Sunday, December 28, 2014

Game Changer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

Your Christmas Watch List

If you're looking for some good Christmas movies, avoid the lists. Personally, I love The Christmas Story, but I honestly can't tell you why. The 1983 sleeper classic is cute, offers up nostalgia that most generations can relate to, and has a a couple laugh-out-loud moments that would still be funny if TNT didn't spend the last twenty years shoving it in everyone's face. But at the end of the day, this simple story that Ted Turner turned into an industry all its own, is about a whiney brat begging everyone he sees for a gun. 

So if you're home for the holidays this year and find yourself trying to stomach creepy stop motion elves and wondering if Charlie Brown is actually Kirk Cameron in disguise, check out these forgotten Christmas movies, or movies you might have forgotten are actually Christmas movies.

Trading Places

I'm starting with Philadelphia because, well, Philadelphia. You all know that this 1983 hit takes place at home. If you want to remember what Philadelphia looked like back when it was a mess, just Google it. Its opening montage pairs bougie Rittenhouse Square with gritty pictures of flaming oil drums and a porn theater sidling right up to City Hall. It's also freaking hilarious. 


Forgot Gremlins was a Christmas movie, eh? Yep. The 1984 hit was supposed to be a comedy, but it was a little too dark for some viewers. Because it sent so many kids screaming from the theaters, my eight year old self included, it prompted the Motion Picture Association of America to install a PG-13 rating. Remember that scene when Phoebe Kates described finding her Santa-suited father dead in the chimney? That was supposed to be funny. By the way, at 51, she's still as hot as she ever was.


Christmas in Connecticut

I don't know if this movie is an established classic or not, I only discovered it a couple years ago. But being an architecture nerd, any aficionado of the built environment can easily become obsessed with the movie's mansion. It's also surprisingly modern, and funny, for a movie that came out in 1948. 

Christmas Vacation

The Griswold's third National Lampoon's installment might be as overplayed as The Christmas Story, but that doesn't make it any less watchable. The smutty magazine's take on family never ceases to entertain (except maybe in Las Vegas), and their Christmas adventure is perhaps its most depraved, "Don't forget the rubber sheets and the gerbils." And look closely, Julie Louis-Dreyfus plays the quintessential 80s yuppy next-door. "I don't know, Margo!"

"250 strands of lights, 100 individual bulbs per strand, for a grand total of 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights."

I saw Scrooged at the historic Virginia Theater in my hometown shortly before it was torn down. I don't know about you, but I find Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol to be his worst piece of literature. Maybe in 1843 people expected less. But his 1-2-3 approach to telling this story made it tedious, boring, and mind numbingly predictable. Scrooged, on the other hand, one of hundreds of retellings of A Christmas Carol, is still fresh. I don't know if it's the nostalgia of first watching this movie in a grand old cinema palace, or the fact that it's the funniest version of Dicken's inexplicable classic, but twenty four years later it still entertains me. From Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim to the Solid Gold Dancers ("Well I'm sure Charles Dickens would have wanted to see her nipples"), it's both a riot and adorable.

Merry Christmas!

Fate of the Boyd Uncertain, Again

Months ago, at the height of an effort to save Philadelphia's last surviving movie palace, the Historical Commission proved that it knows as little about history as it does preservation by approving the demolition of the Boyd's auditorium.

Neil Rodin promised he'd deliver us an iPic movie theater if Live Nation, its previous owner, cleared the way. Now that the auditorium, perhaps the building's most worthy attribute, is nearly gone, Rodin is out of the picture and the property has been purchased by Pearl.

Pearl Properties pitched a sky scraping apartment building for the now-vacant corner of 19th and Chestnut last summer, but its height and density upset neighbors. Now that it owns the Boyd, the art deco-ish apartment tower can be built without the headache of a zoning variance. 

So what about the Boyd? Well, Hamid Hashemi of iPic insists that it's still interested in leasing the Boyd from Pearl, but Inga Saffron pointed out Friday that iPic could only afford Rodin's cheap rent, and that Pearl has no interest in the movie business. 

Of all the theaters that graced Philadelphia with the birth of celluloid, it's a shame that the Boyd is the only to survive. While its auditorium is indeed beautiful, the only protected piece - its facade - is the building's least interesting attribute. 

As for the historic building, its classification only protects the facade, one that would complement Pearl's proposed tower. But at this point, does it matter? Unless Pearl intends to restore the Boyd's lobby and incorporate it into the tower as its entrance, the theater's face is its least interesting piece. Like ghost structures and shadow walls, salvaged facades can be bitter reminders of history we lost.

Even if Pearl is willing to entertain iPic's proposal and match Rodin's low rent offer, it seems like a poor business move. In fact, iPic's general business model seems like it's designed to fail, or at best, it's not sustainable. Blankets and recliners aren't innovative ways to draw fleeing viewers back to the silver screen. That's like putting a coffee shop in a Blockbuster then doubling the rental price in exchange for the experience. 

If I want to cozy up to a movie, I've got Netflix and a cat at home. I'm not going to spend twenty plus dollars to fall asleep in a room full of strangers. 

As a vintage movie theater, the Boyd's original auditorium would have offered something unique, and the vacant lot next door could have been annexed to provide another screen or two. iPic's bandaid approach to its dying industry never had a realistic future on Chestnut Street, and unless it begins to understand why Millennials would rather watch College Humor on their iPhones than sit in a movie theater for three hours, it doesn't have a future in the business.

Hollywood isn't going anywhere, but how we access it is changing. Offering amenities isn't the solution, it may just stave off the demise for another decade. Like print journalism, the movie theater we've known for a century is on its way out. What's next is anyone's guess, but iPic doesn't have it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fergie's Tower

Remember the Fergie Tower? U3 Venture's 30 story tower of Fergie, former member of Kids Incorporated and Wild Orchid? 

Just kidding. 

The Fergie Tower was/is a proposed apartment tower on Walnut Street between 12th and 13th, currently an EZ Lot that surrounds Fergie's Pub.

Goldenberg Group recently purchased the lot from U3 Ventures and plans to move forward with 300 apartments in a $100M project partnering with Houston-based Hines.

At 26 floors, the tower is ambitious, particularly east of Broad. Although it's not unheard of. The St. James on Washington Square is 45 stories with even more units. 

Between NREA's East Market under demolition/construction on the Girard Trust Block, Stantec's MIC Tower behind Lit Brothers, and Chinatown's potential Eastern Tower, things may soon be looking up in the eastern part of Center City.

And why not? Market East is finally offering the shopping it should, Midtown Village is proving itself an entertainment destination for everyone: People want to live in Center City.

Let's just hope Goldenberg doesn't mess with Fergie's classic Irish pub.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

City Hall Employees: You can walk a few blocks

Councilman Jim Kenney, the one member of Philadelphia City Council that the city doesn't unilaterally hate, has found yet another way to get on our good side. 

Remember the recent buzz about the growing number of cars parked atop City Hall's "apron," the concrete plaza surrounding the building?

Kenny has introduced a bill that would ban apron parking with very few exceptions.

Potential Renovations Coming in the New Year

With the successful arrival of Century 21, you might have expected The Gallery at Market East to roll out the holiday cheer. But with the exception of a thermostat set to "summer in Miami," it might as well be an April Wednesday in the halls of the beleaguered mall. 

No decorations, no Santa, the same classical Muzak. It's just not Christmas on Market East.

Well the Daily News has the reason. PREIT has asked kiosk vendors to vacate the Gallery 1 by the end of the year. The potential renovation is likely good news for shoppers. But some retailers are unhappy. It's not guaranteed that all vendors will be asked to return, and some are speculating that PREIT may not want some back.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

West Philadelphia is doing just fine, thanks

What do we do with the old West Philadelphia High School? It's inarguably a beautiful building. Built in the early 1910s, it was part of a movement to deliver better education to America's growing cities. With stone carvings, concrete castings, mosaic tiles, many of these schools throughout the northeast echoed prestigious institutions of higher learning like the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.

Later waves of educational investment are reflected in the Art Deco architecture of the 1930s and 40s.

But feats of architectural innovation, particularly aging ones, don't translate well in the modern world. The old West Philadelphia High School is massive, riddled with asbestos, and functionally out of date. Following the construction of its replacement, the old school has sat vacant with occasional interest in converting it into apartments, condos, dorms, or entertainment venues. 

One option may be to reopen it to education. But one company recently showed the school's neighbors exactly how to not make that happen: By being complete ass holes.

Pansophic Learning, a Virginia-based K-12 school system, has proposed leasing 90,000 square feet of the building from Strong Place Partners, who intend to convert the rest into apartments. Pansophic wants to provide the neighborhood with the Philadelphia Music and Dance Charter School. As fine as that sounds, they didn't just pitch the idea in the worst way possible, their methodology is perhaps the worst technique for training music and dance: distance learning. 

Pansophic bills itself as an "International Education Company." The word "company" is the first red flag. Commercial education belongs in the realm of undergraduate alternatives: Strayer, ECPI, ITT, DeVry. These organizations aren't useless when it comes to certification programs and business education. But they are second to the educational opportunities found in traditional four year colleges. And they do not belong in K-12.

So why exactly is Pansophic so bad? Well, besides their complete lack of engagement and understanding of the community (which I'll get to in a moment), Pansophic's goal is to deliver education to nations and communities without proper educational resources, in many cases, developing nations. When you're attending a school without basic plumbing and you have no other alternatives - say a brand new high school a block away - Skyping with a teacher in McLean, VA is a step up. But it's hard enough to learn English Literature in a classroom when you're twenty, imagine learning music and dance from a laptop when you're twelve.

Still, the methodology of this corporate school might not be its worst trait. That would be left to either its arrogance or complete cluelessness when it comes to addressing the neighborhood it fancies gracing. Pansophic referred to it as "this blighted part of western University City," claiming its school will "greatly support the resurgence of the community."

Do they mean the community that has been in resurgence for the last decade with improved affordable housing, transit, and a brand new public high school? Are they blinding peddling the canned sales pitch they've used around the globe? Or do they view the "blighted" neighbors as naive enough to spend their hard-earned paychecks on a piss-poor education? 

Maybe they're just one of thousands of companies around the nation that haven't gotten the memo, "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is." Thanks, Pansophic, but we're not a big Detroit, we're a small New York.

Ass Holes!

One thing is for sure, a company run by educators should know the definition of "patronization." 

Philadelphia has teachers, good ones. They're underpaid and overworked, and constantly fighting for the resources to do their jobs well. Do we thank them by outsourcing to virtual teachers from Virginia?

Virginia has one of the best public education systems in the country and some of the highest paid teachers. It's no mystery how Panosphic came to be. They're employing the state's surplus of education degrees in cities struggling with broken systems. But they're not the solution, they're the leach. 

West Philadelphia's community won't benefit from a distance learning system. That system only competes with our state funded teachers and schools, making their jobs even harder. Again, the word  "company" should have been the first red flag when it came to Pansophic because that's exactly what it is. They aren't a "charter school," they're a business, and their business model is to compete with Philadelphia's struggling schools and profit from their demise. 

If they were sending teachers too Philadelphia, teachers who would live in Philadelphia, that would be one thing. But that's not how these schools work. They hire low paid class moderators to maintain the peace while students stare at a somewhat interactive, virtual classroom on their laptops. They're masquerading as the savior of neighborhoods with struggling public schools, but they ran afoul in West Philadelphia because it's succeeding on its own. 

I think it would be great if Strong Place Partners leased 90,000 square feet of its space to an educational organization, but only if that organization was dedicated to education first and profit last. But that is not Pansophic. They just want to run your kids through a treadmill of standardized dynamic teaching methodologies, or some other politely worded translation of "low overhead and high profits."

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Swell of Mediocrity

A really old article found its way onto my Facebook feed this morning. Given all the stories about police brutality around the country, it's not surprising that this article resurfaced. But when I saw the headline, I had to read it.

That's a bit of a misnomer. Police departments don't actually administer IQ tests, but the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test which is used in various industries. Although shorter than most IQ tests, Wonderlic's questions do in fact mirror those in IQ tests.

What turned out to read more like an Onion article than judicially enforced fact wasn't just an isolated incident fourteen years ago in one city. It still takes place throughout the country.

The case involved Robert Jordan, a police officer candidate who took New London, CT's cognitive ability test in 1996 and, scoring a 33 out of 50, was rejected for scoring too high. New London only chose to interview candidates who scored in the 20s, and the national average is around 21 or 22.

That gives your average police officer an IQ of about 104, or just at the crest of the Bell Curve. The average IQ is 100.

Makes more sense now, eh?

Jordan sued and lost. The city claimed that "smarter" candidates may get bored, and with the costly training process, eliminating the most intellectual curbs officer turnover. In some respects, that makes sense. After all, corporations routinely ignore qualified candidates for similar reasons.

But the flaw is in the bureaucratic misunderstanding of the Intelligence Quotient. IQ tests, and tests like the Wonderlic, don't assess a test taker's accumulated knowledge or educational accumulation, they test for abstract and deductive reasoning, spatial relations, and an understanding of cause and effect scenarios. 

They test a candidate's intellectual potential

When you understand what intelligence tests assess, or what intelligence actually means, cities should be looking for candidates who score much higher than average considering the complex situations officers often find themselves in.

An "intelligence cap" may curb turnover, but only because cities have been using the cap to maintain a swell smack in the middle of the status quo. If "smart" officers leave, they're leaving out of frustration, not because they're bored. 

Cities aren't rejecting "smarter" candidates. They're rejecting candidates who dynamically understand conflict, reason, and logic. Candidates who can quickly assess a complex situation. Candidates who have the capability of understanding how escalating various scenarios may play out. 

Those are the exact candidates police departments need on the force.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Spruce Parker: Beacon of Hope

As the days grow colder, homelessness in Philadelphia becomes painfully more apparent. Holding doors, peddling their stories - legitimate or not - in exchange for change, sleeping atop steam vents to escape the cold of Fairmount Park and our abandoned underground, winter sweeps in and turns a nuisance into a heartbreaking reality for all but the most cynical pedestrians. 

With the closure of the Spruce Parker Hotel at 13th and Spruce, some former residents have found themselves with nowhere to go at the worst possible time. You don't need to interview homeless men and women to see it. You just need to walk around Washington Square West in the early morning and you'll see those who once called the Parker home, or just an occasional warm bed. 

For all the ills that came with the Parker Hotel, it offered a small reprieve for those we'd rather forget.  Some are drug addicts, some of them prostitutes, but for all the homeless, they have found themselves in a very dark world nearly impossible to escape. 

Conservative estimates state that nearly 40,000 of America's homeless are military veterans. In 2013, according to a HUD survey, there were 440 homeless vets living in Philadelphia with more than 1400 in the Commonwealth. The numbers skyrocket in sun-drenched Los Angeles where "Skid Row" appears on Google Maps as if it were simply the Fashion District. 

In Philadelphia, we have no more answers than Los Angeles, Seattle, or Miami. And whether or not we ever understand every single instance of homelessness, we have the means to give back a little more than the food in the back of your pantry. And it doesn't have to be a solely city or state funded effort. With a little good will and a sense of civic pride, Philadelphia has more than 200 rooms awaiting those in need.

U.S.Vets-Phoenix is converting a hotel in Arizona through donations. For $2000, a company or individual can pay for the renovation of one hotel room to be offered as affordable housing for one of the state's homeless veterans.

The Spruce Parker Hotel has never been a desirable venue. At best it will sit vacant for years. At worst, it will be demolished for a parking lot. Why not solicit donations to convert the place into affordable veteran housing? Similar housing exists in Philadelphia, but largely  to provide a place for those in danger of losing what they have, not those who've already lost. 

With the right campaign, the Parker could provide volunteer counseling, medical care, and security in a sober place for rehabilitation. Sure, it could become dorms, apartments, or condos. But there is plenty of land for profitable development to build from scratch. The Parker exists in tact, and doesn't need to be much more than it already is, not for those who need it. Why not turn something with such a dark and nefarious past into a beacon of something greater? Hope.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Philadelphia's First Velodrome?

Okay, first of all, what's a velodrome? Well it's an arena for bicycle racing.

I have to say, from the Rocky Balboa Run to Yoga on the Steps to Paine's Skatepark, I think it's great that America's once unhealthiest and most obese cities is truly investing in exercise. 

Project 250 has proposed a velodrome for South Philadelphia's Stadium District. But unlike Lincoln Financial Field or Citizens Bank Park, the velodrome wouldn't just be a place to host competitions, it would be a place for cycling enthusiasts to learn and practice. 

Unfortunately its public accessibility has placed it in a realm governed by the city's authority over public spaces, landing it on four acres of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. 

Common sense puts any new South Philadelphia arena on one of the seemingly endless supply of surface lots surrounding the stadiums and the upcoming Live! Casino. 

If the $100M project happens, Project 250 will convert a four acre parking lot across from FDR Park into additional green space. It's a worthy concession but one that doesn't make a lot of sense. If Project 250's velodrome becomes the World Class venue it aims to become, it will require parking, parking that will likely be provided on its four acre parcel within FDR Park. 

Why not share parking at the asphalt prairies that surround the stadiums, and add one more world class gem to our collection of world class stadiums? The district is growing along with the city, and it's become apparent that we don't understand the difference between static and dynamic parking. 

In a neighborhood that should be thinking vertically, Project 250's velodrome needs to find a place inside the city, not across it. And there is plenty of room on the east side of Broad Street.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Brutal Honesty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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