Wednesday, May 25, 2016

We CAN Demand Better

Remember when we were supposed to get this...

...or this...

...and got this?

What happened? Well, the first two renderings were for a proposed W Hotel and Residences at 12th and Arch, now underway at 15th and Chestnut. The third is the Hilton Home2 Suites, a commercially branded turd of corporate anti-design meant to offer guests a sense of a Turnpike Pizza Hut-turned-Chinese buffet that everyone still recognizes as a Pizza Hut, and probably still smells like one.

Once the epitome of grandeur and high society, the problem with today's rent-by-the-week architecture is that it's designed for those who see a city for only a week. They offer a comfortable bed, free WiFi, continental breakfast, and a gateway to the action. But what they leave for locals is a concrete shell cased in trademarked colors and adorned with plastic signage that has nothing to do with a city.

And they honestly have no reason to care. Their investment isn't in Philadelphians, it's in schlepping rooms at a competitive price from architecture that requires the littlest overhead.

In fact, with the exception of a few chain hotels operating out of buildings that were too historic to demolish, we have no iconic, big chain hotels that were built in the last twenty years. We have the Courtyard Marriott, the Residence Inn, the Ritz-Carlton, and of course the Loews Hotel at the PSFS Building. But when it comes to new construction, even Marriott settles. 

The outliers of branded design are high-end hotels, and in Philadelphia, only when accompanied by condos. The Ritz Residences, the W Hotel and Divine Lorraine under construction, and the proposed SLS International all offer units for both visitors, and locals who have to look at Philadelphia every day. If you need proof that corporate hotel design is a product of its tenants, there you have it. 

Pearl Properties is about to drop the first meaningful deuce on South Broad since the '70s, the prestigious Avenue of the Arts. Where a grimy parking garage still barely stands, Pearl will build the Cambria Hotel and Suites. Cambria is owned by Choice Hotels, the company behind brands like Econo Lodge and Roadway Inn, and its design isn't surprising. 

Few renderings show the entire building because it's just that boring.

Fabrezing the site's former parking garage could have at least earned it the title of polished shit, but the Cambria Hotel isn't even interesting enough to criticize. Its boring facade is deliberately designed to fade into the background on an Avenue where everything else was born to shine.

Like them or not, everything built on the Avenue since the 1980s - the Doubletree, Kimmel Center, Symphony House, 777 - was built to impress; to reflect, compliment, or contrast the Avenue's historic beauties. Heinous as some may be to the modern eye, they were all built with a message in mind.

What's ironic is that while we're embroiled in battles over local projects like Blatstein's contentious monolith at Broad and Washington, bickering over towers near Rittenhouse Square, the powers-that-be behind this commercialized brand of corporate architecture know exactly how to play the game. They know the zoning rules, and they don't challenge them. 

Whereas Starwood's plans for a well designed tower at 12th and Arch once drew a bit of anxiety from neighbors because of its height, Hilton's Home2 didn't because it couldn't. It didn't challenge the rules, it played by them. There was, and still is, nothing in place to challenge truly hideous, or just plain boring design, as long as it jives with the zoning in place. The city's Civic Design Review can hold a meeting, but it's ultimate verdict is only a recommendation. And it rarely gets involved in projects that don't challenge the city's zoning ordinances. 

Pearl's Cambria Hotel probably won't have any adverse impacts on the Avenue of the Arts, at least not in terms of the street's vibrancy. The building is too boring to stand out as an eyesore, and in Philadelphia we're still of the mindset that something is better than nothing. The Cambria will put more feet on the ground and more people on the Avenue, and it will provide the litmus test Pearl thinks it needs to move forward with its stunning SLS International Hotel and Residences nearby. 

"Boring" hotels used to look like this.

But it does set a new precedent at an address where every developer has at least tried since the early '80s, a precedent that says commercially branded design is okay at one of the city's most coveted addresses. If we're smart, we'll look at this as an opportunity to learn from our mistakes, what the city allows, and decide whether the Civic Design Review should be granted true authority over what gets built. And personally, with the right people involved, I think it should.

There is a lot of developable land on South Broad and even more on North Broad, and unless we change our attitude and begin to demand better design, we can expect a lot more Cambrias and Hilton Home2s on our premier avenues. They're the ones with the money to make it happen, but they're also the ones with the means to offer Philadelphia the designs it truly deserves. And we do deserve better. We're Philadelphia, for crying out loud, and we need to wake up and realize what that means. 

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