Saturday, March 19, 2016

Philadelphia's Next Downtown

If you've been following local architecture news, you've seen Drexel's transformative Schuylkill Yards proposal and Amtrak's plans for the actual rail yard. It's a doozy. In fact, the last time anything this city-altering faced Philadelphia was when Broad Street Station was demolished and the central business district was moved from Old City to West Market.

Unfortunately, that massive demovelopment coincided with an exodus that saw Philadelphia lose the population of Atlanta. It took decades for the skyscrapers we now know as "downtown" to fill the void Broad Street Station left behind. More than fifty years later, there are still remnants of the "Chinese Wall" and massive parking lots in its wake.

Fortunately, the master plans taking shape west of the Schuylkill aren't being drawn with the same raze-and-pray approach that wrecked the historic Broad Street Station. But the idyllic renderings being thrown around the media and blogosphere should also be taken with a grain of salt. Keep in mind, the longest running of these concepts isn't meant to be completed until 2050. I'll be in my 70s, and I like to think I'm still young...ish. 

I'm not getting too excited because (if) these plans bring of a forest of skyscrapers to 30th Street Station three decades from now, I'll have to enjoy them from a virtual reality cafe in the floating city of New Miami (yes, I paraphrased a 30 Rock quote).

For a realistic look at these wild proposals, the definitive voice for Philadelphia architecture and development - Inga Saffron - has a pretty spot-on breakdown of at least four projects set to change what we think of University City, and "downtown" Philadelphia.

What we do know is something will happen. Drexel has partnered with Brandywine Realty Trust, and Brandywine is one of the region's largest real estate investors. When Brandywine's Cira South was proposed, it seemed like a pie-in-the-sky idea. Cira Centre itself was a Cesar Pelli work of art, but the audacious proposal for two more - maybe a third - Cira tower was a little too much for the Negadelphians of the early 21st Century to accept. But it happened, and it looks even better than it did when it was first pitched.

Considering Brandywine's investment in neighboring projects, and its proven ability to pull off a "master plan," it's a good sign for architecture fans that they've been tapped for Schuylkill Yards. Basically, they're a fan of good design, urbanism, and they get shit done.  

At the same time, keep in mind the renderings being passed around the internet are conceptual. Don't hold your breath for that whacky skyscraper in the middle. It will probably look a lot different when it happens, if it happens. Amtrak's plans for capping the railroad tracks are even more farfetched, and that's by no means a new idea. Property value in the vicinity would have to become so astronomically high that the expensive endeavor of building atop the tracks would outweigh creeping into Powelton Village and Mantua. Unlike Hudson Yards, Amtrak's plan doesn't have Manhattan humping its ass. 

Nevertheless, it's a very good sign that Philadelphia's developers and universities are looking at Philadelphia with optimism, and that Amtrak has recognized this city as a valuable hub. 

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