Sunday, December 28, 2014

Game Changer

Game Changer
1601 Vine Street has spent decades as a surface parking lot, one of many that line the Vine Street Expressway. Despite numerous proposals - some more realistic than others - it seemed that it would forever exist as a reminder of what the expressway's construction did to the surrounding blocks. 

Despite its proximity to Center City, developers are leery of taking a chance on Vine Street.

It's full of traffic. It's loud. It's devoid of pedestrians. It's risky.

The Loft District just north of Vine Street has seen a marginally successful renaissance but it still feels like another town, one a short walk from the center of the city. 

The canyon that separates the north and south is more of a mental barrier than a physical one. Other cities have highways cutting through densely populated areas but they succeed because the surrounding infrastructure allows them to be densely populated. When high-rises and skyscrapers embrace a highway, walking across it is less daunting.

That isn't the case in Philadelphia. Vine Street is lined with surface parking lots and a few structures lingering from the neighborhood's era as a slum. 

But that's changing in a big way. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is building a residential high-rise next to its new temple at 16th and Vine, and it appears prep work has begun. 

So what's the big deal? The vicinity known as Franklintown is chock full of apartment buildings. It's on the better, west-of-broad stretch of Vine. 

Well, it's a big deal because this may be one of the most undesirable lots in Center City. It doesn't just sit above the Vine Street Expressway, it sits next to the highway's exit ramp. It's also a big deal because the Mormon church has the money to build quality, and they usually do. This is a building designed by Robert A. M. Stern's renowned firm, one that could easy find a home on cushy Rittenhouse Square. 

It's changing the game, not just for Franklintown, but also for Vine Street. If it succeeds it tells developers and residents that the Vine Street Expressway isn't the barrier they thought it was, just a short, boring block to walk past. It will also bring more residents, more pedestrians to Vine Street, which means the city will be pressured to address the street's piss-poor pedestrianization, the kind of headaches finally being tackled on Washington Avenue.

In a few years, Vine Street and the neighborhoods just north might be the integrated part of the Center City they should be. 

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