Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Would Bart live there?

The latest renderings for Bart Blatstein's yet-to-be named Broad & Washington project are in, and let's just say, there's a lot going on. Somewhere between the vision of a madman and an 11th grade shop class project, at least Broad & Washington gives us more to talk about than his (next) strip-mall proposed for Columbus Boulevard. 

jayfar at managed to dig up a twelve year old article that sheds a little light on Bart Blatstein's motivations, how the Piazza happened, and why he clings to the outdated ideas he knows too well. As it turns out, the Piazza wasn't so much a fluke as it was divine intervention from three other professionals who know a little more about urban spaces than the man who made a fortune paving over the waterfront. 

Back then, Inga Saffron suggested Blatstein read Suburban Nation, a book that both defines what makes a city walkable, and why people would want to walk there. He was also introduced to Tom McDonald, an architect and builder who suggested he consult the firm of Erdy-McHenry. McDonald offered his professional opinion and a sketch for a more urban-friendly project, one that would ultimately become the Piazza. 

Blatstein admits that his ego almost kept him from meeting with McDonald. It's not hard to imagine what Northern Liberties would feel like today without the Piazza, just take a look at the South Philadelphia Acme. But Blatstein reluctantly returned to McDonald's sketch and - frustrating as it was for him - found it to be too good of an idea to pass up. 

He hired Erdy-McHenry to design the buildings surrounding the Piazza, and their neo-brutalist apartment blocks put Philadelphia back on the architectural map. 

But old habits die hard, especially when fueled by an unchecked ego. In 2003, when Blatstein was trying to stray from formulaic shopping centers, he admitted his new ideas were "Disneyesque," his own word that perfectly describes his plans for Broad & Washington. When Blatstein treads into urbanism without consultation, his ideas attempt to blend the comforts of suburbia with the appearance of a city. He's reaching for an ideal that many developers would love to master, but one without precedent. 

He's actually onto something. A lot of New Philadelphians were raised in the suburbs, and they'd love to have city life with the lazy creature comforts of their parents' cul de sac. But suburbia simply can't exist within a true urban landscape. What makes one comfortable or convenient will always come at the cost of a comfort or convenience of the other. What defines urban and suburban make combining the two like bumping magnets together on the same side. You end up with this "Disneyesque" idea for Broad & Washington.

The tower itself, designed by Cope Linder, is astonishing in its sheer size, especially for a corner so far from the city's tallest, most massive skyscrapers. It will stand out, but it's size is a welcome addition to a block we now consider Center City, and the building doesn't look half bad. It may even encourage more dense, urban development on the suburbanized blocks of Broad between South and Washington. 

The superblock is relatively simple and conventional: big box retailers capped with a parking garage and apartments. You can find dozens of carbon copies from Beijing to Houston. But things get wacky on the roof. 

I get it, what do you do with that much unused space on top of a parking garage? Well, you could Google a few ideas or just look across the river at Cira Green. But Blatstein resurrected his tiny-town idea from the defunct Provence Casino plans at the Inquirer Building. 

The problem with the tiny-town idea is that Broad & Washington isn't Las Vegas, Hollywood, or Orlando. It's a dense, urban neighborhood with a lot of feet...on the ground. His elevated, outdoor shopping concourse is an asymmetrical cluster of shops and restaurants, mostly fortressed off by towers rendering any potential wow-factor from its elevation pointless. 

What views are offered don't even face the skyline. Who's going to go to Broad & Washington to eat at a Chili's that might - maybe - face Point Breeze? Aside from tourists, most urbanites shop at stores they see from the street. Can you imagine how depressing this place will be in the winter, two years in when the only retail left is a Santander bank and an Auntie Anne's? This begs the even more quizzical question: who's going to want to live in the apartments on top of these shops? It basically looks like an outlet mall. 

Urbex Instagrammers are going to love this place in ten years. 

Not that any of this matters. He's back in Atlantic City trying to resuscitate a town Donald Trump didn't even want. He might be just the man for that job, too. Atlantic City's quasi-urban outlet village is exactly where Blatstein's brain goes to when he tries to be urban on his own. Tiny-towns and faux shopping villages fly in destination cities and tourist traps, not because they're particularly good ideas, but because the vast majority of those walking the streets simply don't care about the quality of life in those places. 

Back at home he needs to adopt a bit of humility and accept the fact that he's a developer, not an architect or urban planner, and open himself up to insightful collaboration. As a man renovating his own private residence at one of the city's most urban addresses - Rittenhouse Square - he needs to ask himself of every project, "Would I live there?" 

If the answer's "no," it's probably a bad idea. 

And my guess is Bart Blatstein, even a poor Bart Blatstein, wouldn't want to live upstairs from a Modell's on top of a parking garage. 

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