Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Other Center City

Shortly after I moved to Philadelphia, ground broke on the Cira Centre. I was living in a modest studio apartment in University City and coming from DC, my impression of a skyline was Arlington, VA or college road trips to Richmond. Needless to say, Philadelphia wowed me. But still, as Cira Centre rose, I thought, "What?? A skyscraper in West Philadelphia??"

After Cira Centre grew synonymous with 30th Street Station and the west bank of the Schuylkill River, developers throughout University City became less shy about building vertically. Today, from Belmont Plateau, Philadelphia's skyline is as dramatic west of the Schuylkill as it is east of the Aramark Tower. 

For years, proposals for Cira Center South, even Cira Centre North were floated. They were fun to look at but seemed like a dream. We were sure that University City would never grow taller than Cira Centre. 

But with the FMC Tower, part of the Cira Centre South we never thought we'd see, one of "Philadelphia's tallest" will be west of the Schuylkill. And that's significant.

Let's face it, skyscrapers are built to make a statement. Working in one is a laborious hassle if your day is full of meetings. Once a building exceeds 300 feet, you can easily spend several hours a day in elevator banks. FMC Corporation needed space, sure. But its landlord, Liberty Property Trust, encouraged FMC to relocate to the yet-to-be-built Cira Centre South because Liberty knows University City is open for business, and they want other businesses to take note. 

And take note they will. Amtrak commuters from DC, Wilmington, and all points south will be greeted by FMC's crystalline skyscraper, backdropped by our growing Center City skyline. But what's more interesting than our growing Center City - the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center, 1919 Market, East Market, and the LDS Church's residences on Vine - is University City's true introduction into Philadelphia's skyline.

We're no longer a city bound by two rivers, we're a city straddling the Schuylkill. 

University City office space now costs more than office space in Center City, and University City continues to grow. And for good reason. University City is easily accessible by regional rail, the Market Street El, and the surface trolleys. It's also right on the Schuylkill Expressway, Baltimore Avenue, and Market Street, and chock full of parking. While that doesn't bode well for New Jersey; the Main Line, Upper Darby, and Media are essentially in University City's backyard. That's a lot of people. And they don't have to pay a toll to get here.

What's ever better, it doesn't seem that businesses are trading Center City for University City. With the exception of the FMC Corporation, University City is rising on its own, either growing its current base or attracting new. 

With ample sites for future development, low NIMBY intervention, and a precedent to build taller, University City's skyline may challenge Center City's in ten years or so. Imagine a complex on par with Liberty Place occupying the surface lot at 38th and Market. Now imagine what that would look like from Fairmount Park. 

As residents of Philadelphia, it's easy to discount University City. It's full of college kids. It's not "local." And perhaps that's why it's growing so rapidly. Unfettered with local politics and fueled by academic cash, University City is growing in isolation, and doing so at a fantastic rate. But while locals may be ignoring much of the growth west of the Schuylkill, the growth isn't ignoring us. 

From Drexel's proposed Innovation Neighborhood, plans floating to cap the railroad tracks north of 30th Street Station, and University City's hospital district, University City is organically growing as an extension of Center City's gridded urbanity. Pedestrianization has always been key, and development is seamlessly integrated into the streets leading to the bridges that connect University City to Philadelphia's core. 

It's exciting, and to more seasoned Philadelphians, perhaps a bit scary. Development has begun to snowball, and in a good way. As for University City, sure, it still contains a swell of college students between 30th and 40th Streets, but the way that swell is being developed is bridging West Philadelphia's residential neighborhoods with Center City. 

Once inner-burbs of Philadelphia, neighborhoods like Spruce Hill and Powelton Village are going to soon find themselves part of the cohesive, walkable fabric of Greater Center City. And that truly is a great thing.

Philadelphia's Own Ralph Roberts

Say what you will about Comcast, with the passing of its founder, Philadelphia has lost a legend. At 95, Ralph Roberts was Philadelphia's Steve Jobs. Raised in Germantown, educated at Wharton, and stationed at the Navy Yard during World War II, Roberts' presence in Philadelphia wasn't incidental.

Philadelphia was Roberts' home, and throughout the decades a major source of his philanthropy. But between all of his contributions to his city, none amount to his decision to keep Comcast headquartered in Center City. Comcast Center didn't just redefine our skyline, it redefined our city. Prior to its dominant presence, Center City Philadelphia wasn't a national name. Despite our humble collection of skyscrapers, few outside the tristate area really knew what Philadelphia was "about." Center City - our downtown - was a collection of office buildings promptly closing their doors at five on Friday. To those who worked in Old City or King of Prussia or Cherry Hill, Center City was essentially a vertically elevated, nondescript office park. 

Comcast Center changed that. With an arm reaching coast to coast and everywhere in between, 17th and JFK is full of the hustle and bustle synonymous with Midtown Manhattan. Harried consultants from Dallas and Chicago and Portland rush from full hotels, wheeled suitcases in hand, to play their part in the Philadelphia rat-race while New Yorkers flood Acela trains south to do the same. Many of them are relocating here, growing our population and changing our city.

Ralph Roberts' investment in Center City irreversibly changed our city, and for so much of the good press we've received in the past years, we have Comcast to thank. 

But does Roberts' passing signal a new era for the cable giant, one that has grown into a multimedia conglomerate with the transparent aspiration of being a power player in the information technologies game? With Ralph Roberts, Jr. still at the helm, Comcast remains a family owned company. 

This new era has seemingly been in the works for years. Ever since acquiring NBC-Universal and donning the Comcast logo with NBC's rainbow peacock, Comcast has been more than just a cable company. While the conglomerate has yet to fully integrate its parts, its ambition is evident. 

The Comcast Innovation and Technology Center promises to inject Comcast into the technologies arena. But to date, its mission is unclear. Will Comcast be bridging the gap between Philadelphia and the Silicone Valley? Will the Innovation and Technology Center be a vertical lab for software and hardware geeks to toil away on endlessly funded R&D? Will the driverless car come from 18th and Arch? Or will Comcast stick to its rigid profit-first analytical stance that resists the urge to invest in anything that can't be bundled into a sale? Will the Innovation and Technology Center simply innovate improvements and copies of the real tech coming off the west coast? 

As a geek, I hope for the former. But the latter will still be a boon for an already booming Center City. Still, to imagine Comcast bringing innovation back to the east coast, back to the Workshop of the World where American innovation began, fills me with binary-coded glee. And why shouldn't they take the risk? Unlike thriving startups throughout the Bay Area and the Cascade Valley, Comcast has more money than they know what to do with. They have the cash to do more than reinvent Netflix or offer us home security. 

They could be investing in truly effective mobile cable or wireless power. As effective and powerful as Comcast currently is, they successfully follow while they could be boldly leading us into the unknown. The Silicone Valley may be known for laptops, smartphones, and software, but their research has grown far beyond our screens and into artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and is redefining the once un-redefinable: the American auto industry. 

In Comcast's new era, the company that wants to fancy itself on par with Google should be looking at what Google is doing behind the scenes, and it should be grabbing a piece of that and taking it a step further. Comcast has plenty of well groomed suits to bring in heaps of profits, but that means nothing to a future that won't need cable internet. It's time to start spending money on the hoodie wearing nerds who are building our future from suburban San Francisco and Seattle, and bringing them to Center City.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is Blatstein Done with Philadelphia?

Has Bart Blatstein - the man behind Northern Liberties' Piazza and Tower Investments, the developer who was allegedly planning to transform the vacant lot at Broad and Washington into more than 1000 apartments - given up on Philadelphia?

Not long ago he had conceived of the vacant Inquirer Building as a hotel and casino and an abandoned PECO power plant along the Delaware as a destination resort.

But in a recent Huffington Post article, Blatstein seems to imply that his days in Philadelphia - or development in general - may be coming to a close. It's no secret he's been spending time focused on his planned investment in Atlantic City. The town is in trouble and could use an injection of creativity, perhaps the kind of dynamic intervention that transformed Northern Liberties. It's also no secret that Bart Blatstein has a house nearby in Margate, NJ. 

Could he be cashing out and going home?

He told the Huffington Post that he views Atlantic City as his "last hurrah," one the Post referred to as "his last chance to make a mark in an urban area." Those remarks may mean little to the Post's New York and New Jersey readers, but it says a lot about Philadelphia and Blatstein's plans for his portfolio of prime lots and vacant icons here. 

If he's done, it's odd that he ditched the momentum. Tower Place helped bring North Broad Street back to life, an avenue that's about to boom with the renovation of the Divine Lorraine. Renovating his Inquirer Building would have been a logical next-step in Blatstein's reign over Broad Street, one that could have been bookended at Broad and Washington, bankrolled by his success on North Broad. 

If he really is finished with Philadelphia, let's hope his properties change hands quickly and smoothly, and fall in the lap of someone ambitious. The lot at Broad and Washington and the Inquirer Building aren't your average urban meadow and North Philly shell, they're significant sites that need serious maintenance, even when vacant. 

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.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Boyd's Next Chapter

If you thought the Boyd Theater, or at least its remains, was about to fade into dull obscurity, guess again. This is, after all, Philadelphia. Locals fight tooth and nail over vacant lots atop unused piers, scream "shadows!" at prominent intersections prepping for high-rises. Few projects pass the first round, even the second or third, without facing a litany of lawyers, design reviews, and community concerns. And that's just in the nether regions. 

Rittenhouse Square, on the other hand, well you better hope for an Act of Congress - or God - if you want to break ground. For years, Live Nation and Pearl Properties have been putting their chess pieces in place to redevelop the Boyd Theater, first as a modern theater with an Art Deco apartment building, and now with some dull retail and less than desirable residences. 

All too often, neighborhood organizations - NIMBYs - are an unwarranted thorn in the process of progress. But the redevelopment of the Boyd site is not progress. Our neglectful Historical Commission allowed the historic auditorium to be demolished amid false implications that it would be replaced with something befitting the site's history. When the wrecking ball hit, the plans changed, and the city was presented with a design that looks more like creatively sheathed student housing than anything befitting one of the nation's greatest city's greatest address.

But something unique has happened and Inga Saffron, ever vigilantly crusading against the "it's better than nothing" philosophy, has the scoop. As Saffron points out, and as we've seen dozens of times in the past, neighborhood organizations typically lawyer up in the face of mediocrity. While a bevy of lawyers can stall projects for years, or even indefinitely, all to often we ultimately wind up with the status quo. Our selective memories have a short half-life, and when buildings like the Boyd fall, developers only have to wait for the vast majority of us to forget what we were ever fighting for. 

Perhaps neighbors of the Boyd have recognized the ineffectuality of the courtroom, or perhaps they're just so pissed off at what happened to the historic Boyd Theater, that they've finally designed to turn the game on its side. 

Neighbor Richard Gross decided to use the neighborhood's cash fueled passion to enter the design game, offering architects at Cecil Baker a number in the "low five figures" to either consult with Pearl Properties and Eimer Architecture, or come up with a better design altogether. What will happen with this unprecedented course of action remains to be seen. Pearl Properties reluctantly agreed to enter an agreement with Gross and his neighbors.

I don't know what construction-ready plans cost for a high-rise apartment with a retail component attached to a one hundred year old theater lobby, but I would imagine that $10-$14K would get you very little. If Gross manages to woo Cecil Baker - a deal that has yet to be made - it's possible that the firm will act as a consultant to Pearl and Eimer. But in an industry with no shortage of ego, it has to be quite a blow to find that neighbors are willing to pay out-of-pocket to fix your subpar design. 

Perhaps if Eimer walks, or is fired, the neighborhood's contribution will simply supplement Cecil Baker's total bill. It's uncharted territory and anyone's guess.

What is just as interesting as the concept - and maybe even as uneasy - is the precedent it sets. It doesn't necessarily tell other neighborhood organizations to pony up the cash for better design, but it does tell a less-than-stellar Historical Commission that some residents are willing to resolve the mistakes made by the city.

In a perfect world that would be a strong message, one where the Commission realizes that they failed to do their job, the job of representing the best interest of the city and its history. But in Philadelphia, city operated agencies are better versed in excuses than resolutions and the chip on the city's collective shoulder can take unsolicited criticism as a personal attack. 

It will be interesting to see how this new chapter in the Boyd drama unfolds. On one hand, a neighborhood organization has finally decided to step outside the box, proactively instead of reactively. That doesn't mean we won't wind up with dull infill at 19th and Chestnut, but it does show moxy. What is perhaps most important will be what the Historical Commission decides to do with this new coarse of action. I guess we'll find out sometime next week when they receive the telegram.

Monday, June 15, 2015


Are you tired of renting a ZipCar every time you want to go to Target? Ever since Kmart closed on Market East, Center City's been devoid of any large discounter. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you know where to look, Philadelphia is still chock full of local markets selling cheap paper towels and kitty litter. But given Philadelphia's popularity explosion, it's surprising that a name like Target has yet to grace Center City, even University City. 

Well, fret no more. TargetExpress will be opening at the former Boyd next summer, Pearl Property's once-ugly, now-too-boring-to-be-ugly, proposed redevelopment of the historic theater's site. Personally I'm not a fan of Target. Not because they don't have cool stuff. They have very cool stuff, and they're great at making me buy it. That's why I'm not a fan. I go in looking for nails and come out with a lamp, some bath soaps, a few superhero t-shirts...and oops, I forgot the nails, so I go back in to take a look at those hip barstools I saw.

Jest aside, the scaled presence of this TargetExpress sounds like a hybrid between Walgreens and a full-size Target, so it will likely not include home furnishings and clothing. Strategically between West Market's office workers, densely packed Rittenhouse Square, and convenient to University City, 19th and Chestnut is a smart location. 

Still, a TargetExpress is a far cry from what the Boyd Theater once was, and what we were all-but promised its redevelopment would become. A discount department store, even a miniaturized incarnation of one, is about as far as we can get from a luxury movie theater and a towering Art Deco apartment building. 

And still no word on the Boyd's Art Deco lobby.

Lincoln Square

When you think of Broad and Washington, you probably think of the large vacant lot that used to host Cirque du Soleil once a year. And then didn't. For now, Tower Investments wants to build lots of apartments on the space. LOTS. But beyond some sketchy renderings and a few talks, not much has been released.

Meanwhile there's another vacant lot across the street, nearly as large, that's largely been ignored. Today, Naked Philly posted plans for redevelopment that includes a rumored mixed use complex by Toll Brothers called Lincoln Square.

Just a massing concept and site plan thus far, Lincoln Square's relatively low-rise project likely won't ruffle any community feathers, except of course those opposed to everything. Despite being synonymous with suburban McMansions and Grey's Ferry's arguably successful Naval Square, Toll Brothers has been inching its way into the urban game. With no sprawling parking lot or gated walls, it seems like Toll Brothers gets urbanism with Lincoln Square. 

The stretch of Broad Street between South Street and Washington Avenue has been a troubling obstacle for developers who've been trying to urbanized the unfortunately suburban strip. Where Center City ends, surface parking lots and suburbanized fast food restaurants begin, only to become urban again at Washington Avenue. Conflicts between neighborhood organizations and developers have routinely called for less height, yet the intersection's prominent position begs developers to aim tall and dense, and for profits.

Lincoln Square - if Toll Brothers is serious - might just be the catalyst Tower Development needs to get back in the Philadelphia game. Geographically this corner is Greater Center City and urbanizing an entire block of it would help bridge the gap between South Broad's Center City and its South Philadelphia. 

The historic train shed that sets within the Toll Brothers block is not part of the property, or the plan, but it has been salvaged in the rendering. A hopeful sign that there may be future plans to incorporate it in some way. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Sixth Borough

As more and more transplants make Philadelphia their home, more and more transplants are altering the Philadelphia that once was. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Philadelphia isn't a boutique city, it's a force, quickly becoming an international one. But it is a city that clings to tradition - for better or worse. 

Now it's true, I am a transplant myself. I moved here for the same reason many have relocated to Philadelphia. Priced out of Washington, D.C. by rising rent and the bust, Philadelphia was a nearby and affordable slice of urbanity. But I had always had a fascination with Philadelphia. I didn't just move here because it was convenient, I moved here because it was time to live in the city I had always loved. 

In 2004, before Comcast was both synonymous with cable and our skyline, there was little national interest in Philadelphia. It was both wonderful and frustrating. Getting friends to visit was like pulling teeth. "If I'm going to go to Philadelphia, why not just go to New York?" Oh, the hell of living in the shadow of Manhattan. It's interesting to wonder, were Philadelphia isolated in the midwest, would be we on par with Chicago, or Indianapolis? 

The burden of coolness-proof lies on us, and that sucks. But in a way we do profit from our proximity to New York City and D.C., as much as any other city in America's Megalopolis feeds off one another, including New York and D.C. themselves. After all, the National Aquarium is not in D.C., it's in Baltimore. The Redskins play in Maryland, and the Giants in New Jersey. 

The Northeast Corridor isn't two cities surrounded by Dredd-style suburban and urban sprawl, it's a hive of cities, a collection of residents, unlike anywhere else in the world. And Philadelphia, as much as it benefits from New York and D.C., has a reciprocal relationship with both of those cities and others. 

So why then, won't "The Sixth Borough" die? Perhaps because the moniker is much older than most think. Philadelphia Speaks' user, OffenseTaken, posted a clip from an 1882 article that referred to Philadelphia as a "Suburb of New York." While the 19th Century article continues with the same sense of New York's ballyhooed self-worth that carries on today, it also recognizes that, over a century ago, Philadelphians were equally frustrated by the sentiment. "The above statement should not be a pleasant one for a Philadelphian to contemplate," said The Record of Growth.

At least for now, Philadelphia is not included within the New York Statistical Metropolitan Area. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Baltimore. Although almost exactly the same size both geographically and in population, Baltimore is largely considered a suburb of Washington, D.C. One will hope, in time, the merit of each city within the northeast corridor will be in its productivity, not its population or height. In an increasingly remote-access marketplace, the Megalopolis is going to continue to grow from Boston to D.C., even from Portsmouth, NH to Portsmouth, VA. 

We are not, and never have been New York's Sixth Borough, any more than Hoboken or Norfolk, VA. We're a productive cog in the world's largest organic machine, and we're returning to our roots as an international powerhouse. That's all that matters. I'll pass on the "Sixth Borough" t-shirt, and opt for the one that says "The Workshop of the World." 

Boyd Site Redesign Offers Less of the Same

Last month the Philadelphia Historical Commission sent Pearl Properties back to the drawing board for its mixed use complex at 19th and Chestnut. Pearl must have misunderstood the reason their original design wasn't approved, because their redesign - if you can call it that - appears to be the same building with its bland-filter turned up.

What was proposed last month wasn't great, especially compared to the Art Deco rendering of an apartment tower we were led to believe would be flanking this prominent corner. Instead, its tower was pushed back to Sansom Street while a dull retail component sidled up to the Boyd Theater's head-house. Interestingly, in both renderings, Pearl ignores what is its most interesting component: the corpse of the Boyd Theater. 

Almost as if Pearl doesn't want anyone to ask what will happen of the theater's grand lobby, it pixelates into the background with something that looks like a store called Vivace. Perhaps hoping to grab some street-cred with a Versace implication, it really just implies that the Boyd's lobby will not serve as the lobby to its residential component, or as a lobby at all. Instead, we might assume, the lobby will be chopped up into another small-box retailer like the drugstore across the street or so many other once-theater-lobbies in Philadelphia. 

And what about the new elements? If this were a design competition and Pearl given a second chance, we'd see a wildly different and more dynamic design. It's easy, although shortsighted, to assume that the Historical Commission rejected Pearl's initial design because the complex is replacing something astounding, an astounding demolition that the Commission did approve. In its place, at best, should be a concession, something that at least tries to replace what was lost.

But this isn't a competition, it's bureaucracy and Pearl is dancing with the city. What seems to have happened leading up to the Boyd's demolition appears to be continuing right under the idealistic noses of the city's preservationists. As the Boyd traded hands, or appeared to trade hands, owners and speculators seemed to be laying down groundwork that would insure that the ultimate outcome would be extraordinarily profitable at the expense of preservation, or the architectural best interest of the site. 

Live Nation got a hardship exemption to demolish the Boyd's auditorium, then Neil Rodin all-but promised it would be replaced with an even more lavish cinema experience. Meanwhile, Pearl pitched a glorious high-rise for the corner of 19th and Chestnut. The triad had satisfied everyone, albeit with much public reluctance. But right before the Boyd's roof was ripped off, Rodin backed out, Pearl quietly exited the movie theater business, and the chaos exposed itself as a perfectly orchestrated project plan.

A plan that has left us with no hope that Pearl's mixed use plan for 19th and Chestnut will ever be anything more than the lowest common denominator. Despite its unimpressive facades and configurations, the layout makes absolute, commercial sense. The low rise retail component will face 19th and Chestnut, its most heavily trafficked intersection, while its mid rise apartment tower will sit on Sansom, likely above a parking podium, where nothing notable will be seen from the street. 

It's ugly, but this isn't a building designed to impress or win awards. It was always a heavily commercial endeavor. We'll never know for sure if this was Pearl's plan all along, but it's clear that preservationists and the more clueless Historical Commission were duped by Live Nation, Neil Rodin, and Pearl Properties. The only piece that seems to be still up for debate, the piece we should be primarily focused on, is ironically the only piece left that matters: the Boyd Theater's grand lobby. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Another Lynnewood Hall

During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the northeast and its countrysides were the playground for America's wealthy industrialists. From Newport's Breakers to Lynnewood Hall, the tycoons of the Industrial Revolution built the modern palaces of the United States. Unfortunately, like the countless castles erected across Europe centuries before the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers were household names, some didn't survive and others have been left to nature. 

Nearby Philadelphia, Horace Trumbauer's Lynnewood Hall awaits uncertainty. Faced with politicos who've suggested razing the historic mansion for a shopping mall, a real estate market with no demand for a 70,000 square-foot fixer-upper, and no philanthropist stepping forward with heaps of cash, Lynnewood Hall may fall.

When I was a kid in rural Virginia, I was always fascinated with architecture. Particularly the palatial estates of the Gilded Age. My hometown - population 210 - was full of modestly sized, yet still elaborate plantation homes. Prior to the Civil War, these would have likely been large tobacco farms. Just as the North dominated industry, the South was its farming equivalent. 

The Civil War eviscerated the South's farming communities, and rightfully so. Whereas many of the North's elite weathered the war, building bigger and bigger prior to the Great Depression, the plantations in the South faced the Reconstruction Era or their own devices. Reconstruction largely targeted the South's war ravaged cities - Atlanta and Richmond - while those in the rural areas, particularly the Appalachian Mountains hunkered down and clung to the past.

Well into the 1980s, I remember these places. They were the homes of my classmates and teachers, descendants more than a century removed from the Civil War and the unbridled and sinister opulence that preceded it, frozen in time. Decrepit oak trees lines the long drives to these estates, flanking grand white columns or porticos. Cracked oil paintings of unnamed ancestors lined the walls of ancient parlors decorated with a mix of antiquities and furnishings from big-box department stores. Untouched and faded, they smelled of musty newspapers and untreated wood. Not bad, just aging. 

Since then many have changed hands to find new life. As my peers left their farms for cities like Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Norfolk, their parents had abandoned the burden of 100 year old plumbing and rusty window units. The dot-com boom of the 1990s reinvented Northern Virginia, enabling a new era of industrialists seeking lavish amenities from the past and the quiet of the country. The Shenandoah Valley's abundance and accessibility of affordable panache drove countless restoration projects. 

Once marred by struggling small towns, Virginia's western edge is now a collection of boutique villages surrounded by grand estates, both new and old, vacation homes for a new generation that knows nothing of the region's past. But New Money will someday be Old Money, and today will someday be history. Perhaps that's the idea that drives preservation. 

Yet where the most livable of historic places find new life with ease, it's those most deserved of salvation that struggle the most. Lynnewood Hall is a prime example. In the Shenandoah Valley, or at its edge, is a similarly unfortunate story, one few even know exists. 

Swannanoa, designed by Baskerville & Noland, was built atop Afton Mountain by Richmond philanthropist, James H. Dooley. Built in 1912 as a retreat for Dooley and his wife, Sallie, Swannanoa is every bit as lavish as Lynnewood Hall, but also carries with it a storied and very personal history. 

More than 300 artisans spent eight years perfecting the mansion complete with gilded fixtures, stained-glass Tiffany windows, and a domed ceiling with a portrait of Mrs. Dooley. The retreat, according to James Dooley, was a symbol of the love he and Sallie had for one another. 

Swannanoa was only occupied briefly following its completion. After the death of Mr. Dooley in 1924, and then his wife in 1926, it was passed to his sisters who quickly sold the retreat to the Valley Corporation of Richmond. Since then it served as a country club during Prohibition, one that purportedly distilled the best moonshine in the region. During World War II the Navy considered purchasing the mansion as a place to interrogate prisoners of war. Then, and for much of its life, the Valley Corporation leased it to Walter Russell and the University of Science and Philosophy. 

Education is often a good avenue for restoration, or at least adaptive reuse. But the University of Science and Philosophy was more cult than college. When I toured the house in high school we were forced to watch a promotional video about Russell's University, a video very similar to those used to propagate Scientology. Nonetheless, the video guaranteed a well earned tour which was every bit as astounding as you'd suspect. But unlike the restored Breakers or Biltmore Estate, Swannanoa shared the same quirky, lived-in characteristics of so many plantation homes throughout the Shenandoah Valley in the 1980s and 90s. 

Marble floors and columns were accompanied by modular tables and folding chairs, and boxes upon boxes of University paperwork. Modern file cabinets stood haphazardly against wood carvings and priceless works of art. The bizarre juxtaposition between the ultimate dedication of Dooley's love for Sallie and Russell's religious ideology made it much more interesting than an intricately restored house museum. It wasn't only authentic, it represented both its Gilded Age history as well as a history not yet in textbooks. It was weird, and it was real.

Outside, the expansive grounds are overgrown and crumbling. Shrubbery is unkempt, its fountains are dry, and the statuary - whether dedicated to the gods of ancient democracy or modern capitalism - weathered by the sands of time. 

J. F. Dulaney, Jr. now owns the property and offers occasional tours of the first floor. There are tentative plans to convert the mansion into a bed-and-breakfast and it's occasionally rented out for weddings. Like Lynnewood Hall, Swannanoa's consistent occupation, however erratic, can largely be credited for its survival. While it has not been completely preserved, the mansion has been maintained. 

Unfortunately preservationists in Virginia, while every bit as historic as the most Colonial parts of Pennsylvania, perhaps even more so, look at their history much the way Philadelphia did in the 1950s and 60s. While we've come to embrace our Furnesses, our Hales, and our Deckers, Virginia continues to neglect anything not synonymous with Colonial History or "Old South." Swannanoa is neither, and while that in itself makes it ever more unique than most of the Commonweath's Presidential landmarks, it - and sites like it - are routinely ignored. 

Swannanoa is currently open two weekends each month throughout this summer, but you'll have to use Google Maps to find it and simply show up. Although Dulaney, Jr. is doing what he can to show the home, no website exists and marketing is minimal. If you've ever wanted to tour Lynnewood Hall and been unable to find a realtor willing to show you a $17M property, I suggest heading about five hours south. You will not be disappointed. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Technology: Friend or Foe? (Ironically from a Google blog)

If you've been watching HBO's Silicone Valley, or even Veep, you've seen just how far software giants' heads are planted up their own ass holes. To put it more diplomatically, for all the useful interfaces and gadgets they provide us with, countless R&D is invested in technologies that prove just how out of touch the Silicone Valley is with the rest of the planet. So out of touch, in fact, that a Stanford lecturer on the subject, Balaji Srinivasan suggested secession from the United States.

Don't let their hip campuses, nap rooms, and socially liberal ideologies fool you. Companies like Google and Apple are every bit as Red as the Reddest, steak chomping oil company.

While advances in technology look good on paper (or in the Cloud), many of which make daily life simpler, information technology is not an altruistic industry. Try to imagine a world before the internet, before cell phones, a world not long ago. Impossible, right? We need these technologies. Silicone Valley has convinced the world that the era before the internet - let's call it "B.I." - was an archaic one akin to a time before automobiles and vaccinations. And in a way it is, because the sycophants lining up for the next iPhone can't imagine life without 4G tethered to their wrist.

I'll tell you what it was like: We made plans. Relationships didn't end via text message. And we knew how to drive with three pedals. And that's where this rant is leading me.

Google's driverless car.

There was a time when no one dared enter the American car industry without a fear of being hostilely taken over, indicted, or dead. Tesla Motors, and the Big Three's engineered incompetence, changed the face of that industry. 

Let's get the superficial out of the way first. Google's driverless car looks like a castrated Disney cartoon, which shouldn't be possible. I don't know what it is with tech-savvy car buyers and their affinity for vehicular eunuchs, but I'd be more inclined to get behind the wheel of a hybrid if every model didn't make it look like my testicles had retreated up inside my body. Don't get me wrong, I'm a tree-hugging liberal, but when it comes to my cars, I'm red meat and scotch. 

But the Google-mobile isn't just ugly, it's disconnected with its market, and even its purpose. It's one thing to relax behind the dashboard of a virtual chauffeur on Interstate 5 or the wide lanes of suburban San Francisco, but try to imagine Google maps navigating the small streets of Philadelphia, New Orleans, or London. Sure, the technology is still being perfected, and in all likelihood, will be. The bigger question is, why?

Is driving such a chore? Maybe to some, but to others it's a privilege and a thrill. When Porsche perfected the automatic transmission and did away with its manual gearbox, they learned that the world's most sought after performance machine was no longer so sought after, and quickly introduced an optional seven-speed. Automotive purists want to be engaged, and there are a lot of us. And nothing is less engaging than a car that drives itself. 

In some capacity, Google's driverless car is going to happen, that's a fact. What remains to be seen is its impact on our ability, even our right, to drive ourselves. Like the automatic transmission, will satellite GPS and remote driving become so perfected that it renders human error a liability. Technology is already encroaching on the manual driving experience through rearview cameras, alerts, and even Progressive's interface that tracks your every move to offer discounts for safe driving. I drove a car last weekend with the technology installed, and Flo screamed at me every time I hit the breaks or made a sharp Ponono turn. A noble endeavor on paper, but when will in-cabin driver surveillance be mandatory? And when will insurance companies not use that data to offer discounts, but to increase rates?

At the end of the day, the automobile is only 140 years old, and a practical one is less than 100. A shift was inevitable, and the inevitability would inevitably come from the Silicone Valley.  But the key point remains: this new technology is not about improving the quality of life, our personal enjoyment, or basic need, but rather fabricating a need that doesn't exist to make us ever more reliant on the technology coming off the Digital Coast. 

Technology - whether it's the telegraph or the internet - is intrinsically fascinating to the human mind, which puts its heads in an extremely opportunistic position. Today it's a modest, driverless car, but tomorrow it will be a visual search engine that can find every awful photograph of you that's ever ended up on the internet. Technology is our friend until it isn't. The car rendered the train useless by the 1960s and smartphones killed conversation in the early 21st Century. What fallout awaits the next great leap in technology?

Friday, June 5, 2015

The "Coolest" City in America

If you're on Facebook you've probably come across Huffington Post's 21 Ways Philadelphia is the Coolest City in America. If you're not on Facebook, well then you probably aren't reading this, so...

Let's take a humble step back for a minute. Although I appreciate the overwhelming praise Philadelphia is receiving right now, we're still every bit the city we were when we were its fattest, most depressed, and ugliest. However unjust the lists were when we bottomed-out ten years ago, our current praise is every bit as skewed. 

If you've lived in Philadelphia for more than ten years, you probably never cared. And that's what makes you a Philadelphian. You don't even need to live here for a decade to understand why Philadelphia is the coolest city in America. The sole reason being, we don't care how cool we are. 

But the media loves a puff piece. They fell in love with Seattle in the early 90s, Atlanta in the late 90s, Portland a few years ago, and now they're in love with us. The recognition is two fold. For one, it's nice to finally have "journalistic" backing for what I've been saying since I first visited Philadelphia in 1982, at six. But it also means we're going to be faced with droves of tourists and new residents pretending to claim they always knew how hip Philadelphia was. 

21 Ways Philadelphia is the Coolest City in America isn't just a puff piece, it's an advertisement. It was written by Larissa and Michael Milne who also wrote Philadelphia Liberty Trail, plugged discreetly in the middle of their listicle as the definitive walking tour and "its newest attraction," despite the longstanding Constitutional Walking Tour.

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure the Milne's are lovely people, and they clearly love Philadelphia. But the hastily written article riddled with typos and inaccuracies (the world's largest duck is 6 stories tall, not six feet tall, and the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center will be the tallest building in the nation outside New York and Chicago, not between New York and Atlanta) is indicative of the media's lack of editorial integrity and willingness to run anything that equates Philadelphia with Rocky

The truth is, I'll probably buy Philadelphia Liberty Trail. I'm a Phillyphile. A third of my 700 square foot trinity is a library of books and antiquities dedicated to and from the City of Brotherly Love. But that is exactly what annoys me about these listicles. It's not the lack of passion for Philadelphia - which I'm sure the Milne's have - but the lack of care that went into how they broadcast that passion for Philadelphia through a major online newspaper. 

Al Capone's stay at Eastern State Penitentiary? How about Charles Dickens' visit to the Penitentiary in 1842? New York's "Sixth Borough?" How about being the nation's fifth most populous city? And Rocky? Oh, Rocky Balboa. How you continue to define one of the world's most astounding art museums amazes me. 

Again, love Philadelphia all you want, in your way, even if it's through a 40 year old movie or fried beef. But if you're given an international publication as a platform, take a bit of care in expressing that love and think: are we to be the nation's next whirlwind love affair like Seattle, Atlanta, or Portland, or are we something inherently better? I truly believe the latter and, poorly written praise aside, think we're well on our way. 

The Beury Building

When it comes to development in Philadelphia, rarely does a plan come along that simply makes sense. When it does, it's reactionary and long overdue, like East Market on Market East. Others that seem to make sense are so far out they only make sense on paper, like numerous master plans proposed for the entirety of the Delaware Waterfront. 

But occasionally a gem comes along. One that both anticipates a current and inevitable progression while managing to get out in front of it before the legitimate concerns of longtime neighbors are replaced by the pseudo-intellectualized ideals of Whole Foods bound yuppies (cough, Northern Liberties).

With years of buzz surrounding the Divine Lorraine and her corner of North Broad Street, Shift Capital has begun looking a little further beyond the confines of Greater Center City, at North Broad's other Divine Lorraine and its vicinity. The Beury Building at Broad and Lehigh isn't where the connected want to be, or even near it. As PlanPhilly put it, it's not in "East Kensington, not South Kensington, and not Olde Kensington. Kensington." This is the real Kensington.

The Beury: North Broad's most important building

Kensington, home to many residents, but also home to urban mythology for those in Center City and South Philadelphia, is, in its current state, the kind of neighborhood where you'd find a masked vigilante's lair hidden neatly beneath a rusty training studio. And the Beury Building his beacon. 

With the exception of their respective architecture, the Beury Building may in fact be even more significant to North Broad's Renaissance than the Divine Lorraine itself. Although not nearly as astounding, it stands to bookend what may someday be a congruous Greater Center City. 

The building is urban, as is its intersection. Every bit as urban as any corner of Center City. Despite it being shrouded in more than fifty years of blighted patina, the Beury Building's corner was, and can again be, a relevant cog in Philadelphia's gridded narrative. If the city and its investors play their cards right.

Banking on Low Income Housing Tax Credits, Shift Capital hopes to house seniors on seven of the Beury Building's fourteen floors. While the idea was previously floated for the Divine Lorraine, it makes sense at the Beury. Kensington is an established community and the Beury Building is an ideal place to house its older residents. Perhaps learning from the mistakes of the suburbanized housing behind the Divine Lorraine, Shift Capital seems to understand the importantance of giving Broad and Erie a reason to retain its urbanity. That reason isn't simply in subsidized housing, but in the Beury Building's viable existence. 

With its proximity to Temple University and as part of North Broad's greater goals, it is imperative that the Beury Building not fall to the wrecking ball. Temple University's growth stands to provide a microcosm of what Penn, Drexel, and other colleges have done for University City. But dynamic development at and around the Divine Lorraine and the Beury Building could make North Broad a much more integrated success story. 

There is no question that the Divine Lorraine is a landmark, significant both architecturally and historically. But with redevelopment taking shape at Spring Garden and along Ridge Avenue, the intersection of Broad and Fairmount is on track with or without the Divine Lorraine. But without the Beury Building, North Broad's urban presence and should-be goal to expand that presence all the way to Erie would cease with its demolition.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Future Sensations

Saint-Gobain's Future Sensations was paraded through the internet as one of the season's must-see attractions. With the French company's North American headquarters in Center City, Philadelphia is the only U.S. stop on its worldwide tour. That in itself was enough to make the blogosphere wet with glee. "Suck it, New York!" 

But as Inga Saffron was quick to point out, the exhibition is little more than a thinly veiled promotion. The materials corporation used four unique pavilions to showcase their products, and a fifth for a sale's pitch. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. After all, that's exactly what anything dubbed an "exhibition" is. We pay a pretty penny to see the Auto Show and the Flower Show, and we know we're walking right into a commercial.

Saint-Gobain didn't set us up for a promotion, though. Much like Frank Gehry's "exhibit" at the Pennsylvania Museum of Art, we went in expecting to experience pavilions dedicated to history and the arts, and what we got was a lesson in the materials Saint-Gobain offers. We got Saint-Gobain's history.

Nonetheless, it's a dazzling spectacle to see. The lines have died down since opening day and they're worth a look. Even if some of the pavilions leave you wondering what the point is, they pods are uniquely designed creations that are, at the very least, pretty cool.