Monday, August 4, 2014

Center City's Final Frontier

Despite its approval by the Historical Commission, Baywood Hotels' proposed addition to the historic NFL Films headquarters has drawn the attention of preservationists to a forgotten pocket of Center City, perhaps the district's Final Frontier.

Inga Saffron's recent Inquirer article regarding the project paints a colorful depiction of this neighborhood - my neighborhood - and focuses on the liveliness of an area few know without dwelling on our overabundance of unwanted surface parking lots.

Unfortunately the piece sinks into the bystander effect of architectural journalism, praising the area for its quaintness and charm without really understanding anything about those of us who call it home.

While it's true that little has changed in this neighborhood's built environment since the early 20th Century, it's the unbuilt environment that has scarred it irreparably. While two or three streets managed to survive midcentury demolition, it's hard to say if the district's potential survived as well. Trinity courtyards and narrow alleys that once looked like those in Washington Square and Society Hill now stare blankly at surface lots or towering windowless walls. 

In a city addicted to its history, this may be one case where reality is all that remains.

But having lived in the neighborhood bound by Chinatown, Broad Street, the Vine Street Expressway, and the Convention Center for more than five years I've come to understand that reality is what my neighbors want. We will never be the extension of Old City we could have been before the I-676 and the Convention Center eradicated our lofty potential. We're ruins of what could have been stuck between being a towering extension of Philadelphia's true downtown and a fight to preserve a sinking vessel preservationists don't understand. 

Just two blocks from City Hall, we're neither quaint nor relevant. The Chinatown Drift of the Expressway keeps us up at night because there is no architecture to buffer the noise. Surface lots create endless garbage that finds its way into our community gardens. A lack of late night business and our minimal population means absent security and an abundance of prostitution and open air drug use. 

It's easy to look at quaint alleys like Winter Court and see potential in the provincial charm. But what I see are used heroin needles in my flowerbeds. 

Baywood Hotels' proposed tower near 13th and Vine has been contested by local historians, most notably the Friends of the Boyd because of the building's historic status as the first home of NFL Films. While many, including Saffron, have accused it of being a "not-so-subtle" interpretation of the PSFS Building, the most recently released rendering looks more like 1706 Rittenhouse plated in materials that echo the original Streamlined Moderne office building.

Deja Vu

Truth be told, neighbors are also concerned about the project. Another hotel means more parking. In any other neighborhood I'd say the claim is absurd, but in this neighborhood we understand just how expendable our buildings are, and just how much the asphalt prairie can expand. 

The fact that Baywood Hotels is interested in preserving the facade of the existing office building is astounding in a neighborhood where row homes disappear overnight without so much as a whisper. While the hotel may bring more surface lots in the near future, it will also increase the value of those lots and attract the attention of future developers. 

Improved work rules at the Pennsylvania Convention Center are already evident in the droves of conventioneers mingling around 12th and Arch and future development is exactly what we asked for when the center first expanded. This neighborhood was always expected to be its collateral damage. 

Still, Philadelphia has managed to do a great job of juxtaposing sky scraping towers with Colonial charm. There's plenty of room to grow, to fill in the gaps, for towers to sidle up to courtyards. Baywood Hotel, dull as it may be, is a catalyst this neighborhood needs to truly be the part of Center City that it is.

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