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.