Friday, August 28, 2015

The Skyscraper Race: Is America Done?

It's easy to look at the feats rising from Asia and the Middle East and wonder if North America will ever again host a "World's Tallest." The last time we held that title was in 1998, when Kuala Lumpur's twin Petronas Towers beat out Chicago's Sears Tower by a few meters. American developers, fueled by a renewed challenge - one that hadn't really been visited since the 1970s, and one that primarily existed in North America - began quickly working with architects to volley the ball back to Asia with something even taller. 

But a series of unfortunate events put a wrench in our efforts to further scrape the sky. Even before the crash, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the global housing crisis, 9/11 had devastated our nation and forced us to question the vulnerability that comes with reaching so high. 

New York's World Trade Center became North America's Tower of Babel.

By the time we started building again, the Burj Khalifa was slated to surpass the height of New York's Freedom Tower by nearly twice its proposed height. Buildings like Taiwan's Taipei 101 and those that seemed poised to at least briefly hold the title of "World's Tallest" were quickly relegated to a vast architectural catalog of skyscrapers roughly the height of the Sears Tower. 

Today, development in the United States has seemingly dropped out of the global height race, opting for unofficial local rivalries. When we do compete, it's New York versus Chicago, or Philadelphia and Los Angeles battling over who will become slightly taller than the rest. Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center will become an architectural symbol of Philadelphia's renaissance, but when it's mentioned in the press, it comes with the caveat, "tallest outside New York and Chicago."

Perhaps the tragedies and obstacles that kept us out of the race in the early 2000s didn't just make us question the vulnerability of building so tall, but also the practicality. In most major American cities, skyscrapers top out around 300 meters, roughly the height of Comcast Center and its upcoming partner. 

Using technology that hasn't fundamentally changed in more than one hundred and fifty years, most of the world's tallest skyscrapers still use the same Otis elevators invented in 1852. Until someone created a truly new technology to take us more than one hundred stories into the sky, elevator banks become clogged and traveling between floors begins eating into valuable business hours. 

With business becoming more mobile, it's often less remote. Tech geeks meander through suburban campuses on Segways and scooters in the Silicon Valley, tethered to tablets and smart phones. New project management methodologies born in the world of information technology are spreading from the West Coast throughout the rest of the world, and they require days filled with brainstorming sessions, sprint meetings, and most importantly, mobility.

Emails and texts are being hastily addressed while waiting in long lines for elevators. It's no surprise that the world's most successful technology companies still favor the sprawling suburban campus. 

In that regard it's easy to understand why American corporations have opted out of the international race for height. It's also easy to wonder if Asian countries, and more specifically, sprawling Middle Eastern cities really get skyscrapers. 

Born from a need during the Industrial Revolution, the perfection of Otis's elevator provided an answer. Cities like New York and Chicago finally had a way to cram as many people as possible into a finite amount of space by building really, really high. For those who invented the skyscraper, it wasn't a luxury, it was a solution. And with a renewed sense of urban living and employment, density is being brought back to cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami by building up, not out.

But to developers in the Middle East, to those building the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, skyscrapers straight out of the pages of the best science fiction novels are becoming a reality for something entirely different. While the floor count seems to have no ceiling in today's global skyscrapers, there is nothing technologically unique about the Kingdom Tower or the Burj Khalifa, except for purpose. Throwing practicality into the desert, Middle Eastern developers are scraping the sky to cater to an exclusive clientele, a global 1% with nothing but time on their hands, plenty to wait for an elevator.

For the United States, Canada, European nations, and other more pragmatic countries, we didn't quit the race, we're just waiting for technology to make something as tall as the Kingdom Tower make sense. When that happens, the game is back on. 

New York's World Trader Center wasn't the Tower of Babel. It made sense. It served its purpose, it was tragically destroyed, and it was rebuilt. In fact, the story of the Tower of Babel makes no mention of its destruction despite so many modern references. It was simply a towering city so large that chaos ensued and the tower was abandoned. I'm certainly not a Christian, but the analogy is historically apt, and much more attributable to cities a little bit closer to its namesake. To buildings like the Burj Khalifa, the Kingdom Tower, to building's that just don't make sense...yet.

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?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Radnor Hunt Concurs d'Elegance

In less than two weeks, Philadelphia's countryside will become a playground for some of the most valuable, historic, well preserved, and expensive automobiles in the region. The Radnor Hunt Concours d'Elegance is part of one of the most historic automotive traditions in the world.

If you're unfamiliar with the Concours d'Elegance, it simply means the Competition of Elegance, and that's exactly what it is. In the 17th Century, French aristocrats would build lavish horse-drawn carriages and parade them through Parisian parks in an effort to outdo one another. When automobiles began replacing horse drawn carriages, these parades evolved into competitions. 

More than four centuries later, cities around the world began hosting their own unique Concours, showcasing the world's rarest and most astonishing modern automobiles. 

The Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, held at the Pebble Beach Golf Course in California, is largely regarded as the most exclusive auto show in the world. The competition is fierce and comprised of many cars you will never see anywhere but Pebble Beach, some truly unique models valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But that doesn't mean Radnor Hunt's Concours is anything to belittle. With cars worth twenty to thirty million dollars on display at the oldest fox hunt in the United States, it's a spectacle well worth the $40 cost of admission into the show. 

The three day event also hosts a barbecue, a black tie affair, an after party, and a rally race through the rolling hills of Chester County. The latter is perhaps the most exciting. Find yourself a prime spot along the course and you'll see the region's most preserved exotics winding their way through Philadelphia's picturesque countryside. 

You don't have to be an automotive enthusiast to enjoy the Radnor Hunt Concours. As the finest Concours in the region, anyone who appreciates Philadelphia's history will undoubtedly enjoy this unique event at the Radnor Hunt Club. Splurge on the black tie dinner and you might even rub elbows with some of the Main Line's most elite. 

Even throughout the competition itself, history buffs will experience a bit of the region's automotive history they never knew existed. Radnor Hunt is the only Concours in the United States to still feature horse drawn carriages. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Day Philadelphia Stood Still

With a month before the Papal Visit, Philadelphia and the Secret Service have finally released their strategies for dealing with the impending ass ache, or so it seems. And to the surprise of no one, it's going to be a royal nightmare. 

Is it going to be a zombie apocalypse? No. Will visitors have a bad time? Probably not. Is Philadelphia going to be dragged through the mud by the mainstream media? We're used to it.

This is a unique event. Upwards of two million pilgrims are expected to descend upon Philadelphia over the last weekend in September, and that's exactly why it's not going to be as bad as some expect. If this were the world's largest software expo or just ordinary tourism, yes, it would be an epic disaster. 

But those shelling out $500 a night for a chance to see Pope Francis aren't coming here for Beyonce or Madonna, they're coming here as devout Christians, the most devout. Yes, the mainstream media is going to cherry pick those most vocally frustrated by the city's stifled services and spin a few expected - and isolated - incidents into catastrophes. But overwhelmingly, what we can expect is the world's biggest, and dullest, Comic-Con. 

In that regard, the city did one thing right. Hats off to City Hall and the Secret Service for securely pinning in a bunch of docile puppy dogs. 

Unfortunately, neither organization was charged with the job of solely protecting two million peaceful parishioners. Their task was to secure a massive event within a working city of 1.5 million people, within a metropolitan area of more than five million. But they've treated it like the Catholic equivalent of Burning Man, one that equates Philadelphia with a desert that happens to have subways. 

Closing schools and office towers is one thing. We're simply getting a free holiday. We'll work from home and make up class time. We'll be fine. What has been ignored and perplexingly continues to go unmentioned are the thousands of service employees that will be expected to work overtime over the course of the weekend, and expected to find a way here.  

Many hotel and service employees rely on minimum wage, and thusly don't live within walking distance of their Center City employers. They live in North, South, and West Philadelphia, in Fishtown and the suburbs, in New Jersey. Many more work in the suburbs and rely on the Schuylkill Expressway and regional rail, and until recently, didn't know the extent to which major suburban corridors would be affected by Pope Francis's Center City visit. 

Those tasked with servicing the Pope's two million visitors should have been given dibs on SEPTA's limited trans-passes, but they're expected to play the same game as those visiting. And if they don't land a pass, they're not quite sure how they're getting to work. 

It's not surprising that Philadelphia's City Hall has managed to neglect its own citizens. Since the visit was first announced, City Hall has been focused on two things, and neither are its own citizens: securing the tourists and how the city will look on CNN. Why should we expect more from a City Hall that has addressed the Parkway's homeless problem with a plan to put a few tokens in the front row during Pope Francis's mass while booting the rest to, well, no one knows. 

I'm certainly not religious, but I was baptized Catholic. In my limited understanding of Catholicism, I know that charity plays a big role, and barring underpaid service employees from jobs they need to perform and hand picking a few of our city's thousands of homeless residents as tokenism seems to be about the most un-Catholic thing you can do. 

On September 28th, the trifecta of the mainstream media - CNN, Fox, and MSNBC - will probably do an in depth analysis of a catastrophe that didn't happen, and our own bozos at and Philadelphia Magazine will troll the blogosphere. But Philadelphia will return to business-as-usual and within a week, the world will forget about The Day Philadelphia Stood Still.

But over the course of one weekend, underpaid employees will be camping out in broom closets with no way home and even more will fear losing their jobs with no conceivable way to get to work. One of the nation's biggest events, one allegedly rooted in charity, has proven itself to be nothing but a spectacle, and Pope Francis and his cohorts no more noble than a Kardashian. 

Maybe I'll be proven wrong. Maybe the Pope will bypass tokenism and delve into the city's very real homeless problem and expose it for what it is. Maybe he'll hop an El train to Kensington and the Vatican will reimburse the city's minimum wage employees for their lost earnings. Prince Charles wasn't above greeting locals in Mantua in 2007. 

People keep talking about how different Pope Francis is. Philadelphia could be his chance to prove it. Will he come here and do what's dryly expected, or will he color outside the lines? 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Diner en Blanc: the Polarizing Fantasy

It's that time of year again. 4,500 Philadelphians are decked out in white, with picnic baskets full of white place settings and table linens, white tables and chairs in tow. 25,000 runner-ups are sitting at home plotting their way into next year's event. And more than a million more of us are looking for a catapult and 10,000 rotten tomatoes. 

Diner en Blanc, the muti-continent traveling flash mob that charges almost $40 a head to BYO-Everything, has a guest list and dress-code more tediously contrived than a fetish party at the White House. And it's insanely popular. 

So what is it about this simple dinner that has managed to attract so much criticism? Monica Weymouth gives the question a go in a charmingly diplomatic rant on, resigning herself to the notion that there are two types of people: those who like Diner en Blanc, and those who - politely put - don't.

But it's certainly more than that. In a article, Samantha Melamed interviewed the event's two planners, Natanya DiBona and Kayli Moran. Both are quick to point out that, like parades and other street festivals, Diner en Blanc isn't really that structurally unique. Private organizations routinely use public spaces for events, and once the space is reserved, they're relatively free to operate it however they see fit within reason.

And there is certainly nothing unreasonable about Diner en Blanc, at least if we look at it as a dryly bureaucratic use of public space. 

For those who still have a bad taste lingering in your mouth - myself included - it doesn't just boil down to envy or jealousy. That's too easy. And really, what is there to be envious of? This isn't an invite-only event catering to the region's Who's Who. It's simply a dull circuit party. If you have a tech-savvy teenager who knows how to land Taylor Swift tickets, you can probably get a pass into next year's Diner en Blanc if you move quickly enough.

The divide between the enamored and the disdained comes down to the two simple things Weymouth was talking about: those who love it and those who hate it. Some people coast through life enjoying simplistic beauty, cohesion, and have a knack for matching their clothing to the wallpaper. They host designer birthday parties for toddlers too young to remember how well baby-blue and brown go together. They're educated, healthy, shop at Whole Foods, and move to the Gayborhood when it's safe enough for a Target. They use "brunch" as a verb, vote a solid Hillary, and probably have a stick-figure family on the back of their hybrid. 

They're good people. And while they may run to Home Goods the second their bichon spills merlot on their white sofa, they don't ruffle any feathers. 

But the rest of us are plagued with a nagging question: Why? We might not like discourse, but we appreciate and understand it as a way of life. And those who embrace Diner en Blanc are our nemeses. When we see something as simplistic as Diner en Blanc, we see couple's therapy and a whole lot of Xanax. To us, nothing can be that perfect. Adults don't have tea parties with stuffed animals unless they're struggling with something

We need to understand why things happen, purpose, progress. Does Diner en Blanc raise money for a charity? No. Are guests being served a fine dinner from a renowned local chef? No. Is there any historical significance to the event? No. Not unless you consider a French picnic historic. Did I mention that the first picnic took place in 1988, the same year Critters 2 came out? So, not exactly Toulouse Lautrec.

It serves no purpose. But maybe it can?

Despite its hefty cover charge, lack of any dinner but the one in your picnic basket, and Diner en Blanc's convoluted mission, perhaps it does have a purpose. If you look past its most basic guests and planners, Diner en Blanc does offer an opportunity for a very unique experience, at least for those who embrace it as something unique. 

Many Philadelphians continues to struggle in a lot of ways. While Diner en Blanc may have an exclusively short guest list, the list isn't exclusionary. There are undoubtedly a few guests who got a golden ticket and then saved up for the fantasy. For those few guests, Diner en Blanc offers a Cinderella story: one night to escape Philadelphia's cynical reality and pretend to be someone, somewhere else. 

Maybe there's nothing wrong with a grown-up tea party.

With all the negativity in the world, why look at Diner en Blanc as one more reason to bitch about traffic? Perhaps we should all be putting on our Sunday best, packing an Igloo cooler with a few Wawa sandwiches, and enjoying lunch with our friends and family in Fairmount Park this weekend, having our own fantasy, our own Diner en Blanc. 

Instead of cynically bemoaning a harmless event, maybe we should be taking a page from something that happens once a year and asking what it could mean to us every day. Did you have lunch in your corporate cafeteria today, or did you pack some prosciutto and a baguette to take in the breathtaking views of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and City Hall from Logan Square or Dilworth Park? Did you spend your break at Taco Bell, Facebook-complaining about the easily-ignorable Candy Crush invites from an aunt who doesn't know any better, or did you soak up the tiny streets of Society Hill?

Despite Diner en Blanc's tedious laundry list of rules, it's a simplistic event that asks us to look at our surroundings and enjoy our lives for no other reason than the fact that we have one. If we cynics have a problem with the way 4,500 Philadelphians choose to enjoy their Thursday nights, we should probably ask ourselves, how are we choosing to enjoy ours? Because I'm betting it has something to do with frozen pizza and Netflix. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Day Tripping: Saint Peter's Village

If you've never been to Saint Peter's Village in Chester County, take a Saturday afternoon and treat yourself to something...simple. The Village is located between West Chester and Lancaster along French Creek. 

It's history is typically Pennsylvanian, established as a company town servicing its quarry from the 19th Century to the 1970s, it went through a lull of uncertainty before preservationists restored nearly the entire village.

To say Saint Peter's Village is charming is an understatement. It feels like the kind of quaint New England villages that nondescriptly adorn the puzzles you did with your grandmother, and it's only 45 minutes away. It's also located just beyond the formal suburbs of the region, so it's not surrounded by gated communities and plagued with traffic. It's a bit of a secret, and I was hesitant to even write about it.

When you enter the town you're greeted by the Inn at Saint Peter's Village, a local wedding destination, and ample, yet discreetly tucked away parking. Atop a hill to the right is a rock quarry filled with water. Due to accidents it's been unattractively fenced off and tagged with graffiti, but that doesn't diminish the town's charm.

After parking and taking a few obligatory photos of the quarry, walk the town's lone street. To be honest, past the Inn, there isn't a lot. Some nicknack shops, a bakery, ice cream parlor, and a vintage arcade. But it's just so cute. If you're adventurous, there are biking trails through the aptly named Hopewell Big Woods beginning at the far end of the town. 

If you want to trek on foot, circle back towards the town across the enormous boulders that top French Creek. Some landed in the creek naturally while others were dumped there when the town operated the quarry. It's treacherous so be careful, but it's also a lot of fun. Leaping from rock to rock, grappling for trees and branches, you'll engage your primal roots. 

The creek itself offers beautiful views of the village. Each of the village's buildings have large decks overlooking the boulders, with a few local spectators likely wondering which day-tripper will bite the dust this day. When you get back towards the Inn, you'll find a classic swimming hole, complete with a rope to swing out into the deep water. 

We decided to have lunch at the Inn today. I was skeptical at first. Like I said, this Inn is the definitive bed and breakfast and I was leery of even looking at the menu. But it's modestly priced for lunch, offers live music, a fun crowd, and perhaps the best burger I've ever had. 

The funny thing is, I had been to Saint Peter's Village when I was a teenager. In my twelve years living in Philadelphia I have been searching for this town, always assuming it was upstate near Williamsport. Who knew it was in my own backyard?

So if you find yourself a Saturday with nothing to do, frustrated with the hustle-and-bustle of the Big City, hop in your car (or rent one) and head west. Be sure to take a camera, because you're going to want to take pictures. You'll probably even find quite a few classic cars parked throughout the town. Bring quarters too, because if you're a Gen Xer like me, you'll have a lot of fun in that vintage arcade. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

The New Headhouse Square

Have you ever thought, "I can't get enough of Headhouse Square?" Probably not. Do you know where Headhouse Square is? Maybe not.

It's a block-long, open air market between Society Hill and South Street. You've walked through it a dozen times. Sometimes there are vendors, sometimes they're aren't, but it's one of those unique and unassuming old Philadelphian structures that make us love Philadelphia. 

Headhouse Square's summer markets - sometimes crafts, sometimes antiques - have grown in popularity and spilled over into the oddly suburban parking spaces just above South Street. Well, neighborhood organizations have taken note, and they're discussing everything from a cafe to an expanded market.

This is great news, people. Not just because the city may be expanding its footprint of open air markets (Pennsylvanians love our junk), but also because the revitalization of our public spaces is trending beyond the city's core. City planners are proving that our public spaces are more than a token nod to tourists and commuters (take that, New York and D.C.), but a public service to those of us who love living here.

The Flight of the Chains

Closing-signs are usually a bad omen, right? Not always. More than half of the Gallery's businesses have closed for upcoming renovations, and better retailers. Less-than-stellar shopping across from the Reading Terminal head-house closed for NREA's grand East Market development. And nearby on Chestnut Street, developers are following suit.

The onslaught of new residential development means new residents. That's great for Philadelphia's astonishing restaurant scene. But with more hotels, come more tourists. And with tourists come the corporate trappings of Middle America. 

But Philadelphia's an outlier when it comes to chain dining. Our residents are ferociously opposed to Market East becoming a beacon of corporate flair. With the exception of the new Cheesecake Factory at 15th and Walnut, I don't remember the last time a strip-mall minded dining option opened in Center City.

In fact since our rise began - let's say around 2003 when my bad ass moved to town - chain restaurants have taken a hit, even fast food options. Has a McDonald's ever gone out of business? At least one has, and it was on Philadelphia's most nefarious tourist drag: South Street.

Buca di Beppo closed. Ted's Montana Grill shut down. And I swear there was a Bertucci's around the corner from Applebee's at some point, but I can't seem to find any reference to it. That's not to say we don't have our Ruby Tuesday's, TGIFriday's, and Chili's, and they're exactly where you'd expect them. But with improvements to the Parkway District, new residents moving to our central business district, and pop-up beer gardens infiltrating our most corporate addresses, will they go the way of my mythical Bertucci's? 

"When ya heah, ya fam-i-ly!"

They just might. In a sign that East Chestnut is finally emerging as the hip equivalent to Walnut Street's posh Rodeo Drive, trendy furniture stores, German beer halls, and luxury apartments are finally making use of this once inexplicably seedy corridor. In with the new, and out with the old, and in this case the old would be Olive Garden.

Despite the Olive Garden's consistent crowds, it always drew sneers from locals. Perhaps it's the Garden's laughably stereotypical commercials, the absurd fact that their chefs really do train in Italy, or maybe it's just because the food really isn't that great. But in a city with more Italians than you can shake a broom at, and seemingly as many authentic Italian restaurants, the real question is why anyone would pay $20 for a dish from the Olive Garden when Little Nonna's is a short sashay away in the heart of the Gayborhood.

The answer is predictability, and it's closure simply means that there aren't enough people in Center City - local or otherwise - looking for the boringly expected. That's not to say it won't return. The Pennsylvania Convention Center is finally booking the kind of exhibitions they'd been hoping for since 1993, and that means more hotels. If the Olive Garden ever decides to revisit Center City it's going to be eying anchor opportunities on Market East, Arch Street, and North Broad. Just like a bevy of chains Center City's never seen, like Fudrucker's California Pizza Kitchen, and - apparently - Bertucci's. 

And that's just fine. Philadelphia's restaurant scene rivals the best in the nation, maybe even the world. But one reason we're so great is because our food scene is local, and by that I mean it's enjoyed by locals. When the Gackerack's are in town from Omaha to see the Liberty Bell, looking for familiarity in an Olive Garden, do we really want to point them to Vetri? Do we really want them there, complaining that they don't offer a bottomless salad?

No, we want to give them exactly what they want, on their turf, right outside their hotel. We don't want them going back to Nebraska griping about "some weird place called 'Vee-Tree'," we want to send them home gushing about the amazing Olive Garden beneath the digital twilight of Market East. We want them to say, "Philadelphia's got a great Olive Garden! It's even better than the one in Time's Square, and that one has three floors!"

If they're a foodie, they'll find what they're looking for. If they're not, give them what they want.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Will New Philadelphians Embrace the Italian Market?

Now that the internet's had a few days to twist its digital panties over the new apartment building near 9th and Washington, I'm wondering less and less how the Italian Market's collective NIMBYs will react to the project, and more about how this luxury apartment building's prospective tenants will impact the market itself.

The south end of the 9th Street Market doesn't really play a nostalgic role in the neighborhood's Italian roots until you reach Geno's. Full of Hispanic restaurants, bodegas, and Vietnamese grocers, it's less old-world-charm and more Bladerunner grit. Though less appealing to tourists and New Philadelphians, the market's southern leg is actually a better microcosm of its surrounding neighborhoods. 

But Milwood Investment & Development won't be catering to the street's shopkeepers and butchers, but those New Philadelphians who do yoga and like their Dickensian grit diluted. 

Basically what I'm posing is, how will the hybrid-bound New Philadelphians take to live poultry and quinceanera stores?

My guess: not well. 

Sure, they'll embrace the charming diversity when they tour their new apartments. Sales reps will be focusing on the market's northern arm and it's charming Italian heritage. But before long, the NIMBYs screaming about parking and traffic will be met with new members, members riddled with xenophobia veiled by a concern for safety. 

If you think I'm wrong, just take a look at a neighborhood a short walk to the market's north. The Gayborhood, once gritty and charming in its own unique way, has traded quite a bit of its cultural heritage for strollers, wine bars, and gourmet pizza. On the surface, it seems harmless. After all, the Gayborhood is safer than it used to be, many of the businesses that closed were underwhelming, and the new ones are thriving.

But the Gayborhood, a neighborhood once so gay it had its own label on Google Maps, is now Midtown Village, just another neighborhood with homosexual tendencies. Once the first New Philadelphians moved in, they called for more, and the gentri-terraforming began.

And that's really what this is, just another futile monologue about gentrification. Because really, nothing can be done about it. And this is exactly what will take place at the 9th Street Market.

Well established institutions like DiBruno Brothers and Giordano's will remain in tact. But its less profitable authenticity like Shun Da Poultry and Mole Pablano will be swapped out for something befitting those willing to pay $2500 a month on new construction. What will come in their wake?

If development in the Gayborhood is any indication, the 9th Street Market will not succumb to the worst form of gentrification, the kind of Disneyfication of diversity that plagues Manhattan and Washington, D.C., but more boutiques, wine bars, and gourmet incarnations of the next trend to sweep the Food Network. 

And like the Gayborhood, on the surface, this transformation looks harmless, even positive. But people no longer move to neighborhoods to be a part of a community, they move to places and establish their comfort zones. Instead of simply accepting the 9th Street Market for what it is, the kitschy and the plainly pragmatic, harbingers of gentrification parasitically chip away at a neighborhood's soul until it meets the lowest common denominator: suburban sensibilities. 

Gentrification isn't an evil villain who wants to raise your property taxes and push you out, it's a brainless virus that unknowingly attacks its host until everything looks the same. It's nothing new and it's not something that can be stopped, but it is something that can be managed. Instead of apolitically ranting at town hall meetings about a bunch of one-off gripes, effective neighborhood leadership could lay down the ground work for a rigid guideline of their community's ideals.

Philadelphia's a big city. Perhaps one day we'll get it right. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Is Aramark Trying to Kill University City's Food Trucks?

Don't you just love this food truck trend? Finally, we're as hip as Chicago. Good food for your lunch break that doesn't enlist a $10 bowl of kale. Seriously, when did kale become the food du jour? Didn't it used to waste away in the meat aisle separating the pork from the chicken?

If you're a cash-strapped college student, food trucks are an affordable opportunity to opt out of the monotony of the dining hall. It's a boon for local businesses too, because students still clinging to their Massachusetts and New York licenses are sopping up some local eats. Who knows, maybe they'll like those Cap'n Crunch infused tacos so much they'll stick around for another four years.

Well, Jannie Blackwell wants to make some changes. Blackwell, the Councilwoman presiding over University City wants to regulate the hell out of the foot trucks near Drexel University, and Bill 150600 would do it.

Why? Well the answer isn't clear from Blackwell's office, but according to armchair activists, the food trucks are cutting into Drexel's on-campus dining options. This may sound like conspiracy theorist lunacy. How could Steak Me Home Tonight compete with the Big Boys operating Drexel's dining halls?

So why would a local politician want to stifle local businesses? Why would Jannie Blackwell - a Council Member who's consistently fought for locals and on behalf of her community - decide to propose a bill that sides with Big Business? 

Well, who operates Drexel's dining services? Aramark. It sounds like the Big Boys of Market East might be giving Blackwell a little push to free up a little business for them. If that's the case - and let's face it, it probably is - it's pretty damn irresponsible. Not only would a local Big Boy be enlisting politics to grab a few bucks, Blackwell created a bill to help the Big Boy crush a few local businesses. 

Aramark might be local, but in the food truck world, they're Wal-Mart. They don't need the business food trucks are taking, they'd just maneuvering their political position to expand beyond their dining halls onto the streets of West Philadelphia. And Jannie Blackwell would helping them.

New Apartments for the Italian Market

Those at Milwood Investment & Development, the group behind Walnut Street's new Cheesecake Factory, want to bring 70 apartments to a vacant lot near 9th and Washington. Like anything in South Philadelphia, neighbors wanted to know about parking.

This photo from PlanPhilly shows a rendering of Milwood's 9th Street Market proposal.

Well, good news for the vehicularly mobile, it comes with 150 parking spaces. For the more aesthetically inclined, the parking will be underground. 

For the architecturally obsessed, you're likely thinking the same thing we thought when we saw 15th and Walnut's wild Cheesecake Factory: Why can't it be 20 stories taller?

Drone On

So I'm just sitting outside enjoying some iced tea when I finally noticed a dull buzzing has been lingering for quite some time. It sounded like wind blowing through some sheets, constantly. Or a television that was still on long after the cable was turned off. 

Then I looked up and thought, "Why has that plane just hovering over 13th Street?"

It's not a plane. It's a drone!

Regardless of what South Park had to say about drones, they're far from crowding the skies. I've only ever noticed one once before, and it was above the Art Museum. It was just as unusual but it made sense at the end of the Parkway. At North 13th Street? Not so much.

What's it filming? Why here? And how- goddamn those things are cool! 

I'm filming a drone filming something. How meta.

Say what you will about privacy, these gadgets are fun, and I really hope to get my hands on one before the FAA begins seriously cracking down on them.

Besides the spectacular photography opportunities they offer hobbyists, they have practical applications too. Have you ever had one of those lovely fall or spring evenings, one of those nights you have your windows open as a gentle cross breeze makes its way across your bed, only to be awoken by one of the news helicopters waiting for something to happen?

In fact, there goes one now. 

So what do you think? Do civilian drones really pose a threat to our privacy? Should users be licensed? Should their usage be tracked? Should they be limited to news crews and police departments? Or should they be banned altogether? 

Let's be honest, the only reason this technology is new is because no one ever bothered strapping a digital camera to a radio controlled airplane. 

But we wouldn't get stuff like this without them.

Your Daily WTF? Free Tacos!

I've got your daily dose of WTF right here. Melissa Joan Hart will be passing out free tacos tomorrow at the Spruce Street Harbor Park. Oh, wait, it gets more WTF-ier. She's promoting Old El Paso's new boat-shaped taco shell.

Clarissa has some explaining to do.

Boat shaped tacos? At Spruce Street Harbor? Get it? 

I'm not going to lie. I love Sabrina and I love tacos, so I'll probably try to sneak over there for lunch. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Divine Lorraine Hotel

If the hopeful Jacob Adelman at the Inquirer is any indication, the Divine Lorraine might soon live up to its name. What do I mean? Well, with the Divine Lorraine's redevelopment possibly beginning this month, this will likely be the catalyst North Broad Street has long needed. 

Let's back up though. Like anything regarding the Divine Lorraine, it's easy to be skeptical. When the Divine Lorraine was occupied by the International Peace Movement Mission, it was a budget hotel with strange rules owned by an even stranger religious cult. It wasn't exactly signaling any key players to invest in North Broad. But it was keeping North Broad Street alive. Think of it as Market East's Strawbridge & Clothier. As soon as its doors were shuttered, an era was over, and the only thing capable of saving the corridor was massive reinvention. 

Since the Divine Lorraine closed its doors in 2000, it became nothing but an old building in a bad part of town no developers wanted anything to do with. For several years, a lone member of the International Peace Movement Mission lived onsite as its caretaker, keeping away graffiti artists and urban explorers. But when it was sold to a foreign investor in 2006, it was gutted, sold for scrap, and left for dead.

That's when the elements took over. 

To those unfamiliar with a Divine Lorraine before it was tagged with "BONER FOREVER," or unfamiliar with cities before the 21st Century, the dumpy hotel wasn't unusual. In fact, the only thing strange about the Divine Lorraine were its owners - the cult of Father Divine - and the fact that it had remained in near-original condition. 

As a hotel, the city was full of similar budget beds, even in nice Center City neighborhoods. Throughout the late 20th Century, places like the Adelphia House and the Spruce Parker offered similarly sparse amenities for a few bucks a night, or a few more for the week or month. 

Perhaps it was the cult's rules - such as no "undo mixing of the sexes," no alcohol or drugs, and a strict dress code - that kept its tenants respectful and the structure intact. Even in its current state, though, the Divine Lorraine holds an air of mystery and a unique sense of optimism for this otherwise struggling corridor, especially amongst those who remember seeing its lights on. 

For fifteen years, most developers have only seen it as blight, but residents have seen divinity. But in the last few years, the Divine Lorraine has even seemed to enrapture even some of the most bottom-lined developers. In 2012, Eric Blumenfeld purchased the property and has been promising to redevelop it ever since. Having developed several other properties on North Broad, Blumenfeld has a vested interest in the corridor. But he has also expressed a passionate interest in the Divine Lorraine itself. Like Blumenfeld, Billy Procida, a developer who helped reinvent New York's Hell's Kitchen, was equally wooed by the Divine Lorraine, and agreed to contribute $30M towards its renovation.

So what now? Well, like the Divine Lorraine, we wait. It's impossible to know what will happen if and when the Divine Lorraine reopens its doors. Ridge Avenue has gradually been getting redeveloped from both the east and west, inching its way towards the Divine Lorraine, so now seems as good as time as any to get started. 

What will happen to the properties along North Broad pose the bigger questions. Even with four restaurants planned for Divine Lorraine, will it foster an island of development at this lone intersection, or will it encourage more developers to get on board. After all, the Divine Lorraine isn't the only landmark laying in wait. The fate of the Metropolitan Opera House is unknown and the Inquirer Building has sat empty since the newspaper moved to Market East. It seems everyone is waiting to see what will happen to the Divine Lorraine. 

In a city that's no stranger to demolishing our aging landmarks for speculative development, the most unique page in the Divine Lorraine's history book may be that no one, not one developer has proposed its demolition. For decades, it was a jewel in the crown of North Broad and the International Peace Movement Mission's portfolio of historic architecture. Perhaps Father Divine is still watching over his Divine Lorraine Hotel.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Who's In Your Car at Night?

It was only a matter of time before car thieves traded in their crowbars for computer classes. If you follow automotive news, you probably know that Chrysler-Fiat is recalling more than 1.4M Jeeps with UConnect. If you don't follow automotive news: Fiat owns Chrysler, Chrysler makes Jeeps, and Italians still can't make a decent car.

If you own a new Jeep, get ready to gear up. Wired recently showed how hackers could gain control of your radio, climate control, and even bring your car to a slow halt. 

It's scary, but it's not unexpected. As your car becomes more and more of a computer, it becomes more and more prone to the demons of technology. Until now, no car's onboard computer system has been so connected to your diving experience to allow it to be hijacked. And it's probably good that it happened with UConnect, because apparently the ability to remotely hijack a car hasn't yet been a top concern despite warnings. 

While hackers can stall your new Jeep, they can't put you in an real danger. If this hadn't been shown, that might have not been the case in the future. Your networked computer is one thing. When you get a virus, it's an annoyance. When you're hacked, it can be an embarrassment. But a plagued laptop isn't going to disable your breaks or steer you into the Grand Canyon. 

Despite obvious headaches for Chrysler-Fiat, the lessons learned are good for every carmaker from Detroit to Japan. 

But another potential headache has been lingering since the early 2000s, one that hasn't been functionally resolved, and it impacts technology that's been around since the '90s: your key fob.

Your key fob is a security innovation that originated as a way to remotely unlock your doors and evolved into something that can start your engine, even prohibit it from starting if you only have a key. Like a lot of emerging technology, the key fob has presented as many problems as practical enhancements. 

When I owned a '98 Saab 900, I went swimming with my keys in my pocket. The water corroded the fob, and although I was able to manually unlock my door with my key, I was unable to start the car. $1000 later for a proprietary fix at a dealership and I could drive my car again. After that, I kept plenty of backup fobs handy. But like sticking your password on a computer monitor, the fob taped in my wheel-well made Saab's security enhancement moot.

But key fobs don't just pose an annoyance for car owners, they allow hackers access to your car. In 2006, David Beckham's BMW X5 was stolen by someone savvy enough to hack into the fob. What's insane is just how easy it is to do it. Keyless ignition computers are constantly scanning for your fob, but only within a few feet. If someone knows how to amplify that range and you're car's parked in your driveway, a hacker can open your doors - even start your car - from the key fob in your very own pocket. 

I sound more and more like my dad every day, but more technology means more things to fix. My first car had crank windows for that exact reason, and after driving a 2001 Beetle to Key West with no air conditioning and frozen windows, I know why I'm sounding more and more like my dad.

Beyond the electronic hiccups of what comes "standard" today are the growing ramifications of the automobile's evolution into a moving piece of software. Sometimes the simplest innovation, the one most time-tested, is the best. In the case of the automobile, that might be the traditional key. Sure, no key is truly unique, but when you need two different keys to unlock your door and start your ignition, no one's going to hack a unique paring old-skool. And sure, you can start a 1988 Camry with a screwdriver, but who's going to steal a 1988 Camry? 

It's not pretty, but it'll last forever.

My next car's going to be a pre-1990 Civic, four wheels and an engine. Is your keyless, push-button ignition really an innovation, or just a Jetsonian piece of gimmicky futurism? Is it really that hard to turn a key? 

No, it's not. And until cars are levitating above magnetic streets or driving my commute for me, there's no reason to spend upwards of $50,000 on a toy that's going to cost me my rent when my inspection comes due, all because something I never needed, or wanted, refuses to work. 

Philadelphia's Mt. Sinai Hospital

Some have called it the Divine Lorraine of South Philadelphia. Pennsport's Mt. Sinai Hospital closed its doors in 1997, and for the past 18 years, developers and neighbors have been bickering over what to do with it, the unfortunate consensus being that it be demolished for modestly scaled row-homes.

Truth be told, Mt. Sinai does seem out of place. Surrounded by typical South Philadephia row-homes and some less-than-steller infill to its south, Mt. Sinai stands out atop the South Philadelphia skyline giving it, well, a skyline.

For more than 90 years, Mt. Sinai was South Philadelphia's hospital, and for 90 years the neighborhood surrounding it changed very little. It's hard to imagine emergency vehicles, visitors, and the sheer number of employees it staffed getting in and out of the facility. It's equally baffling that the surrounding neighborhood didn't evolve to account for the hospital's traffic, both on feet and tires. 

While other hospitals are surrounded by chain restaurants, convenience stores, and retail amenities, the mammoth Mt. Sinai is surrounded by an unaffected South Philadelphia. For that reason, it makes perfect sense that neighbors would just like to see it gone.

But their reasoning is not so rational, and like most South Philadelphia hissy fits, it's squarely centered on parking. 

The most recent proposal would call for its demolition, and that it be replaced with 95 townhouses. While the community did suggest that current plans were unfriendly to pedestrians and cyclists, there seemed to be no understanding of how the plan's 134 parking spaces would impact the site's experience for those without cars. 

In fact, if the discussion on PlanPhilly is any indication, it would seem that community members actually view the site's abundance of allocated parking as a boon for pedestrianization, as if 134 cars will be sitting idle and collecting dust.

Let's be honest. South Philadelphia's traffic and parking is a pitiful situation, one not helped by underwhelming access to rail and a general sense of entitlement amongst longtime residents. In addition to the illogical assumption that 134 parking spaces can be bucketed with pedestrians and cyclists, nothing is getting built in South Philadelphia without parking until the area's mentality gets an upgrade.

But that is exactly where Mt. Sinai could shine. As an existing building, it could be converted into condos or apartments without allocated parking. I'm sure Brown Hill wants to make as much money as possible from the site, and tacking on parking adds a huge chunk of change But what profit would be lost from lack of parking would be made up from a lack of demolition and new construction costs. 

Plus, apartment buildings, even condos, bring a different type of tenant. Row-homes attract two-car families, but apartments attract single residents, empty-nesters, and millennials, many of which use public transportation and don't have cars. If Brown Hill did want to provide parking for the hospital's conversion, its 80s-era addition could be demolished for a lot or garage, offering up the most profitable scenario of all: renovation in lieu of new construction, higher density, and less demolition. Not to mention, a beleaguered landmark would be salvaged.  

The Cheesy Corner of 15th and Market

What was once dubbed the "World's Most Elaborate Cheesecake Factory" is now open, complete with valet parking...'cause this ain't the Olive Garden. Anchoring the first floor is a new Verizon store. While Verizon's attempt to rethink cellphone stores as something on scale with Mac, Verizon made no attempt to integrate this location with its unique host. I will give its branded decor one thing: Verizon really knows what people in 1991 thought 2005 might look like.

But the Cheesecake Factory didn't do the building any favors either. Instead of embracing the stellar architecture gracing the corner of 15th and Walnut, the Factory brought in its own branded architecture and slapped it haphazardly on the east end of the facade. 

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's wild building at 15th and Walnut is already being dubbed the "cheesecake building," and that's unfortunate because nothing about this building says "cheesy." The Factory's culinary standards might be a little higher than the OG or Bertucci's, but when it comes to the company that got its start in Beverly Hills, their corporate standards are on par with Johnny Rocket's. 

The Cheesecake Factory is certainly true to their Los Angelean roots: opulence for the sake of opulence without an ounce of restraint. All it needs is a few faux marble columns and some nondescript Roman statuary. It's not what people think of when they think, "Beverly Hills," it is Beverly Hills.

It's really too bad that Philadelphians only had about a week to appreciate the beauty of this building before it was hijacked by chain-store branding tactics, because what stands before us today pales in comparison to the architecture being masked by kitsch. I get it, corporate businesses want to be seen, and truthfully, this isn't nearly as bad a Time's Square Friday's. But Philadelphians - argue with me if you want - set higher standards for our city's aesthetics than New Yorkers.

At least the Cheesecake Factory didn't build the building at 15th and Walnut or we might have wound up with another Hilton Home2 disaster. But the Factory could have used this unique space to create a unique Cheesecake Factory.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

New York City Has Lost Its Mind

Did you that know you can rent a place in one of New York's most pompous neighborhoods for just $22 a night? You can! I'll get to that in a moment.

airbnb is revolutionizing the way we vacation. Despite startup hiccups similar to those plaguing Uber - questionable legality, proprietary market regulations, general service uncertainty - it's doing one helluva job finding customers...and capital.

A few months ago, two friends relocating to Portland, OR used airbnb to find a cozy bungalow priced well below a modest hotel room for an entire week, and they made some new friends in the process. With their relocation confirmed, they'll be spending several months with their amateur hoteliers learning the tricks of the new trade, and this time they're only paying for groceries. 

As in the early days of car-sharing and house-swapping programs, airbnb uses technology as a resource, but still retains a relatively casual vibe. It makes sense, especially when you're opening your home to strangers. Basically, even if you participate in airbnb, you don't want these strangers to be strangers. You might want to get to know who will be sleeping in your bed.

But reason has a threshold, and like many of the most absurd ventures, it comes straight from New York City's cash strapped renters and homeowners and the city's desperate attempt to be unique and kitschy. 

So what about that $22 bed amongst Manhattan's upper crust? Well it popped up on airbnb. For less than $100 a night, you can have sweeping views of the New York City skyline, find a place to sleep near the hottest clubs, in fact you can literally have a bed anywhere in Manhattan you'd like to be. That's because you're renting a mattress in the back of a "van down by the river."

Yes, you read that right. New Yorkers are renting out vans as hotel rooms. Where do you S, S, and S? Well, most claim to be parked near public restrooms. Those that don't "offer" facilities, I guess Burger King is always an option. Shower? Why soil such a bohemian experience with cleanliness. This is a Dickensian bedroom for the 21st Century. 

It's also a case of life imitating art, as American Dad!'s Stan Smith tried to prove to his slacker daughter that he could live on $900 a month. To do so, he bathed in public fountains, survived on free samples of pizza bagels, and slept in the back of a Pontiac Aztec.

Migrants, Ibrahim, Mingora-Philadelphia

Apparently I'm a bit behind on my Philadelphia murals and the works of famous street artists. Walking down Chestnut Street something caught my eye: one gigantic mural of Enrique Iglesias!

What? Why? I mean I love Enrique Iglesias, but why here?

Well, obviously I was wrong. 

It's actually a gigantic mural by a French street artist known only as "JR." The fifteen story mural of Ibrahim Saha, a Pakistani immigrant and Philadelphia resident, on the Graham Building is tucked in a small side street. Titled Migrants, Ibrahim, Mingora-Philadelphia, it is part of a global series focusing on immigration issues.

The mural is pretty astounding, even in just its size and photographic realism. Although not as abstract or unusual as JR's other works around the world, the large black and white portrait along Philadelphia's emerging shopping strip might get mistaken for a Calvin Klein billboard by some less informed passing by, myself obliviously included.