Monday, June 30, 2014

Philadelphia's Acropolis

By now you're likely aware that world renowned starchitect, Frank Gehry has proposed carving out about one sixth of the iconic steps leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a picture window. 

But media outlets around the world continue to misunderstand the significance of the wide steps, repeatedly referring to them as the "Rocky Steps" herehereherehere and elsewhere.

While 55% of those surveyed approve of the proposal, the media is inadvertently driving art lovers to embrace the alterations by failing to point out how significant these steps were long before Rocky ever made his first run.

This isn't the first time that the art community has clashed with fans of the 1976 movie. About ten years ago, a bronze statue from Rocky III was returned to the art museum. Fans wanted it placed atop the steps while the art community wanted nothing to do with it. A compromise was reached and the statue now stands just north of the first step.

The steps have become synonymous with a movie that has nothing to do with art, and the art community has forgotten that the setting was merely chosen because of what it represents. Rocky didn't invent the "Rocky Steps," the steps inspired the character and his audience. While the statue truly is a studio prop, the steps are not a Hollywood set to be discarded or forgotten. 

The wide span of the steps are as dramatic as the building itself. A deliberate architectural element forcing visitors to overcome an obstacle before reaching our city's vast temple of art, a feat shared by those worshipping atop the Acropolis over 2000 years ago. The steps curve ever so slightly to create the same optical illusion as the steps of the Parthenon it emulates, making them look even taller than they are.

The building itself, including the steps, is one of the museum's greatest works of art.

Gehry should know this. He is, after all, an architect. His proposed window may provide grand views of a city built independently of Philadelphia's Acropolis, and those views are also available from the top of the steps. 

No one would dare allow the priceless paintings and sculptures within our temple to be altered with cluttered modernism and the same reverence needs to be applied to the work of art that holds them all. Disrupting this passage with anything would make the Philadelphia Museum of Art just another art museum, and that has nothing to do with Rocky Balboa.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pier 68 and Beyond

Following the success of the Race Street Pier, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has honed in on its industrial relics much the way the Schuylkill River Waterfront Corporation did on its own banks. 

Two more piers, Pier 53 and Pier 68, have found new life as park proposals. As mentioned before, Pier 53 may house Jody Pinto's Land Buoy, an illuminated and climbable tower at the end of the dock complimenting Camden's proposed Skyview Tower.

The most recent park/pier proposal is for Pier 68 near Walmart in South Philadelphia. Don't let Walmart fool you. This pier anchors a bike and jogging trail that carries recreationalists north to Penn's Landing.

A unique feature not available at Race Street Pier will be the promotion of fishing and ecology. Despite what you may think about fishing in an urban river, it's a popular pastime along both of Philadelphia's rivers. Creating a legal venue will also provide education about fishing in the area, essentially what's safe to eat and what should be thrown back.

However, when I looked at a thumbnail of the proposed Pier 68, I confused the blue lines in the rendering with power generating windmills and for a moment, got even more excited. I immediately thought of Jennette's Pier in Nags Head, N.C. 

After Hurricane Isabel destroyed Jennette's Pier for the last time, it was replaced with a concrete pier completed in 2011, one that houses a museum, aquarium, and gift shop all powered by three windmills atop the pier.

Perhaps someday.

The unique approach the DRWC has taken in not only proactively addressing its existing assets - its abandoned piers - is proving that the Delaware Waterfront doesn't necessarily need to copy the success of the Schuylkill Banks by focusing primarily on its shores, but by reaching out atop the water. 

Detached from residents by I-95, these pier parks aren't complimenting neighborhoods as the banks of the Schuylkill does, but creating destination attractions for South Philadelphia, Pennsport, Old City, and perhaps someday, Northern Liberties and beyond.

As the trend continues - a trend not only dedicated to creating a portfolio of river top parks, but one that is truly considering the pastimes these piers have offered - we might one day see Pier 124, otherwise known as Graffiti Pier, sured up to provide a haven for aspiring street artists. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

American Heritage Trail: Spruce Street

Philadelphia is home to some of the nation's most continuous avenues of architectural heritage. Elfreth's Alley comes to mind, of course, but it's but one block in a long line extending all the way to 69th Street that provides us with examples of America's architectural history.

Philadelphia isn't the only bicentennially aged city in the country. Boston shares a similar collection of history along its curved streets that grew atop the Charles River and Boston Harbor. But William Penn's original plan for Philadelphia provides us with a linear catalog of architecture along each of its central corridors, from America's beginnings to the decades following the Great Depression. A vast amount of it remains in tact, particularly along Spruce Street.

What makes it so unique is as the city grew westward, its architecture evolved.

Developers, Edmund Macon in particular, chose to salvage what Colonial architecture could be restored throughout Society Hill. Although modern townhouses dot the street scape, nearly each block between Front Street and the Washington Square neighborhood retains examples of architecture from the era of our nation's birth. 

Westward, the buildings grow taller but with the same sensibility of its time. As you cross Broad Street and approach Rittenhouse you begin to see the city, and thusly the nation, transform. Brownstone begins to replace Colonial brick and you experience the experimental architecture afforded by the years predating the Civil War.

None of Spruce Street's blocks are more astounding than those that carry on past the Schuylkill River, where the Girards and the Drexels built towering feats of engineering, an homage to wealth of the Gilded Age.

Around 48th Street you begin to see the nation's decline. Apartment houses abound, a return to modest living following the Great Depression, but still adorned with carvings and design elements signaling the nation's reluctance to abandon the opulence of former decades. 

From the Man Full of Trouble Tavern at 2nd Street to Spruce Hill, our city's premier avenue of architectural heritage is a lesson in design any historian could only dream of. And it's right here in Philadelphia.

Block by block, one could spend a day watching the nation unfold, evolving, displaying its wealth and then crashing, only to recover and rebound. 

Almost entirely uninterrupted, you can feel the presence of each generation as the blocks climb higher. A definitive Architectural Heritage Trail, Spruce Street shows us how America transformed through its built world. 

It's nice outside. Go discover our country on Spruce Street.

Widening I-95

What does a government do when presented with more than $400M in Federal and State money? Head for the trough, of course. And that is exactly what PennDOT is doing, seeking to widen the Central Delaware's I-95 corridor. 

If you can stomach it, pour through PennDOT's piss poor rationalizations here. It's a laundry list of bureaucratic horse shit, an effort to spend money while they've got it, and worry about the rest later. After all, an incomplete project is the best leverage for more state money later. And cost overruns are synonymous anything the Commonwealth attempts so no one is ever held accountable for the crap the state heaps upon us.

But my beef isn't with the physical logistics of widening I-95. It's happened before, and the state proudly plowed through hundreds of densely packed urban blocks for a highway better suited to Camden. 

Aside from the fact that I-95 could be narrowed if the same funding were applied to improving public transit, the dinosaurs planning at PennDOT probably just discovered SimCity and decided to have a little fun with a waterfront just being realized by those of us who actually live here.


What grinds my gears (I wonder if PennDOT even knows that Tesla is making that phrase irrelevant) is that this government organization - like most - is wasting badly needed Federal and State funds in an effort to look busy, tackling the most doable, allegedly necessary project. 

Have they considered the fact that a widened I-95 will encourage more traffic, traffic funneled into the congested Vine Street Expressway and onto the even worse I-76? And why aren't these funds going towards improving I-76? Has PennDOT given up on that parking lot? How about improving South Philadelphia's link between I-95 and I-76? The last time I took I-76 South, I had to get off the interstate and drive through a few miles of Libya before connecting to I-95. Why?

This is pork. A big, raw, parasite infested pork butt. PennDOT got their hands on some money and they want to look like they're working. It happens everywhere you see a construction sign proudly exclaiming, "Your Tax Dollars at Work." But expanding interurban highways is senseless in an era when people are finally looking for an alternative to their cars.

Hotel at Big Brothers Big Sisters Headquarters?

Once home to a film company, 238 North 13th Street is known to most Philadelphians as the former national office for Big Brothers Big Sisters, if it's known at all. 

Vacant for a few years now, the small art deco building stands less than a block from the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and as with much of the property between Vine and Race, developers are likely eyeing it for a potential hotel.

But the building is only two floors and stands on a small footprint. Yesterday, the city's Historical Commission voted to deny and unnamed developer's proposal for a tower atop the historic building. 

Howard B. Haas, a Philadelphia lawyer and prominent voice in the campaign to save the Boyd Theater's auditorium, had this to say on his Friends of the Boyd Facebook page:

Good news! Today, the Philadelphia Historical Commission's Architectural Committee unanimously recommended against allowing a hotel tower that would poorly fit in with the former Warner Brothers Film Exchange at 238 North 13th Street. It was designed in 1946 by William Howard Lee, one of our best movie theater architects and was later offices for the NFL. I wrote a letter of opposition for today's hearing. In 2007, I had assisted with the research & testified for the succesful historic designation of this lovely Art Moderne building. Thanks to the Preservation Alliance's Ben Leech & architect Rich Thom for leading the opposition.

Hopefully we won't see the Boyd's fate replay itself. Considering the building's proximity to the Convention Center and Center City itself, the property is likely too expensive to be sustained as a modest office building. 

As development tends to go when faced with the Historical Commission, the developer will probably return with a more appropriate design for its tower component. It's bound entirely by 13th Street and three smaller streets, so the only direction to add square footage is up. It's encouraging that developers are again considering the area north of the Convention Center for new hotels

Monday, June 23, 2014

Philadelphia's Growth and the Fate of Our Suburbs

Brookings Institution's William Frey recently collated census data to compare the growth of the country's 51 largest metropolitan areas, and Philadelphia is one of the 19 areas in which the city is growing faster than the suburbs.

So what, right?

Well for decades Philadelphia's population was declining. What was at one time the second largest city in the British Empire, a city that rose to more than two million residents in 1960, lost almost half a million residents in the second half of the twentieth century. That's roughly the population of Atlanta, and we've only recently begun to recover.

But what's even more astonishing than this recovery is that our urban growth is exceeding suburban growth. Cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. are experiencing the same phenomenon, but it's expected in metropolitan areas that span so far. Philadelphia is dense, even in our suburbs. 

While many in newer cities may be discovering the cities to escape a three hour commute, it seems that those in our region are returning to Philadelphia simply because they want to be here.

And why wouldn't they?
If the trend continues it might call into question the long term fate of suburbia nationwide. Most suburban areas continue to grow, some more modestly than others. But the suburban ideal is not a sustainable one. The fact that cities across the country have begun to rebound proves that even aging urban landscapes were built to last.

Densely packed neighborhoods trade publicly maintained freeways, roads, and unused green space for an infrastructure largely maintained by tenants. Walkability eases the strain on public resources. 

New Jersey, a state that has completely neglected its true urban cores, is learning this the hard way. Suburban areas benefit from an urban hub, but most efficiently when they share state taxes. Cities on the other hand are relying less and less on the suburbs. If high fuel costs drive a new flight back to the cities and the suburbs begin to struggle, poorly constructed McManions will begin to deteriorate leaving even broader gaps between residents than already exist. 

That's not pretty. Ask Phoenix.

Dead before it was finished
The lifespan of the suburban dream may have been built to fail. The first Levittowns were erected as a reactionary approach to urban ills that are vanishing, not as proactive planning. Cities have existed since the dawn of civilization and our need for dense community is a baser instinct. Compared to a trend that isn't even one century old, suburbs could easily become irrelevant.

We might not see it in this decade or even the next, but considering the effects of urban flight on our cities in the 60s and 70s, it's easy to imagine the flip side of scenarios found in dystopic thrillers like Soylent Green, Escape from New York, and Bladerunner. One where the cities aren't fortressed havens for crime, but where cities are fortressed from the crime that has retreated outside our city walls.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gentrification and the Future of West Philadelphia High School

The School District is currently unloading a number of shuttered schools, and has approved the sale of the vacant West Philadelphia High School at 47th and Walnut to Brooklyn based Strong Place Partners' Andrew Bank.

Bank is planning to convert the high school into a mixed use property housing 250 residents, primarily students, which could potentially extend University City's presence to 48th Street. 

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell approves of the project, but has criticized the School Board for retracting their decision to retain its property for future uses that could be assets to education in Philadelphia. The Board has opted to trade them for cash.

While it's certainly a sign of the School District's struggles and cash strapped situation, many of these facilities are outdated. Modernizing a building like West Philadelphia High School to accommodate the needs of the School District would likely cost more than building a modern and sensibly scaled facility on vacant, publicly owned land. 

Our aging schools are dramatic feats of engineering, but education doesn't require the drama of architecture. It's pragmatic, and needs modern technology more than marble carvings and mosaic tiles.

This building's neoclassical design and high ceilings are valuable to developers and tenants, not the School District. Basically, the desirable traits to the buying party are a hinderance to the seller. Unloading these schools makes sense, with or without a beleaguered School District.


However many long time residents have their own concerns. Namely, what would restaurants, shops, and 250 apartments mean to the neighbors near 47th and Walnut? Much of the concerns seem to echo complaints in Point Breeze and other emerging neighborhoods, but West Philadelphia tends to tolerate gentrification more diplomatically than areas in North and South Philadelphia.

Maybe that's because the power behind developers in University City is on par with Center City. But maybe it's that Penn and Drexel's residue isn't truly gentrifying anything.

Most of the housing west of 45th Street is still largely affordable, namely because it houses students who need affordable housing. Bank plans to charge $800 to $850 for a one bedroom, more than the average one bedroom at 47th and Walnut. But with tall windows and high ceilings, these will be more than average apartments. 

Some long time residents have noted improvements along Baltimore Avenue and the safer streets development brings with it. While several neighbors mentioned gentrification, even citing it as problematic. What's taking place in West Philadelphia isn't necessarily gentrification. 

Many students and young urbanites have chosen West Philadelphia for its affordable housing, and that's driven developers to build more. But gentrification occurs when the upwardly mobile displace less wealthy, long time residents. West Philadelphia is actually improving without doing that, at least not to the extent of other neighborhoods. It's getting safer without relocating poorer residents.

As the city continues to improve, true gentrification will probably find it's way to West Philadelphia. But it's a massive area with room to grow, and for the time being, its growth seems to be filling in the gaps, renovating buildings like the Croydon and West Philadelphia High School, rather than razing blocks for high end townhouses and relocating residents westward.


Whatever the fate of West Philadelphia, gentrification will remain both contentious and inevitable. It's simply part of how Westernized cities evolve.

The word was first coined by British sociologist, Ruth Glass, in 1964. But it's evident in cultures dating as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome. Wherever at least some fraction of a society's citizens are free to work, vote, and purchase property, lower classes have been reluctantly displaced at the behest of those with more means.

That doesn't mean it has to be a bad thing. It's rare, and all to often it's offered up by developers who are simply making a pitch for the approval of long time residents. But if zoning and development can manage to accommodate new and long time residents side by side, an area of socioeconomic diversity can theoretically succeed. 


Education is key. 

Unfortunately, Philadelphia has a uniquely problematic public school system. Although Councilwoman Blackwell's ire was directed at the physical assets of the School District, her anger is just. The city has long chosen to address our educational woes by creating charter schools and offering vouchers for private schools, effectively funding the School District's competition.

If our public schools were properly funded, new residents living amongst long time generational residents might send their kids to public schools, bringing neighbors together through their kids. But the city has created an inadvertent caste system, segregating the poor from everyone else at the kindergarten level. There's something to be said about keeping up with the Joneses, and neighbors both rich and poor can benefit from sharing everything from kindercare to block parties.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Kid Hazo Impressed Visit Philly, and we all felt the LOVE

I've made this unsubstantiated claim before: Philadelphia has more public art than any city in the world. By that I'm referring to professionally commissioned works of art. Some might be quick to argue, but it's easier to understand how much public art we hold when you consider that the Mural Arts Program alone has commissioned more than 3000 public paintings.

When you go beyond the realm of the "professional" installations and into the world of rogue street artists, Philadelphia is in a league of its own. 

Street art obviously isn't unique to Philadelphia. It's fostered to battle graffiti in San Diego. Banksy's left his stamp (literally) on cities around the globe. What's unique to Philadelphia is how the city turns a blind eye to most of our street art, and in return, our street art has transformed from angry messages hastily scrawled across public buildings to quality works or art that take time an effort. 

Dozens of mysterious Toynbee Tiles can still be found throughout the city and only vanish when a street needs to be repaired. Chicago on the other hand has declared them "vandalism," and when they are found, they are removed. Although some might not consider the tiles "art," but rather a message from a local madman, they're representative of Philadelphia's love for all art.

The city's embrace of the best and most unique rogue works of art has created an off-the-grid art community that competes much like the world of traditional artists, constantly changing, evolving, and reinventing themselves to stay at the top of their game.

Kid Hazo has become one of Philadelphia's favorite street artists. His installations parody the city's beleaguered services and tired campaigns in a way that tows the fine line between kitsch and obnoxious political statements. Quite simply, he's managed to accomplish the rare feat of being fun and smart.

Recently, Kid Hazo took on Visit Philly's "With Love" campaign with posters stating things like "Dear Liberty Bell, Crack Kills! Just Sayin." But Visit Philly didn't respond with a curmudgeonly press release denouncing his art as vandalism, they Tweeted their very own Thank You poster.

With Love, Indeed.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Urban Bankruptcy: Atlantic City

In the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, wealthy industrialists began branching out from the urban cores of Manhattan and Philadelphia, building lavish estates and hotels along the shores of New Jersey and Long Island.

From the 1870s to the early Twentieth Century, Atlantic City had become America's Atlantis. A bizarre and wild city rose above the nation's first boardwalk as unregulated and unchecked gambling emptied the pockets of the elite to erect palaces lost to black and white photographs of another time. 

By the time Prohibition was enforced in the 1920s, Atlantic City sealed its fate in lawlessness. It's bloated economy was built on crime, and in order to sustain itself Prohibition was ignored. Atlantic City developed a deserved reputation as "The World's Playground." Anything went, and visitors and investors knew it.

Fake windows echo a city's former glory, but provide views of nothing.
Atlantic City was not the only city struggling with the constraints of Prohibition, but it was one known for a blatant disregard for the law. It attracted crime long before it became what it is today, and it's never been able to fully shed its bad habits.

Unfortunately the Great Depression hit just before Prohibition was repealed. By the time Atlantic City was in a position to legally regulate the sale of alcohol, those driving its economy had retreated home to maintain their fortunes.

That's when Atlantic City fell apart. 

Every city along the East Coast, the Rust Belt, and the Great Lakes got hit by the Depression, and many rebounded. But Atlantic City had long overlooked an organized criminal element, one that needed the wealthy to survive. When the wealthy left, the crime remained, and Atlantic City found itself without the resources to police a criminal element turning to new avenues to support itself. 

Between the Great Depression and the 1960s, Atlantic City suffered through its darkest days. Thousands of residents employed by its illegal gaming halls were forced to find work elsewhere. The city's crime and poverty continued to drive many of those residents to the suburbs. With a car or two in every garage, vacationers were traveling to healthier shore towns, even to Long Island or exploring the cleaner, warmer coasts of the Southeast. 

In 1976, with no other option than to revisit the one characteristic that once made it an attraction, New Jersey voters legalized gambling in Atlantic City. But the appeal of its glory days had long since faded, and the illegal gambling that was once just an incidental factor in a successful city is now corporatized behind windowless gaming halls facing the city's should-be attraction: the ocean. 

Legalized gambling works, but it works in isolation, not integration. The only city that's managed to thrive from gaming is Las Vegas, and it works because it's in the dessert hundreds of miles from anything. The casinos don't contribute to a healthy Atlantic City for the same reason casinos wouldn't work on Market East or North Broad Street. Attempting to tether a casino to a city's individuality is like asking the gamblers within to take a tour of the Liberty Bell. They're there to gamble and nothing else. 

Without a buyer, Revel Casino could find itself abandoned.

With casinos popping up around Pennsylvania, even in Philadelphia and other major cities, gamblers don't need to travel to Atlantic City for a wild night of wasting cash. They can just drive to Harrah's in Chester or fly to Las Vegas for the true experience. Atlantic City's casinos are showing signs of wear from national competition and proving that its proximity to the shore is meaningless. 

The city's failed effort to return to its roots exposed the flaw in those roots, and that in order for Atlantic City to succeed, it needs to learn how to act like a real city. Something New Jersey hasn't understood since Trenton was relevant.

Revel Casino has declared its second bankruptcy in two years, and if it can't find a buyer could wind up an abandoned blight at the end of America's first boardwalk. Ask Detroit what a dead skyscraper does for a city's morale. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Philadelphia Skyspire

If you count Camden, the immediate Philadelphia area is currently sitting on three proposed observation towers. Camden's Skyview Tower, Pier 53's Land Buoy, and now the Skyspire in South Philadelphia.

The nerd in me loves these proposals, particularly the former two. They're unique. But my disdain for copycat architecture has some reservations about the Skyspire.

If the Gaming Control Board approves Casino Revolution near Front and Packer, the LoSo Entertainment Center is coming with it. And with LoSo may come a 615 foot structure similar to Seattle's Space Needle, but ten feet taller.

Considering the boon a second entertainment center could bring to the Stadium District, potentially laying the groundwork for a vast entertainment district along Packer Avenue, the Board may consider LoSo Entertainment's connection to Casino Revolution in their decision. 

And they'd be smart to do so.

Two other casinos proposals, the Provence at the old Inquirer Building and Market8 on the Disney Hole, are in Center City neighborhoods that don't want or need a casino. 

Oriental Pearl Tower
A casino along Packer Avenue has always been a no brainer. No one lives there. It's chock full of sports fans spilling into XFINITY Live!, the way gamblers could spill over into LoSo, stepping away from the slots to dine 600 feet above the city with epic skyline views. 

As for the architecture - and the abundance of so many unique structures proposed in a such a short period of time - these three towers could be signaling a desire to uniquely define our skyline in a way that sidesteps Development Hell. They're cheaper than skyscrapers and more unique than rectangular buildings. 

Too many cities in the United States arduously try to emulate Chicago and New York, while cities across the Middle East and Asia look like something out of Blade Runner or The Fifth Element

Let's go for it. 

But don't stop at reinventing the wheel. Look to Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower or the Fernsehturm Berlin for inspiration. Mark Philadelphia's skyline with something America has never seen before. Giving those passing through from D.C. to New York a reason to look at our city and wonder, "What's that? Oh, that's Philadelphia. I should check it out."

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Philly's Got Class

Philadelphia University graduate, Christopher Class, noted our city's deplorable reputation as a a filthy energy hog, stated in so many words in a report by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. Essentially, our air sucks and we don't recycle. Does anyone else miss the 90s? When everyone recycled and toothpicks weren't individually wrapped in plastic? Boy did we lose that battle.

But Class doesn't seem ready to give in, and his experimental school, the Reading Viaduct Sustainability Center doesn't just help the environment and teach about doing so, it solves several other urban obstacles in the process.

Although the project is heavily experimental, it's more exciting than most plans released by seasoned architects and a prime example of any city's need for fresh talent.

The sprawling center runs from Reading Viaduct's Vine Street stump to 12th and Race. Pedestrian causeways branch out in multiple directions across the Vine Street Expressway, sidewalks elevated above what appear to be energy generating fans. 

Without demolishing a single building, the center transforms the undesirable real estate facing the Convention Center's loading dock into purposeful galleries and classrooms congruously to a wild building hovering over a park that anchors 12th and Race.

Reading Viaduct Sustainability Center - Christopher Class

But despite Philadelphia's poor score in one environmental survey, our city has a unique interest in sustainability. Much of our woes are the directly result of our aging and existing infrastructure. The same problems exist in London and New York. Our lack of investment in sustainable buildings is incidental. We simple have far more old buildings than new ones, or ones that can efficiently "go green."

That hasn't stopped new development from making strides in this area. When Comcast Center was built, it was the tallest "green" building in the country and Lincoln Financial Field generates so much of its own solar and wind power that it sells its reserves to the city.

There is always room for improvement and the ideas are limitless. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia so why not put a solar roof on every building in Center City? Our narrow streets cause wind tunnels on our most towering avenues. Put them to work with giant fans. Turn Philadelphia into a self sustaining power plant. Experimental theories of course, but Philadelphia is more innovative than most think. 

The Other Disney Holes

The Disney Hole at 8th and Market, a surface parking lot once home to Gimbels and the proposed site of a DisneyQuest indoor amusement park, has been a black eye on Market East's already battered face for decades. But in a city that has more parking than it knows what to do with, it isn't Center City's worst example of poor planning that defaulted to the status quo of urban real estate: surface parking.

In the 1980s, when loft living was more akin to starving artistry than wealthy yuppies, the area north of Arch Street between 11th and Broad looked a lot like Old City. It was packed with underutilized warehouses, some providing cheap housing and office space, others vacant. Interspersed with worthless trinity homes, modest row houses, and ample parking, blocks and blocks were razed for the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Vine Street Expressway's extension, and a Market East Station that allowed trains leaving Suburban Station to connect directly to the Northeast.

Unfortunately these shortsighted projects failed to recognize the potential future of Center City and the neighborhood once referred to as the Furnished Room District. At the time, Market East was lined with triple X theaters and this neighborhood was the backwater of Philadelphia's sex industry. The collateral damage was welcome, a neighborhood so disdained that little history was ever even recorded. Many buildings demolished without the posterity of a photograph.

The Pennsylvania Convention Center, despite its woes, did pull this neighborhood up. Reading Terminal Market has handsomely reaped the rewards. But its attractions and hotels cater to those who come to the city in cars, and the equal and opposite reaction to the area's success has been the Disney Holes along Vine Street that continue to chip away at what's left.

Vine Street has been a wide avenue since the 1930s, and has long since detached Callowhill from its right to truly call itself Center City. It was likely perceived that the Vine Street Expressway would be no worse. But a lack of insight and a loathing for the Furnished Room District allowed urban planners to not only introduce a freeway, but also widen Vine's existing surface streets, requiring more demolition along the east bound lanes leaving blocks too narrow to truly develop.

It was a dumb move. Interstate 676 was specifically designed to relieve crosstown traffic on Vine Street. If anything, Vine's surface components should have been narrowed. The street rarely sees the need for its six lanes and those who use it as an exit ramp to New Jersey speed. And for reasons I'll never quite understand, most Jersey bound traffic tends to use Race Street to connect to the Ben Franklin Bridge.

But as the city continues to grow, defying a post-recession logic, little has been said of Center City's final frontier. Have those in City Hall been in office so long that they still turn a blind eye to a neighborhood they fought so hard to erase? Lavish master plans have been proposed to connect Center City and the Delaware River, the Ben Franklin Parkway is still improving, and plans have been proposed as far north as Strawberry Mansion. Why has the Furnished Room District, two blocks form City Hall, been ignored?

Some have suggested capping the Vine Street Expressway, among other things. All fine ideas, but none have gotten attention from those who could make it happen. When you consider the fact that the improvements at the Pennsylvania Convention Center are already beginning to resonate, it seems even odder that this neighborhood remains forgotten. These parking lots are about as relevant to City Hall as those surrounding the Stadium District. 

And perhaps that's why. The state foolishly failed to provide any designated parking for the Convention Center and these lots wildly profit as necessary evil. The center even advertises them. All thirty six of them. Yes, thirty six. Thirty six parking lots and garages that the Pennsylvania Convention Center advertises on its website, not one owned by the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Perhaps soon the center will find enough money to cap its Race Street facade with its own garages. It has the room, and the space would generate money. Can you imagine that? A Pennsylvania Convention Center free from the confines of the Carpenters and Teamsters, with a can't-beat downtown location, and its own designated parking? Wow.

But I digress.

More hotels are coming. Once the last surface lot on Arch Street disappears, hotels will find themselves on North Broad Street, Race Street, and ultimately development will begin to replace the Disney Holes along Vine Street.

The city needs to get out in front of the progress and tackle Vine Street now. Change is happening and it's happening fast. Designating street parking on Vine Street and narrowing each side to two lanes would dramatically slow down traffic, improve pedestrianization, and expand the footprint for potential development. 

Vine Street may not even need to be capped to pull Callowhill closer to Center City. Many cities have highway trenches running through their cores, and those that succeed without a Big Dig succeed because they're surrounded by dense development. Let's start enticing that development with a better Vine Street and finish what the city started thirty years ago. 

For the Love of Kmart

My car died the other day and the Make a Wish foundation is coming to pick it up tomorrow. I won't be getting another car for a few months, and while I'll miss spontaneous trips to Pennsyltucky, what I miss more is Kmart.

Yes, Kmart. I hate to admit it, but I truly miss that dreary discount department store. 

With the mercury rising I need a new air conditioner. A few years ago I would have lugged my granny cart to Market East to buy a cheap window unit, but today I have little options. I'll probably borrow a friend's car or rent one, but Zip Cars and suburban friends aren't clean answers to pedestrianization strategies.

The impending improvements to Market East are wonderful and welcome, but high end retail and luxury apartments don't provide the same necessities and staples offered by the Kmarts and Walmarts of the world. 

Perhaps a Target will fill the void. People seem to love the idea, and there's ample real estate on Broad. I've always imagined that the old School Board Building on North Broad Street would make a fantastic shopping center, perhaps anchored with a Target and a Philadelphia Sports Club. Until that happens I'll have to buy overpriced paper towels and kitty litter at CVS.

Philadelphia, The New New York

You only need to read BuzzFeed once a month to know that comparing cities is futile. You can compare the populations, GDPs, and apparent attractiveness of cities, but any comparison is as relative as it is irrelevant. The only way to define a city is to experience its individuality. And the only thing that matters is a city's potential. 

Right now, deliberate or not, Philadelphia is doing everything right. And forgive my rosy glasses, but Philadelphia is poised to take over the Northeast.

"You're crazy, Wes."

Am I? While cities like Las Vegas, Miami, and Phoenix struggle to fill skyscrapers that never should have been built, Philadelphia continues to rise. The Big Three - New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago - continue to brazenly build, but they always have. Meanwhile, other cities that survived the Great Recession - Dallas, Portland, and Seattle - have plateaued. 

The relaxed rules at the Pennsylvania Convention Center are already making headlines in the events planning industry and new hotels will undoubtedly follow. The center's downtown location has always been better than those in comparable cities like D.C. and Baltimore. Conventioneers love our center, the only thing they hated was the cost. That's over, and change is coming fast. 

New development along Market East is only going to make the center more desirable. Two decades after it opened, the center is about to become the game changer the state had always hoped.

But Philadelphia isn't only going to own the Northeast's exhibition industry. For decades Philadelphia has been disregarded as a failing city between the nation's political capitol and its financial capitol. Today, that's a huge asset. 

Companies don't need New York anymore. While New York may always be America's premier city and Philadelphia may not find eight million residents anytime soon, we're positioned to give New York - and other cities - a run for their money.

Comcast is about to adorn one of New York's most iconic buildings with a corporate logo synonymous with Philadelphia. That's huge. When Comcast purchased NBC Universal, 30 Rock's satirical character, Jack Donaghy said, "How could a company from Philadelphia buy a company from New York? That would be like Vietnam defeating the United States in a ground war."

Humor aside, satire is grounded in truth, and that's exactly what is happening. 

Comcast can afford Manhattan, but Comcast is building the communicative technology that proves companies leasing Manhattan office space are doing so solely for posterity. Most actors, artists, designers, and startups can't even afford Brooklyn, let alone Manhattan. And that long train ride to Queens gives them a lot of time to think about affordable apartments in more manageable cities. 

But those cities aren't just manageable, they provide a better quality of life. Manhattan has become an island for tourists and the rich. The Trumps of our world might not want to admit it, but good business thrives on the fresh ideas of economic diversity, the diversity that New York has priced out to the next best thing. 

Philadelphia is loving the leftovers. After all, a fresh pretzel still costs fifty cents here, so we have no problem dumpster diving for a fifty dollar Caesar salad. We have affordable talent, affordable apartments, and thanks to the fact that we lost the population of Atlanta in the 1900s, an endless supply of underutilized real estate. 

We can cheaply house New York refugees for another fifty years, and they're creating our own art, fashion, and theater industries rivaling those that New York once solely owned.

New York has no answers. Short of a complete economic collapse - which would be good for no one - New York will never find its way back to its roots. It can't afford to. New York's resources have been mined. Like Washington, D.C., it may soon be a one trick pony, an industry town known for Wall Street and legacy companies. The city sold its soul, but Philadelphia is what it was 238 years ago: an urban embodiment of individual ideas, revolution, and independence.

Manhattan has no where to go but down and Philadelphia is rising. In twenty years we will no longer be New York's scrappy little brother. If City Hall can get its act together and recognize our potential, we're primed to be the Big Apple's corporate and cultural equal. We're coming for you, New York.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

New W Hotel Rendering

A new rendering of the W Hotel proposed for 15th and Chestnut found its way to It's...interesting.

The Lights Are On! (updated)

No one seems to know when the Divine Lorraine's iconic sign was last illuminated, or when it was added to the rooftop for that matter. But two days ago, PlanPhilly posted a photograph by Steve Ives signaling the beginning of a new era for the long neglected North Broad beauty: the sign is lit.

Steve Ives

Once thought to be broken neon by many, the sign appears to be hundreds of red light bulbs, indicating that the sign was likely added before Father Divine took ownership of the property, predating the use of neon.

The age of the sign adds a new layer to the building's history. Prior to the use of neon, incandescent light bulbs were commonly packed closely together and used to illuminate similar signage. Many historic examples still exist in places like Las Vegas, but most were replaced with neon or fluorescent tubes that were cheaper and better traced the curves of the signs. Many more were removed all together, particularly today with durable and even cheaper LED illumination. 

It will be interesting to see how Eric Blumenfeld plans on restoring the sign, whether it will continue to be standard, red light bulbs, or if it will be replaced by neon or LED.

*as someone pointed out, I boneheadedly missed the obvious. The Divine Lorraine Hotel sign was obviously installed after Father Divine purchased the property, considering it was formerly named the Lorraine Hotel.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Philadelphia's Game Changers

BizJournals reported on Center City's retail trend, and how it's ready to explode. The Neiman Marcus Last Call on the second floor of the Shops at Liberty Place turned out to be an unsubstantiated rumor. But Nordstrom Rack is scheduled to occupy the former Daffy's space at 17th and Chestnut while Forever 21, American Eagle, and Uniqlo will round out the blocks. Nearby, the Cheesecake Factory is under construction. And across Center City, 801 Market Street is being prepped for a Century 21 while Macy's could be expanding its furniture section.

The storefronts along Market East's Girard Square are advertising Going Out of Business sales, making way for NREA's East Market, a residential, retail, and entertainment complex that will span the block and link the Pennsylvania Convention Center and Midtown Village.

Kmart has closed, its escalators have been removed and stacked for maintenance. Everything from a Target to a high end grocer has been rumored for the space, but the mid-mall flagship may be divided to expand low volume retail. 

Game Changer

Brickstone Realty is currently demolishing several buildings on the 1100 block of Chestnut and is in an agreement to purchase more. This development will face the south side of NREA's massive project. Brickstone is also developing the Stantec Tower behind Lit Brothers which will introduce hundreds of residents into a colonnade of retail, entertainment, and office space that already extends all the way to 12th and Market.

Paul Levy was quoted in BizJournals stating, "we've crossed over the tipping point." That's great for retailers, particularly high end retailers that have been wondering when Philadelphia will finally arrive. It will provide tourists with an avenue to burn cash on their way to the Liberty Bell and conventioneers will have entertainment and restaurants at the door of their hotels.

But there was a cold functionality to what Market East was, and it's hard to tell if it is missed, if it will be replaced, and where. Namely, Kmart. Kmart left because of its own corporate struggles, but it served its purpose on Market East and to the thousands of Center City residents seeking the goods that can't be found without a car.

When the mercury inches towards 80 degrees, residents are going to start looking for new air conditioners and garden hoses. Items that can be carried home in a grocery cart, but not lugged back on a bus from South Philadelphia. The problem with the "tipping point" is that it tips in favor of a specific demographic. Will discount retailers revisit Center City, even Target? Or have these proposals solidified Center City's economy as a Manhattanized microcosm? 

Zip Cars and bike lanes are not answers to pedestrianization, and islands of economic homogeneity don't make good cities. Center City isn't cheap, but it's affordable. These changes will come fast, most notably on Market East, and it will attract residents that creep into affordable Washington Square West, South Street, and Chinatown neighborhood. Neighborhoods that have delicately maintained Center City's inadvertent uniqueness. 

These are game changers, and they're coming fast.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Illuminated Divine Lorraine

Curbed provided a rendering of Eric Blumenfeld's renovated Divine Lorraine Hotel provided by EB Realty Management. 

If you think a rendering of an existing building isn't that exciting, consider the fact that most of us have never seen the Divine Lorraine Hotel sign illuminated in neon. 

Eat your heart out, PSFS. 

And check out the crowd hanging out on the sixth floor terrace. It looks like a scene from Spider-Man.

Mor Good News for the Pennsylvania Convention Center

A year ago the fate of the Pennsylvania Convention Center was uncertain. The state promised its expansion would bring more hotels, but could barely find customers to fill the rooms we already had. Although the state might never admit that their $1B investment was failing, the center had an abysmal rate of returning conventions and a notorious reputation due to its costly labor and frustrating rules. 

But things are changing for the convention center and the unions. 

Management ousted the Teamsters and Carpenters, retaining just three unions capable of doing their jobs. One union member filed a charge against Local 107, claiming he wasn't appropriately represented, signaling that support for the most stubborn unions may be beginning to unravel from within. 

The center relaxed their rules allowing vendors to use electric screwdrivers and set up larger displays on their own. 

And word is getting out.

The American Industrial Hygiene Association hasn't held a convention in Philadelphia since 2007. The group's executive director, Peter O'Neil echoed the frustration of many citing "onerous work rules and limitations on exhibitors" as the reason they've stayed away.

But thanks to the center's improvements, they're coming back in 2018, renting 16,000 hotel rooms. One convention four years from now may seem irrelevant, but the events industry is a very informed one. It's their job, and word resonates fast within their community.

The Pennsylvania Convention Center has always had a unique advantage. It's in the middle of a major city. It's connected to the Marriott at 12th and Market. It's close to restaurants, nightlife, and tourist attractions. The location is as good as it gets. That's why the few conventions that have chosen to return, continue to return. The industry loves the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It's only flaw was its employees. 

Other cities have built their convention centers in worn neighborhoods and built creature comforts around the spaces. Many are islands of new business detached from the city. In Philadelphia, that infrastructure has always been in place, it just hasn't been maximized. But soon the gloomy bridge between the Convention Center and Midtown Village will be filled with restaurants at East Market and the Gallery's facelift will provide a desirable shopping mall connected to the center. 

The new rules give our center a huge advantage over centers in DC, New York, and Baltimore that still retain the frustrating caveat of uncompromising unions. Obviously Philadelphia can't compete with better weather in Las Vegas or San Diego, but if New York moves its center to Queens, Philadelphia may soon own the Northeast's convention market.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike

Pennsylvania is full of creepy, forgotten places. Relics of bygone eras in technology, hospitals replaced by better care, and architecture that has outlived its usefulness. 

Home to a world of wild abandonment. 

In Philadelphia alone, the Divine Lorraine, Eastern State Penitentiary, and numerous vacant piers and power stations, we are enamored not just with our past, but what happens to our past when Mother Nature reclaims her own. 

Beyond the city to Lynnewood Hall and Pennhurst Asylum, we are a region lost between history and modernity, between the foreboding fortresses of 12th Century Europe and the tech campuses of the West Coast.

We preserve what we can. But across the state, more prized than tours of Society Hill by many, is the sullen macabre of the insignificant towns and highways lost to time and progress. Centralia, PA, once a coal town that housed 1000 residents has dwindled to 10 because of a coal fire that began in 1962. 

Aside from a few houses inhabited by those who refuse to leave, the town is now little more than faded street signs, avenues once lined with modest row houses, and sidewalk staircases leading to wild meadows.

Not far, Concrete City in Nanticoke, PA was an experimental community built for employees of a railroad's coal division in 1911. Because of mold problems caused by its exclusively concrete construction, the Glen Alden Coal Company abandoned the property in 1924, finding it too costly to demolish more than one of the city's homes. The rest remain to this day.

These are the things that fascinate me. The inspiration for scary movies and the monsters I still find under my bed.

This weekend I went to Breezewood, PA, which is little more than a truck stop for the intersection of I-70 and I-76. But past souvenir shops and a few fast food restaurants, just beyond a quaint church and over a hill is the entrance to one of Pennsylvania's most coveted sites for those who wish to explore the bizarre.

In 1968, 13 miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike were expanded and relocated, replacing the Sidling Hill Tunnel and Rays Hill Tunnel with a portion of what is now I-76 to accommodate more traffic. But the highways, and the tunnels, remain.

Today the abandoned turnpike exists as a "ride at your own risk" bike trail, maintained by the Friends of the Bike 2 Pike which have been working with Bedford County to turn it into an official bike trail. 

But if you're adventurous, see it now, and bring a head lamp. From the entrance to the first tunnel, you can see the end, but it's dark, damp, and the tunnel's echo is spine tingling. On a nice day you may find other bikers, their lamps riding towards you, followed by a polite "hello" from a face you can't see.

The second tunnel, however, truly is terrifying. From its entrance, you can't see the other side, only a faint light from it. When you reach the middle there is an absolute nothingness, both literal and figurative. You'll hear the sound of water echoing around you, inadvertently manmade falls leaking into the cave. 

Wear headgear and do not stop pedaling. 

If you make it back with your nerves in tact, Gravity Hill is just twenty miles west. A purported anomaly where cars allegedly roll uphill. Likely just an optical illusion, after an afternoon through two abandoned tunnels, an evening in the Pennsylvania Wilds may be scary enough on its own. Until you put your car in neutral and begin to climb a mountain.