Thursday, August 27, 2015

Old Navy at the WCHU Building

You know that wacky Art Deco building across from Liberty Place? The one fittingly home to the Art Institute? You know the one. It looks like a cross between something from Ghostbusters and the opening from Lynch and Frost's short-lived On the Air.

Today (although somehow timestamped "Friday, August 28"), the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Pearl properties purchased the property between 16th and 17th Streets with plans to lease the lower floors to Old Navy.

Hmm. What to think of that?

It's an obvious no-brainer for Gap Inc. With Gap and Banana Republic outlets already on Chestnut Street, a Gap and Banana Republic around the corner, the conglomerate may need to seek a new Old Navy location once renovation begins at the Gallery...and Chestnut is where it's at right now. 

But why the historic WCAU Building already branded from top to bottom in its original 1922 facade, and more importantly, what does Gap Inc. intend to do with that facade. Old Navy isn't the kind of up-and-coming retailer that panders to hipsters that appreciate kitschy architecture. They're the CVS of cargo shorts, and when they want to be seen, they want to be seen from a block away. 

It's hard to imagine Gap Inc. embracing the building's unique character by diluting Old Navy's branded architecture, they're not Uniqlo. Perhaps we just need to look at Old Navy's dull impact on the Gallery at Market East. The beast that seemed to keep expanding until it was nearly one of the mall's anchor stores never did much to enhance the street beyond letting you know they were there. In fact, in the last few years, their window displays have gone unadorned with the exception of several signs reading "Old Navy," only occasionally even advertising sales.

Their contribution to the Gallery's facade could have been a unique opportunity to gussy up the bland concrete with something bespoke. Instead they hung the same stock signage they use in strip-malls around the world.

Now sure, you can't compare the Gallery at Market East to Chestnut Street, at least not this year. If Gap Inc. arrives at the WCAU Building with three floors of branded architecture, neighborhood activists will likely speak up. Let's hope so. 

But that doesn't mean they won't try, and they have a precedent to do so. Although Gap and Gap Inc.'s two outlets contribute decently to the sidewalk, they only do so because Gap and Banana Republic's stock design is better suited to the posh streets of this emerging shopping destination. Why should Old Navy be saddled with restrictions any greater than Modell's or Five Below?

The answer, of course, is because Pearl Properties and Old Navy chose the WCAU Building, not one with a facade beleaguered by decades of reinterpretations and neglect. It will be interesting to see how this goes down. 

While very few people can truly call Market East home, thousands of residents showed up with virtual pitchforks and torches when PREIT proposed digital signage on the Gallery, even it's worst walls. With far more eclectic charm and Philadelphia heritage on Chestnut Street, will its residents step up and insure the preservation of the WCAU Building's entire facade, or will they let it slide as Chestnut Street becomes further annexed as our sky scraping downtown's retail hallway?


  1. Hi Wes,

    Minor correction - 1931 for the original construction:

  2. see this and other stories: