Saturday, July 12, 2014

"Over-Success" or Something Better?

Can a city suffer from "over-success?" Ask a capitalist and you'll get a staunch "NO." Ask a native New Yorker or Washingtonian who watched their city transform over night and you might get a more insightful answer.

Inga Saffron posed the interesting question on Changing Skyline. Philadelphia natives would likely laugh, as would anyone just a few years ago. But things are changing fast and that change is about to accelerate. 

Relaxed rules at the Pennsylvania Convention Center brought 2500 fraternity brothers - and nine million dollars - to 12th and Arch this week. National retailers once leery of competing with local boutiques in a city rigidly attached to homegrown businesses are quickly filling up Walnut Street.

While local retailers have largely managed to relocate to Chestnut Street, and Market East and East Chestnut remain affordable sources for future growth, the dull ills that come with being a bull's eye for big business are showing themselves in the places Saffron mentions: banks.

Long gone are the days when banks were independent feats of architectural marvel. Today the panache of grand columns and chandeliers means nothing to the institutions. Like a roadside Hampton Inn or Taco Bell, banks are creatures of branded design. And where retail thrives, banks are in the business of making themselves available and visible. 

Fortunately for Philadelphia the footprint of your average Wells Fargo can be diluted by its surroundings. What's worse, and what Saffron forgot to mention, are the never-ending chains of drug stores. Can we even call them that anymore? They're essentially high priced grocery stores that happen to have pharmacies somewhere beyond the stacks of fatty junk food.

And they take up a lot of space.

About a year ago Walgreens occupied the vacant Borders at Broad and Chestnut opening up one of the grandest pharmacies anyone's ever seen. Not only is it three floors, it's three floors of some of the most bad ass architecture in Philadelphia on a prime corner. It's hard to argue. It's better used than vacant. But with hindsight being what it is, the recent retail boom asks if this could have been a better location for the Cheesecake Factory coming to 15th and Walnut. 

Luckily the former Daffy's at 17th and Chestnut will find new life as it was meant, soon to become a Nordstrom Rack. However, while Chestnut was a brief reprieve for the independent boutiques priced off Walnut Street, the new American Eagle Outfitters and upcoming Nordstrom Rack may be a signal that Chestnut is about to change. The proposed W Hotel at 15th and Chestnut will likely up the ante.


For the time being, independent retailers have plenty of room to play. East Chestnut is about to see some new residents and Midtown Village has proved itself a successful experiment in cultivating local entertainment and shopping. The businesses that once made Walnut what it is are in a position to do the same east of Broad. As Walnut swaps local flair for Center City's answer to King of Prussia, the shopping streets east of Broad are ready to trade City Blue and Easy Pickins for that local flair.

It's hard to determine how the city's retail environment will evolve. Market East improvements will bring their own chains to the Gallery at Market East and the upcoming Market East's mixed use complex, likely impacting the shopping culture on Chestnut and Walnut. But there's still room before Philadelphia succumbs to "over-success." Center City sits on a very small, walkable acreage, but unlike New York or Washington, D.C., it has room to grow.

North Broad is a hotbed of underutilized storefronts. As more residents find themselves in Callowhill, local businesses will surely follow. Even Old City, although perceived to be pricy and successful, is chock full of vacant buildings and subpar retail. There are plenty of neighborhoods well within the limits of Center City, more between Spring Garden and Washington Avenue, ripe for the kind of retail innovation that separates Philadelphia from New York and other cities.

Rittenhouse and University City are what they are for very specific reasons. Rittenhouse, namely Walnut Street, has become the city's premier shopping district for visitors while University City caters to college students who seek out the creature comforts of home.

But Northern Liberties and Passyunk Square have created enclaves of local charm, almost exclusively fed by homegrown businesses far from the radar of national chains. As the city continues to grow local businesses can fill in the gaps, cultivating Callowhill, Broad Street both North and South, Hawthorne, and Grays Ferry.

In a city so large it's shortsighted to assume shopping destinations can't exist beyond Walnut Street and University City.

We have a unique situation in Philadelphia, perhaps the only example of a post industrial city that has truly recovered from the throws of irrelevance. As local businesses feed off the growth of national chains - and they will - they'll do what they did for Walnut Street elsewhere, terraforming the city north to Girard and south to Washington, fostering a city in which independent businesses and national chains thrive side by side. 


Because Philadelphia is more than just a Renaissance Town of local boutiques and tiny art galleries. Leave that to Birmingham and Richmond. We're a capital of innovation and creativity, a city capable of turning our local boutiques into the national chains so many revile. In a capitalistic sense we're where Manhattan was ten years ago, begging for more of the same, but our vast portfolio of underutilized real estate affords us the ability to be something much greater. Bringing on more national retail will only enable us to expand our vast wealth of independent ideology well beyond the confines of Center City.

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