Monday, March 30, 2015

Parkway's 709 Chestnut

If you aren't high enough on all the skyscraping (heh, get it?) proposals and construction taking place throughout the city, Parkway Corporation has proposed a 32 story apartment building to replace a surface parking lot at 709 Chestnut Street near Washington Square.

Parkway needs approval from three organizations: the Washington Square West Civic Association, the Historical Commission, and the Civic Design Review Committee. 

At 45 stories, The Saint James is the tallest building in the vicinity. Although its situation on Washington Square would seem to have set a precedent for the neighborhood, its construction called for the near-complete demolition of a row of handsome Colonial townhouses that left preservationists none too happy. 

While replacing a surface lot with...anything...seems like a no-brainer, neighbors are likely suspicious of any residential development that comes with such height. 

PHS's Memorial Plaza

With Dilworth Plaza converted into a green Dilworth Park and the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk gliding atop the river, it's hard to look at the Philadelphia Horticultural Society's plans for the approach to the Ben Franklin Bridge and think, "bold."

The renderings are undoubtedly beautiful, and ever since Franklin Square was renovated, the base of the bridge has been an eyesore flanking Old City and Independence Mall. 

Like Dilworth Plaza, Monument Plaza at 6th and Race is a slab of uninspired concrete with some questionable artwork. Isamu Noguchi's A Bolt of Lightning...A Memorial to Benjamin Franklin is pretty cool looking, until you see the kite and key and realize just how literal the work of art is. 

But unlike Dilworth Plaza, which was usable even before its renovation, Memorial Plaza is almost entirely inaccessible. Unless you want to dart across five lanes of Jersey bound traffic, you're not getting there. 

And that is what truly makes the PHS's plan bold. It dares not only to remove a lane from 6th Street and two bridge entrance ramps, it dares to take away asphalt from those heading to New Jersey.

There's no love lost between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Before eastbound commuters make it through Chinatown they're pissed off and ready to get home, and most are high as Ben Franklin's kite on road rage. 

The new configuration would be great for Philadelphia. It will discourage commuters from leaving the city via Race, diverting them to Vine and 676, alleviating rush hour traffic through Chinatown by forcing it to the wider streets and expressway created specifically for commuters. But that is exactly what will ruffle feathers with many heading to New Jersey.

Unfortunately, trading streets for parks has never set well with those in charge of the approval process. It's nearly impossible to convince urban decision makers to look ahead. 

This plan has all the makings of the ultimate suburban turf warfare. Commuters will fear traffic jams, Negadelphians will look at a nonexistent park with a perceived nonexistent future, and NIMBYs will bitch about it all because that's what they do.

But for the city, Memorial Plaza is the last piece of Independence Mall's seventy year journey. It links Franklin Square to the Constitution Center with beautiful views of the Ben Franklin Bridge, and continuous green space that extends to Society Hill and ultimately the Delaware River. In short, it makes sense. But logic often takes a backseat to ire when it's fueled by road rage. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

3201 Race

University City isn't done challenging Center City. Radnor Property Group has proposed a new 200 foot apartment building at 32nd and Race and it's pretty sexy. 

If it happens, this 17 story Erdy-McHenry bad ass will be situated along 30th Street Station's Amtrak lines and beefing up University City's growing skyline.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Avenue of the Wawa

Philadelphia may be on the fast track to becoming the nation's third tallest city, Market East is on the brink of an unthinkable renaissance, but there's one thing that seems to capture the attention of natives and transplants more than tall buildings, City Council elections, and potholes: and that's a made-to-order hoagie. 

More specifically, a hoagie from Wawa. 

Wawa announced it will be opening a new location at Broad and Walnut, a key corner on the Avenue of the Arts formerly occupied by Robinson's Luggage, and today our corner of the internet went wild. 

The location seemed primed for an upscale restaurant, but the reality in most pedestrian oriented cities calls for high volume on heavily trafficked corners, not high end. And the Avenue of the Arts probably does deserve an all night convenience store, so why not make it a local one?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Rundown

Some of it's happening, some of it is possible, and some of it may be stale. It's the construction, the approvals  the proposals, and the weird. Here's your official rundown of skyline altering development taking place in and around Center City:

1121 feet
Liberty Property Trust
Foster + Partners

Cira Centre South (FMC Tower)

730 feet
FMC Corporation
Brandywine Realty Trust
Pelli Clarke Pelli

SLS International Hotel and Residences

600 feet
SLS International
Dranoff Properties
Philippe Starck

LoSo Entertainment Center

615 feet
PHL Local Gaming
U.S. Thrill Rides

W Hotel and Residences

582 feet
Starwood Hotels
Cope Linder

1911 Walnut

Previous proposal

525 feet (previously)
200 feet (previously)
Hotel and Condominium (previously)
Southern Land Company
KingStubbins (previously)


450 feet
Goldenberg GroupMohegan Tribal Gaming Authority


446 feet
220 feet
220 feet
NP International
Gensler Associates

MIC Tower

429 feet
Brickstone Realty
Stantec Architecture

500 Walnut

380 feet
Scannapieco Development Corporation
Cecil Baker + Partners Architects

CHoP Schuylkill Avenue Project

375 feet
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Cooper, Robertson, & Partners

1601 Vine Street

370 feet
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Robert A. M. Stern Architects

1919 Market

337 feet
Brandywine Realty Trust

3601 Market

320 feet
University City Science CenterWexford EquitiesSouthern Land Company
BLT Architects

SugarHouse Casino Phase 3

300 feet
SugarHouse Casino
Cope Linder

Skyview Tower

300 feet
Adventure Aquarium
Herschend Family Entertainment

1213 Walnut

294 feet
U3 Ventures
Ten Arquitectos

1900 Chestnut

292 feet
Pearl Properties
DAS Architects

Renaissance Plaza

292 feet
292 feet
195 feet
195 feet
Mixed Use
Waterfront Renaissance Associates
Alesker & Dundon

CHoP Ambulatory Center

292 feet
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Pelli Clarke Pelli

The Summit

279 feet
Student Housing
Drexel University
Solomon Cordwell Buenz Architects

3737 Chestnut

278 feet
Radnor Property Group
BLT Architects

Edgewater II

260 feet
Mixed Use
Realen Properties

Eastern Tower

252 feet
Community Center and Apartments
Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation

One Riverside

260 feet
Dranoff Properties
Cecil Baker + Partners Architects

One Water Street

198 feet
PMC Property Group

205 Race

197 feet
Brown Hill Development
Peter Gluck & Partners

Museum Towers II

188 feet
Forest City Residential
Perkins Eastman

Broad & Washington

40 stories
Mixed Use
Tower Investments, Inc.

The Residences at Schmidt's

25 floors
15 floors
Tower Investments

2400 Market

20 floors
Mixed Use
PMC Property Group

East Market

17 stories
Mixed Use
National Real Estate Advisors, Young Capital, Joss Realty, SSH Real Estate
BLT Architects

1528 Cherry

17 floors
Ambit Architecture
Ambit Architecture

Baywood Hotel

12 story
Kurt Blorstad
Brett Webber and Richard Gelber

Waterfront Square

Grasso Holdings
Wallace Roberts & Todd

Friday, March 20, 2015

Keeping Public Art Public

Philadelphians may live amongst more public art than any city in the world. Before you stop me, consider the more than 3,600 murals commissioned by the Mural Arts Program. Not to mention the seemingly endless supply of carved and cast historical figures, some tucked inconspicuously deep into the woods of Fairmount Park, as well as the modern works incorporated into nearly every commercial and residential development project.

Our city is our greatest museum. And it shows. Because of our vast portfolio of public art, Philadelphia is home to hundreds of amateur and professional photographers, bloggers, and independent periodicals that drape Philadelphia's corner of the internet with the works that have made urban art synonymous with our city.

Elsewhere, the Statue of Liberty is one of the most photographed works of art in the world. It's been recreated in plastic, screen printed onto t-shirts, and brought to life in Ghostbusters II. Closer to modernity, Robert Indiana's LOVE statue which has been placed around the word in multiple languages, is photographed, printed, and sold without any hassle. 


But some places aren't so lucky. Few may know that the country's second largest copper statue sits above the entrance to a municipal building in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, facing a tree filled park, it's kind of hard to see. More people may know about Portland's beautiful Portlandia if artist Raymond Kaskey hadn't spent the last three decades threatening to sue anyone who attempts to use an image of his work.

When Portlandia arrived in Portland, the city's Metropolitan Arts Commission decided to allow artists to intellectually retain ownership of their public works of art.

Kaskey has been quoted as saying, "Not many cities respected artists' rights in those days." They weren't? Was $328,000 1985? It's not as if he commissioned the work himself. I don't want to delve too deeply into the notion of what constitutes art, but if Norman Foster is commissioned for a skyscraper, can he sue everyone who profits from a photograph of the city skyline for copyright infringement?

There's obviously some sort of empirical delineation between buildings and art in Portland,  or at least I hope there is. But if cities like New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia were burdened with such rigid regulations, it would be impossible for a photographer to make a living photographing the people and places within our cities. 

Portland is no stranger to its nanny's overreaching arm, but this particular regulation is capitalistically counter to the city's largely liberal ideals. They aren't protecting the rights of their artists, they're allowing Kaskey to essentially collect residuals from lawsuits long after he skipped town. Meanwhile their urban photographers have to tiptoe around the city for fear of inadvertently photographing intellectual property. 

Luckily most public artists understand their public position, they even embrace it. Photography and replication isn't just flattery, it's free publicity. Unfortunately Kaskey's talent is trumped by his greed, and an otherwise beautiful statue is tainted by what it represents. 

The Urban Arcade

Shopping malls might be as American as suburbia, but like apple pie and pizza, we didn't technically invent either. Gostiny Dvor in St. Petersburg, FL is commonly accepted as the first shopping mall, but that and other early examples are often a combination of indoor bazars and European arcades. In that regard, the foundation for shopping malls is rooted in Ancient Rome, perhaps even earlier.

History aside, the American shopping mall as we know it is unquestionably dying. Hanging out at the mall was a great pastime for teenagers in the 80s and 90s, but actually shopping at a mall was born from a need. Before online shopping, malls were a one stop approach to a retail experience now easily accessed on our iPads. Suburban malls have no choice but to continue catering to a market that is fading because, architecturally, there's little else you can do with the space.

But in the digital age, these once convenient solutions have become burdensome. They are destinations, and often troublesome to reach. Traffic jams, jug handles, parking, and lines can be circumvented with the click of a button on 

Urban malls, on the other hand, have always been a bit unique. They were designed to serve the same needs as those in King of Prussia or Cherry Hill, as well as to keep downtown shoppers from fleeing to the 'burbs for Sears. But as suburban malls continue to stagnate and struggle to evolve, these urban shopping malls that have outlived what little usefulness they once provided are reinventing the urban shopping experience by looking to history.

What our urban malls could be.

Ironically, urban malls like Eaton Centre in Toronto and Pioneer Place in Portland, are experiencing a resurgence while their suburban counterparts continue to fail. While suburban malls must rely on their place as isolated attractions, urban malls can grab foot traffic and tourists, and like the Gallery at Market East or Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, VA, are frequently integrated with public transportation. But urban malls can succeed by the mere fact that they're downtown. They have a logistical advantage if their management chooses to embrace it.

Food courts allow coworkers and families to grab lunch at their favorite spots while also allowing them to dine in the same place. It doesn't take a lot to make these places work, just proper management and an understanding that their target audience is unique to the inner city crowd and often supplemental, not direct. 

Ignore the suburban counterparts and begin looking at urban malls as modern European arcades. The Gallery is far from the best example, but it has far more potential than a dying suburban mall.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cyborgs: Coming Soon

A personal trainer once told me, "if you think you look stupid doing it, it's probably not worth doing." While she was specifically referring to some of the more cumbersome weight machines, the statement is even more applicable to marketing gimmicks like the Shake Weight or the Beautyko Vibrating Butt Toner

The notion that looking like a jack ass is universally synonymous with simply being wrong is obviously not always true. We're put in a number of awkward positions, strapped down with silly looking gadgets, and asked to board airplanes without a belt for the sake of scientific research, medical procedures, and safety precautions. 

But when it comes to voluntarily integrating our human forms with modern technology, our vanity always trumps the potential benefits. Yet for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, product developers have been trying to tap into this market, with very little success. 

Short of watches and glasses, wearable technology is relegated to science fiction. Virtual reality visors look cool on Star Trek, but Google Glass on Chestnut Street is another story. Remember the Timex Calculator Watch? Sure, I had one. But I was eight.

In some cases it's truly unfortunate. Fitbit has been marginally successful marketing its activity trackers, and it's a good product. But if you're wearing one in the gym you'll probably get some sneers. Athos is currently developing an innovative body suit that looks like a compression shirt and pants, and tracks a number of key fitness components and provides dynamic feedback, essentially allowing you to wear your own personal trainer. But it's had trouble attracting an audience.

What are we, as potential users, afraid of? I understand a certain level of resistance in the fitness industry. There's a level of machismo that says, "I don't need gadgets to tell me what to do." So why is the same industry a gold mine for high-priced athletic clothing, sneakers, and exercise equipment that hasn't really advanced much in the past fifty years?

When it comes to communicative technologies, online gaming, and networking capabilities, our resolve to avoid wearable technology is even more curious. Go to any restaurant and you'll see dozens of customers frittering away on the cellphones, sending texts, checking email, and reading BuzzFeed. Technology already makes us look like idiots. What's truly stupid is avoiding the technologies that allow us to access the same information while keeping us mobile and active within the real world around us. 

Despite its potential to invade privacy, Google Glass was a good idea. It wasn't necessarily new or novel, just better than some of its bulkier predecessors. But the collective voice of the internet took to their phones while bumbling through traffic and ignoring those around them to call anyone wearing the product an ass hole. Sure, there was a level of arrogance that surrounded Google Glass, as with many products that come out of the Silicone Valley, and those who took part in the beta period didn't do themselves any favors.  That proves that technologies companies need to be very cautious in how they market these innovative products. But those criticizing Google Glass from Smartphones that's are Jurassic by comparison displayed a superficial level of hypocrisy. 

Consumers are fickle. Any technology - mechanical, electronic, or virtual - is often only as good to the mass-market as it looks. 

Google isn't ready to give up on wearable technology, and hopefully this time around, they'll get it right. They teamed up with Tag Heuer to develop a "smart" Android watch hoping to challenge Apple's Smartwatch. But Apple's Smartwatch, integrated with its own fitness technology, has yet to see the kind of success it saw with the iPhone or iPad. Considering that watches are perhaps the only form of wearable technology we've ever managed to turn into a fashion statement, aiming at the wrist may be the best bet. However, even though I've always considered Tag Heuer to be "the cool man's Rolex," the first thing I thought was, "I guess Tag Heuer is going downhill." 

There is a valley between what looks cool in science fiction and what looks cool on the street. As technology continues to blow our minds with through 3D printing, virtual environments, and unheard of medical procedures, we might finally be on the verge of finally allowing ourselves to live in a future we so fancifully adore on the movie screen. A watch will always be a watch, but what Google and Apple are capable of offering in that small space might be the bridge we need to allow us to embrace what can be done with some of the more integrated wearable technologies.

Scientific research and military development has provided a vast foundation for a retail industry that has yet to find a profitable audience. But in terms of what has been done, the future possibilities seem endless. Wearable technologies go far deeper than products that require the general market to buy in to a fad. They allow amputees to compete in athletic tournaments, they can feasibly enable paraplegics to walk upright, and someday soon they may even help the blind see.

If you want to truly understand the mind boggling potential of wearable technologies, look at this study from the UC Berkley that managed to reconstruct images directly from the brains of subjects by aggregating billions of online images. This technology would allow us to record our dreams. But more importantly, the possibilities of reverse engineering this technology are simply unbelievable to those who are completely blind.

The human body is the most advanced form of technology the world's ever seen, and the brain its most complex computer. We're at the cliff of the unknown and about to dive into a completely unrecognizable future. Smartwatches and Google Glass will be relegated to the history books next to the abacus as the human machine is integrated with any technology its mind is capable of inventing. Get ready, the cyborgs are coming.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ban Fraternities?

I'm not sure if is struggling to find worthy topics, if they're just trolling for clicks and comments, or if they've truly lost their collective mind. But I have to ask, "What are you thinking?"

In today's article, Should We Ban Fraternities? Or Just Watch Them Destroy Themselves?, Monica Weymouth asks the question.

The opinion piece notes two deplorable acts recently committed in Oklahoma and at Penn State, racist and violent acts that are being addressed by the universities and even the police. If the age of the internet has taught us anything, it's that criminal idiots love to broadcast their moronically criminal behavior online. But it's also taught us that those reading the news are scouring the web for the worst of the worst, and the media is more than willing to give it to them.

Remember when we were allowed to have fun?

Out of thousands, maybe millions of college fraternities, Weymouth cites only three incidents in her self described desire to see "fraternities destroy themselves." It's bad enough when readers fall prey to subjective journalism, but when journalists find themselves unable to look at the broader scope, well that's just shoddy journalism.

I've never been a fan of the Greek system. I'm Greek enough as it is, in that I have to shave my back, I could live on a diet of olives and lamb, and I know that Phi is "F," not "P." Sorry to the Phi Kappa Taus at my alma mater, but your letters spell "Phukt." 

Nonetheless, they aren't all horrible organizations. In fact, most teach camaraderie, charity, and emphasize the reason their brothers are in school to begin with: academia.

Like the general public's macabre interest in negative news, Weymouth's article showcases an attitude toward her experience at Penn that focuses solely on what the university's frat's were doing wrong, while completely ignoring what any were doing right. 

But on another note, where's the mention of sororities? If wants to staff out an article about the demons of college fraternities, give it to someone with inside experience. There must be at least one college alum at Philadelphia Magazine who was in a fraternity. 

This article isn't just bad journalism. Bad journalism is everywhere, and we gloss over it. This is irresponsible journalism. By allowing Weymouth to heap the acts of a few on the shoulders of the overwhelming majority diminishes the credibility of her magazine. But it also hate mongers and encourages readers to ignorantly accept the false notion that a few isolated - albeit disgusting - incidents apply to every fraternity in the country. 

Street Cars Coming Back to Center City?

When it comes to American public transportation, Portland, OR has gotten a lot of press. They introduced a significant light rail line in the 1990s, expanded it in the 2000s with an extension to the airport, and put modern trolleys downtown. When people think of light rails and trolleys, they think "Portland," a departure from America's heyday of rapid rail transit when street cars were synonymous with older cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco.

An unrecognizable 12th and Market.

But despite the Rose City's comprehensive system and its "fareless square," the hype surrounds the fact that Portland's TriMet managed to successfully retrofit a fantastic system within a newer, West Coast city. Seattle, a little bit bigger but equally friendly to pedestrians, struggled for decades with the notion of light rails. For those who've never been, the Seattle Monorail is not an effective transportation solution unless you're simply traveling to the Space Needle. It's fun, and little more. But it's not the weirdest thing in Seattle. Until relatively recently, busses travels through a downtown tunnel designed specifically for trains. 

While Portland's trolleys may be sleek and clean, it hardly owns the market. In fact, a recent article pointed out that Philadelphia actually has the largest street car system in America, despite having shut down a significant portion of the original map.

The same article also highlights SEPTA's initiative to reopen a bit of that lost footprint, potentially bringing trolleys back to the streets of Center City. Additionally, SEPTA might be giving rail-fans a reason to take another look at Philadelphia. A program has offered SEPTA the funds to purchase more than 100 new trolleys, 80 foot cars that will be better accessible by being much lower to the ground.

Along many of the old lines throughout Center City, Chestnut Hill, and South Philadelphia, the electric cables have remained in place in the hopes that the trolleys would someday return. Although portions of the track have been paved over, having such an extensive foundation in place provides enormous potential, and we may again see cable cars running down 12th Street and up 11th. 

Move over Portland. We got this. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

2 Street Cafe

In anticipation of upcoming improvements to the Gallery at Market East, and Market East as a whole, PREIT has been closing shops within the mall and promising very few lease renewals. At this point, PREIT's plans seem unclear. No formal proposals have been released, all of which seem to hinge on the city relinquishing its ownership of the mall's exterior. 

Many of the closures are what you'd expect. Kiosks selling knock-off sunglasses and local businesses that kept the mall's doors opened since its decline. If PREIT wants to reinvent the Gallery as a mall that shoppers - tourists being ferried to the historic district - expect, then they plan to flood it with predictability. 

But there is one business within the Gallery that has managed to succeed in some form or fashion since the mall opened in 1977. 2 Street Cafe, named for the Mummers, opened in 1990, but its heart has been in the Gallery since it opened. 

Jimmy Plessas played for the Greek National Soccer Team and moved to the U.S. to play in Chicago. After retiring he moved to Philadelphia and opened several restaurants, at a time when Philadelphia actually had its very own Greektown.

A small restaurant in the Gallery eventually became the 2 Street Cafe, perhaps the mall's only business that attracts "regulars." 2 Street Cafe is one-part classic diner, and one-part bar. It's the perfect place to grab lunch, or a beer before heading home to the suburbs. But more importantly, it is still quintessentially Philadelphian, a rare feat for any business leasing space in a mall.

2 Street Cafe gets a wide variety of regulars from every demographic, something New Philadelphians don't seem too in tune with. 

While improvements to Market East aren't just welcome, they're essential, the district doesn't have to become Times Square. And 2 Street Cafe is the proof. Success doesn't mean we have to lick all the icing off the cake of what makes us a great city. All that leaves us with is bread. The Gallery is big enough to accommodate both the expected and the home-grown. 

PREIT is thinking like a mall, and that's what the trust is designed to do. But Market East is more than a mall, it's a community of residents, commuters, and tourists willing to welcome more than a Gap or a Ruby Tuesday. Despite its Brutalist exterior, the Gallery can be a Philadelphian experience. Instead of replacing 2 Street Cafe with a chain restaurant offering watered down cocktails, the mall can offer the expected along side the unexpected. PREIT has the opportunity to learn from the flaws at Times Square and Eaton Center, as well as what makes them work, and grant the city a better experience.