Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Devil's Advocate: Spruce Parker Hotel

It's got two stars on Yelp, a whopping one and a half on TripAdvisor, but what may be surprising is that the tenants of the Spruce Parker Hotel at 13th and Spruce have access to the internet, or even know what it is. However, if you take the time to read any of the reviews you may see a wide gap between the urban legends that surround the place and those told by many who've stayed there.

Not long ago our inner cities were dotted with unassuming hotels that appealed to international backpackers or fresh faced high school graduates with no credit and minimum wage jobs. Something happened between Adventures in Babysitting and Sex and the City.

Old City's eclectic grit has been replaced with luxury lofts and parking lots for their tenants and the Furnished Room District's flop houses and dive bars were eradicated for the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Meanwhile, backpackers have uncovered chains of clean hostels while kids who want an affordable piece of the city have decided to watch it from the shores of their parents' basements.

It's good and bad. The Spruce Parker's popular perception is indicative of the polarized vision behind the New City, those who don't remember sacrificing luxury amenities for a piece of downtown, those who pride themselves on tolerance but pull their child a little closer when they see a transsexual walk past Nest...those who use brunch as a verb.

While there is some truth in the Spruce Parker's reputation, it's truth that lies in any hotel that doesn't require a credit card. Does it harbor prostitutes and drug dealers? Quite possibly. But so does a Motel 6 that sidles up to a truck stop. One that also houses travelers looking for a cheap room.

Throughout the Spruce Parker's storied history it's never been a source of pride, but its stable presence proves it serves a demand. Some of the negative attitude towards the hotel may be warranted, but reserve your judgments until you've been inside. Would the corner of 13th and Spruce be better if the hotel were apartments, condos, or dorms? Perhaps.

But would the corner of 13th and Walnut be safer without Woody's? Would the small streets between 12th and 13th be safer without iCandy, Tavern on Camac, and Voyeur? Dangerous things happen when you take property owners to task for evils that the city is responsible for enforcing.

Next time you cast stones from a nearby condo, ask yourself, are you concerned with the activity you think takes place in the Spruce Parker, or are you concerned with the fact that you simply don't like someone enjoying the city from a $59 a night bed? But more importantly, as you're licking the icing off the cake of the city, ask yourself what's next? The only thing under it is bread.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Giovanni's Room Closing

On May 17, the nation's oldest gay and lesbian bookstore will close its doors for good. Its owner, Ed Hermance will be retiring and is selling Giovanni's Room and its buildings at 12th and Pine.

It's not clear yet if any potential buyer would attempt to resurrect the bookstore in some form or fashion but it's unlikely to remain as-is.

Independent bookstores have been struggling for decades, first due to competition from big box retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble, then

Interestingly, eBooks hit the big box retailers hard enough to breath a little life into the forgotten independent book sellers that lingered, but many have had to retool their business model to adapt to a broader audience or offer other items has cafes, boutiques, or entertainment venues.

Some might say that progress within the gay community and broader acceptance has made gay bookstores obsolete. At one time gay bookstores served as social spots, alternatives to seedy bars and bathhouses. Times have changed and gay bookstores are now just bookstores with a limited inventory.

But niche bookstores dedicated to religions, ethnicities, and cultures still survive with good reason. There's still a market for bookstores dedicated to a community with a storied history and unique interests, but it will need to rebrand its image, expand its offerings, and appeal to a broader age range. Hopefully it sells to someone with both a vision for the future and a respect for its history.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Pearl's 19th and Chestnut

Pearl Properties has released a rendering for a new apartment building at the corner of 19th and Chestnut.

The design echoes the small retail corner space, formerly Qdoba, which appears to be incorporated into the site.

Similar in style to the apartment building on Vine Street being developed by the LDS Church, Pearl's ambitious high rise is in line with the city's recent boom in luxury apartment buildings.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Dranoff's Better One Riverside

Carl Dranoff's One Riverside has a undergone a redesign for the better, in so many ways. For one, it simply looks better. I

Its formerly bland glass infill has been redesigned as an iconic and towering showcase for the Schuylkill River's emerging skyline. But even more astounding, Dranoff managed to appease neighbors previously opposed to the project by putting its parking underground and setting the tower back from the community garden.

Read Inga Saffron's story here.

Personally, I may have been one of the few not opposed to Dranoff's previous design. I see community gardens as temporary infill, even those as pleasant as the one along 25th Street. Like even the most beautiful murals, they satisfy a vacant place until something better comes along. By better, I mean tenants. But Fitler Square's community garden may have proven itself a worthy permanence. And admittedly, it is quite beautiful and designed for such permanence.

Likewise, Carl Dranoff has proven himself a developer truly vested in not only appealing to Philadelphia, but being a Philadelphian himself. Through the architects at Cecil Baker + Partners, he willingly worked with concerned neighbors to develop his site with their concerns in mind, and in the end created a better building.

A Proactive Approach to Blight and Neglect

After the collapse of the Shirt Corner and the fire that destroyed the Suit Corner, much of Old City's blighted neglect is being called into question. Of course blight is nothing new to Philadelphia, even Center City. On April 11, a glass panel fell from City Blue's façade near 11th and Chestnut, an intersection home to more than a few nearly abandoned and possibly dangerous buildings.

Many of the problems seem to stem from interagency miscommunication. L&I, the Historical Commission, and the city's 311 response service tend to address sites after the damage is done. Property owners are saddled with the responsibility of connecting the dots between agencies that don't talk to each other, while less concerned slumlords are free to sit on their properties until L&I is forced to control the damage.

Old City has become the poster child for potentially dangerous situations, possibly because this prime and expensive address is still structurally an in-progress neighborhood.

Philadelphians tend to have blinders when it comes to architectural neglect. But if you really look at Old City, you begin to wonder why it commands rents nearly as high as Rittenhouse. You'll find several pricy loft conversions sharing a blocks with even more vacant and weathered buildings. Many of those that host galleries and boutiques in their storefronts are capped with unkempt façades of broken glass, upper floors riddled with black mold and dry rot.

Bureaucracy in any city's government is expected, although perhaps in Philadelphia it is more pronounced. But that begs the question, why are we and our city's own non-profit organizations so content with hindsight?

Perhaps it's not the job of organizations like the Preservation Alliance or the Historical Society to address blight amongst our aging buildings, but when those within the historical community vocally react to demolition permits, collapses, and fires, they open themselves up to scrutiny. I have to ask, "well ,where were you?"

Cataloging historic properties on a flashy website is a great preliminary step, especially those potentially threatened. It's a marketing move that raises awareness but it doesn't actively provide anything.

Where is the arm of these organizations with an inside track to the city's bureaucracy? Where are the local lobbyists that speak City Hall's unique language?

Waiting for the city to get its act together is a futile effort. All cities deal with poor communication, bureaucracy, and a staff of administrators who know that a job done well is a job that isn't secure. That won't change.

Whether it's a small neighborhood organization vested in safety or a larger non-profit that charges itself with saving our city's historic landmarks, no one can expect to operate successfully until they work with the city, not against it. Knowing that the city won't change, at least not anytime soon, enables these groups and organizations to take a proactive approach to addressing safety concerns and vacant or underutilized historic sites.

But across the board, they're reactionary in every effort and provide an absent alternative or solution. Where are we with the Dilworth House? Society Hill's neighborhood organization successfully blocked an effort to renovate, then demolish the arguably historic building, but that success is eradicated by its complete lack of resolve. Almost ten years after their efforts began, the building is still empty.

Perhaps this isn't the mission of these groups. Perhaps neighborhood groups are only capable of addressing immediate situations. Maybe larger non-profits aren't designed to proactively address the fate of the historic sites they catalog.

But likewise, it isn't the Historical Commission's job to save them. They're in charge of reviewing construction and demolition permits. Their bottom line is how these landmarks immediately and financially benefit the city. They stamp paper. Meanwhile L&I has proven itself incapable of addressing dangerous buildings across the city at large. They can respond to one hazardous site while another collapses, surrounding them in a cloud of ineptitude while they figure out how to do their job.

We're left with no authority, public or private, truly vested in securing the safety of aging and vacant buildings or saving our blighted, historically registered landmarks. If organizations like the Preservation Alliance and the Historical Society aren't prepared to watchdog our history, something needs to emerge. Otherwise buildings will continue to fall, deliberately or not.

The region needs a proactive preservation organization, one which understands the headaches the city poses, one with an inside voice. It needs an organization connecting owners of blighted and abandoned buildings to prospective buyers interested in unique and historic properties. Until then buildings will continue to fall for parking lots, history will be lost to paperwork, and we'll all keep scratching our heads in hindsight wondering, "how did this happen?"

Penn's Landing: If We Build it Will They Come?

A new study by the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has shown that a $250M investment in an overhauled Penn's Landing could generate $1.8B in economic growth.

But hold your horses.

Executing the DRWC's latest master plan could take five to seven years. And the private development, which is entirely speculative, could take at least thirty five years.

This is why I tend to hit the snooze button when I read the words "master plan." Wake me up when I'm 72 and prove me wrong, but I'll probably be in Miami so I can't promise I'll care.

In all seriousness, and in all fairness to those at the DRWC, they've finally addressed one of the fatal flaws in their piss poor project management skills: they're thinking dynamically. They've noted that the existing framework will be a desirable asset to potential developers. They've wrangled a way to get the transportation budget to cover part of the bill.

But they aren't quite there yet.

Any master plan is a potential boondoggle. The $250M price tag could easily double in five to seven years, and five to seven years could turn into ten or fifteen. The plan, stunning as it is, is massive. The park itself covers the equivalent of two city blocks. Grass sound cheap until you consider it needs to cover an interstate and be elevated above the existing Penn's Landing to slope towards the water. That's heavy engineering. To date, the largest project that the DRWC has executed is the Race Street Pier.

That doesn't mean it's impossible, but it does mean it's risky. The problem that still remains in DRWC's master plan is a lack of contingency. It's a broad and cohesive design, which would be great if time and money meant nothing. But because the sloped park is so cohesive, there's no room for failure. If the sloped park is complete and the money dries up, the green meadow will rise above the street to stare down at the I-95 canyon.

Worse, if the city blows through it's $250M budget prepping the site, we could potentially be saddled with a construction zone for the next decade or two, erasing the progress the DRWC has made and discouraging those who call Penn's Landing home.

Don't think small, think smart. How can the master plan retain a cohesive feel while all its components work as successful, independent pieces? Cap I-95 and see if that brings more people to the Penn's Landing we have. Better yet, green Festival Pier and bring some permanent attractions to the water.

The DRWC could have been vying for the Museum of the American Revolution. How about a museum dedicated to Native American history? Seems like an appropriate location. They could work with Gerry Lenfest to bring the SS United States to Penn's Landing.

Give us an exciting, innovative reason to be there. How about a scaled down Adventure World or Splash Mountain? Put an elevator at Race Street to take foodies to the next Iron Chef's restaurant atop one of the concrete towers approaching the Ben Franklin Bridge. The ideas for destination attractions are endless, attractions that make the Delaware River a destination. Let the park follow.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Lessons Never Learned

Hidden City
Another in a long string of systematic miscommunications has preservations singing a familiar tune on East Chestnut Street. City Blue's Art Deco Vitrolite façade at 1106 Chestnut Street has been weathering for years, but on April 11th one of the glass panels finally crashed to the ground.

Max Ufberg offers an outstanding history of Markham Ashberry's iconic building on Hidden City. Much to my surprise, the building's façade is not an addition to an older structure, but the entire building itself was built as it stands in 1933. Considered Late Art Deco, Streamline Moderne came from Germany's Bauhaus school in the late 1930s. Thusly, the building was added to the Historic Register in 1986.

But things got bureaucratic this month and no one really seems to be to blame. L&I issued a violation, deeming the building unsafe. The department asked the owner hire a structural engineer to report on the safety of the façade and install a sidewalk shelter in the mean time. The owner applied for a permit to build the shelter, but also hired a contractor to remove the glass from the façade, breaking some of the panels in the process.

A mess of absent communication between L&I, the Historical Commission, and the property's owner has offered a recurring nightmare.

The owner is retroactively seeking a permit from the Historical Commission to remove the glass already gone. But whether or not that permit is granted, and if it's not, what that would actually mean for the fate of the building is irrelevant. The damage is done. Replacing the glass will be costly, and it's hard to say if the historic unique material can even be replicated.

This allows the owner to apply for the same hardship exemption we've seen at the Church of the Assumption and the Boyd Theatre, and echoes of preservationists crying, "oh no, not again."

Standing, for now.

But the woes of preservationists isn't the only misstep being repeated. Like the Church of the Assumption, the city has allowed a property owner to move forward with unpermitted demolition. But we've also watched those in the preservation community rush to the site of an historic building after its fate seems sealed.

Noteworthy, and still alive

I hope the best for Ashberry's historic façade, particularly given the breadth of history unearthed in Ufberg's piece. But given the past decisions made by the Historical Commission we all know how unrealistic that hope is.

Will this be behind the wrecking ball before the historical community takes note?
Meanwhile there are umpteen deteriorating façades along East Chestnut Street and nearby on Market, walls that haven't yet crashed to the ground. Are those in the historic community going to step up and address the unusual PFCU façade, Robinson's Department Store, or the more traditional collection of historic buildings at 11th and Chestnut before it's too late?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

NID: Incentive or Punlishment?

After a decade of kicking around the idea, the Washington Square West Civic Association has begun seriously looking into the proposition of a Neighborhood Improvement District, or NID. The idea was recently pitched in Callowhill but ultimately shot down. To date, Philadelphia hosts Business Improvement Districts, BIDs, but a NID would be the first of its kind.

A NID is a non-profit entity that charges an additional tax on property owners, and in return the neighborhood receives additional services primarily in the name of security. After several assaults in the neighborhood and a recent stabbing at Midtown Diner, the timeliness of the proposal makes sense.

It's easy to stroll through Washington Square West on any given evening and think, "this neighborhood needs some help." It's a haven for panhandlers all day everyday. At night, prostitutes and drug dealers work in the open. Of course that makes it sound worse than it is. It's a lovely neighborhood full of quaint historic streets.

In fact, most of the neighborhood's woes linger around the vacant Lincoln Apartment Building at Locust and Camac, and the abandoned storefronts on Chestnut. When you consider that, it seems the neighborhood's ills could be remedied with more tenants, not taxes. In fact a NID might discourage the new development Chestnut Street needs simply locking Washington Square West in place.

When you consider the fact that Rittenhouse, Graduate Hospital, Fitler Square, Society Hill, and Old City succeed (for the most part) at maintaining safe neighborhoods without a NID, would an additional tax on Washington Square West neighbors be an incentive or a punishment?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Freeways or Parks?

The Atlantic Cities recently ran Alex Marshall's article, Tearing Down and Urban Highway Can Give Rise To a Whole New City. It's an interesting read, and given the proposals for Penn's Landing, it's a timely read.

He accurately points out the ill effects of the country's mid-century highway initiatives. He cites numerous cities that have successfully demolished some of their arterial highways for park space. But it's not as simple as "highways are bad and parks are good," and the article hides some of the misleading notions in the sheer number of words.

After the Great Depression and most notably after World War II, Americans were fleeing the inner cities for a better life in the suburbs, a life that cities couldn't offer. While we may view highways as necessary evils almost a century later, they weren't built without reason. By the 1950s and 60s, city planners began to recognize that the problem needed to be addressed or our cities would be completely lost. In order to compete, they began offering suburban creature comforts to compete with neighboring counties, which included accommodating traffic.

This led to the construction of some of our more controversial freeways, including our own I-95 and Vine Street Expressway. It wasn't long after they were approved that residents began to grow concerned. By the 1980s many American cities were beginning to see a renaissance. But for the most part, these freeways ran through deplorable neighborhoods. When I-676 finished driving itself through Vine Street in the 1990s, few cared.

However, by then the United States had already created a need for speed. Even I-676 serves a prominent purpose. This is where Marshall gets lost, and you start smelling his farting unicorn. He points to Portland - naturally - as a shining example of a city that has successfully demolished a major highway for the Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Portland's waterfront seems to be the go-to for any waterfront park project. I mean, they tore down a highway. That's unheard of in the United States, right?

Well implying that Portland demolished a freeway for a park is just as inaccurate as implying that the freeway was unnecessary. Portland didn't demolish the freeway, they moved it to the other side of the Willamette River. The industrial east side of the river is a better place for a highway, but the waterfront parks seems like less of a good deed when you consider the fact that the city decided one neighborhood deserved a park while another deserved concrete flyovers. Those unicorn farts don't smell like cupcakes.

While there is a renewed interest in urban living and walkability, the hard truth is that it's not nearly significant enough to make major freeways irrelevant. All too often those touting public transportation and sidewalks look at an America with a large blind spot. Most of the country isn't Marshall's Brooklyn neighborhood, even in most of our cities. Suburbs have been established and they're going to grow. We can't deal with that by replacing roads with parks.

Ironically, Marshall's spiritual kin in Philadelphia, those who laude public transportation, walkability, and park space are seeking to convert one of our only ready-built rail lines into a sunken park just west of the Reading Viaduct. We'll be just as likely to see the Vine Street Expressway converted into a park.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Penn's Landing Pop-up Park

Groundswell Design Group, Interface Studio, and Digsau
With the exception of the Race Street Pier, the DRWC will be bringing its most ambitious plan to the river on June 27th.

A $700,000 pop-up park at Spruce Street Harbor will host a floating restaurant, games, snacks, and art galleries.

What's more, Jodie Milkman, a DRWC Director stated that the event is intended to prove Penn's Landing's worth as a real asset to the city, one worthy of public investment.

Other pop-up parks and beer gardens throughout the city occupy confined or clearly defined lots. While the central Delaware is technically comprised of various elements or "parks," the entire space feels like one contiguous space. It will be interesting to see how the $700,000 gamble will actually play out.

Proactive investment in temporary events geared towards all Philadelphians and visitors is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


While many will be celebrating Easter with their families this weekend, I'll be spending Earth Day with my secular parents, the free spirited hippies that brought me into the world in a 1970s farming commune. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, a little bit. Still, I was raised on campgrounds and hiking trails. I could swim in a river before I could walk, and to this day grow my own vegetables on the small sidewalk in front of my house.

Needless to say, sometimes I get a little frustrated living in the concrete corridor of the Northeast. Here, AstroTurf passes for grass and faded silk flowers adorn window boxes. I find myself chatting with the Amish at Reading Terminal Market just for a little piece of home.

Of course Philadelphia is no stranger to the outdoors. Fairmount Park is one of the biggest urban park systems in the nation and community gardens have become the answer to vacant lots in some of our most blighted neighborhoods. But newly planted trees around Callowhill are stamped with a stencil on the sidewalk stating, "THIS IS A TREE." Obviously, in Philadelphia some people need to be reminded.

Last weekend, walking just a few blocks from my house, the Center City hotels were prepping for spring. That's great. How they prep is not. Loew's Hotel was replacing their seasonal creeping juniper with spring pansies. Wonderful. Beautiful. Except the juniper ended up in the trash. Even worse, along the small plaza at 12th and Filbert, five year old trees were topped, ready to be cut down and replaced with saplings.

Of course seasoned Philadelphians will claim that has something to do with underground plumbing or electricity, which is why they send their teenage sociopaths to the streets of Fishtown and Pennsport with box cutters to kill newly planted trees. But the city's underground is as mysterious to them as it is to those who maintain it.

Plus, there are ways to control the root structure of newly planted trees so that they can easily be moved when they get too big, relocated as Fairmount Park infill or along the Delaware or Schuylkill where they can mature. Sure, this may all sound like the idealistic ramblings of a tree hugger, but the new trees aren't cheap and those chopped down are even more valuable. Whether any of these plants - trees or shrubs - are being disposed of by a private hotel, office complex, or government facility, our cash strapped parks department spends thousands of dollars planting the same trees and shrubs that these organizations are trashing.

This isn't a soapbox without a point. The city's Parks Department could establish some kind of Green-Swap program, using volunteers to gather discarded plants and trees, and then replanting them in parts of the city more conducive to long term growth.

It doesn't have to end there. The city's park system is vast, with acres of unused or underused space, particularly fields. The city could use parkland to grow trees from seeds. A maple tree takes only two or three years to reach the height of those being planted around offices and hotels.

Once those plants mature or become unseasonable, the Parks Department could retrieve the tree or shrub and replace them with our locally grown saplings. While there are plenty of willing volunteers who'd jump at the opportunity to get their hands dirty, it also creates a unique experience for the city's public schools.

Dilworth House: What Happened to the Advocates?

When John and Mary Turchi purchased Washington Square's Dilworth House in 2001, they wanted to restore the mansion as a private residence. But things immediately got...Philadelphian.

Despite the building's Colonial charm, Dilworth House's historic significance lies with why it was built, not when. G. Edward Brumbaugh designed the house for Mayor Richardson Dilworth in 1957. At the time, Society Hill was a blighted slum and Dilworth decided to show confidence in his city by living amongst some of its squalor. Ultimately Dilworth and City Planner Ed Bacon helped transform Society Hill into the charming historic district we know today.

But adapting a home that has been largely unchanged since 1957 comes with all the demons one would expect, particularly when attempting to convert it into the modern and luxurious residence we'd expect to find on Washington Square.

Concerned neighbors fought Turchi every step of the way. After neighbors managed to block his proposed alterations to the house, Turchi sought to demolish the house for a tower designed by Venturi, Scott, Brown. Obviously, neighbors fought. Turchi offered a compromise, one which would require a bit of Franken-tecture, building the tower above the existing house, which would have served as the building's entrance. It was weird.

The ordeal was dragged out for over a decade, and today the house remains vacant. Those concerned neighbors who fought the initial restoration and alterations are now saddled with a vacant mansion at one of Philadelphia's most premier addresses. One has to wonder if neighbors wish they'd have let him make the simple alterations in the first place, offering Washington Square a unique showcase where you'd expect to find a modern high rise.

No one offered money or an alternate buyer, but early comments about a potential museum suggest that neighbors initially wanted the house converted into a public space. But a museum to what? The house itself is not architecturally significant or historic. It's a Colonial interpretation, not even a recreation of anything that ever existed on the site, or anywhere for that matter. 

Plenty of sites, both authentic and recreations are open to the public and nearby. But most are operated by the National Parks Service, an organization with absolutely no interest in a fifty year old house with no national significance. And of course, the city of Philadelphia couldn't afford to operate what would be one of the most boring museums this side of a wax museum that doesn't come to life and eat people.

Additionally, the Society Hill neighbors that fought Turchi have done nothing to follow up on what has become a dead proposal. The house has been saved, for now, but it's ignored by anyone who once claimed an interest. The city's Parks Department is poorly funded, and its primary focus is on parks that residents actually use. Residents typically save sites like Dilworth House by creating a "Friends of..." organization, pitching a proposal for the site that makes sense, and most importantly fields volunteers and donations to actually bring their plans to fruition.

But in Society Hill...crickets.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ground Zero: Point Breeze

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson recently blocked the sale of two lots to Point Breeze developer, Ori Feibush. Why? Well, Johnson believes this land should be reserved for Council President, Darrell Clarke's still-hypothetical affordable housing plan.

As Philadelphia's neighborhoods are experiencing a rebirth from Pennsport to Woodland Avenue, Point Breeze has become the battleground between the city's new homebuyers and longtime, low income residents. But with developers and City Council behind the joysticks, neither set of tenants have control of the game.

City Council has blocked tax hikes for longtime residents in an alleged effort to maintain diversity in revitalized neighborhoods. But when you consider the reality in places like Point Breeze, Council's efforts emerge as a less altruistic means to grab votes. In many of these neighborhoods, longtime residents are also longtime renters. Granting a tax reprieve on behalf of property owners gives slumlords a break, slumlords who will hike up rent to match the market of the improving neighborhoods.

Of course these are details that City Council understands, but you get votes by blaming "evil developers," not with the truth.

Things are even more complicated at Ground Zero, where Ori Feibush has announced plans to run against Johnson for City Council. Likely frustrated with his own development efforts in Point Breeze, Feibush wants to reform the corruption from within.

But eyeing a Council seat to aid personal profit wafts with its own kind of stink, one that could someday tip Philadelphia's economic diversity in favor of high end developers, a mistake made by the nation's more "successful" cities.

Cities like San Francisco and New York are dealing with the fallout of sending all but the region's wealthiest to the suburbs and neighboring cities. Havens for tourists, stripped of their souls, many of the locals play in Oakland and Brooklyn.

In other cities like Washington, D.C., blanketed gentrification has caused violent hostility between longtime residents and those new to neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan. We've seen this in Point Breeze and Northern Liberties. If history is any indication, it will only increase as developers and City Council continue to pit residents against one another for personal gain.

Perhaps these are the growing pains of any city that's ever been reborn, a path that Philadelphia was inevitably going to find. Of course following in the footsteps of San Francisco or Washington may seem like a long road given the sheer size of Philadelphia, but if City Council were ever to find itself in favor of profitable developers, the worst parts of the city wouldn't have to improve for developers to have control. They'd just need easy access to the land.

If City Council was run by the Feibushes of the city instead of the Johnson's, the city's pawns - its residents - would see the same city, just one hoarded by developers instead of City Hall.

Johnson and Clarke's bottom line may be votes, but maintaining the delicate balance of economic diversity should not be ignored in lieu of high end revitalization. Philadelphia is a big city, one with plenty of room for all walks of life. Unfortunately the game being played by those running the city - both from within City Hall and outside - is only hurting our streets and turning neighbors against one another.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Philadelphia Boondoggle

From Penn's Landing to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia's public endeavors seem to be the definitive embodiment of a boondoggle. Twenty one years after the Pennsylvania Convention Center opened, the billion dollar money pit has yet to deliver its promises. When the Center's first phase failed miserably, the state threw more money at an expansion that hasn't unlocked the front doors of its grand façade, several years after it was complete.

Now it's true, civic projects are not designed to profit but - theoretically - use tax revenue to best serve its taxpayers. They provide a necessary service or an asset. However profitability shouldn't be ignored. Adjacent development was used to pitch the PCC expansion. When the development never emerged, or emerged heavily subsidized, no one was really held accountable. Empty promises are the method operandi of the status quo.

The only new hotel to emerge near the PCC is the lackluster Hilton Home2 at 12th and Arch, its ground floor retail occupied by the first fast food options you'd expect to find next to any convention center in America, two decades after it opened.

Meanwhile the surface lots north of the PCC continue to chip away at the build environment, trading buyable real estate for high cost/low maintenance surface parking. Whether or not the PCC has recouped the billion spent on its two phased construction or if it can maintain its day to day operations with the revenue from its vendors, the center has done more harm than good. Considering the emerging revitalization of the Loft District, the Reading Viaduct Park, and the nation's overall renewed interest in downtown living, the PCC has come to find itself an unwelcome partner in City Hall's vicinity.

After all, the streets surrounding Reading Terminal below Vine Street looked a lot like today's Loft District before the PCC was dropped on us by the state. It's no stretch to imagine that the neighborhood's proximity to Washington Square West and Reading Terminal Market would have helped it evolve into one that looks a lot like Old City were it not for the PCC. And full time residents vested in its streets would have undoubtedly had an impact on our deteriorating Market East.

But ifs and buts aren't cluster of nuts, so, no granola.

Still, what about our future boondoggles? Has the city learned its lesson?

As malls go, ordinary but not bad - architecturally. Fill it with attractions that appeal to the market on the street: TOURISTS.

Speaking of Market East, PREIT may be the city's next money pit. Although the Gallery at Market East isn't owned by the city, the marriage between the two is strong. It's not surprising that PREIT's proposals for a revitalized Gallery Mall are about as lackluster as anything the city pitches. History has told us that inner city malls don't work and why, but those at PREIT can only see their white elephant as a mall.

While its layout may scream "mall," its best reuse as a mall is only by the vaguest definition. Tucked between numerous hotels and the Historic District, it should be full of tourist attractions, a beer hall, and some corny museums. But all PREIT can see is Center City's answer to King of Prussia and a Target, despite the fact that Center City already has KOP on Walnut Street and Kmart failed for the same reason a Target won't succeed.

But why should we expect innovation? PREIT, like the city and state offices vested in the PCC and its expansion, don't understand Center City and what it needs. When it comes to master plans, particularly if the word "Pennsylvania" is affixed, it's tough to expect more than a cash strapped burden.

Can it ever get better? Maybe. The Delaware River Waterfront Commission incited a bit of excitement surrounding the release of its new master plan. But "master plan" has developed a pejorative connotation when it comes to civic projects. Hargreaves Associates master plan for Penn's Landing and the vicinity is far from the first. Despite the fact that it's a good design, one that includes speculative commercial and residential development, on its own it provides no new reason to go to the river that isn't already there.

With more destination attractions, residents, and events, Festival Pier is not a bad space.
Like PREIT and City Hall, the DRWC doesn't understand its audience. It's unfortunate. More so than the PCC or the Gallery Mall, Penn's Landing is a potentially unrivalled asset for the city. But it's operated by bureaucrats that understand two things: pushing paper and maintaining the status quo. It should be filled with events every weekend: concerts, movies, exotic animals to promote the Philadelphia Zoo and the New Jersey State Aquarium, local restaurant booths, beer gardens. But the DRWC doesn't field events, it maintains those willing to return.

Unfortunately, until these organizations are employed by visionaries working with businesspeople who know how to execute a vision, we'll be faced with nothing more than renderings and master plans, and perhaps someday, a new Convention Center, Mall, or Waterfront Park afflicted with the exact same obstacles that kept them from ever succeeding in the first place.

Congratulations to Inga Saffron

Philadelphia's well known architecture critic, Inga Saffron, has been advocating for the city's built environment for almost fifteen years. The three time Pulitzer Prize nominee finally received the recognition she's been waiting for when it was announced that she'd received the Prize.

Saffron's critiques have been incidentally divisive, an element of good journalism. Good journalism doesn't placate and doesn't hate, it doesn't promote the politics or the sponsors of the publication, it honestly delivers the news. Critics speak from a more complicated podium. How do you criticize or praise anything objectively without citing schooled jargon from experts? After all, those trained chefs, architects, and artists that define the good and bad are critics in their own right.

Critical journalism is opinion without editorializing. Somewhere, someone will defend their McMansion and somewhere an educated architect will explain why a Brutalist monstrosity is "good design." You can't argue with facts, but you can argue with a critique.

But Saffron is more than a contrarian. You can find those writing a dozen blogs about Philadelphia architecture, including Your Truly. But Saffron is employed by the Inquirer and a Pulitzer Prize recipient because she doesn't deliver unpopular opinions to get clicks and comments. Her eye for the brick and concrete around us is consistent, even when it's unpopular.

Despite her consistent - and deserved - criticism of the Mural Arts Program, traditional design, and popular developers, she speaks to her audience as a colleague, not a teacher. Critics often school their readers from a soapbox as an elitist. Saffron may come off elitist to her audience, but only when those readers disagree. Pulitzer Prize or not, Saffron cannot definitively be an elitist because her exposure to architecture is as organic as it is to anyone reading the paper. She's not an architect. She's speaking to her audience from the seats of the theater, not the stage.

I received an email from her after my very first post on Philly Bricks, and while she didn't completely agree with me, she's as open to dialogue as anyone. She doesn't blindly defend her positions with books and citations, suturing the conversation with "you're wrong, and here's why." She has her positions and knows why, but clearly understands why others may sometimes disagree.

The media is full of obnoxious chefs who defend themselves by criticizing others and art critics who offer little more than rehashed critiques. Saffron's balance between knowledge and honesty is refreshing. She's a Philadelphian like the rest of us, one with an award winning portfolio of journalism.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Marketplace Design Center

Right now Center City's Schuylkill Banks are flanked by a touch of the city's skyline: 2400 Chestnut, PECO, and the under-construction Grove.

But the Philadelphia of tomorrow might see the Schuylkill become our own Chicago River, one graced with a riverfront park. And why shouldn't it? Developers are finally realizing that people like to be on the river. In ten years, the Schuylkill Banks could be lined with the FMC Tower, One Riverside, and several other high rise apartments and office buildings.

It could get even better. PMC Property Group (FMC Tower) and Lupert-Alder just purchased the Marketplace Design Center at 2400 Market, otherwise known as the whale-mural building.

Alder views the building as the "gateway to Philadelphia," a building that was built to withstand a few more than its six stories.

The Other CITC?

The internet may have unearthed Foster and Partners' original plan for Comcast's CITC. It's not completely clear if it is actually Foster's original design or a redesign prepared by Visualhouse. Nonetheless, I like it better.

Its flat façade makes the tower appear taller and the detail at the top looks more appropriate than a spire. Spires are a cheesy way to claim height, and unless you want to dock a dirigible, they don't serve a purpose. Even as a design element, a spire on a building with such a flat roof looks like an afterthought. CITC's alternative design carries its existing framework up, subtly tapering off in the sky.

Again, it's not clear if Foster and Partners had any role in the renderings but it's fun to see another look at a proposal that seems to be locked in place.

"The Corner" is Officially History

Although some - myself included - have noted the iconic Shirt and Suit Corner's place in Old City's storied history, two recent events have signaled that their place in Old City should be history.

Not even a month after the Shirt Corner at 3rd and Market collapsed during a controlled demolition, its sister site, the Suit Corner, went up in flames. On Wednesday morning and two alarm fire sent one fireman to the hospital with injuries, but luckily no one was seriously harmed. The longtime owner, Gary Ginsberg was grief stricken as he watched his business go up in flames.

The business predated required fire safety measures including a sprinkler system, and the ball of fire that erupted near a window quickly overcame the entire building.

L&I may be burning the midnight oil in the months to come. Still struggling with the deadly collapse at 22nd and Market, facing public scrutiny over the Shirt Corner's collapse at 3rd and Market, this fire will inevitably lead to more questions about the safety of our aging businesses and homes.

How One Crosswalk Could Bring Hundreds More to the Zoo

The Philadelphia Zoo sits just upstream from Boathouse Row
On beautiful days like today, thousands of locals and visitors take to the Schuylkill River Trail. Many complete the full "Schuylkill Loop" which goes all the way to the East Falls Bridge and back down West River Drive. The entire experience is one of our city's best assets.

What could be included in the journey is the Philadelphia Zoo. Walking to the Zoo from Center City is a breeze. The Girard Avenue Bridge is a short walk from Boathouse Row, and the bridge carries pedestrians straight across to the Zoo. So why aren't hundreds of these recreationalists finding themselves wandering into the Zoo on their weekend strolls? Because walking to the Zoo from Center City isn't the breeze it should be.

The Girard Avenue Bridge does have a staircase to take pedestrians to the street from Kelly Drive, but there are two problems. The lower portion of the staircase is gone. It's an easy enough hill to climb, but the other obstacle is even more difficult to overcome: Kelly Drive.

Only those with a death wish would dart across Kelly Drive, and they do it all the time, either to access the bridge or to park on the east side of the Drive.

It's a simple solution: a crosswalk. There's no crosswalk between Sedgley Drive and Fountain Green Drive, and Girard lies exactly in the middle. But the one simple solution could do so much more than just get people safely across the Kelly Drive Freeway.

Pedestrians who often ignore the Zoo as a need-to-drive endeavor can easily find themselves strolling across Girard and into the Zoo. That's money. Also, those on the Schuylkill River Trail would be able to access the Glendinning Rock Garden, the lower Fairmount Park's greens and mansions, and reach Centennial Park and the Belmont Plateau on foot. Residents near Girard Avenue, cut off from the Schuylkill River by Kelly Drive, will be able to reach the river in minutes.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Raelen's Vine Street Tower

GroJLart's choice words are always welcome in Philadelphia's bizarre and frustrating world of architectural progress. I'm amazed as some of the lost proposals he manages to dig up for Philaphilia, and the most recent is one of my favorites, for two reasons:

One, because I love tall buildings. And two, because I jog past the site every day and always wondered what exactly happened to this block and why it was so awful.

Between 15th and 16th, behind Hahnemann Hospital, is a sidewalk that runs between a parking garage and the Vine Street Expressway's 15th Street (Broad Street) exit ramp. It does nothing but carry me to more scenic jogging routes, but were there more than a parking garage and a surface lot, the space could be an inviting outdoor space for an office complex.

It turns out, that's what it was supposed to be. Unfortunately the small, narrow park space horrifyingly sidles up to the parking garage and a few trees used to stash homeless bindles. If you jog through there after dark, jog fast.

But as GroJLart's crafty paleointernetology managed to unearth, a skyscraping office complex would have, like the Latter Day Saint's recent apartment building proposal, helped bridge the divide of the Vine Street Canyon.

Perhaps the Mormons will help bring the life to Vine Street it needs. Interstate caps and parks are nice thoughts, but nothing helps camouflage dramatic eyesores such as the Vine Street Expressway like equally imposing architecture right next door. The Expressway is no wider than the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Flanked with skyscrapers and high rises, the Canyon would be just another wide boulevard. Although Raelen's design is dated, plenty of skyscrapers date from the 90s and blend in just fine.

The Other Church of the Assumption

Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption still stands, largely gutted, facing an unfortunate and familiar fate. Despite a fate as crumbling as the building itself, its steeples still stand proudly...and straight.

Another landmark church, the Emanuel German Lutheran Church on South 4th Street does not appear to be as lucky. But its fate is the result of neglect instead of litigation.

As of 2010, the Vietnamese Phat Quang Buddhist Temple was hopeful about the church they occupied, but four years later the structure remains a little more weathered, and when I drove by this morning, its steeple seems to be leaning eastward.

 Knowing that two of the biggest obstacles in saving the Church of the Assumption came from restoring the two towers which served little active purpose to potential tenants, the construction headaches in an even larger tower and steeple that has begun to significantly sag, will unlikely be tackled.

Whether or not preservationists revisit the Emanuel Lutheran Church on South 4th Street, the tower seems to be a cause already lost to the elements.

Monday, April 7, 2014

1528 Cherry Street

Tucked behind the new Family Court, next to Center City's Quaker Meeting House, is a holdout of Old Philadelphia. Two former row homes at 1528 Cherry Street may soon be demolished to make way for a narrow, 17 story, mixed use high rise by Ambit Architecture. Seven floors of office and nine residential space will occupy the tower, sheathed in what looks like Victorian lace.

Penn's Landing Carnival

Every Spring, our beloved carnies travel the country in camper vans, hauling complete amusement parks to grocery store parking lots, and our nation's cities and towns come alive with the smell of cotton candy and funnel cake, brightly lit roller coasters and carnival rides. More rural areas open up county fairgrounds for mud slinging monster truck shows and demolition derbies, rodeos, and greased hog sacking contests (yes, that exists, and yes, I've seen it).

Philadelphia enjoys spring in its own way. The Schuylkill Banks hosts its Schuylkill Soiree, Fairmount Park has its Cherry Blossom Festival, and thanks to popular demand, the Channel 6 Zoo Balloon is back.

But where's my Tilt-a-Whirl? My Mirror Maze? Where are the stuffed animals behind the impossible-to-win Ring Toss?

Perhaps Philadelphia resists the urge to host a cast of transient carnies in front of the Art Museum out of some historic sense of civility. I'm sure you can come across the occasional carnival in the Northeast or the suburbs, but they're small, poorly advertised, and only locally known.

Well, we do have one venue perfectly suited for bright lights and candy apples, a venue begging for attention. Every year as part of Portland's Rose Festival, CityFair is held at Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland's much more successful answer to Philadelphia's Penn's Landing. Visitors enjoy local beer, exotic animals, carnival rides, and all the fried fare you would expect.

So where's ours?

Penn's Landing attracts thousands of ice skaters during the city's coldest months, but Festival Pier will be vacant for the rest of April and most of May. Architects have been focused on the ongoing effort to redesign the concrete park and cap the interstate, but despite the fact that even the most hopeful visionaries are looking at a few years of construction that won't begin this summer, plans for the space in the interim seem focused on maintaining the status quo.

Why are Philadelphians always waiting for the next pie in the sky proposal, many which will only be replaced by another proposal the following year? We're in civic second gear, promised a better Gallery or a better Festival Pier, then anxiously wait for a decade only to find ourselves faced with another money pit like the Convention Center.

All carnie jokes aside, the industry is far more than a Simpsons plotline or the traveling caravans of stagecoaches they were a century ago. They're legitimate corporations operated by businessmen and women. More often than not they rent spaces from municipalities or private parking lots because they make money from the events. In some instances they even provide their own security.

While we anxiously await a new Penn's Landing that may or may not come, let's put the space to use. We don't even need to stop short at a weekend carnival. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation could work out a long term contract with an amusement service to provide rides and carnival games for the entire summer season. And there's a giant, almost always empty parking lot already available. That contract would be too delicious for a reputable carnival service to ignore, it would cost the city nothing, and it would put thousands of visitors - local and tourists - on Penn's Landing every weekend. Most importantly, it would give the waterfront the purpose it needs for a realistic investment in its revitalization.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

How to rebrand the Gallery mall? Stop thinking of it as a mall.

For decades, The Gallery at Market East has been a piss poor example of urban shopping malls, a genre known for piss poor shopping. The blogosphere has been buzzing with rumors for Kmart's vacant space with everything from a Bloomies to scaled back retail space allowing for more tenants.

But can the Gallery ever be more than it is as a mall? It will still be an enclosed, urban shopping experience. An experience that never thrived in any city since it began in the 1960s, and is even less likely to thrive now that residents have revisited their love affair with the urban experience.

There are of course a couple ways that the Gallery could improve its reputation as a shopping destination. Altering its Market Street façade, namely at the street, opening its retail space to the sidewalk would be vastly more inviting to pedestrians than a concrete wall that doesn't even utilize its existing display windows. But if PREIT ever hopes to attract high end shoppers, changing from its current state to a King of Prussia rival won't organically evolve. The mall would have to be shut down, remodel, and reopen with enough fanfare to squash its reputation amongst locals.

But even that is a gamble. Center City already has its answer to King of Prussia and it's growing. Walnut Street's high rent is pushing retailers to Chestnut Street. If anyone thinks the Gallery should try to compete with suburban shopping, they're ignoring the fact that suburban shopping never worked a few blocks from City Hall.

Of course that leaves us with a white elephant on Market East, one PREIT seems to be maintaining as-is until adjacent development changes the district's market and puts more people on the street. But PREIT is thinking inside the box, literally, assuming that a building built as a mall must be a mall.

The Gallery sits on very unique corridor within Center City and those vested in its success have completely ignored what that corridor uniquely offers: thousands upon thousands of tourists. On one side the Gallery is a dense cluster of hotels and at the other, the city's historic district.

Thousands of tourists and conventioneers traverse Thunderdome every month, ignoring the Gallery and huffing it to 6th Street. In turn, PREIT ignores them, dreaming of a Target replacing Kmart or a few Forever 21 carbon copies turning out the same revenue as those already at the Gallery.

Tourists are looking for their traps and PREIT isn't listening. I heard my uncle complain about Philadelphia after attending conventions here. Gushing about Baltimore of all places, I had to explain to him that he needed to venture a few more blocks to experience Philadelphia. But the truth is, he wasn't looking for a local Philadelphian experience, he was looking for those trappings he found near Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Convention Center: ESPN Zone, Dave and Busters, maybe a movie theater.

The Gallery is the perfect locale and a blank slate for these venues. It's too perfect to ignore, yet PREIT ignores it. If those in charge had the foresight to think of the Gallery as more than a mall, they could have worked with Live Nation to salvage the Boyd Theater's grand auditorium and rebuild it inside the vacant Kmart. The two story Old Navy is the perfect venue for a two story microbrew or concert hall. Anchor the east side of the mall with a flagship Urban Outfitters, our city's homegrown purveyor of hip clothing. Sure there's one on Walnut Street, but if two H&Ms can succeed a few blocks from each other, an Urban Outfitters on Market East, catering to an entirely different, tourism driven market would thrive.

If PREIT is waiting for nearby development to  spawn interest in the neighborhood, it's ironic, because The Gallery at Market East is the perfect space to kick off interest in the neighborhood. But it won't succeed as an indoor, suburban style shopping mall for the same reason it's never succeeded: that's not what those passing by want. Right now, PREIT is the only legitimate game in the vicinity, and if NREA moves ahead with its East Market between 11th and 12th, the Gallery is going to find itself not only facing competition amongst shoppers, but also tenants.

Start marketing the location and catering to tourists on the street. Stop thinking about locals who already have a Diesel and a Betty Page on Walnut Street, don't need a Macy's equivalent, and are just as unwilling to lug home a desk from Target as they were from Kmart.

Suburban shopping will never succeed in an urban environment because it's urban. The only want to adaptively reuse a behemoth like the Gallery, particularly one tucked conveniently between the tourists and their destinations, is to stuff it full of Lego stores, Ripley's Believe it Or Not and Guinness Museums, and maybe even an FAO Schwartz.