Sunday, June 21, 2015

Old City is its Own Worst Enemy

You don't need to be a history buff to know that Old City was once Philadelphia's central core. From the city's beginnings as the second largest in the British Empire to our last days as an industrial powerhouse, Old City housed everything from commerce to manufacturing to shipping to residents - both wealthy and not. 

Between its final days as a slum and its rebirth as a haven for moderately wealthy New Philadelphians, Old City essentially sat dormant, essentially suffering a Cold War identity crisis. In the 80s and 90s, the birth of the yuppy gave renewed purpose to Old City and similar neighborhoods throughout the nation. Young urban professionals bought affordable homes in struggling neighborhoods chock full of the ample parking they enjoyed in the suburbs. With commerce and industry relocated to the far ends of freeways, the concept of urban living in Philadelphia's most urban address began to shift again.

Over the last three decades, our most historic neighborhood has been adding to its ongoing historic narrative, evident in the fact that Old City is home to some of the city's most argumentative and seemingly misaligned advocacy groups. 

A modest, 6-10 story residential project has been proposed on Arch Street near 2nd, technically on Arch and a small street called Little Boys Court. In any other neighborhood, such a proposals would be humble, and residents might even be asking for more. Even in the small streets of Washington Square West and Rittenhouse, neighborhoods consisting of much greater architectural and historic cohesion, Stephen Varenhorst's collection of lofts would be an end concession, not a point of contention. 

If it weren't a rendering, you'd assume it had been there all along.

But in Old City, its residents still clinging to the Thirty-Somthing era in which they set down their carpeted bags, any development without 1:1 parking is bad development. I typically don't delve into the comments section below articles, but PhiladelphiaSpeaks' Cro Brunham lifted a gem from a recent article on this proposal that really exposes the hypocritical mindset of some of Old City's most absentminded residents. 

One user asked, "Where are these people supposed to park?" continuing, "Someone needs to put in regulations similar to...the suburbs...Philadelphia is starting to look like a hodgepodge of crappy looking buildings. All of the historical aspects are going away."

Sure, the author can't be personally faulted for an off-the-cuff remark made in the comments below a article. But the comment echoes a common theme throughout neighborhoods riddled with suburban theory. In any city, the first question should never be about parking. But for these people, it's not a question of parking, it's a question of change. People go to parking the way readers go to the comments section: they want to complain but they're not exactly sure what to complain about. They want to be heard, but they're not quite sure what to say. They know they don't like the impending change, but they're not yet sure why.

Does the naggingly irrelevant question of parking rear its head in other Center City neighborhoods? Of course it does. But even in more congested neighborhoods like Market East, Washington Square West, and Rittenhouse, the conversation has begun to evolve. From the redevelopment of the Boyd Theater site to East Market and East Chestnut, the discussion of style and design has finally begun to trump the tired parking debate. But where other Center City residents learn to embrace the urban life they chose, Old City residents refuse to acknowledge the fact that they are at first, Center City residents, opting to fight for ample parking and to stagnate any change, however progressive. 

City living is a compromise. For those who want suburbanized concessions, the suburbs exist exclusively for those who enjoy the luxury of isolation. But the city is as much a melting pot of people as it is of ideals, and your opinion will - or should - never carry the same weight beyond your front door as it does throughout a planned community in Cherry Hill. 

If you need a car to get to work, Old City has an abundance of parking garages. If you insist on parking on the street and need to get to King of Prussia by 9am on Monday, rent a space in a garage. If you can't afford it, look for another neighborhood. Philadelphia is growing, especially Center City, and it will continue to do so. As it grows, its' economic demographics will change, the cost of living will rise, and its build environment will evolve. 

What's perhaps most unnerving about the Old City parking debate is that Old City is not a low-rent neighborhood. Second only to Rittenhouse Square, Old City is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Center City. We're not talking about the Gayborhood or Chinatown where people are spending $750 a month for a studio in a converted brownstone, we're talking about a neighborhood building new $850,000 brownstones for one family.

For those spending $2000 a month in rent or mortgaging a million dollar condo, what parking crisis are they talking about? It's entitlement, plain and simple. They have it all but want perfection, as they see it, and that is exactly the suburban mentality. But - perhaps with the exception of those living along Delancey Street or in penthouses overlooking Rittenhouse Square - entitlement has no place in an urban environment. And even Philadelphia's oldest money seems to understand that parking comes at a cost. 

No urban neighborhood from Old City to Passyunk Square to North Broad Street will ever indefinitely exist in a vacuum. Old City lived in that vacuum throughout its' mid-20th Century identity crisis and no one but the slumlords and the pawnshops wanted a piece of it. Old City's suburban crusaders are no different than the land hoarders who fought to keep their property values low enough to avoid inspection, only today's residents are fighting to preserve another kind of blight: the suburbanization of Philadelphia's most urban address.

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