Monday, December 1, 2014

Brutal Honesty

We've heard it all before: The Divine Lorraine is about to be reborn. Since it was sold by Mother Divine in 2000, its fate has been unsure. Still, it's local lore's most mysterious and beloved landmark. The public has been, obviously, hopeful. 

It sat vacant, it's been gutted and abandoned, it's been tagged, and it's been mined for resources. In all ways, it is a tragic analogy for Philadelphia's love-hate relationship with its history. Our last movie palace met with demolition crews this year. Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption will likely suffer the same fate. 

With the Divine Lorraine's large footprint, it's easy to guess that the only reason it still stands is because it's on a costly intersection in a not-so-profit friendly part of town. Basically, no one's bothered to tear it down for a parking lot because no one wants to park there.

Philadelphian's can have an ironically obtuse outlook on history. Many cling to aging and irrelevant institutions like unions and midcentury diners, holding on to the nostalgia of our past, not the relics. What many cling to is their Philadelphia. Row homes decked out in Christmas lights in July. Bizarrely acceptable parking rules. 

We are a microcosm of Americana, a city of neighborhoods, and too many forget that we are also one city, one of the biggest in the nation. Those archaic platitudes that allow places like Fishtown and South Philadelphia to hold onto irrelevance creep their way into the greater city and adversely impact what we should be.

The Divine Lorraine is more than a metaphor for a city that loves to hate itself, it's an example of how its residents are inhibiting its future. 

North Jersey based developer, Billy Procida, has already agreed to funnel more than $31M into Eric Blumenfeld's Divine Lorraine, primarily because he simply likes the building.

Cities with economies as robust as New York may be accustomed to this sort of situation mainly because there's little risk in a city where people are fighting to spend $2000 a month on studio apartments. But here it's rare. There's no question that Procida would like to profit from his investment, but if that's all he was concerned with he'd be purchasing a beleaguered building in a developed part of the city. He'd be renovating the Spruce Parker or the Lincoln. 

But despite his wealth and penchant for terraforming neighborhoods, Philadelphia's midcentury mentality doesn't allow too much to be built without large grants from the state. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation has approved $3.5M through the Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program.'s Joseph N. DiStefano asked, "Why do these Philly apartment projects need taxpayer assistance?" to which Procida bluntly replied, "They want everything to be union."

Despite near-daily protests at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia's development climate and its more reasonable unions seem ready and willing to embrace logic. Hotel bookings are up and that's directly correlated to improved work rules at the Center. Considering the precedent set by the Post Brothers at the Goldtex Apartment Building, Procida and Blumenfeld could likely move forward with market rate labor. 

But that means years of protests and complicated headaches at future projects. Until the more nostalgically bullheaded old timers recognize the fact that affordable labor means more work - or leave - development will continue to require what is essentially a government subsidy to accommodate unions. 

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