Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Charter Cable to Buy TimeWarner

When Comcast shelved its attempted merger with TimeWarner Cable, it would have been reckless to assume it was over. These companies swap namesakes so often it's difficult to remember who owns who.  

It didn't take long for one of the internet's earliest powerhouses, and a familiar badge in the TimeWarner lexicon, to make similar headlines. A couple weeks after Comcast's announcement, Verizon announced it would be purchasing AOL for more than $4B.

AOL, once "so easy to use" it was #1, failed to recognize the importance of its broadband internet provision and continued to invest in its interface, unique hardware, and proprietary access. They were the Rolls Royce of internet access right up to the time that were shopping for a Prius. When everyone went to cable, AOL fell on its face.

But over the last few years, AOL has been reinventing itself. Focusing on the advertisement industry and live mobile streaming, AOL has proven itself a unique entity once again. Couple that with Verizon's own mobile division, and the inevitable leap to competitive mobile data, the pairing makes sense. 

What doesn't make sense is Big Cable's continued commitment to solely delivering content via hardwire. Just as AOL ignored the impending leap to cable, fiber, and broadband, Big Cable is ignoring the next great leap to mobile wifi. It's shortsighted to look at the big screen in the family living room and assume there will always be a market for paid cable. There are kids in the basement watching CollegeHumor and YouTube on their T-Mobile data plans, kids that will continue to get their content from tablets when they go to college in lieu of purchasing their own cable bundles through the dorm.

AOL fixated on the large PC in the family study, ignoring the rapid growth of cable internet provisions and the then-emerging smartphones, and they learned their lesson the hard way. 

Big Cable seems bent on learning the same hard lessons. Today it was announced that Charter Cable will be purchasing TimeWarner Cable for $55B, an excess of more than $10B what Comcast was prepared to spend on a merger. Given Verizon's move to buy uniquely mobile content with AOL; Comcast, TimeWarner, and Charter seem committed to a Goliath complex, finding their fight through consolidation rather than innovation or unique and timely acquisitions.

For Philadelphia, Comcast still reigns supreme as the nation's largest cable provider. But as AOL once proved, telecommunications is not a stable and finite utility like electricity and water. Technologies evolve, and a telecom company's commitment to customers and current technology needs to be consistently paired with the inevitable emergence of new technologies, as well as customers' thirst for more and their ability to find it with or without a cable box.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

An Ugly New Boyd Tower May Cometh

With the tragic loss of Philadelphia's last movie palace, the Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street, many were looking to Pearl Property's graceful rendering of an Art Deco tower flanking the corner as a concession. 

Though only one rendering ever existed, the tower's handsome potential echoes an L.A. Noir embodiment that would have complement both the Boyd's lobby and its eastern neighbor. 

So what happened?

That question can't be asked enough when it comes to the Boyd's fight, loss, and demolition. And unfortunately, that uncertainty continues even after the Boyd's auditorium is nearly gone.

Eimer Architecture, a firm that has never produced a building, let alone a high-rise for an address like Rittenhouse Square, has released a rendering that will be reviewed by the Historical Commission next week. 

Inga Saffron had some choice words to say about it and, ever the critic, she couldn't be more correct. Like so many other high-rises, even townhouses, throughout Center City and University City, the tower's metal panels are the go-to decision for budget builders. They're a cheap way to make a simple building stand out. 

But this is Rittenhouse-****ing-Square. Budget builders have no business here. It's bad enough when an architect puts a pig in a prom dress in New Kensington, but at 19th and Chestnut, it's not even economically necessary. Behind the revered Boyd, it's downright unethical. 

Unfortunately there is a growing part of me that simply wants to move on. We lost the war for the Boyd, and there are worthy battles elsewhere. Eimer Architecture's building is uninteresting and flat, but it's now in the hands of the Historical Commission. 

There are still curiosities, though. Namely, why did Pearl abandon its Art Deco tower, and why did it move the tower to Sansom Street? The answer to the latter is likely financial. For the project to have a low-rise retail component, Chestnut Street gets much more foot traffic. Still, it's irresponsible to the neighborhood and to the streets, and will likely leave quaint Sansom with a garage door and a blank wall. 

Barely Human: Richard Prince

The world of art is a curious landscape. Once fraught with talent and skill, the 20th Century lowered the bar and it continues to sink into the mud. Still, history is full of crap. We only remember the best. Time will determine if anyone will remember Millie Brown's milk-vomit paintings

And there's really nothing inherently wrong with producing crap and passing it off as art. If you're inventive enough to find a market of socialites willing to part with $100,000 for a shellacked turd, by all means. Passing a blank canvas off as a million dollar message about loneliness or waste or whatever doesn't make you a villainous person, it just makes you a hack, and your clients morons. The threshold for mediocrity is beginning to fade and audiences are slowly recognizing a desire for something, anything, better. 

The true demons in the art world are those who can't claim to be artists at all. Let me introduce you to Richard Prince, if the internet hasn't already. This charlatan has been "re-appropriating" the artwork of others since the 1970s. In other words, he takes a photograph of a photograph, tweaks it a bit, and then claims it his own. 

When Shia LaBeouf released a graphic novel by David Clowes as his own "original" movie, he was briefly exiled to obscurity, only to resurface with an apology he lifted directly from Yahoo! Answers. But despite what was either a misguided publicity stunt of just sheer stupidity, The Beouf was faced with the costly consequences of plagiarism. 

The Thief

Yet somehow Richard Prince has evaded the consequences of both plagiarism and a complete lack of talent for four decades. His most recent collection is "New Portraits," a title that is both boringly ironic and painfully unoriginal, featuring "original" screenshots from the Instagram feeds of talented and mostly nameless photographers. 

What's almost as disgusting as Prince's blatant disregard for originality and his penchant for copyright loopholes is the fact that New York's Gagosian Gallery ran the exhibit for a month. Not only that, one was purchased for $90,000! His work has even been featured at and praised by the goddamn Guggenheim?! Honestly, what the fuck is wrong with people?!

And that is all bad enough to make Richard Prince perhaps the single worst person to weasel his way into the art world. Talentlessness, thievery, manipulation, and greed: these are all despicable traits. But what truly makes Richard Prince barely human is his undeserved ego and precise understanding that he is stealing. His own attitude towards his work is borderline sociopathic: "Copyright has never interested me." 

Well, copyright isn't designed to interest thieves who molest the talented work of others and then capitalize upon it, it's to protect the victims from people like Richard Prince. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lapstone & Hammer

Philadelphia's gay scene, although geographically small, is anything but a subdued presence. Despite its unofficial rebranding as Midtown Village, the rainbows - from street signs to neon rooftops - make it very apparent that Google Maps was correct in keeping it labeled the "Gayborhood." 

But if you're a gay man who's ever lived in any other major city, you might be wondering why our Gayborhood seems solely fixated on local dining and nightlife. Sure, the bars and restaurants are fantastic, and many of them locally owned and operated by members of our LGBT community. Yet when it comes to shopping the streets of Walnut, 12th, or 13th, you're hard pressed to find fashion foreword clothing that isn't geared towards a 50 year old woman. 

Not that there's anything wrong with that, and not that fashion forward men's clothing is geared exclusively towards gay men. And if you want to find a sexy outfit for Saturday night, Diesel and Urban Outfitters are on the other side or Broad Street paired appropriately with other prominent chains. 

What's missing isn't the chains, though. Despite all the retail gripes about Center City's struggle to compete with King of Prussia and Cherry Hill, we have plenty of fantastic retail options otherwise found in suburban malls. But I'm not talking about Forever 21 and H&M. I'm talking about men's boutiques that offer unique and stylish options from obscure manufacturers. And most cities seem to have at least one, and it's usually where the gays dine and dance.

I still have a sweater I bought in D.C.'s DuPoint Circle more than fifteen years ago, it has yet to go out of style, and when I'm asked where I got it, I can proudly utter a name no one's ever heard of. And believe me, I'm a far cry from a Fashion Plate. 

Over the years, Philadelphia's Gaybodhood has hosted a few unique men's boutiques. Sparacino's on 13th Street is largely regarded as the catalyst that ignited the street's retail prominence. Unfortunately Tony Sparacino passed away eight years ago. His legacy lives on in an annual scholarship aimed at LGBT art students, but his clothing store vanished. 

In 2011, Matthew Izzo brought his New York boutique to Philadelphia's Gayborhood along with a wave of "Sixth Borough" transplants, later opening another in Old City. But as far as I can tell, his presence in Philadelphia is relegated to an online store. Around the same time the Philadelphia Home Art Garden, or P.H.A.G. ambitiously moved its knick-knack and card shop from its humble 12th Street location to a much larger space on Walnut, and began offering clothing and furniture. Soon after, P.H.A.G. shut its doors, and like Matthew Izzo, its presence was moved to the internet.

For many of these boutiques, particularly the latter two, it would now seem it was an unfortunate case of too much too soon. If you're a woman looking for champaign and shoes, your shopping options are a dime a dozen. But if you're a Center City man looking for a shopping experience, you've got to hoof it to East Passyunk's Metro Men's Clothing. But that's about to change, or apparently already has. Had Matthew Izzo and P.H.A.G. waited a few short years to expand, they might still be in the Gayborhood. 

Lapstone & Hammer recently set up shop in the former City Blue near 11th and Chestnut. Likely following the trend of East Chestnut's transformation, Lapstone & Hammer is the kind of boutique that begs to be dubbed "artisan." If you're a man who wishes that Blake Lively or Gwenyth Paltrow had more to say about your fashion options on their blogs, Lapstone & Hammer is for you.

While it doesn't posses the same quirks and characteristics of the LGBT inspired men's boutiques that adorned our gay enclaves from the 80s into the early 21st Century, there is less reason for such businesses to exist. That's apparent in our Gayborhood's rapid evolution, as well as an enhanced market in urban men - gay or straight - no longer resigned to buying bags of white tube socks and Levi's from Kohl's. 

On a side note, it appears that Lapstone & Hammer intends to restore the building's wild Vitrolite facade.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Comcast, the CITC, and its place in Information Technology

In all the excitement surrounding Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center, it's easy to gloss over Comcast's original Center and regard it as old news. But the CITC's development, and what it means for Philadelphia, is more than just one tall tower that will outrank the likes of Atlanta and Los Angeles, it is also part of Comcast's sum total.

On its own, Comcast Center redefined Philadelphia's notion of Center City skyscrapers. With the exception of its northern neighbor, the Bell Atlantic or Verizon tower, Philadelphia's humble portfolio of true skyscrapers hug their sidewalks. On one block that could have easily housed Comcast's entire vertical campus, the cable giant decided to create a spectacle. Using a could-be footprint for another tower, Comcast opted for a grand plaza that breaks up the towering monotony of JFK Boulevard by creating a vantage point from which to admire Robert A. M. Stern's local masterpiece. 

In a lot of ways, the theory echoes Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan. As height restrictions led New York developers to step their skyscrapers back from the sidewalk in an effort to maximize every square foot, Mies van der Rohe decided to make a statement by "wasting" land on a plaza and designing a completely vertical skyscraper. 

Likewise, Comcast's plaza makes its Center both humbling and intimidating, and in providing both, likely achieved the company's goal. It's easy to wonder why the CITC isn't a bit taller. Why is the roof shorter than Comcast Center? Why does the spire face west, and not the campus's core? They may seem irrelevant questions, but no one spends $1B on a building without analyzing every last detail.

Were the CITC taller, if its spire faced Comcast's plaza, its presence might overpower Comcast's corporate headquarters. Despite its academic rank as Pennsylvania's tallest building, the CITC is still second to Comcast Center and its plaza. 

As the sum total stands, Comcast's vertical campus will be Philadelphia's best planned corporate park, at least in the West Market vicinity. With the exception of Independence Hall, the University of Pennsylvania's historic core, and a handful of other 18th and 19th Century projects, Comcast has set a new bar for future development. 


However, what works aesthetically may not prove so practical, and it all hinges on Comcast's true plan for the CITC. As it is, Comcast is a telecom corporation, with only a very new and relatively small investment in information technology. IT companies throughout the Silicone Valley, the Cascade Valley, and the Dulles Corridor are comprised of sprawling campuses that look like high-tech universities. 

While many of these corporations decided to set up shop in the suburbs for financial reasons, the reasons they've stayed are logistic. It's not as though Apple, Microsoft, and Intel can't afford to build their own vertical campuses in San Francisco, Seattle, or Portland, it's that they don't want to. And for good reason. 

Apple's upcoming Concordia campus

Comcast, despite its apparent desire to delve into IT, is still every bit as corporate as JP Morgan. Although Big Software plays the corporate game on the same trading room floor, their philosophy, operations, and corporate demographics are at odds with Comcast's 52 year old model.

The free spirited software geeks tethered to their iPads and laptops aren't tethered to their cubicles. IT's endless string of meetings is less the end result of corporate bureaucracy, but a place for collaboration and productive innovation. The IT campus is very much a hive, not a hierarchy of elevator banks that reserve the uppermost floors for a select few. 

It will be interesting to see not only how Comcast fares in the unfamiliar world of information technology, but also how its vertical campus manages to support it. If it works, the CITC and Philadelphia will change the industry's game, proving that software and innovation can accommodate fixie saddled Millennials unwilling to commute or relocate to the Silicone Valley or King of Prussia. But Comcast's foray into innovation needs to be more than a building, a concept, and a vertical theory. First and foremost it needs to understand innovation, why software empires succeed, and why so many more come and go overnight. 

Information Technology is not an industry that survives on the status quo. It is the modern and global embodiment of the first 40 years of the automotive industry. It's a technological revolution that refuses to peak. Profitable Big Software doesn't succeed through mergers and acquisitions, those are simply the end results of successes and failures. Comcast can't buy its way into Information Technology, rather it needs to understand that companies like Apple and Google thrive by way of true innovation and a market that continues to crave the next best thing. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jim Cramer on Philadelphia

You know Jim Cramer? That loud guy from Mad Money who tells you when to buy and sell your stocks? Well, he's telling you to buy Philadelphia, and buy it now!

Cramer is a Philadelphia native, so it's understandable that he loves his hometown. But he also knows financial trends. That's why it's notable that on Friday he said, "If Philly was a stock, it would be incredibly undervalued."

Philly Bricks has been saying that for years, as has every other online cheerleader for America's most unappreciated city. But Cramer also made a significant point, essentially, we need to invest in our schools. Citing how Brooklyn managed to hold onto families by investing in the city's school district, the key to keeping Philadelphians downtown might be in making ours top notch. 

Still, a city is more than the go-to demographics: new parents and Millennials. Sure, in a way they reinvented New York, put Portland on the map, and made a few people decide to live in Detroit. But catering to families and 20-somethings is also a flat approach. And that's where Philadelphia's affordability, proximity to New York and Washington, and its businesses - both established and emerging - come into play. And that seems to be where Cramer's assessment is really coming from.

Coming soon...and then some.

The truth is, Cramer's endorsement isn't driving Philadelphia, it's a reaction to what's been taking place for about ten years. Philadelphia is coming into its own, perhaps for the third time in its history. Manhattan has become an island for the elite and Washington, D.C. has sprawled to West Virginia. Long forgotten and written off as an insignificant city, Philadelphia is both proving itself a worthy contender, but also one that can offer reasonably affordable housing for years to come. 

People are taking note, and they aren't just recent college grads who can't afford more than a studio apartment. Big shots from New York, Chicago, and Boston are recognizing Philadelphia as a world class competitor and they're bringing their businesses with them. Why spend millions on corporate headquarters and a condo in Manhattan when all your employees are working from a WiFi connection anyway?

Buildings no longer make a corporation, and thousands of untold businesses are finding satellite offices in Philadelphia's home offices online.

Cramer didn't say as much but he certainly seems to get it. As stock, Philadelphia is undervalued. And savvy consumers are finally getting it too. Once ignored, and for a short time dubbed New York's Sixth Borough, Philadelphia is no longer playing second chair to anyone. From Comcast to Urban Outfitters, Center City to Phoenixville, we're playing the game and we're playing it right. Sure, we have our constraints, but business owners and residents are quickly learning to work with the system, instead of simply resigning ourselves to the mediocrity that the system breeds in isolation. And that's because we've finally recognized that Philadelphia is worth it. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again: look out, New York, we're coming for you.

Luxury Healthcare

Have you ever walked into a pharmacy and wondered, "where's the panache?" Probably not. If you're like me, your trip to the pharmacy counter is a rare annoyance clouded in a fog of allergies. The only thing I've ever wondered about these places is why CVS bragged about eliminating cigarettes but still sells Cheesy Poofs.

But I digress.

There is apparently a small market that isn't quite satisfied with the service and atmosphere of the corner drug store, and if you've got an extra $2500 to $6500 a month, you can be a part of the circus.

New York's Cedra Pharmacy is taking pretentiousness to a new level with what it calls a "health concierge service." They won't just deliver your prescriptions, they'll send a chef to your house to help you cook and chaperone your trip to the grocery store.

The Grand package at $2500 a month will provide personal trainers, massages, and limousine rides to your doctor. The Select package, the one that could buy you a used Jetta every month, is reserved for cancer patients, just in case a victim has an extra $6500 a month after chemo bills.

I feel like there is probably some kind of reference to the nation's inefficient - and unequal - access to healthcare that could be made, but Cedra is so over the top of everything that makes sense, I wouldn't know where to possibly connect the dots. There's also the question of legality. Cedra claims it can change the flavor of your medication, even turn Viagra into a lollipop. I'm not expert on pharmaceuticals, but I have to imagine that the companies manufacturing medication have extremely strict guidelines on how and in what form its administered.

But where there's money there's always a way. This is all provided on behalf of New York's 1%, many of whom stood firmly against any form of universal healthcare on the grounds that they didn't want to pay for it. If Cedra has any hopes of selling these packages, it's pretty disgusting that anyone would be willing to spend thousands of dollars a month on tax deductible luxuries masquerading as healthcare, when there are millions still struggling with the Obamacare website.

Anthony Bourdain's Bladerunner Themed Market

If you've ever been to the Italian Market right before Christmas, you've probably felt like you were in another world. Or if you're a sci-fi geek like me, it undoubtedly conjured up images from Bladerunner.

If you've never seen the movie, it's not for everyone. It's an intellectual mystery set in a dystopic future Los Angeles that questions the ethics of artificial intelligence...or something. Thirty years later I still haven't quite figured it out. 

Several of the scenes take place in a sprawling quasi-outdoor market tucked in the crevasses deep inside the canyons of Los Angeles' towering skyscrapers. Vendors haggle, the homeless steal, and dark corridors lead to insidious dens of drug use and prostitution. Try to imagine Chinatown in three hundred years.

For us, we have our own bustling marketplaces on 9th Street and below Reading Terminal. But New York is prepping to offer something a little more...dicey, although a complete illusion.

Anthony Bourdain, one of television's endless supply of foul mouthed chefs, wants to provide a new market on Manhattan's Pier 57, and he's drawing on inspiration from Bladerunner. Quoted as saying his market "is meant to be chaotic because that's what hawker centers should be," in a sense he'll be resurrecting some of Manhattan's lost grit.

But will it work? Philadephia's public markets were born from a need and survive on posterity. Consumers endure the chaos because the markets are steeped in nostalgia, history, and tradition. Even in the fictional market in Bladerunner, we're led to believe that it organically evolved into what it had become. To outsource a public market to theme restaurant logic seems counterintuitive. But the fact that Manhattan has become the world's biggest Extreme Makeover: City Edition, is exactly why it will "work" there.

However its authenticity will hinge on its operation and execution. Reading Terminal Market came to be because goods could be shipped to the terminal above, similar to Pike Place's proximity to Seattle's waterfront ports. The 9th Street Market originally served as the hub of commerce for the city's Italian immigrant population. 

If Bourdain's market intends to interact with the river and host local vendors, it could succeed at being a true market. But if it is just another collection of boutiques and pricey wine and cheese pairings, it will merely be a food court with a twist. 

For us, we're lucky. I know it's bold to say we're more fortunate than New York, but in some ways we truly are. We have two thriving markets that continue to evolve, a legitimate Chinatown that continues to grow, and successful Night Markets returning for the summer. None are a scene from Bladerunner, nor should they be. Creating chaos for the sake of a chaotic experience makes no sense. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ask for Concessions, Don't Make Demands

Out of the many dead proposals forgotten in the wake of the Great Recession, none stood to alter how we see Philadelphia like the collection of skyscrapers and high-rises that were proposed along the Delaware River near Northern Liberties. 

What we ended up with was a truncated Waterfront Square and a gussied up casino barn, both isolated from the sidewalk behind surface lots and gates. The worst played out.

Somewhere between the best - Bridgemans View - and the worst - SugarHouse Casino, was Trump Tower.

Less suburban in scale than Waterfront Square, but easily as isolated, Trump Tower was a building that would have blended in fine were it in Center City. It's design was handsome, if a bit dull, but also lacked the brassy adornments that tarnish Donald Trump's otherwise attractive skyscrapers (Atlantic City obviously excluded). 

Well, according to PhillyMag.com, it's back, sort of. If you follow Philadelphia Magazine on Facebook you saw the "get out of our town" comments begin piling up because, well, the internet, and no one can be bothered to read more than a headline. 

The Trump Tower isn't back, and it seems that, for now, the Golden Combover is done with Philadelphia. What is back, maybe, is the proposal. The land has changed hands, and the new owners want to use the Trump Tower proposal as a template. While the permit does't expire until 2016, the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association has already piped up against the resurrected proposal.

Bridgeman's View

Unfortunately, the Northern Delaware's proximity to Northern Liberties and Fishtown tethers it to nearby NIMBYs as a technicality, despite the fact that the established waterfront and its development goals could not be more at odds with the neighborhoods on the other side of Delaware Avenue. 

For decades, nearby NIMBYs have stymied development along the river, and their actions are indirectly responsible for the river being dealt the shittiest deck. Residents of Waterfront Square would do themselves a favor by creating their own neighborhood association, one that embraces the same height, panache, and amenities that would drive up their own property values. As it is, they face a dilapidated pier, one that nearby neighborhood associations seem resigned to keep. 

Unfortunately what's happening here, and is all too apparent in neighborhood politics, is a case of "if I can't have it, I don't want to see it." Waterfront Square does very little to tarnish the sight lines of the Delaware River, and an even more attractive high-rise would only enhance it. Skyscraping apartment buildings line Lake Michigan in Chicago and it doesn't hinder their enjoyment, it puts more people on the lake and makes it exciting. 

There are plenty of places in Philadelphia to escape the drudgery of the workweek, and a lively river next to an interstate and wide avenue isn't it. Dense development near the Schuylkill River finally provided a reason to invest in the Schuylkill Banks, and that investment is putting more bedrooms on that river. 

Resistant neighbors near the Delaware River are likely worried that more development, particularly high-rises, will cause development to snowball. But that's exactly what should happen if we ever expect the Delaware River to see the kind of improvements that have saved the Schuylkill Banks. The truth is, the Delaware Waterfront doesn't belong to Northern Liberties and Fishtown residents anymore than it belongs to someone from Chinatown. The voice that should be considered is the voice of those who actually live there. 

I say bring it on. If the pier's new owners want to develop a luxurious high-rise catering to Philadelphia's elite, why not? If NIMBYs are truly concerned about the fate of the river, and public access to it, they should be working with developers, not against them. Don't repeat the mistakes that gave us Waterfront Square and SugarHouse, digging feet into the sand against an inevitability, landing us with the worst. 

Ask for concessions, don't make demands. How will Trump Tower 2.0 be integrated into the neighborhood? Are developers willing to offer publicly accessible space? Are they willing to invest in street and sidewalk improvements beyond their property line? 

It's knee-jerk to assume the worst, but Philadelphia NIMBYs are notorious for doing just that. A little bit of nice can go a long, long way. But if NIMBYs are just going to shout demands and make unjust claims, it understandable why any sane developer wants to put up a wall. 

Unicorn Poop

When I first read about the upcoming rainbow crosswalks in the Gayborhood, I thought it was a great idea. Then I saw this...

...and immediately thought this...

But unicorn poop might not be such a bad thing. After all, "Midtown Village" seems to be catching on, and despite the rainbow street signs, 13th Street is starting to look a lot like Old City, and Woody's - a once gay staple - is now a non-stop bachelorette party. People could use a reminder. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Comcast, AOL, and the Future

A month ago, the Comcast-TimeWarner merger dominated the news. People screamed, "Monopoloy!" without really knowing what that meant. They jeered "Conflict of interest!" while ignoring Comcast's prior merger with NBC Universal, and the merger between NBC and Universal that preceded it. 

After walking away from the merger, Comcast quickly refocused. Responding to customer service complaints that have become a national spectacle, Comcast responded by telling the city they know how much we hate them.

That's a smart move, albeit reactionary and not immediately profitable. 

Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center

But one question remains, why did Comcast want TimeWarner in the first place? Why would a company that claims to want to get into new technology want more cable? Were they banking on the assumption that more customers meant more money? Did they want TimeWarner's content?

As moot as the point may be now, the potentially disastrous outcome of such a massive merger may have been the reason the FCC decided to sidestep the decision and send it to a hearing. Perhaps the FCC didn't want another economic collapse heaped on its shoulders, and that's exactly what would have happened if Big Cable fell. 

Comcast and TimeWarner were beasts, both with their own bureaucratic burdens and customer service nightmares. Seamless integration would have been a Herculean feat, one that would have taken years. Even the prospect of a moderately successful integration seemed questionable.

AOL learned about TimeWarner's dated telecom mentality the hard way, and look what happened to them. Once 2000's answer to what Google is still trying to accomplish today, AOL spent $160B on TimeWarner in 2001. That's four times what Comcast was prepared to spend on the same company fourteen years later. 

While you may be temped to say it was AOL's brazen disregard for money that led to their fall, don't underestimate the power of digital media. AOL had the money, but they lost it by diving headfirst into an industry they knew nothing about. In their blind ambition to grow, they lost focus, cockily assuming they could figure it out along the way.

But today something peculiar happened. Although it may not sound as exciting as the Comcast-TimeWarner merger, it asks a lot of the questions those in the industry have been wondering for a while now. Namely: What's next?

Today, Verizon announced that it will be purchasing AOL for $4.4B. While many consumers may have written off AOL, even wondering if they still exist, never suspend your disbelief in the world of technology. Technology companies are like comic book heroes and villains. Just when you think they're dead, they're resurrected, and in a few short pages they're ruling the world. Just ask Apple. 

AOL has shrunk substantially, yes, but they've managed to survive by investing smartly under the radar. They're probably one of the most undervalued technology companies solely because of their botched merger more than a decade ago. They own quite a bit of notable content like the Huffington Post, advertising technology, and a collection of profitable companies like MapQuest. 


They have a unique history, and perhaps more like IBM than Pets.com, they learned lessons taught from the Digital Revolution, the dot.com bubble, and surviving the Great Recession. 

In the early 2000s, AOL was developing new technology that would integrate its online content with content from its newly acquired network and cable providers. But they had it backwards. Assuming that users wanted TV first, and internet second, their conceptual products like AOL-TV brought the internet into your living room, not TV to your internet. Without smartphones in everyone's pockets, they focused on desktops and the big screen. And in a 1-2-3 punch: cable internet, Apple's iPhone, and streaming content rendered the world's greatest digital media provider a struggling legacy company.

Successful companies, like people, struggle through a period of perceived indestructibility, a corporate adolescence. Much more brutal than humanity, only a few survive with lessons learned in tact. And AOL is a survivor. 

What's interesting about Verizon's acquisition of AOL isn't just the content it will acquire, but Verizon and AOL's plan for that content. While Comcast and TimeWarner continue to plug away on cable and the living room TV screen, Verizon owns access to the small screen in your pocket, and AOL is jumping at the opportunity to be a part of that. 

AOL's content already has a reputation for working well on mobile devices, despite the fact that you might not know it comes from AOL. As more and more people continue to access their devices - smart phones, tablets, even laptops - from mobile connections, Verizon's AOL acquisition stands to be more than just a savvy business move, but the first step in the next way we access digital media.

While Comcast continues to claim it will fill its new Innovation and Technology Center with the kinds of minds that built Google, Microsoft, and even AOL, we have yet to know what they intend to innovate. Replicating successful industry innovations isn't what built the Silicon Valley, delivering innovations that consumers didn't yet know they wanted did. 

For the sake of Comcast, and Philadelphia's local economy, the telecom giant needs to recognize cable's numbered days. TimeWarner wasn't the answer, and the failed merger is the region's veiled blessing. Change is coming in how we access digital content, and if Comcast intends to compete in the future, it doesn't need to be looking at what's available, what Google and Apple are doing. If they want to be innovators, they need to be looking at what's next, and inventing it.

Mural Lofts

Eric Blumenfeld of EB Reality, "the guy behind the Divine Lorraine," seems to have his hands full these days. His Mural Arts Lofts on Spring Garden near Broad Street has been fenced off for some time, and now it comes with a rendering. 

And what a rendering it is. 

The building has been a no-brainer for quite a while. It's a handsome old school, scaled perfectly for residences. And it comes with quite a bit of undeveloped land perfect for both public or private outdoor space. 

So I'm not sure what happened. It's circular driveway seems to cry out to the bros squatting in the basements of their parents' New Jersey McMansions, begging them to move downtown. I'm not sure I hate it, but the last thing it says is "Loft Living."

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Center City's Final Frontier

While the traditional boundaries of Center City lie between Vine and South Streets, it's easy to stray a bit north or south and argue otherwise. "Greater Center City," in fact, is comprised of blocks between Girard and Tasker. That's a stretch, but if you're walking along Spring Garden Avenue, there's no mistake, you are in the city.

But hit Broad and head east, that's another story. Whether it's councilmanic districting or a case of bad development attracting worse development, the neighborhoods of Greater Center City's northeastern quadrant are devoid of anything "central" until you get to Northern Liberties. Strip malls, sterile government facilities, and parking lots line Spring Garden with only an occasional relic to remind us of its industrial and residential roots.

The largest footprint of singular new development is suburban-styled subsidized housing awkwardly flanked by vacant and underutilized warehouses and railroad tracks. Even Callowhill - or the Loft District - with it's proximity to the literal core of the city continues to struggle with an abundance of surface parking, vacant lots, and empty warehouses. Nowhere is the crevasse between east and west more apparent than on North Broad Street, where Gilded Age mansions, churches, and theaters on the westside face unimpressive infill like car washes and auto parts stores. 

Still, the northeastern component of Greater Center City has a few gems waiting to be polished, and the future of this district - however it evolves - may depend on their revitalizations. 

You don't have to be a history or architectural nerd to be concerned with the area's most priceless resource, the Divine Lorraine Hotel. The Willis G. Hale masterpiece is one of the city's most iconic, infamous, and significant buildings, and despite countless promises, proposals, and praise, its future is still largely in question. EB Reality released a unique rendering that looks like a cartoon from Highlights Magazine, and I mean that in a good way.

Just behind the Divine Ms. L., Broad Street Holdings has proposed its own mixed use complex with a residential component. 

For now, this speculation may simply be more hype. EB Reality seems to love the media, and the media is its greatest enabler. Stories about the Divine Lorraine sell ads because we love that building so damn much. But while development has been charging east along Ridge Avenue, it comes to a grinding halt at the Divine Lorraine. It's creeping its way northwest from Callowhill but with a reserved lack of ambition. 

Massive projects are massive risks, even in Center City. But Broad and Fairmount isn't quite Center City, at least not yet, and the Divine Lorraine is a beast. There is no question that a resurrected Divine Lorraine would be a massive boon for the vicinity and certainly spawn additional development, but without that development, EB Reality knows it will have to wait for a handsome return. Right now, Philadelphia is just waiting for someone to make the first move.


It isn't all uncertainty for this depressed pocket of the city, and it may simply be that the city needs to be the party to make that first move. And it's about to be made. Soon the city will be voting on a bill that will allow it to purchase a quarter mile stretch of the abandoned Reading Viaduct from SEPTA, after which several groups will be working together to convert it into an elevated park. 

Once a pipe dream to many and a hinderance to others, it looks as though the Reading Viaduct Park will be realized. And considering the city's recent investment in parks, and its final recognition that the improvement of public spaces actually encourages development, it could happen sooner than later. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The catch to the $80K cab medallion? You have to be a decent person.

Walking home from one of my less stressful days at the new job, I decided to take the long way. People were out in numbers enjoying the overcast, yet uniquely springlike day. Dogs, joggers, commuters, everyone was happy. As I set out to cross Chestnut Street, I looked down beside me and smiled at a giggling baby. The light turned green, and then I heard it, and smelled it. 

The sound of worn shocks barreling towards us, one of Philadelphia's notoriously disgusting taxi cabs blaring the horn as if that somehow allowed him to run the light. The woman pulled her stroller back towards the sidewalk and I screamed, "Watch it, man!" 

As he sped past the intersection, a waft of B.O. delivered his retort, "F*CK YOU, MOTHER F*CKER!" 

When the day comes that Uber puts every one of these rolling bed bugs out of business, I'm throwing a party. At one point, that seemed impossible. Not because taxis were significantly more affordable, not because the cab companies upped their game. No, because of Philadelphia's long standing dedication to bureaucracy, unions, and all things illogical. 

But travelers, rejoice. That day will come. The Philadelphia Parking Authority has been dropping the price of its excessively costly medallions ever since Uber changed the game. Once going for a mind-blowing half a million dollars, one can be picked up now for a measly $400,000. And get this, if you want a medallion without mortgaging your children, you can get your hands on a wheelchair accessible medallion for eighty grand

Now you might think that the PPA is offering accessible medallions at a dramatic discount because, hey, disabled people need cabs more than anyone. You might think, hey, that PPA ain't such a bad guy after all. You'd be wrong. The reason the PPA cut those medallions from $475,000 to $80,000 is because, you guessed it, nobody wanted them. 

I know this will come as a shock, but cab drivers don't really like transporting people who need assistance, even blind paraplegics. Sorry to spoil it for you, but their surly demeanor isn't masking a heart of gold. 

Now, the cabs aren't going anywhere and neither are the 1600 medallions. In fact, the lower medallion value likely means the drivers will get nastier, ruder, and more reckless through crosswalks. But if it causes them to jack up the price for a fare, it just makes Uber even more desirable, valuable, and relevant. 

And is anyone else happy that Uber Black finally gave the handsome Chrysler 300 a reason for existing?

I know I'm in the minority, but come on, that's a sexy car. If it came in stick, I might actually own one. Dear Chrysler (Daimler? Fiat? Lee Iacocca?), please deliver us a sport coupe from wherever you're manufacturing these things.