Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Market East: Done With the Disney Hole

Ten years ago, Market East wasn't great. Strawbridge and Clothier, Gap, Guess, and a few mundane retailers managed to keep the Gallery afloat. The Disney Hole sat at 8th and Market reminding us of a more hopeful - albeit unrealistic - time. 

But things went from bad to worse. In 2005, the May Company consolidated with Federated Department Stores, resulting in two of its own stores competing for shoppers within a few blocks. May closed the historic Strawbridge and Clothier, sold its Lord & Taylor brand, and opened a Macy's at the Wanamaker Building.

The few reasons to visit the Gallery followed Strawbridge's. At best, it became an unofficial outlet mall, a bad one. What were once the worst of the Gallery's stores, low-end retailers expanded into vacant spaces while knock-offs and cell phone stores filled in the rest. 

For a few years it was unclear how the mall would ever survive. Worse, many wondered what would happen if it were forced to close. Would it be a vacant eyesore home to squatters atop a transportation hub? Would it become a playground for graffiti artists? Would it become a massive parking lot spitting distance from City Hall and some of the nation's greatest historic monuments? 

One thing's for sure, despite it's reputation, had the Gallery officially died Market East would have gone down with the ship.

Luckily, perhaps miraculously, the Gallery seems poised to rebound. Century 21, a company that has redefined the concept of the discount reseller, has sent thousands to Market East. New rules at the Pennsylvania Convention Center have attracted attention from the events industry, and it's filling nearby hotel rooms. Most exciting is the massive project under development on the Girard Trust Block.

In a few years, Philadelphia's once-hub of consumerism may look like the modern-day counterpart it should be. Dazzling lights now crown the Lit Brothers building echoing the neon and incandescent signage that once advertised shoe repairs and alterations. And more is coming to the Gallery and East Market.

These changes will likely increase the value of the remaining properties. While little has been said of the remaining blocks or the Barbarella-esque Robinson's Department Store, improvements underway will only challenge property owners to up their game.

Disney Hole: We're done with you!

There is, however, one unfortunate hole in the unheard of changes taking place on Market East: The Disney Hole. When themed restaurants were all the rage in the 1990s - think Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Rainforest Cafe - Disney decided to get in on the action. But Disney wanted more than a chain of restaurants, it wanted to bring its successful theme parks to America's inner cities. 

In all fairness, it wasn't a bad idea. Although indoor amusement parks are a largely untested concept, DisneyQuest would have brought more entertainment to our inner cities than Dave and Busters or pop-culture restaurant museums. And Market East is a good location for entertainment, especially twenty years later. 

Unfortunately the concept flopped, at least in terms of the broad scope of the overall plan. We never got a DisneyQuest at 8th and Market, just a vacant lot where Gimbel's once stood. And today, multiple variables make the land a hostile ass ache for potential developers. For one, it's owned and managed by some of the city's most notorious land hoarders, property managers that understand just how profitable the city allows surface parking lots to be. 

It's also a massive lot. Of late, the most realistic proposal was for the Market8 Casino. Although it was always unlikely it would have ever been built, an entertainment venue on par with the scale of a casino complex (or DisneyQuest) is likely the lot's best hope. Sadly, in Philadelphia it seems more profitable to demolish and then build than to build on cleared land, apparent by NREA's choice to clear the Girard Trust Block themselves to make way for East Market, rather than drop it on the Disney Hole. 

So what will happen to the Disney Hole? Will Market East become so valuable that its owners and managers will have no choice but to cooperate just long enough to cash a bloated check? Or will they make so much money parking Market East's upcoming flock of shoppers that they'll never let it go? 

Interestingly, in all the hype surrounding Market East's improvements, little has been said of the street's oozing cold sore. 

For a while it was rumored that the Sixers might be moving to New Jersey. Granted, Camden could use the boost, but I would hate to lose the only sport I can stomach to another state. 

But relocating the Sixers (and everything that comes with the Wells Fargo Center) might not be such a bad idea. And here's why: 8th and Market is the perfect location. As much as I like the fact that our professional athletics have fostered a unique "Stadium District," the Wells Fargo Center isn't just a seasonal arena. It's also a concert venue. 

When someone wants to see Madonna in New York, they head to Midtown. And that's how it is in most cities. In Philadelphia, we have to hop on the train and head towards the edge of Mordor. I'm not much of a concert goer, evident in the fact that the last time I saw an arena concert it was at the MCI Center in DC. And had it been in that (much smaller) city's end-of-the-line, I never would have gone. I love venues like the Trocadero and the Electric Factory, but were the Wells Fargo Center downtown and around the corner, I'd be much more likely to check out a concert. 

But 8th and Market isn't just downtown, it's perhaps downtown's most underrated parcels. It's not just on Market Street, it's atop a transportation hub, the largest in the city: PATCo, and SEPTA's regional rails and subways, and it's right off the Vine Street Expressway. You literally can't find a better transportation accessible location in the city without running Amtrak all the way to Jefferson Station.

So why hasn't this been formally, or even informally proposed? Well, like all things in Philadelphia, development and ideas move slowly. What's unique about the changes taking place on Market East are also unique to Philadelphians, City Hall, and national developers who occasionally check in on their local investments to make sure we're still begging for the status quo. 

Well, things are starting to change a little more quickly whether we want them to or not. And with national developers finally investing in the last frontier of Center City, we better get used to it. 

Surface parking lots are disappearing, and so with them are the land hoarders and slumlords that have plagued Center City for too long. If we can get rid of the Disney Hole, we can be sure a new era has arrived. 

And while locals may be able to turn a blind eye to a massive parking lot along our soon-to-be Corridor of Commercialism, national retailers and investors will not. 

So bring it on. Let's enhance the exciting changes along Market East with something even more exciting, and let's drop it right on top of the Disney Hole.

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