations and praise for this decision. Individuals with absolutely no vested interest in same sex marriage have become a poignant voice in the fight against lingering bigotry. These voices, absent or silent just twenty years ago, are not just aiding the fight for the right to marry, but the Freedom to Be who we are.

Thank you, Pennsylvania.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Don't Mess With the Rocky Steps

When modern meets historic, I'm typically a fan. I. M. Pei's pyramid in front of the Louvre is astounding. But you know what's just as astounding? The giant staircase leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And I'm not speaking from the standpoint of Rocky nostalgia. The wide, tall staircase that imposes itself in front of Philadelphia's grand Parthenon of art was a deliberate architectural element, one meant to be as dramatic as the edifice itself.

From City Hall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art stands atop the site of the city's old reservoir like a temple to the gods, but the truly humbling experience begins at the foot of her steps on Eakins Oval. It really isn't that tall and climbing the stairs isn't a feat reserved for the most physically fit. It's an optical illusion, one designed specifically to convince visitors that they have reached greatness at its summit, reflecting similar design elements at the Parthenon itself.

Frank Gehry has been working with the PMA to complete the world renowned museum nearly a century later, adding modern art space beneath its great steps. Frank Gehry has his fans and foes, but unlike I. M. Pei who indulged in modernism when it was unpopular, Gehry was one of the world's first Starchitects. For a city to have a building, even a space, designed by Gehry is a status symbol. But like leasing a Mercedes you can't afford, status symbols and the products of Starchitects are occasionally relevant in name only.

I think it's great that Gehry is designing the modern art space for the PMA, but that's because Gehry's best work is indoors. Outside, at best, his buildings echo a ball of foil, which would have been unique if he'd done it once. But he's done it over and over again because more and more cities demanded a Gehry.

But his exterior plans for the Philadelphia Museum of Art display a man falling flat on his face when it comes to integrating history.

He plans to carve Philadelphia's Great Steps in half at the second tier, opening them to a flat entrance to the new museum of modern art. In what is likely an attempt to respect the history of the building, the entrance is dull and unadorned. But considering the significance of these steps both architecturally and popularly, subtlety is the last thing a redesign warrants.

This could never happen again.

If Philadelphia is going to allow 1/6 of this iconic landmark to be obliterated, give us the pyramid at the Louvre. Give us something even more exciting than the steps we have.

Or better yet, give us nothing at all. These steps should be preserved: historically, architecturally, and culturally. Perhaps the fault lies in hiring a Starchitect to redesign a building true to a city. As a Philadelphian, Horace Trumbauer understood what the Philadelphia Museum of Art meant to Philadelphia. Frank Gehry clearly does not.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Broad Street Median Parking

I live on a small residential street near Chinatown, an odd court cornered by a main house that shares a garage. Recently after arriving home from a flea market with a large dresser tethered into the back of my busted Beetle, I pulled on the sidewalk to unload, in front of the garage addressed to my house, turned on my blinkers, and quickly ushered the piece behind the gate on my court.

I know how ruthless the PPA can be on my street. Most of them are polite though. I've lived here for five years and they know me and my car. They smile.

This wasn't one of those days. Within the >3 minutes I was out of sight, a meter maid had ticketed my car and vanished. Legally it's understandable. I was illegally parked. But my hazard lights, open trunk, and open gate indicated that I was clearly loading, on a street with no proper loading zone. Still, it was technically illegal.

But there are other parts of the city where cars park illegally, and the illegality is not so technical. It's unnerving to receive a ticket when I was clearly loading on a small residential street for less than five minutes, then drive down the city's most prominent boulevard to find cars, many not even registered with the Philadelphia Parking Authority or even the state, parked along the Broad Street median, or even atop the concrete median on Oregon Avenue, all without a ticket.

Apparently the problem with the illegally parked cars along Broad Street and Oregon Avenue isn't as simple as the PPA letting the cars slide. Like most nonsense in the city it comes down to various agencies claiming it's someone else job. The PPA is responsible for cars parked at corner, in front of stop signs, or overstaying their limit in loading zones. Parking atop a median isn't a parking violation, it's a traffic violation, which defaults to the responsibility of the Philadelphia Police Department.

Five years ago a South Philadelphia Division Police Inspector told the South Philadelphia Review that the Broad Street median parking tradition was "done." Five years later those cars remain. As it is today, cars are occasionally ticketed but only at the discretion, or availability, of a police officer with nothing better to do.

But the ultimate problem has nothing to do with the PPA's inability to ticket cars in the middle of the street or the Police Department's reluctance to do so. It's in the minds of those who reserve their parking spaces with lawn chairs as they drive a block to the 7-11, those who won't park in a space that can't be seen from their front window, and those whose relatives visit their 20 foot wide row house and somehow expect a space near the door.

It's the definition of unreasonable.

In the best of cases, these people think it's a headache to park a block away. In the worst, they'll tell you that saving spots with pieces of furniture is a "Philadelphia tradition." But not only is doing so an illegal tradition, it's unfair to the other forty people who live on the same block, fairly hunting for the same space.

Truly eliminating the illegal median parking along South Broad Street would likely exasperate the alleged woes of those who expect curbside parking, but it would also introduce them to the reality of having a car in one of America's densest cities. South Philadelphia and other neighborhoods where our unusual parking traditions abound pose equally unusual obstacles, which have likely led to the PPA and the Police Department - along with midcentury malaise - to overlook the violations.

South Philadelphia is one of the city's densest neighborhoods, but it's also one of our flattest. Unlike similar neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. or New York where occasional apartment buildings and parking garages offer street parking a bit of retrieve, South Philadelphia is almost exclusively single family row homes.

It's not a problem without a solution, but the solution is not one brought to us by architects and developers. It's a solution that involves an evolving mentality and abandoning unjust traditions. Forcing the hundreds of cars illegally parked along Broad Street and Oregon Avenue into their neighborhoods will force neighbors to accept the fact that parking a few blocks from their house isn't that bad.

But how do you force the city to finally address this antiquated ignorance? Next time you receive a parking ticket, suffer the indignity of traffic court with a photograph of South Broad Street's median lined with hundreds of unfined traffic violations. The PPA will likely tell you that ticketing those cars is not their job, but they might also drop or reduce your own fine. Once this happens more than a few times, the city's Police Department will find themselves pressured to finally resolve the issue.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bye Bye, Girard Block

Have you walked around the Girard Block and wondered why so many of its Market Street storefronts are having closing sales? Well, that's because this summer, the eyesore with its giant 70s era McDonald's roof will be coming down.

National Real Estate Advisors will begin demolishing the remains of the old Snellenberg Departmemt Store to make way for their $500M redevelopment of the entire block. The initial phase will include a 17 story tower, retail space, and a renovated Family Court building on 11th Street.

Although the market will control future phases - which was the plan when the Gallery was built to support two office towers - this project will be the shot Market East needs. Apartments along 11th Street will help spur adjacent development between Market and Chestnut. Likewise, it s retail presence will provide the Gallery with the competition it needs to step up its game.

Camden's Skyview Tower

As the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation looks ahead to a reborn Penn's Landing, its latest proposal is still devoid of that signature destination attraction: an aquarium, music pavilion, sports arena, an observation deck. Well Camden has most of that, and may soon have it all.

It's easy to say the best thing about Camden is the view, but it has a regional monopoly on waterfront attractions. Herschend Family Entertainment will be working with the U.K.'s Skyview Company to privately fund the 300 foot Skyview Tower just south of the New Jersey State Aquarium.

Those docking on the Riverlink at the east bank of the Delaware will be greeted by three tall pillars circled in metallic hoops surrounding a glass pod carrying thirty visitors to the top. At night it will be illuminated in various colors providing Camden with an iconic skyline viewed from Penn's Landing.

It's as exciting for Philadelphia as it is for our neighbor across the river.

Many cities have erected copycat observation towers, some better than others. Toronto's CN Tower borrows heavily from the original Space Needle in Seattle but succeeds. Other Space Needle lookalikes in Vancouver and Crystal City, VA fall flat atop larger buildings. Maryland recently opened its large Ferris wheel on National Harbor emulating but not rivaling London's iconic Eye. And Knoxville once though, "hey, instead of a Space Needle, what if we capped it with a gold disco ball?" Its Sun Sphere defines its Kentucky skyline, but sadly as the butt of a Simpsons joke.

Camden's Skyview Tower will be as unique as it gets. Its illuminated columns will reflect Center City's own colorful, nighttime palette while its futuristic pod may evoke images from Bladerunner or The Fifth Element.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mural Arts Program Paints Amtrak

Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program has teamed up with German artist Katharina Grosse to make Amtrak's journey through Philadelphia a little less bleak. Grosse has been legally tagging the line's corridor with a project called "psychylustro" thanks to $291,978 in contributions from various organizations including Amtrak itself.

It's an interesting enough idea. Amtrak's northeast corridor winds through some of the nation's most unsightly slums and industrial arteries. And it's high time that the Mural Arts Program ventures into new territories while revisiting their original vision: transforming blight through art.

But still, much like the Favela paintings of Brazil or similar efforts along Germantown Avenue's abandoned storefronts, "psycholustro" is art speak for hiding blight by jingling a set of shiny keys. People don't avoid Amtrak because of the view, they avoid it because of the cost.

Were Grosse's paintings to be maintained with the same level of effort that maintains the murals throughout the city, it might be worth the nearly $300,000 investment. But the paintings will not be applied with the same standard as other murals throughout the city, and after six months they'll be left to the elements. Perhaps if the Mural Arts Program pairs the exhibit with information about the city's huge collection of public murals, it may attract a bit of attention from passengers incidentally paying attention to the view.

A New Avenue of the Arts

While North Broad Street is technically part of the Avenue of the Arts, much of its presence is in name only. North Broad has found itself hosting every stage in the evolution of the American city. It was crisscrossed by industry throughout the 19th Century, its north central points home to Philadelphia's elite during the early 20th Century, it's been lined with grand hotels, and hosted grand houses of art like the Metropolitan Opera.

Unfortunately it quickly declined following the Great Depression. Its beautiful hotels became flop houses, its mansions were abandoned or burned, while residents left amongst its decline turned to religion, converting the Met into a church and the Divine Lorraine into a refuge for the uniquely devout.

Like much of the city north of Vine Street, officials accumulated vacant land for urban necessities. The Vine Street Expressway sutured the north side of town from its siblings in Center City, exasperating the region's decline. Vast tracks of land were razed for public housing and Temple's campus began to wall itself from its neighbors.

West Philadelphia saw paralleled decline, but its wealthy universities have since helped transform it into one of Philadelphia's more prominent addresses. With the help of interested developers, North Broad Street could soon see a similar renaissance. Bart Blatstein's Tower Place at Broad and Spring Garden has brought new life to a once sketchy corner, new development is inching its way eastward from Eastern State Penitentiary and along Ridge Avenue, and Eric Blumenfeld is securing funding for the rebirth of the Divine Miss L.

But the city is also excited about the potential rebirth of Philadelphia's once great, now forgotten corridor. Councilman Darrell Clarke is working with developers to create a non-profit organization to assist with its redevelopment, including tax abatements and loans to incentivize growth.

One Water Street

Penn's Landing may soon be home to 250 new apartments.

Varenhorst's new tower, One Water Street, won't be part of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation's master plan which calls for similar, albeit shorter, development on Penn's Landing.

The new building would stand just north of the Ben Franklin Bridge at 230 N. Columbus Blvd.

PennPraxis's New Fairmount Park

It looks like the powers that be in Fairmount Park have been cruising the internet for market research, finally addressing some of the obstacles that keep the Schuylkill River's wild success from spilling over into Fairmount Park's Lemon Hill and Strawberry Mansion.

However they've consulted PennPraxis, Philadelphia's captain of the Master Plan Pipe Dream. PennPraxis does what it does well. But they're visionary designers sought for ideas, not business minded developers. When ideas are sourced from PennPraxis they prepare a vision as if they control the available (and sometimes unavailable) land with unlimited funds, ignoring financial realities.

Were money no object, some good ideas have been addressed. The primary focus seems to be connecting the river to the park space east of Kelly Drive. The plan proposes a crosswalk at Strawberry Mansion, enhancing pedestrian quality and slowing Kelly Drive's notoriously fast traffic. But Strawberry Mansion doesn't host Kelly Drive's heaviest swell of pedestrians, many of whom walk the Schuylkill from Boathouse Row to Girard Avenue and turn around.

Girard Avenue's missing piece seems insignificant given PennPraxis's grand proposal of a new, public boathouse, small boat rentals, and new gardens. Girard Avenue may have been ignored because the east side of Kelly Drive at Girard tends to get very urban very quickly. But a Girard Avenue crosswalk would do more than just control traffic and provide a safe passage for residents and recreationalists. It would provide visitors with a sidewalk to the Philadelphia Zoo and Centennial Park, and offer those who turnaround at the rock a loop back to Boathouse Row over Lemon Hill.

PennPraxis's sprawling ambition in Fairmount Park is indicative of many oversized attempts to produce a cohesive master plan. Echoing numerous attempts to redesign Penn's Landing, these ideas ignore space that currently succeeds. Neglecting the space's current assets such as Lloyd Hall and the Philadelphia Police Department's boathouse upstream, PennPraxis suggests building an additional public boathouse rather than improving or expanding those that already exist.

Perhaps the most shortsighted element in the design is its overall approach, which spreads down from Strawberry Mansion from areas less traveled, rather than branching out from trails that already succeed. Essentially the plan gambles on its own success. Field of Dreams was more than just Kevin Costner's last great movie. It was a lesson. In the end, he lost his farm. If new crosswalks further north see limited use, it risks our chances of ever seeing new crosswalks at more practical locations.

A map of the master plan remains to be seen, but if it is as integrated as the latest proposal for Penn's Landing it could stall in a stream of blind ambition. Cohesive plans look great on paper but can rarely be executed without bottomless funding, not solely because they're so large, but because the integrated pieces can't work alone.

You don't have to think small to think smart. But you do have to think outward, consider financial realities, and with the agility for a master plan's individual components to evolve in the process. Link the park space where it's most used. Connect recreationalists to profit points like the Philadelphia Zoo and Memorial Hall. Consider variables that will prove the master plan is a viable one so that future funding presents itself when necessary.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

W's Fifth Element

Our foul mouthed hero at Philaphilia posted an...interesting...rendering of W's Element Hotel proposed for 15th and Chestnut. It's a simple massing of the site, but it appears to have combined elements of the previously proposed Waldorf Astoria with a previous massing of the proposed W. Being developed by Brook Lenfest, securing funds shouldn't be an issue if the market permits. In other words, this could happen.

And it should.

It's a crazy looking building, but let's face it, a cool one. Let's not stop with standard materials, and as GroJLart suggested, blue glass. It's been dubbed the Element, and is well on its way to looking oddly futuristic. Let's hope the design evolves in an even crazier direction, so I can start calling it the Fifth Element.

Of course, this would be even better.

My Little D.C. Rant

I was down in Washington, D.C. for a party this weekend. It's a fine city. I lived there for some time before moving to Philadelphia ten years ago. Some things have changed: It's unbelievably clean. Some things haven't: It's unbelievably arrogant.

Everyone knows the D.C. pick-up line, "So where do you work?" It never bothered me when I lived there and still, I find it just moderately irritating. It's a conversation starter. What does annoy me are the comments like those regarding Philadelphia that I was fed throughout the night.

"Philadelphia is a nice, little town," "It reminds me of Baltimore," and "I was really surprised how desolate it was downtown."

There's a reason that many from New York comment on how much Philadelphia reminds them of New York City, and those from D.C. claim Baltimore: New Yorkers have bothered to visit, Washingtonians have only seen Philadelphia from their Amtrak ride north. And not only is our downtown populous, it's the third most populous "downtown" in the nation. If anyone is referring to a desolate downtown, they're referring to West Market Street or JFK on a weekend. Do Washingtonians think D.C.'s "downtown" is in Adams Morgan or Georgetown? D.C. has a very literal downtown and it's completely devoid of life after 5PM.

Despite their ignorance, I was once one of them. I was a young, hot 25 year old. I was also a young, stupid 25 year old. I'd even made comments in the past about the city that I'd one day call home. When others were moving to Philadelphia I'd ask in disgust, "Why would you move there?" Of course I knew better. I had been here many times and loved Philadelphia, but ego feeds ego, and Washington has the ultimate Napoleon complex.

It's bland, corporate, and a one trick poney. The monumental edifices surrounding the National Mall are grand and somewhat humbling, but much of what its skyline imposes are historical interpretations of European architecture. Its history is bold but unoriginal. What history it once had has been replaced with midcentury low rise corporate architecture that seems more appropriate in King of Prussia than Connecticut Avenue. The largest of its corporate buildings look like skyscraper podiums you'd find in New York or Chicago, dated from the 80s and unimpressive, these structures lack towers like Liberty Place that keep the dated design relevant.

D.C. however is much more than its architecture, and its residents ruthlessly know this. It is, in some respects, the most powerful city in the world. It doesn't have to be authentic or unique to impress. But even that impression is misguided, as faux as the grandiose mansions lining Embassy Row. New York City may not hold the literal seat of national power or global politics, but as the world's financial power, it owns Washington and everyone in it.

After nearly rear ending a license plate that read, "TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENATION" I even started thinking about the D.C. statehood cause I was once so passionately in favor of, and how blindly two sided the debate has become. It's an effort that speaks volumes about how sheltered those are inside the Beltway, and how little those running the rest of the nation really know about the rest of the nation.

While it's true that Washington's 600,000 taxpaying residents deserve a voting presence in the House and Senate, many in favor of statehood haven't truly considered what that means. Washington is a Federal District, which means much of the city is maintained and funded by the Federal Reserve. States like Pennsylvania and Illinois use the House and Senate to bicker over which city deserves funding for things like transportation and education. While D.C. doesn't have a voting presence in that fight, the Federal Government takes care of its home.

If Washington, D.C. were in fact a state, the Metro would not exist as we know it. The "state" would have one Congressperson and one Senator fighting on the same floor for Federal funds with states like California and Texas, states comprised of multiple major metropolitan areas. As a state, D.C. would be devoid of any revenue but that which it provided by itself and what it could lobby for from the Federal Reserve. Philadelphia and Chicago receive funds generated by Pennsylvania and Illinois. Washington, D.C., as a state, would have no such support.

It would need to prove its position legislatively rather than resigning to accept the funds that Federal Reserve sets aside to maintain a city technically governed by the whole of the nation, not itself. If Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s non-voting Congressional Representative, had to go head to head with Rep. Maxine Waters or Rep. Chuck Schumer to prove the District of Columbia needed Federal Transportation Funds towards a new Metro station, she probably wouldn't get it.

Perhaps D.C. does need statehood, if only to show those governing the nation from inside the Beltway how the nation's more authentic cities operate, and the struggles we're faced with. Nothing fades an unwarranted ego like a tough gut check.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Who's the Boss?

Walking by the main entrance of Philadelphia's lavish convention center, one might wonder when it's scheduled to open. Its escalators stand idle and unused, its doors locked. During conventions, signs direct conventioneers to 12th and Arch.

When the state decided to expand the center there were more jeers than cheers, concerns that have proven themselves valid. Even before the expansion, the Pennsylvania Convention Center had developed a reputation amongst those responsible for touring expositions. It was expensive and its unions slow and difficult to work with.

The desolate Broad Street entrance, often lined with sleeping homeless is a symbol of the center's epic failure. The hotels its expansion promised never materialized. New restaurants and stores along Broad Street should have been the end result of larger conventions and more business, but the center's decline has caused little more than a few new surface parking spaces along Vine Street.

The reasons are endless. The state isn't particularly savvy when it comes to predicting the future. In fact, the paper pushers in Harrisburg and City Hall are perpetually a decade behind. Convention facilities are in decline in general. Most still serve a purpose, but in ten years or less, technology and telecommuting will render inner city convention spaces useless for business conventions. They'll be left hosting Flower Shows and old car exhibits. Considering the PCC could never recoup its nearly $1B price tag by 2024, the expansion was a shortsighted investment.

What's worse, PCC management didn't resolve its customer service issues before agreeing to expand. They just blindly grew. If a homeowner can't pay a mortgage, the bank doesn't give them a Home Depot gift card and tell them to add another bedroom. The PCC's entire drama has been an example of the absolute worst kind of business and government oversight since it began in the early 1990s. The city already had a convention space: Convention Hall. But the state gambled on a new facility, and when the cards hit 22, they threw more money at it like an addict in Atlantic City.

But it looks like those in charge have finally decided to go to rehab. The center has drafted a new labor contract, one that grants conventioneers more freedom to construct their own exhibits, use electric screwdrivers and step ladders, and request drug tests. It's sad that any of that seems unheard of, but the Jerseyvania Triangle is a hotbed of union "muscle." So much so, only four of the six unions employed at the PCC have agreed to the new rules. Carpenters Local 8 and Teamsters Local 107 have declined the new contract and will likely drag out the inflatable rat.

However, the resistance of the two holdouts may prove to be an ultimate baby step. If the center can weather a few months or protests, the long term outcome could be a step towards the PCC recouping part of its investment, and more importantly, it's reputation. The four unions that agreed to the new terms are more than enough to carry the load. If the center's line is firmly drawn, there's no reason to continue working with unions unwilling to recognize who's the boss.

We all know it was Mona.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Neighbors Review 1900 Chestnut

Pearl Property's 1900 Chestnut apartment proposal received positive to mixed reaction at a community meeting. While neighbors liked the design, you can guess what received the most criticism: parking and shadows.

The reaction to traffic is of course the canned response to any project. Despite the fact that the neighborhood sits on a dozen parking garages and surface lots and that skyscrapers are the historic testament to dense walkability, "traffic" has become such an ingrained response that those complaining about it have forgotten what they're even asking.

But the more hypocritical complaint, one that is growing as fast as our skyline, is height. The neighborhood is home to other skyscrapers, and those airing their grievances over shadows have been in the shadows of other buildings for a long time. Worse, those who complain about obstructed views are casting their complaints from other highrises, blocking the views of others.

Still, regardless of the standard NIMBYisms at 19th and Chestnut, reaction to the building's design seems mostly positive. And the best part is, parking will be provided by leasing spaces in existing garages. Although requiring parking is still an asinine position, allowing such a tall building to move forward without providing more redundant parking spaces is a baby step in the right direction.

Divine Intervention

The Divine Lorraine will soon see the $30M that Eric Blumenfield needs to begin renovations at the beleaguered North Broad Street icon. And no, it's not art studios brought to you by It's actually a story of fate, a passion for architecture, and a unique take on investment rarely seen amongst lenders who typically wear blinders around the bottom line. As our city's favorite Lady in Wait, she couldn't have asked for a more fitting salvation.

Billy Procida is an investor from New Jersey who's spent the last two decades turning New York City into what it is today, a city where Harlem is synonymous with Manhattan and not a universal label for any bad neighborhood. But Procida now has his eyes on Philadelphia, not only a city he's come to prefer, but one he sees as New York at half the price. He didn't just see numbers when he saw the Divine Lorraine, he saw a building with which he wants to be personally involved.

Procida Funding & Advisors will be lending Blumenfield's firm the $31.5M it needs to begin development. While Blumenfield will be seeking an additional $5 from the state, no grant is needed to complete the project, meaning this could be a completely privately funded endeavor.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Union Strike at PCC: Beer and Muchie Sales Skyrocket

After a failure to agree on a new contract, the Pennsylvania Convention Center has barred union carpenters from the building. Just in time for the American Academy of Neurology's convention, union carpenters insisted on returning to work under the terms of their old contract.

The difference in contracts?

The new contract would increase pay, but allow vendors to use stepladders and electric screwdrivers, drug testing, and allow vendors a greater space to work without union labor.

Union carpenters are concerned that this will cut back on hours, and therefore pay. Probably true, but that's the point. The PCC's piss poor return rate is the direct result of its expense and frustration, and it's reputation as a to-be-avoided venue is growing. When literal brain surgeons are required to wait for a union carpenter to use an electric screwdriver, vendors begin asking what they're really paying for.

The terms of the PCC's new contract seek to address the issues the center likely understands, but it's historic reluctance to stand up to the union's rigid tactics is indicative of the state's political position. Let's face it, these are jobs for the sake of jobs. Like gas pumpers in New Jersey and Oregon, they're nothing more.

The unions know that, the press knows that, and most of all the state knows that the trade unions are the loudest of them all. Harrisburg and City Hall know that voters don't like hearing "job cuts," and until your average voter understands the difference between a trade union and a teachers union, the goons will continue to win each fight at the PCC.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Race Street Pier Fail

Maybe move the post a bit.

Another Potential Headache for L&I

It's been a rough couple of years for Philadelphia's aging buildings, or perhaps people are just paying more attention to the city's poor communication and inefficient agencies. After last night's heavy rain, part of iCandy's 12th Street façade fell down.

It's not clear yet if L&I will be looking at the structural integrity of the entire building, the existing façade, or reviewing the nightclub's recent renovations.

The popular Gayborhood dance complex, once a theater, is a patchwork of rooms and floors tethered together throughout the decades including a third floor roof deck. It's not uncommon to see such an unusual complex anywhere in the city, but after several collapses and the recent fire at the Suit Corner, claiming a building is just as "unique" as any other existing structure may not be enough anymore.