Friday, July 1, 2016

Philadelphia's Polished Turd

In Inga Saffron's latest article, she refers to Brickstone's East Chestnut development as a "Cinderella transformation," and spends a lot of words gushing about Blackney Hayes traditional design for The Collins, named for the Oppenheim, Collins & Co. department store the developer partially demolished. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm one of Saffron's biggest fans. My mom referred to her as "a modern day Ayn Rand," and politics aside, I tend to agree. Her passion for architecture as art has helped elevate her readers' demands for quality design well above the expectations in bigger and "better" cities. And more to the point, her articles - including this one - avoid the academic mumbo-jumbo that plague architectural critiques and alienate lay readers in the Times.

But on East Chestnut, I don't see a Cinderella Story, at least not one that turns a peasant into a princess. A DelCo prom queen, maybe. East Chestnut Street's renaissance, one piece in the larger transformation taking place east of Broad, isn't a fairy tale bringing about something uniquely special. It isn't Walnut Street, Passyunk Square, The Piazza, or even South Street. From the Convention Center District to what I loathe to call Midtown Village, the change unfolding is textbook urban-suburbanization carbon copied from second rate cities around the country. 

And Philadelphia is better than Indianapolis. 

Although East Chestnut is currently seeing a few quirky independent and local businesses emerge from the wreckage of 1976's ridiculous Chestnut Street Transway, the trend won't stick. Philly Cupcake already closed due to increased rent, MilkBoy is on its way to South Street, and I Goldberg is looking for a new home. The Collins, and NREA's East Market a block away, will put a lot of residents east of Broad and even more pedestrians on the sidewalks, but don't expect the kinds of locals that transformed West Walnut Street to be filling their beds. 

East Chestnut's transformation, and more broadly East Market's, is not one of local wizardry. It isn't the dynamic and uniquely Philadelphian approach that piqued the nation's interest in the early 2000s and put us back on the map. It isn't Susanna Foo and Alma de Cuba and Rouge and Astral Plane and all the weirdly fabulous places that made Philadelphia the "it" place to be for those in-the-know.

It's corporate. It's Target. And it's everything that demands more chains.

While PREIT's renovations at the Gallery may have stalled, there is no doubt in my mind that Market East is poised to take off. Curmudgeonly locals may claim that Market East will never be more than a Hooverville illuminated in LED ads for Dunkin' Donuts, but they'll be eating crow the moment East Market opens their doors. I'm not being optimistic when I say this. I don't like the model East Market and East Chestnut have chosen, but mark my words, there will be a crane on the Disney Hole in less than ten years. And it will be because of Target. 

Target is a beast, but it's a suburban beast, even when it's downtown. All you need to do is look to nearby cities to see what follows. The Target in Washington D.C. reinvented Columbia Heights, a neighborhood demographically similar to Market East, and it did so by cramming the trappings of suburbia into a mini-mall. The area surrounding it is chock full of luxury apartments, shiny and new, but in no way reminiscent of their environs. Columbia Heights now looks like its inner-suburban cousins in Clarendon and Crystal City, all thanks to Target, its only lingering urbanity the low income residents City Council requires they continue to house.

A block from our own City Hall without similar housing requirements in place, Market East and East Chestnut are poised to be even more bland because it will be empirically desirable to the Starbucks and beer swilling Basic B's and Bros. It will no doubt be lauded as "cool," but no one's really cool when everyone is.

Within a one or two block radius, Target will suck everything into its high-rent orbit. After its first Michael Graves tea kettle leaves the checkout aisle, it's only a matter of time before property owners begin upping their rent or selling out to national developers, before Cella Luxuria and Lapstone & Hammer start looking for other neighborhoods. We won't see the kind of organic transformation that created Walnut Street, instead we'll see University City downtown. Another Chipotle. A sushirrito joint. Another Starbucks. Then another. Then another. Then a Comcast Experience Store. Sure, that's just capitalism, but unchecked it eradicates diversity and creates neighborhoods for the most mundane un-individals. New Philadelphians who dedicate Instagram accounts to Chipotle despite what happens to their bodies seven hours later.

These are people who don't get cities, and don't get local businesses. These are people who look at the corner dry cleaner with disdain and say, "that would make such a great gastropub." These are the people who will be Market East. And they'll be the first to leave when their kids reach pre-k and realize just how bad our schools are, because they helped crowd-fund a beer garden instead of a library.

It's not necessarily bad for Center City, at least as a whole, or financially. Downtown Philadelphia needed a place to dump its suburban garbage, and ever since Kmart closed, people have needed a place to buy kitty litter and toothpaste. Target - three of them in fact - is our answer. But don't fool yourself into thinking that the 1100 block of Chestnut Street is some kind of Cinderella Story unless your notion of Cinderella picked up her gown under the fluorescent glow of a Target and chucked it into a shopping cart next to a box of Tampax and a plastic barrel of cheese balls. 

East Chestnut and the greater Market East vicinity is undergoing a transformation, but it's purely pragmatic. A place for auto-tethered Millennials to pretend they're being urban and conventioneers to find a little piece of Oklahoma City. It's going to be big, it's going to be shiny, and it's going to change Center City Philadelphia. But the only thing that will make it unique is that it will upend everything that has made our city so special. 

Our individuality. 

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