Friday, February 27, 2015

Penn's Perry World House

Universities are no stranger to experimental architecture. Academia has the money to burn and the connections to push anything through the approval process. From the College of William and Mary's sunken gardens to everything Drexel built in the 1960s to my first dorm we affectionately dubbed "Kibrini Green" (because that's what it looked like), colleges build things that leave lasting impressions...for better or worse.

Frazer Dorm

Modern architecture has a shelf life of about ten years, sometimes twenty. Erdy-McHenry's monolithic apartment blocks in University City and North Philadelphia may look funky, even kind of cool, now. But they're also foreboding and unfriendly fortresses. That won't age well. But if a building manages to weather a few decades of unpopularity, it eventually earns appreciation in retrospect. 

After all, Philadelphians spent decades demolishing the works of Frank Furness and Willis G. Hale to make way for "clean" glass curtains. City Hall spent some time in architectural detention. But today, people are even beginning to embrace midcentury Brutalism for its artistic uniqueness, however cold. We love retro. It just takes time to get there.

But there are some buildings that will never find their place. And more often than not, these places are the product of universities and governments with the cash to spend on architectural theories that sound better in words than realized brick and mortar. 

And some just don't make any sense whatsoever. 

Perry World House

Construction on the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House has just begun on the campus's beautiful Locust Walk. Its purpose as a meeting place to discuss global issues is unique and innovative, but the building itself, well it doesn't make a lot of sense. Its Locust Walk facade is a clear attempt to juxtapose the humble, existing structure against a modern interpretation. But it falls short of balancing old and new by devouring its host. 

But worse than its overwhelming Locust front, it sprawls meaninglessly northward like the rump of a 1976 AMC Pacer. Architecturally speaking, one thing worse than an ugly building is a building that isn't interesting enough to be ugly. And the only thing worse than that is one that doesn't make sense. The Perry World House drudges up images of houses built by the richest family in a small town: it's trying way too hard to address a very simple need. Penn has the resources to know better. 

Pennovation Center East

On the flip side, Penn nailed the Pennovation Center East recently granted approval just across the Schuylkill River. It not only pays homage to the area's industrial roots, it does so in a wild way. With its crystalline windows emerging horizontally from a brick factory, it takes a simple building and stamps it with a wow factor. Like a Loft District warehouse impregnated by the Cira Centre, it blends styles, eras, and purpose in a perfect balance that the Perry World House missed. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sigma Sound Studios

The Sound of Philadelphia is coming down to make way for Carl Dranoff's towering SLS International Hotel and Residences on South Broad Street. Philadelphia International Records was definitely a Philadelphia institutions, and an American one. But uptown in a forgotten pocket of Center City, perhaps the last pocket to be terraformed by new condos and hotels, Sigma Sound Studios is also no-more. 

BizJournals has the skinny.

The small building that gave us Macho Man and Disco Inferno, the latter a song that never seems to end, has been sold and will be converted into apartments. It isn't clear yet whether the building will simply be renovated, grow, or like the Sound of Philadelphia, demolished for something larger. Sigma Sound Studios isn't a huge building, and in an emerging neighborhood literally steps from City Hall, its redevelopment would likely profit from additional space.

This neighborhood - the place I've called home for almost eight years - is a unique one. It's long-gone warehouses once housed films from studios like Warner Brothers and MGM throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s. But throughout much of the 20th Century, it was also a notorious red light district. Rumor has it, in the early 20th Century, sailors docked on Delaware Avenue were forbidden from walking the streets of what was often called the Furnished Room District, so named for its abundance of flop houses, brothels, and drug dens. 

As late as the early 2000s, XXX book stores occupied Arch Street and loosely named "massage parlors" still play a part in what's left of a neighborhood clinging to its seedy past. Likely because of its history, the district bound by Broad, 11th, Market, and Vine was targeted for reconstruction in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Unfortunately its history - the good, the weird, and the untoward - has been scraped from the historical narrative of Philadelphia with very little record. 

While I'll miss my cheap rent and a garden a stone's throw from City Hall, it will be exciting to see how the neighborhood evolves and how its unique inhabitants choose to remember it. Wedged between the Convention Center and the growing Loft District, change was inevitable. Hopefully it won't soullessly embrace the convention center but also retain a little bit of its heart, however jaded. Things in Philadelphia tend to do just that.

Is Center City our Region's Corporate Hub?

Center City Philadelphia is the architectural and transportation hub of a metropolitan region of more than six million people. Looking at West Market Street, University City, and our rapidly changing skyline, it's easy to assume that - like many cities with a thriving downtown - Center City is also the region's business hub. 

But scattered throughout the suburbs, in King of Prussia, Plymouth Meeting, and along Swedesford Road, are hundreds of unassuming office parks that dominate the region's corporate business market. 

Comcast was smart to take advantage of Center City's centralized location, and with any hope, other tech companies will follow suit. It enables corporations a true cross section of the entire metropolitan area's talent pool. While many in South Jersey may be reluctant to search for jobs in suburbs west of the Delaware River and vice versa, all trains and highways point downtown. 

With construction on a second downtown skyscraper, Comcast has perhaps been thriving from the benefits of a Center City headquarters. Benefitting more than just its local employees, its location also allows business partners from D.C., New York, and Boston easy access to 30th Street Station, and a lively city to embrace when they arrive.

But Comcast may also be banking on the hope that Philadelphia will recognize what companies as successful as Comcast already know: that job candidates take a location under serious consideration.

The "other" Philadelphia
Center City may offer easy access, better restaurants, and a broader range of talent, but it also comes with financial constraints. Job candidates don't just consider commute time and where they'll lunch, they also consider the wage tax. And in Philadelphia, the wage tax is a big consideration. Not only does the city charge commuters an additional 3.7% tax on their income, it charges those who choose to live here almost 4%. 

Companies are in the business of making and saving money. Better employees equal higher profits. While many businesses would spend more money for a location that could easily cater to savvy resources, and more of them, Philadelphia is essentially telling our region's corporate powerhouses to keep their suburban office parks.

At best, the city seems to assume that location is enough. Like a worn billboard from 1999 that reads "if you lived here you'd be home by now," City Hall doesn't seem to understand that business needs are far more dynamic than a catchphrase. 

It's shortsighted and simplistically indicative of the city's decision makers. And with the city's residential base growing and becoming more affluent, Center City runs the risk of becoming a bedroom community for our sprawling suburbs, one synonymous with pricy condos, tax exempt hospitals and universities, and a few token companies asking for tax breaks to stay put.

Of course that isn't unique to Philadelphia. From Seattle to San Francisco to Washington, D.C., American cities are no stranger to suburban islands of e-commerce and technology companies that offer their central cities little more than high rent and new restaurants. 

What is unique to Philadelphia is that it hasn't happened yet. We don't have a Silicone Valley, a Reston or a Redmond, a quasi-independent city born from aging bureaucracy, corruption, and tax burdens. Our largest technology company has embraced Center City, and if the city is willing to embrace what that actually means, Philadelphia could be in a position to offer corporations a rare opportunity that few cities have: a level playing field financially on par with the suburbs, but logistically and geographically unmatched. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Hidden Secrets on Market East

With the world's largest 80s-era McDonald's roof finally coming down on Market East, a little bit of history is seeing light for the first time in decades. 

Most residents probably don't even realize that the two story building on Market East between 11th and 12th wasn't built in the 1980s, but is actually a stump of a building built long, long ago. Once home to Snellenburg's Department Store, the top floors were chopped off a few decades ago and the remaining two floors wrapped in a "modern" skin.

Since then it's been an eyesore along Market East that can only be rivaled by 8th and Market's Disney Hole. 

What once was

With the building being demolished for NREA's mixed-use East Market project, the skin is being removed and architectural elements of the grand department store are slowly being exposed. If you look up along 12th Street you can see brick and concrete once hidden behind the facade. And if you look closely you can see at least one stone column and several carved friezes capping the building's bricked up windows. 

If you want to see it, look soon. Developers likely had no idea there'd be anything worth salvaging from this building so it probably won't last long.

"This Town Needs an Enema"

Philadelphia is changing. For the first time in decades, maybe even a century, we're topping national and international "best of" lists. Buildings are rising, neighborhoods are improving, and national businesses are coming to our front door. We're on the brink of electing a new mayor. We're streamlining civil rights laws. All in all, Philadelphia is becoming one of the best and most relevant cities in the United States.

Of course every time Philadelphia takes a step forward, its worn and tattered sponges start slopping out of City Hall to soak up their piece of the good press. 

Councilman and City Council President, Darrell Clarke, is no exception when it comes to the archetypical politician. He's made a career out of exploiting his voters, stymying productive development in his district, and perhaps worst, not giving a shit what anyone really thinks of him. He's not unique. The sleaziest of sleazy politicos seem numb to their public image. Perhaps they operate under the Kardashian ideal that any press is good press, or maybe they just don't bother Googling their own names. But the audacity and brass balls of our cities most loathed politicians is indicative of personalities completely out of touch with not only their city, but human beings in general. They're borderline sociopathic. 

Philadelphia: Mondays on Fox
Inga Saffron took Clarke to task in a recent article regarding the introduction of a bill stealthily submitted while everyone is focused on the mayoral candidates. As Saffron points out, the bill doesn't look bad on paper. But successful (not to be confused with good) politicians know that bills need to be decorated with bright stickers and scented with potpourri if they stand a chance of passing. Or they just need to be too verbose for anyone to bother reading. 

So what's in the bill? Well, off the cuff it explains why Clarke didn't bother running for mayor. More specifically it reorganizes City Hall to require City Council approval of the city's head of the Office of Planning and Development. Why run for mayor when you can draft your own legislation that essentially grants you so much mayoral power? 

It's hard to understand how some politicians live with themselves. They've either become so detached from the realities of a city that they simply don't see how villainous they're behaving, or they truly are villains. Not to geek out, but at least Gotham's mayor answers to the scrutiny of his actions however evil or unjustified. Our city's worst hide behind dangerous legislature that grants them a pass to the Man Behind the Curtain. 

We have a few good men and women running for mayor this time around, but if Clarke gets his way, there may never be a day in which they are allowed to prove themselves. Our new mayor will be taking the brunt of City Council's decisions with no ability to address the problems they Council will create. Our new mayor won't just be City Council's puppet, they'll be The Whipping Boy standing in for Council's punishment while politicians like Clarke play fast and loose with the future of a city we've worked so hard to fix.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A New Building Boom

Is it 2005 again? We haven't seen any proposal as whacky as Winka Dubbeldam's Unknot Tower, but corporations are reaching new heights, and developers are treading into new neighborhoods.

Three are sure bets: Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center, University City's FMC Tower, and 1919 Market Street are all under construction. 

Comcast Innovation and Technology Center

But there are even more that seem on the brink of becoming reality. It appears that prep work has begun on the W Hotel at 15th and Chestnut, a hotel likely wishing it had started a bit sooner considering the upcoming Papal visit in 2015 and the 2016 Democratic National Convention. With that said, we can probably expect some more hotel proposals on par with the Hilton Home2 (prefabricated and quickly constructed) cropping up around the city.

Nonetheless, ample construction in the background of international news coverage will make Philadelphia look alive and every bit as relevant as any major American city. 

SLS International Hotel and Residences

NREA's East Market on the Girard Trust Block has cleared all but the world's largest 80s-era McDonald's roof for its mixed use complex that stands to redefine Market East. 

Along the Vine Street Expressway, private developers are bridging the gap between Center City and neighborhoods north in ways that caps and parks never could: by building tall and monumental. Chinatown's Eastern Tower is rumored to be ready for prep work within two months. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been working steadily on its Mormon Temple, begun work on its community center, and seems ready and able to begin their apartment tower at 1601 Vine Street any day. 

CHoP expansion

And those are just the buildings we know we'll probably see. There are a slew of others in various planning stages, some of them approved for construction. 

Carl Dranoff's SLS International Hotel and Residences would take South Broad Street to new heights and set a new bar for luxury living in Center City. Tom Scannapieco's luxury condo tower at 5th and Walnut would provide Independence Hall with an additional backdrop. Both have been approved.

Stantec's MIC Tower could be topping Lit Brother's new digital signage. CHoP has been clearing land along Schuylkill Avenue for its Grey's Ferry expansion next to the South Street Bridge.

1601 Vine Street

And all of that is roughly in and around Center City. University City itself is experiencing a renaissance it hasn't really seen since Penn and Drexel's westward expansion. This time they're building up and the result is starting to look a lot like Center City's twin. To a lesser extent the same can be said of North Broad and Temple University's vertical projects. Anchoring the opposite side of Broad Street, Bart Blatstein has some plans for Broad and Washington that could turn this long-vacant and should-be prominent intersection into a destination.

When I moved to Philadelphia more than ten years ago, it was the Philadelphia I remembered from my teens, one I hadn't seen since 1994. It was gritty, surreal, weird, and all those wonderful things that make the northeast a bizarrely epic place to live. It still is gritty, surreal, and weird. But coming from DC, watching the building boom of the early 21st Century was something I'd never seen before. DC is impressive, but stumpy. Philadelphia was visually exciting. And our recent boom seems like it's about to get even more exciting. 

FMC Tower

And luckily for us, new residents flocking to our city seem to be embracing Philadelphia for what it is, with or without shiny new skyscrapers. We haven't been terraformed as Brooklyn 2.0, we haven't been (completely) overrun with "Basics" sucking down bottomless mimosas on Sunday afternoon. Philadelphia is still weird, and not in the "Keep Portland Weird" campaign kind of weird. We're weird in the way Philadelphia was weird when a bunch of treasonous atheists declared independence from the most powerful nation in the western world 238 years ago. 

Eastern Tower

The 2015 building boom isn't the result of transplants transforming our city, it's the result of a city attracting transplants that are helping Philadelphia realize what it's always been: a Great City. And unlike the building boom a decade ago that aesthetically redefined the skylines of cities from Miami to Seattle, Philadelphia is doing it with purpose and homegrown spirit. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"People love their cars"

In 1974, Seattle had a dream: to build a modern, underground rapid transit network. The city sits on top of an eerily hollow underground, the end result of reconstruction following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Although its catacombs were not incorporated into its transit tunnel, the city's unique infrastructure provided room underground that many cities lack. 

Construction on Seattle's downtown transit tunnel began in 1987, but it wouldn't see trains for twenty years. Prior to that, the city relied on busses that had utilized the tunnel since its opening in 1989.


Politics 101.

In the aptly located 1992 movie, Singles, Tom Skerritt's Mayor Weber character sums up the political attitude towards rail transit perfectly, "I've been burned by this train business before...people love their cars." Likely a nod to a real Seattle running busses through its subway tunnel, it captures the political attitude towards trains. 

So what exactly is the political problem with rail transit, particularly subways? Why have cities chosen to embrace busses, or at best, light rails and trolleys, rather than putting their trains underground and out of sight? How had the fictional Mayor Weber been burned by the "train business"?

Because politics is rarely about creating the best city, it's about bettering a city in a way that makes our decision makers look good. 

Closer to home, we have at least six things that will make you scratch your head. From Passyunk Avenue to Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia built several subway lines that never saw a train. Additionally, the abandonment of the Reading Terminal Viaduct and the City Branch line removed transportation opportunities from Spring Garden, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Brewerytown, and Strawberry Mansion.

Let's use it.

The defunct City Branch line is perhaps the most baffling, namely because the tunnel and right-of-way remain in tact from Center City to northwest neighborhoods of the city. Reopening the line would be a game changer for struggling neighborhoods north of Brewerytown along Ridge Avenue, neighborhoods just about to pop on their own. 

But it's not that City Hall and SEPTA underestimate the value rail transit, it's that politicians understand how little it means to their career. I couldn't tell you how much reopening the City Branch line would cost, but I have to imagine its on par with some of the other proposals the city is seriously considering, like capping I-95 for a park. Still, the word "train" terrifies politicians and decision makers. 

I certainly can't downplay the benefits of parks. They raise property value and benefit neighborhoods and the city. But so does transportation, and if managed properly, subways can pay for themselves. For the City Branch line, ready-built and begging for trains, such logic is a no-brainer. But to decision makers employed by votes, parks are the infrastructural equivalent of a photo-op with someone's baby. Parks are pretty, they're visible, and they're relatively quick and easy to pull off. 

A subway is seen as a pricy gamble and the lines can take a while to build. They're long term investments. Politicians don't like to get behind projects that might not come to fruition until they're long gone from office, passing on the ribbon cutting to a mayor ten years from now. But in Philadelphia, politicians are just bending to a thought process that doesn't apply here. We have a subway line that could be easily reopened without interrupting traffic and without excavation. 

Another Comcast Tower?

With initial plans to lease part of the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center to other businesses, Comcast has decided to keep the entire building to itself. Meanwhile, nearby, Liberty Property Trust has been purchasing and consolidating a neighboring block for what some are speculating may become a third Comcast tower.

It's not hard to imagine. The cable giant is a force, and if its merger with Time Warner goes through may necessitate more hometown office space. It also has the disposable cash to pull it off. As a major American powerhouse, Comcast could have easily set up shop in Manhattan, but they didn't chose Philadelphia solely for our pretzels. Land is affordable and talent is cheap, at least by comparison. 

A Comcast spokesperson told BizJournals it has no current plans to build a third tower, but similar comments were made during Comcast Center's construction.


On a related note, check out Comcast's slideshow of the new CITC. Notice anything unusual in the first rendering? The Mellon Building and Liberty Place aren't hiding behind Comcast, they've been edited out. Oh, Comcast. 

Monday, February 9, 2015


If didn't completely kill the term "jawn" with it's "There's No Jawn Like Home" billboards, My Fox Philly sure did. The ad campaign is actually cute, and like a lot of what comes from, the group doesn't just know the city, it loves it.

But like "hizzy" and "flippity floppity floop," suits tend to ruin slang. But that hasn't stopped the word from going viral a good decade or two after its first utterance. 

In the latest, "aww, how cute" moment, Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance have hashtagged "thisjawnmatters" to encourage pedestrians to look up at the built world around them. 

The group's Facebook page is insatiably hip.

Most recently the group gathered to decorate the infamous Hale Building at Chestnut and Juniper, the former location of Drucker's Bellevue Baths and Valu-Plus, designed by the Divine Lorraine's Willis G. Hale. 

The campaign cute.

The building, on the other hand, is a monolith of iconoclastic architectural elements that forebodes, inspires, and terrifies anyone willing to crane their next to the slightest degree. 

In short, #youbetyourassthisjawnmatters.

Construction paper hearts were draped across the gate of the shuttered Valu-Plus with phrases like "Save Me," "Look Up," and of course, "#thisjawnmatters". It's refreshing that the city's youth (god I hate writing that) have taken an interest in our architectural heritage, and it's nice that the Preservation Alliance has embraced them.

Still, being cute only gets you so far. It sells tickets to shows, cupcakes, even works for But when it comes to abandoned blight, it's going to take more than the end result of an Etsy party to save the Hale Building. And anyone in a position to save it, already knows that it's there. 

Impossible not to look up

Engaging the cities hippest works (somewhat) with campaigns like Unlitter Us, it creates community gardens, and it can even corral a few votes here and there. But the Preservation Alliance isn't necessarily in the business of being hip, nor should it be. Their catalog of threatened properties need costly intervention. 

Pop-media attention doesn't hurt, in fact it might encourage the Historical Commission to take their jobs a little more seriously. It might.

Whatever the case, it's delightful to see Millennials engaging in preservation - in their own way. It's one more party, many of whom are new to the city, proving that Philadelphia is more than just a place to live, but a living and evolving resident made of bricks and mortar.

Monday, February 2, 2015

1900 Walnut's Next Owners

Every great city has one park that's held above all others. Central Park seemed to set the bar, and although Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square was laid out a century and a half earlier, the architecture that surrounds it is clearly Philadelphia's Manhattan. 

It's missing one thing, though: a lack of vacant lots. In its northwest corner is a fenced off parcel with a rogue portrait of a cow facing its green meadow. It's blight. And it's blight that sits on what is likely the most valuable piece of property in Center City.

Don't ask me what was once there. Locals have their folklore about the site. It was a mansion. No, row homes. Maybe an apartment building? I can't find information on its history. If you remember what was there, feel free to comment below. I'm curious.

But I'm even more curious why 10 Rittenhouse and Anthropologie were allowed to hollow-out two historic buildings for what amounts to a numeric address, while 1900 Walnut has been passed around to global developers like an aging Vegas prostitute. 

At the edge of the condo boom in 2007 it was purchased by Ireland's Castleway Properties. A few years ago Toll Brothers expressed an interest in building a McSkyscraper on the site. Just kidding. Toll Brothers, largely mocked for their neoclassical suburban monstrosities, has actually managed to pull off some handsome, urban projects. 

For whatever reason, they lost interest in 1900 Walnut and we once again forgot it was there. 

Rumors started filling up the message boards when workers were seen drilling on the L-shaped lot last week. And has the answer.

Southern Land of Nashville has agreed to purchase the land for $30M, $40M is it can negotiate the right to build something denser than current zoning allows. 

While that sounds hopeful, BizJournal is repotting that Southern Land is shopping around for a partner to throw in 90% of the development cost. So unless someone's ready foot most of the bill for this ambitious project, Southern Land might just be the developer babysitting this mysteriously vacant lot.