Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Other Divine Lorraine

At one point Shift Capital had hoped to renovate the beleaguered Beury Building on North Broad Street. If you don't know it, it's the other Divine Lorraine. 

At the corner of Broad and Erie, the Beury Building wasn't just abandoned glory, it is significant architecture at a key intersection of two major arteries desperate for life.

Unfortunately, as Philadelphia Magazine pointed out, it is up for sheriff's sale, meaning it will go to anyone with the funds to buy a derelict building in one of the worst parts of town. 

Meaning strip mall at best, surface lot at worst.

Abandoned buildings do very little for their neighbors. But the ones that scrape the sky are more than empty buildings. They're beacons of hope. They signal what their neighborhood once was and could be again.

Like the Divine Lorraine, the Beury Building is an important cog in North Broad's renaissance. The best hope for North Broad isn't blind profit, it's smart planning. Like Tower Place at Spring Garden, the Divine Lorraine may soon invigorate life at Girard, and the Beury Building could do the same.

These projects have and will show that success is not merely present in development but also preservation. Even in their current states, the Beury Building and the Divine Lorraine are sources of pride in struggling neighborhoods. Losing them to suburban grocery stores or worse will only make the rebirth of North Broad Street that much more difficult, solidifying their neighbors' dignity as being worth no more than a strip mall.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Great Steps

I appreciate a good underdog story, particularly one that uses our city to demonstrate what a true underdog can become. And whether or not you like boxing movies, Sylvester Stallone, or worn nostalgia, Philadelphia has been that underdog for a very long time and we've just recently started to win.

There's a very real reason Rocky was set in Philadelphia. The city was chosen for Twelve Monkeys, Philadelphia, and Cold Case for the same reason. For so long Philadelphia was the bleak and downtrodden embodiment of something that was once great. More than that, Philadelphia continued to fight through its darkest days because it knew it could succeed.

So why now, that we're finally beginning to see the success enjoyed by New York and Chicago, are we so willing to allow one man to eradicate a pinnacle of absolute perfection, a light of stone that kept a struggling city alive throughout the Dark Ages of modern Americana?


Would you paint the White House blue?

Despite our place in Revolutionary history, Philadelphia was a smog ridden haven for crime, poverty, and corruption during our nation's Bicentennial. When Rocky Balboa ran up the Great Steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he wasn't just using a civic structure as gym equipment. He conquered seventy two daunting steps that led him to the one edifice that made Philadelphia a great city even in our worst hours. 

He turned back to the city below the Great Steps, a city faced with struggle and doubt from a point of unmolested innocence, overlooking a tarnished skyline desperate for what he had just proved he could achieve. The Philadelphia Museum of Art isn't just a museum that holds paintings. It's a Temple, in all its parts, to greatness and purity. You only need to climb its Steps to know that.

It was a symbolic feat shared by anyone who has ever visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, even those long before Rocky was a household name, one that continues to be shared by today's visitors who know nothing of the movie.

But Frank Gehry's plans to carve out one sixth of the Great Steps for a picture window isn't about history. If it were, Horace Trumbauer's greatest work of art would be granted the same reverence as a historically designated row house in Society Hill.

This is pure pomp. The Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is coupling the hype of Gehry's mere presence with an aging and irrelevant connection to a forty year old movie to encourage people to embrace anything new, regardless of what it looks like.

Cinematic history aside, the Great Steps are as relevant to the building as the collection within. The banners flanking the columns of the museum call out the title of Frank Gehry's current exhibit: Making a Classic Modern. The title doesn't just insult the posterity of the building by implying historic architecture should be altered, it insults art itself, suggesting that the Mona Lisa might be better if part of it were painted over to include an iPhone.


Making a Classic Modern

Would we allow Starchitect Michael Graves to install his postmodern columns on City Hall simply because he's known throughout the world? 

The city pitched a fit when Conrad Brenner halfheartedly proposed a mural on the windowless wall behind the PSFS Building. A grassroots organization staved off the demolition of the Boyd Theater's auditorium for more than a few years and has expanded its efforts to save the historic NFL Film Exchange on North 13th Street, a simple building in a forgotten corner of Center City. 

In a city that is so vested in preserving every last crumb of our history, where is the fight to save the gateway to our most internationally recognized cultural institution? 

While Philadelphia holds an abundance of architectural history, preservationists tend to fight fights they think they can win. We fight to save historic row houses and theaters because we know that those financially vested in the demolition don't have the city's historic interest in mind. They have no respect for the bricks and mortar, just their potential profit. 

But they're also fightable. 


Frank Gehry

When it comes to institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we assume those in charge know better. Cultural institutions are not powerhouses of profit, they're repositories of posterity. But those managing the Philadelphia Museum of Art have been mesmerized by a Lord Voldemort, a Starchitect with the power and prominence to blind us from the fact that he doesn't understand our city.

Faced with a marketing campaign masquerading as an art exhibit, Philadelphians are not asked, "Could our city's artistic legacy be better served in a truly modern museum elsewhere on the Parkway?" Instead we're being told to tolerate what Frank Gehry wants to do to the history we already have.

I'm going to keep asking until the jackhammer hits the first Great Step.

Save the PMA

Cat Urine? No, it's just New Jersey.

Residents of Irwindale, CA thought they had it bad last year when they discovered their air teeming with the smell of freshly chopped chili peppers from a nearby Sriracha factory. Obviously not too many suburban California residents are familiar with the odiferous realities of the Northeast, a region so notoriously stinky that its unique smells have worked their way into pop culture jokes.

"It’s probably just a strange wind pattern coming over those factories in Staten Island where food flavors are made." - Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock

For about a week, South Philadelphia residents have wondered about a mysterious cat piss smell, blaming everything from meth labs to raccoons.

But the Passyunk Post narrowed it down to a likely source,a  power plant being built in West Deptford, NJ, just south of Philadelphia's Navy Yard. 

Try as the Garden State might, it seems it will never shred its reputation.


GeoGuessr Philadelphia


How well do you know Philadelphia? GeoGuessr offers a new game for those cramped into cubicles to waste time on the internet, and it's addictive.

It uses random Google Street View images of your city and challenges you to guess the location, then gives you points depending on how close you are.  

Give it a go here

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Chinatown's Project H.O.M.E.

Project H.O.M.E., an organization that provides shelter and assistance to low income residents, has joined the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation to build a low-income apartment building near 8th and Arch. The building at 810 Arch Street will occupy a former surface lot donated by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. 

Philadelphia is getting more than just a handsome apartment building in a neighborhood desperate for development, Center City is getting a badly needed resource for those struggling to get back on their feet.

A Farewell Voyage for the SS United States

SS United States in South Philadelphia
Passyunk Post reported that the SS United States, the once glamorous ocean liner docked near South Philadelphia's IKEA, might be moving to New York. In 1952 the ship crossed the Atlantic in about three and a half days, the fastest commercial voyage across the Atlantic to this day.

While ideas have occasionally floated around keeping the ship in Philadelphia as a destination attraction, perhaps a casino or large entertainment complex, the cost could easily exceed $300M. 

Other cities have expressed interest in the ship including Miami, Baltimore, and even Chester. But regardless of the high cost of renovation required, such an experimental venue would also need a promising return and Philadelphia's market may simply not be capable of maintaining such a unique space, at least not yet.

Wherever she ends up, be it Miami or Brooklyn, it's nice to see that the reverence of such history is being respected. 

Despite her dilapidated condition and stripped interior, the SS United States fared far better than her sister, the SS America, which broke loose from a tugboat in 1993 and ran aground off the coast of the Canary Islands where it cracked in half and spent the next twenty years slowly rusting into the sea.

SS America in the Canary Islands

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ample Parking, Day or Night

When I first moved to Washington, D.C. almost twenty years ago, my large studio cost a modest $450 a month, development was stale, and the internet was for nerds. Today my first apartment - untouched and still teeming with more roaches than Joe's Apartment - asks a whopping $1200 a month. And that's considered affordable.

Twenty years old and raised on a farm, I was just tiptoeing my way into urban life. Put your license and cash in your sock at night, but leave a few bucks in your wallet in case you get mugged. Don't make eye contact with the beggars. And don't go in Meridian Hill Park after sundown unless you're buying drugs or a blow job. 

The neighborhood once home to abandoned embassies, one of them torched, is now full of microbrews, new families, and strollers extending all the way to Maryland.

But one thing hasn't changed, a frustrating urban ill I learned to deal with very early on: You will never find a parking space at your door. 

In Washington and many other cities, parking hassles are acceptedly traded for the luxury of living downtown. If you have to own a car for work, circling your block, even the surrounding blocks for twenty minutes is just something you have to do. 

But in Philadelphia, a city three times the size of Washington, D.C., having a car isn't largely perceived to be a privilege or unfortunate necessity, many view door front parking as a right. That attitude is expected in some emerging neighborhoods where long time Philadelphia residents spent the better part of the 20th Century living amongst abandonment when parking was a breeze. 

As the city's built environment grows, so does its population. Neighborhoods in North and South Philadelphia once vacant enough to accommodate a car for every member of the family parked along their block are quickly discovering what cities a fraction of the size have known for decades. 

Gone are the days of saving your spot with a piece of rusted lawn furniture. South Philadelphia residents may soon even find themselves faced with the fact that median parking is illegal, a law currently overlooked that will inevitably be enforced, further exasperating the parking within nearby neighborhoods.

Dead for no good reason

But where the parking gripes are even more quizzical is in the city's core. Not only do an over abundance of surface lots and parking garages adequately accommodate those living and working in Center City, the individuals who live and work here knowingly chose apartments and accepted jobs in one of the nation's densest downtowns within one of its biggest cities.

Ironically the same voices in Center City that champion better pedestrianization, urbanism, and bike lanes are the same ones who pipe up when a developer proposes a new apartment or office building, citing traffic and parking as a concern. 

Old City, a neighborhood once densely packed with warehouses and factories is now a high priced neighborhood full of charming alleyways broken up by small surface lots to accommodate both unnecessary cars brought in from New Jersey for nightlife as well as the community's reluctance to allow larger development that might bring with it a parking garage. 

But an even greater hypocrisy occurs across town near Rittenhouse Square where the Center City Residents' Association blocked the development of a sky scraping apartment tower at 19th and Chestnut. Despite a half dozen nearby high-rises, the CCRA claimed that spot zoning should not allow a building so tall, yammering from buildings that spot zoning allowed.

The larger complaint apparent in community meetings, on message boards, and the online comment Rabbit Hole regarded parking and traffic. With streets in the vicinity overwhelmingly metered, the parking grief is a nonstarter. Wealthy tenants who would inexplicably want to park on the street would need to hunt for spaces well below Rittenhouse Square. But more realistically, most who even owned a car would likely rent a space in one of the dozens of lots and garages in the area, many just a block away.

Despite being an American powerhouse that continues to grow taller and spread wider, Philadelphia's old habits dictate development in our densest pockets. The ongoing spot zoning argument doesn't validate the concerns of resident activists, rather it exposes an outdated zoning map, one that allows the tallest building between New York in Chicago on Arch Street, but nixes a high-rise apartment building a few blocks south.

Our current zoning in Center City refuses to accept the fact that the city between Vine and South is fusing into a cohesively proper downtown. There are places where height is relevant, notably in the Independence Historic District. But spot zoning in and around Rittenhouse has already set a precedent, and any debate about shadows and wind tunnels should be moot. And parking should never be considered in any debate regarding development downtown. 

The only regions within our city where development seems free to do its job is where the Atlanta-ization of our city is possible, where vast disjoined apartment complexes can provide ample parking near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and University City. Meanwhile hypocrisy and entitlement are stymying development in the one region within the city where common sense says it should touch the sky.

The day will come when logic, reason, and the quest to truly become an advanced and competitive city will supersede the lost cause of revisiting a Philadelphia that died in the 1950s, a lost cause that quells its agitation simply through the posterity of quiet streets and quaint architecture. We're a big city primed to be the next New York. Let's start acting like it.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Billboards: Philadelphia's Next Skyscrapers

Brown Hill Development has commissioned some exciting architecture and preserved just as much. The Ayer, Old City 108, and the Porter House in Manhattan are part of a portfolio that blends restoration, adaptive reuse, and exciting architecture.

Unfortunately 205 Race Street, a project dating to 2006, went from exciting, to okay, to meh. 

What happened? Were the nefarious tactics of Old City's uncompromising NIMBYs at play, casting assertions of shadows from buildings that cast shadows? At times, yes. At one point in the project's near decade long process, the Old City Civic Association criticized any zoning measures that would allow a mid rise at 2nd and Race. But the most poisonous thorn came from an unlikely source, one inexplicably accommodated: Keystone Outdoor Advertising. 

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger even noted an excuse for the concession, stating last year, “It’s easy for anybody to take ZBA matters to court...especially for an owner of outdoor advertising, who spend a lot of money taking people to court and jamming up projects forever.”


The most recent iteration for 205 Race Street has been redesigned to accommodate the Zoning Code but also the grievances aired by Keystone, setting a precedent to accommodate billboard advertising in the approval process that builds our city. 

In a city rigidly opposed to digital signage and billboards - a city that turned the corporate name "Bandit Signs" into household pejorative - it's disheartening to see the city and a developer bend to the threat of litigation despite what a move means for the future of unsightly advertising in Center City.

Will Philadelphia's next skyscraper be a poorly maintained billboard advertising low rate mortgages or hair removal? As absurd as it sounds, extending advertisers the same air rights as developers opens the topic for legitimate debate.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Divine Speakeasy

Eric Blumenfeld is speaking out on behalf of the Divine Lorraine, and what he has to say sounds pretty cool. 

The lobby is going to be one continuous space between the reception area and two restaurants. 

But even more interesting, Blumenfeld wants to reopen a shuttered speakeasy along Broad Street, an entrance on Broad leading to the basement.

Could one hotel and a few restaurants spur a renaissance on North Broad? In any other city, probably not. But the Divine Lorraine has a unique place in Philadelphia's history, one which has surprisingly been overlooked by Hollywood.

Despite the building's unique absence in popular culture - like many things Philadelphian - locals understand its place in history. The Divine Lorraine is no exception to the ills of urban explorers but even more would love a legal glimpse inside. 

Simply opening the building is likely to attract a profitable fixture on North Broad Street.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Big Brothers Big Sisters: A Win for Preservationists?

The historic Big Brothers Big Sisters Building near 13th and Race may get an addition. In a sign that changes at the Pennsylvania Convention Center are resonating within the exhibition industry, we might start seeing all those hotels the center's expansion once promised.

The building that was home to a Warner Brothers film distribution center is more commonly known for its most recent tenant, the national headquarters for Big Brothers Big Sisters, was historically designated as the first home of NFL Films, a motion picture association founded in 1962 affiliated with the National Football League.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission approved the addition of a modest hotel tower much to the dismay of Friends of the Boyd, who've aired frustration with the commission comparing it to the loss of the Boyd's most lavish asset, its auditorium.

But unlike the Boyd, Center City's last historic movie theater, the most significant architectural elements of 238 North 13th Street are its Art Deco facade and lobby. While the addition of a high-rise will require the demolition of much of the building's interior, the facade will be saved and perhaps even its lobby.

Although dismayed by the decision, preservationists have won a compromise, a decision could have easily led to the demolition of a building perceived to be insignificant, even ugly, to many. 

Images of the proposed tower are hard to find, but rumors imply that it may echo the PSFS Building, an odd choice given the clash Art Deco and International Style may pose. A simple glass tower would allow the two floors of history to shine on their own merit without gunking up the building's gears with something so retro.

The Goddess Diana

The goddess Diana atop Madison Square Garden
When City Hall was cleaned about ten years ago, many didn't realize that the building was made of marble, assuming the stained facades were simply granite. 

Similarly, few realized that the statue of Diana within the Philadelphia Museum of Art was originally gilded when it stood atop Madison Square Garden and served as the highest point in New York City.

By the time Diana made it to Philadelphia, her gilding was gone and was repaired in the green most are now familiar with.

After a year of restoration, Augustus Saint Gaudens' goddess has returned to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in her original glory.


LEGOdelphia

For your viewing pleasure, local artist Levi Buffom, or Doctor Octoroc, is building Philadelphia entirely out of white LEGO bricks

The images went viral on Imgur last week.

Hemlock Grove, Pennsylvania

Hemlock Grove, PA with its "White Tower" in the distance
In the western Pennsylvania town of Hemlock Grove stands the tallest skyscraper in the state, at least according to the Netflix original of the same name. Somehow my love of Arrested Development and Jason Statham movies prompted Netflix to suggest that I might like a story about an old coal town run by demons and tormented by werewolves. 

Netflix was right, I love it. But not because it's good...but because like everything else in its genre, it's an addictive runaway train of absurd subplots and cliffhangers. 

It's a drug.

Despite horrible reviews, the low budget Twilight franchise was a wild success and inspired the same copycats we saw following Lost Boys.

But shouldn't it be over? 

Everyone knows the cycle of gothic horror movies and television shows: Vampires then werewolves then zombies. And by the time viewers start analyzing how creepy it is that centuries old vampires are seducing high school girls, Hollywood returns to Melrose Place.

World War Z should have been the end. But the ever-growing real estate of modern media affords a corner for every interest. Long gone are the days when shows' creators had to fight for a prime time spot on one of three networks and Fox was a newcomer, when safe formulaic family sitcoms and cop dramas were the only shows to receive a green light.

Today, when ABC cancels a show, its fans create a Facebook page and fight to have it moved to Showtime. Meanwhile Netflix and Hulu are creating their own unique programming free from the confines of Standards and Practices and thirty minute time slots. Some of it's great, some of it's awful, but it's usually watchable. And given the online option to binge watch shows like Hemlock Grove, we don't lose interest in the week following a cliffhanger. 

Unfortunately the series that makes western Pennsylvania look like a haven of wealthy fashionistas full of grandiose mansions doesn't live up to its potential.

The vagueness of the first episode appeared to be a reincarnation of Twin Peaks, setting the tone for a story surrounding the murder of a popular high school cheerleader while focusing on the quirky and torrid double lives of seemingly normal American archetypes. 


It's too bad. 

Despite Hemlock Grove's watchability, Hollywood has toyed with reinventing Twin Peaks multiple times with The Killing and the unsuccessful Happy Town. While it's evident that networks and producers see a market for revisiting the cult classic, each attempt has focused on the literal aspects of Twin Peaks while ignoring what made it so unique: the fact that it wasn't really a story about a murder, but a series of individual vignettes and nightmarish imagery. It was never meant to make sense.

Today's horror trades David Lynch's macabre introspection for gore and screams because producers likely understand that the reason Twin Peaks didn't last is the exact same thing that made it special, leaving us with stories like Hemlock Grove, shows that encompass the mechanics of Twin Peaks without the maniac behind the wheel.

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. 

How? 

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.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Philadelphia's Next Iron Chef: Wawa

Have you ever searched Yelp for a restaurant and found yourself reading a review for McDonald's? 

Why bother, right?

Well Christine Speer Lejune of Philadelphia Magazine and Josh Kruger of Philadelphia Weekly bothered. Lejune's spent a good chunk of internet real estate venting over the perceived local adoration of Wawa, and Kruger took offense. And what were once somewhat legitimate news outlets were more than willing to troll the world wide web with the bait.



Anyone concerned with the death of print journalism should be more concerned with what's replacing it online. 

Lejune comes across as a neo-Toryist who just found out Wawa doesn't serve scones while Kruger proved that the mainstream's love for plaid, fake glasses, and food trucks has driven hipsters to find irony in the last place possible: a corporate chain of convenience stores.

Bravo, journalists. I look forward to future reviews of Golden Corral's salad bar. Is it just me, or have the sneeze guards gotten higher? 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Is Philadelphia Walkable? Not According to Smart Growth America

From the world of irrelevant lists comes Time's latest pile of misinformed shit that branded Miami, Atlanta, and yes, even Pittsburgh, more walkable than Philadelphia.

Sometimes I wonder if those in the national media have ever been to Philadelphia. Then I remember, no, most still think Philadelphia is a less fortunate Baltimore somewhere in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey, a city that was once good at manufacturing...or something. 

Media snobs have watched Atlanta, D.C., and New York evolve because they work there. When they vacation in South Beach they confuse it with a downtown Miami they've never seen, and they love it. 

But when Philadelphia is nodded for a national article, it's easier to write about it from a Manhattan cubicle than waste a short Acela ride south. National journalists have been peddling the same tripe about the City of Brother Love since the last time they visited, sometime around the M.O.V.E. disaster or Budd Dwyer's on air suicide, the kind of aged tragedies with which Philadelphia is synonymous, whether or not they happened here.

To them, "Philadelphia (still) isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is," and we still throw snowballs at Santa.


But reputation can't skew statistics despite how journalists may interpret the numbers to boost their own cities. Data is data, and according to Smart Growth America at George Washington University, Philadelphia is only the thirteenth most walkable city. 

The fishiness of the survey comes from the fact that New York isn't ranked the nation's most walkable city. No, it's George Washington University's own Washington, D.C., followed by New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Smart Growth America advocates for the kind of development Philadelphia mastered over two hundred years ago and continues to deliver. Like many advocates for pedestrianization from newer and emerging cities, they've reinvented the horse and claimed it their own, forgetting how many American cities were built around the animal that moves only slightly faster than a harried pedestrian.

The irrelevance in these surveys comes from the fact that not all cities are created equal. Comparing New York to Seattle, number six on the list, is like comparing a Wharton graduate to a third grade honor roll student. Sure, Seattle is excelling at accommodating 600,000 residents with a decent bus system, but New York is continuing to supply a multimodal network to eight million. 

The same applies to Philadelphia, particularly when you consider a city is more than the residents made up within its limits.

If you've ever visited D.C. as a tourist you've likely marveled at its expansive subway system and its walkable downtown. But if you've ever lived there you've seen through the facade. Metro, which is more comparable to Philadelphia's regional rail network than a traditional subway, travels neighborhood to neighborhood within the city. Without a traditional downtown, walkability usually includes busses or trains between neighborhoods that tourists rarely see. 

In the suburbs it's even worse. SEPTA's regional rail network was largely developed before cars became popular and thusly most stations occupy hubs of walkable, 19th Century pedestrianization. 

Metro was developed in the 1970s when commuters wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. Its suburban stations are black holes of pedestrianization, miles from residential enclaves developed at a time when mixed use planning was deemed outdated. Many beltway suburbs aren't even serviced by D.C.'s regional bus system, and when they are, you're stuck walking through your 80s era cul de sac community. 

What D.C. has in one of its only walkable suburbs, Old Town Alexandria, Philadelphia has tenfold in Bryn Mawr, Ardmore, Media, and Doylestown. 

The reason D.C. fared better than New York is the same reason Miami and Atlanta fared better than Philadelphia. We're big cities, some of the biggest in fact. While Miami and Atlanta comfortably cater to a relatively small population only recently interested in walkability, Philadelphia has been doing it steadily since the 17th Century. A more apt analysis would be walkability amongst metropolitan areas or even a survey of perceived walkability, number of cars per resident, or percentage of those without cars.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Has Gehry Given Up?

What's perhaps worse than a bad idea is an idea that makes absolutely no sense. A video from Action News 6abc shows a detailed, illuminated model of Frank Gehry's proposed alterations to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Earlier photographs and renderings only showed bird's eye views of the plans, making it unclear exactly how it would look from Eakins Oval or the Parkway, you know, where people would see it. And surprise, it's as ugly as anyone could imagine.

Sorry, not ugly. Ugliness has merit. It takes effort. Someone has to try to design something truly ugly. 

Gehry's alterations look more like something a child might dream up with a coloring book from the PMA's gift shop. They're senseless. At best, juvenile. 

He's haphazardly placed skylights within the museum's plaza, four square, one round, geometrically flanked by two recessed entrances. Meanwhile the picture window and seating area within the Great Steps provide natural light to the underground gallery space, but no entrance where one would assume. 

Timothy Rub, the museum's director wants people to keep an open mind about the plans yet stated, "its an interesting idea that has some merit." Some merit? Those aren't the confident words we want coming from those in charge of such dramatic changes to our city's greatest cultural asset.


Gehry, who seems fixated on skylights is replacing the seven unfinished pediments with, yes, more skylights. Has Gehry, an octogenarian who's practiced architecture for more than fifty years, simply given up? For all the support the Philadelphia Museum of Art is trying to raise for Gehry's proposals, they seem more interested in the man himself than looking at the designs he's presented. Would there be the same fan fair if these plans were submitted by anyone not branded a starchitect? 

Where are the preservation activists and the Historical Society? Inga Saffron who's made no bones in the past about criticizing popular opinion called Gehry's steps "controversial," but went on to grant a pass stating the "museum should be allowed one daring move." Has our champion of Philadelphia's best buildings, past and future, been mesmerized by this celebrity as well?

The powers behind this decision have their heads buried elsewhere when they need to be looking at what they are allowing to be done to this historic landmark. Ignore the architect and independently examine the merit of the designs. 

Suggest alternatives. Why can't Gehry replace the stone steps with glass ones? They've given the man carte blanche when they should be surveying those in cities with a Gehry, asking them how the feel about it. Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall was so poorly designed that it acted as a concave mirror scalding pedestrians like ants. Do we want that touching a museum that holds priceless art?

Would New York allow Gehry to transform the Guggenheim? Absolutely not and we should hold ourselves to the same standard. Philadelphia is on the brink of many great things. Don't lose sight of the things that already make us great.

Last Call for the Please Touch Museum

In what should be one of Philadelphia's premier pockets of culture and tourism, Centennial Park's attractions continue to elude their visitors as isolated venues. While the Philadelphia Zoo, the Please Touch Museum, and the Mann Center are geographically close to the Schuylkill Banks and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, getting there on foot is another story.

A journey that could be aided by a simple crosswalk on Kelly Drive below the Girard Avenue Bridge instead requires a Broad Street subway ride connecting to the Girard Avenue trolly or several bus transfers through West Philadelphia's less scenic neighborhoods. 


Despite the restoration of Parkside's Victorian mansions and proposed improvements to Centennial Park itself, the site of the the first World's Fair might as well be in another city. And the Please Touch Museum is reeling from the separation anxiety. Since the museum opened in 2008 it has amassed more than $50M in debt and the museum's investors want them to pay.

The museum holds a lot of local oddities including a children's monorail that used to wind its way through Wanamaker's Department Store and a  detailed model of the Centennial Exposition. Hop on the Phlash and get up there while you still have a chance to see what the museum has to offer. It might not be there much longer.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Laura Palmer's House is for Sale

I loved the 1990s. People recycled, music meant something, and you could smoke at Starbucks. But around the time I was practicing five speed on my dad's "Farm Use Only" Ford Ranger, I discovered the most 90s thing of all time: Twin Peaks.

Dated for sure - right down to Audrey's saddle shoes and Laura's hair - the show that had all of America asking "Who Killed Laura Palmer" was decades ahead of its time. In fact, given the uncompromising weirdness that is the show's co-creator, David Lynch, Twin Peaks may have not simply been ahead of it's time, but out of this world.



Now for about $550,000 you can own the house where it all began. Used in the pilot and the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the Palmer "home" in Everett, WA is for sale

The house is largely unchanged. The pink carpet and dated wallpaper are gone, but the wicker chair where Laura sat to write torrid secrets in her infamous diary remains in its place more than twenty years later.

Considering the notoriety this prime time drama received and the cult following it has since amassed, perhaps a fan will do what Brian Jones did with The Christmas Story house. At more than half a million dollars, it's a little pricy for a movie museum, but I hope the new owners decide to reinstall the ceiling fan that haunted Sarah Palmer's waking nightmares.

Fueled by internet speculation, rumors of David Lynch and Mark Frost revisiting Twin Peaks routinely come and go from time to time. Unfortunately it seems that long time fans of a show that lasted only two short seasons are left with endless questions and disturbing images burned into our minds. Exactly how Lynch wants it.


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David Lynch studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on North Broad Street in the late 1960s. He lived in a house on 13th and Wood, diagonally across from the morgue, now part of Roman High School.

He described Philadelphia as "decaying but...fantastically beautiful, filled with violence, hate and filth," crediting the city for the inspiration to make his first film, Eraserhead. Prior to PAFA's upcoming David Lynch exhibit, he returned to the city in 2012. He said, "I remember when the city was gray and dirty and deteriorated and ugly and a real mess and had real character, and now it’s all bright and shiny just like every other city."

His former neighborhood, dubbed Eraserhood by many, is now an odd mix of pricy lofts, an expanding Chinatown, sprinkled with abandoned warehouses, older row homes, and the defunct Reading Viaduct. 

As plans solidify to convert the viaduct into an elevated park, so does the neighborhood's prominence. But like Laura's wicker chair that still adorns the Palmer residence, David Lynch's soul is still in Philadelphia, a city that evoked nightmares in the modest Montanan, ever present in his haunting works of art.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Gizmodo on Gehry

Geoff Manaugh published a hilarious article on Gizmodo on why "Frank Gehry is Still the World's Worst Living Architect."  That says a lot in a world where Michael Graves and Robert Venturi still practice. 

Although Manaugh doesn't mention Gehry's proposed alterations to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the changes are more offensive to the history of the institution than they are outright ugly), he does a fine job of conveying how little those running our cities actually know - or even care - about the aesthetics of our built environment. 

They simply want a Gehry.

Between comparing Gehry's architecture to Guy Fieri's hair and Phyllis Diller mid-stroke, Manaugh points out how expensive and time consuming Gehry's work can be, and how poorly constructed they are. But the most interesting point he may have made is that these buildings are grand illusions, bizarre facades hiding dull warehouses wedged within the space available. 

Despite what you may see in front of you, it's just not significant architecture. Many architectural theorists applaud him for using unconventional software to design, but there's a reason he's the only one who does it. Software intended to design airplanes isn't intended to design buildings because buildings don't fly. 

You know who does use this sort of software to design architecture? Walt Disney Imagineering. 

Gehry has essentially redesigned Cindarella's Disneyland castle - repeatedly - by using software capable of incorporating functional mechanics inside a sheath that looks like something else.

The only brilliance in that is the gimmick. 

But to those running cities that want a Gehry, his buildings are a shiny set of keys jingling above a crib. And those running the Philadelphia Museum of Art are no exception to the rule. Loving art for art's sake, the powers behind the museum don't understand Gehry's work anymore than they seem to understand the artistic significance of the museum itself. 

They don't see a big, wet turd on the steps of the Museum of Art, they see a name.

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The unfortunate obsession with starchitects, particularly when they impact our hallowed institutions, is that it outsources to those who know little about our cities and civic pride. Horace Trumbauer, one of the main architects who designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was an architectural legend, but local. He understood the city, our people, and as a Philadelphian, he knew he would have to answer to his design every single day.

Philadelphia is a hotbed of emerging architects, some of them amazing. By extending a fat paycheck to a Canadian architect who clearly doesn't get Philadelphia, the museum doesn't just offend its own architectural heritage, it insults the Trumbauers of today, those currently practicing in Philadelphia, accountable for the buildings they're designing for their own city.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Making a Classic Modern

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has finally released Frank Gehry's master plan for renovations to the world renowned art museum. In "Making a Classic Modern," the PMA displays Frank Gehry's indoor renovations gracefully complementing the catacombs formerly unseen by guests while downplaying what Gehry intends to do with perhaps the museum's most visited, free attraction: the steps.

Ironically Gehry, an architect known for bending metal like Magneto, hasn't executed his signature style on his exterior elements at the PMA. Instead, perhaps in an effort to respect the reverence of the building, dumbs his exterior renovations down to a picture window wedged in one sixth of the Great Steps.

Of course modern is relative, particularly in terms of an architect who's been practicing his craft since 1962. His most iconic works, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, were designed in the late 90s, both completed more than ten years ago. 

Gehry's relevance as a modernist is only in the sense that he's still building. What we're left with is a Starchitect recognizable in name only, one who has chosen to reinvent his unique, metallic curvatures with a sunken picture window desecrating one of Philadelphia's most visited attractions. 

If the PMA were less concerned with pomp and more concerned with preserving its place in history, we might see what a truly modern firm could do with this space. After all, history will remember what it looks like, not an architect's status in 2014.


Strategically, no rendering of what this will look like from Eakins Oval is available. 

When I. M. Pei completed his Pyramid at the Louvre in 1989 it was not without contention. Many still revile the structure as a scar upon Paris. While the large plaza facing the Louve shares some of the architectural elements as the vast steps facing the Philadelphia Museum of Art - namely, the humbling nature of vast and subtle architectural intentions - the steps of the PMA add a humbling journey one must embark upon before reaching greatness.

It is truly Philadelphia's Acropolis.

"Making a Classic Modern" is not just irrelevant, it's irresponsible. The cohesive collection of architecture that makes up the Philadelphia Museum of Art is about as astounding and godly as one can get. Deliberate or not, Horace Trumbauer and other architects created one of the most spiritual places on earth.

After the daunting task of tacking the steps, an optical illusion created by the width and curvature of each individual step, visitors are cleared of mind, body, and spirit, cleansed of the world they left behind at Eakins Oval to truly embrace the collections they are about to experience.

Afterwards, they can explore the nature that awaits them along the Shuylkill River, the eclectic architecture comprised within the Waterworks, Boathouse Row, and the winding trails leading them through the rocks on which our Parthenon sits, contemplating the spiritual and artistic journey they just took.

Inadvertent as this collection of architecture may be, what we have is rare. If Gehry intends to alter that experience in any way, he needs to compliment that journey.

The Great Steps are where our journey begins. This is where we embark on our quest for solitude and spirituality through art. For the same reason that Central Park was never developed, the Great Steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art are a place for contemplation, not clutter. 

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Somewhere, Gloria Steinem Weeps

Whether you're conservative or liberal, religious or secular, if you've been on Facebook - or just online - in the past week, you haven't missed out on the fact that this Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood thing is kind of a big deal.

The ruling essentially treats for profit companies like private individuals with religious ideals (even when the company profits on cheap crap manufactured in China), allowing them to refuse to cover medical procedures they unscientifically deem synonymous with abortion.

Displaying the evangelical extreme of these corporations, and the ignorance of the men on SCOTUS, these companies may now choose to exempt certain forms of contraception in their health care plans. Plans provided by informed health insurance companies, not the medical brainiacs selling silk flowers and yarn.

The most disturbing image of the Hobby Lobby Movement may be this one, of a young woman clearly possessed by the spirit of religious indoctrination, proudly proclaiming her freedom from a lifetime of choice.

Somewhere, Gloria Steinem weeps.
While the ruling only affects certain forms of contraception provided by health care companies tied to companies who wish to file the proper paper work, the women on SCOTUS recognized the slippery slope this precedent sets. Namely Justice Ruth Bater Ginsberg who stated that the court "has ventured into a minefield."

Specific or not, no ruling can control a precedent. We've seen precedents aid progress in the gay marriage movement, beginning with Civil Unions and state recognition eventually leading to full and equal representation.

In an era of sweeping progress across America, both in LGBT rights and affordable healthcare, this could be the beginning of the extreme Right's attempt to retaliate, a step towards evangelical relevance, at least in terms of political presence. 

But it may also hurt moderate Republicans and the overall GOP. Like fringe extremes on the Left, the evangelical movement has been a black mark on the Right. Prominent Republican candidates typically dodge evangelicals despite their willingness to vote for the Right ever since Pat Robertson ran for the White House.

Even Christians have criticized Hobby Lobby for referring to itself as a "Christian business," noting its thousands of products manufactured in China where child labor and abortion abound. There is bipartisan stink around this ruling and it will undoubtedly impact voters' decisions in November, particularly women voters in both parties.

Unfortunately, the precedent has been set for corporations to deny coverage for vaccines, blood transfusions, and life saving treatments that deviate from extreme Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Mormon, even Dianetic beliefs.

Corporations are now people and the evangelicals have rolled the dice. When your boss asks that you wear a hijab because your hair offends your employer's religious beliefs, just remember, religious zealots brought this on themselves.