Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Little Building that Could

Right now, FMC is redefining the University City skyline and Comcast is building the nation's tallest skyscraper outside Chicago or New York. Starwoods is filling a hole at 15th and Chestnut with a Bladerunner-esque W Hotel and NREA is gambling on Market East with East Market. But the most important development taking place in Center City right now is on a little corner most residents have forgotten and fewer have bothered to visit. 

I've lived across the street from the historic Big Brother Big Sisters building for about eight years now, and I've watched anti-developers bulldoze building after building, and I really thought that the BBBS building would be next. Aside from the grandiose buildings demolished for the Convention Center's expansion, most of the damage has been in the way of abandoned, one-story warehouses - no great loss - but typically replaced by more surface parking. 

If you think the Gallery was a bad idea, just walk up to 13th and Vine.

As drab as it looks in renderings, Marriott's AC Hotel capping to the BBBS building is a welcome addition to my neighborhood.

Within the last few weeks, another old warehouse bit the dust. Unfortunately, a very cute apartment building went with it, and as far as I know, there are no plans for the site but more parking, apparent in the fact that the rubble was paved over in a day. It's amazing how long it takes for a potentially iconic piece of architecture to receive approval, yet how fast and inconspicuously another can be flattened. 

The problem with this area is one that enables itself. Surface lot owners are lowly taxed and make bank off their lack of overhead. They occasionally pay for a minimum wage parking attendant, and barely maintain the asphalt. The rest is profit. The only time something gets developed around here is when something else gets torn down.

I've seen single buildings razed for no more than three parking spaces. The demolition is justified as a way to "clear the land" for speculative development, but if the property ever goes on the market, it goes on the market for twice its value because the profit margin on surface parking is so high. It's literally cheaper to demolish a building in this neighborhood and start from scratch than it is to build on a "cleared lot" advertised as "developable land." 

What's most unnerving is how the cycle perpetuates itself. Surface parking on its own isn't a demand, but parking always will be, garaged or otherwise, because people are friggin' lazy. But surface parking scars the urban landscape and makes it undesirable for development. Over time, as surface parking grows, the reason to park there disappears. 

My hometown of Harrisonburg, VA learned the hard way. With two large garages perfectly situated north and west, "downtown" was primed for a renaissance in the 1980s. People - the laziest people - didn't like walking two blocks, and parking "development" inched closer and closer to Court Square until every reason to ever go downtown was demolished. Twenty years later, and in a city with 1.5M more residents, I find myself living in the the middle of the exact same situation. 

There isn't a single block of Center City real estate that doesn't have surface parking on it, yet we continue to allow it to chip away at our urban fabric. Had the historic Gimbels Department Store not been demolished for speculative development, it's hard to imagine real estate so close to City Hall would be so hard to unload. Even abandoned, that handsome piece of architecture would put more feet on to the cement than the Disney Hole provides in parking.

I'd rather walk by this - abandoned - than another surface lot.

My neighborhood - roughly bound by Broad, 11th, Market, and Vine - was Ground Zero for decades of civic redevelopment projects. Boxed in by the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Vine Street Expressway, Market East Station, and the Gallery, it's become the bilge water for the city's bad ideas. The Convention Center has finally proven itself great for the region, but that isn't so great for its neighbors. 

While City Planners and NIMBYs continued to argue over minute details elsewhere, an entire neighborhood has been almost exterminated. 

I wish we still sidled up to some of the lofty warehouses that were here before the first leg of the PCC. If we were ever a part of Callowhill, that was the time. As it stands, we should be an extension of the Loft District, but Callowhill's neighborhood organization wants nothing to do with us. Who can blame them? Fighting surface lots is a Sisyphean task. At best we're under the PCDC, not the most progressive group. 

But we are a neighborhood and a place Philadelphians call home. Marriott's AC Hotel might not bring more residents, but it adds to our sense of purpose. Our most impressive addition in the last twenty years has been the Hampton Inn, and while it's far from the best, its guests helped open the QQ Mart, run by one of the sweetest families you'll ever meet. 

Philadelphia is doing great right now. It's hard to look at projects at 19th and Chestnut or 12th and Walnut without asking, "shouldn't we expect more?" But up at 13th and Vine - shoehorned between a highway and a massive project that should have come with its own parking - we don't have that luxury. We're begging for the developmental and architectural scraps, all in the hopes that it may someday bring more people, and eventually something better. The fact that anyone is talking about Marriott's AC Hotel means this lost corner of Center City - a corner a few blocks from City Hall - is relevant once again. 

I have one of the best views of the city from my third floor bedroom window: the skyline atop the historic Big Brothers Big Sisters buildings. But despite my view and comparatively cheap rent, I'd trade it in a second for foot traffic and a brick wall filled with neighbors.  

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. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Marketplace Design Center

With the Schuylkill River transforming into "Downtown Philadelphia" before our eyes, PMC Property Group planning to transform the Marketplace Design Center into a 22 story office and residential complex. If you're not sure where that is, look for the whale mural facing the river. 

Given Cira Centre, One Riverside, and CHoP's Schuylkill Avenue expansion, it isn't the most ambitious design. On its own, it's not bad. But pictured from another angle, one from the south in which the PECO Building would be in view, that's an awful lot of black paneling and dark windows. Paired with the river's emerging crystalline skyline, Market Street might feel like Happy Hour on the Death Star. 

That's not to say a break wouldn't be bad. 

Every new building blooming from the banks of the Schuylkill looks like a shard of quartz. Handsome buildings on their own, but grouped together they look like the Starfleet Academy. Currently complemented by the Art Deco 30th Street Station and IRS Headuarters, even PECO's foreboding facade, they could use a bit more to dull the monotony, and 2400 Chestnut isn't cutting it.

In fact, giving the boomtown the riverfront is becoming, it might be time for 2400 Chestnut to think about skinning its facade in something a little more interesting. Flanked by soon-to-be Darth Vadar's condo and my pipe dream that Mandeville Place will ever return, 2400 Chestnut is the riverfront's lone pimple. It might soon be time to OxyCute it. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Why are we still talking about Bart Blatstein?

At the height of the building boom, Bart Blatstein, the developer behind the Piazza at Schmidt's, was lauded by locals as a pioneering visionary. His quasi-public plaza in the not-quite-there-yet Northern Liberties was seen as a daring and risky move, and Erdy-McHenry's architecture cradled that. Philadelphia's press and bloggers couldn't get enough of Blatstein.

He was the man that was going to reinvent the city, the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg.

His company, Tower Investments, has managed to make a name for itself. The former State Office Building on North Broad was renovated and rebranded Tower Place, and several of Tower's other projects handsomely compliment the Piazza. 

For years, Blatstein taunted the press with his next move. He got his hands on the Inquirer Building and proposed the Provence Casino. He snagged the long vacant corner of Broad and Washington where he pitched twin towers and a shopping complex. He partnered in a deal for the Delaware Station to convert the industrial relic into a massive event space. 

Then he set his sights on Atlantic City, began renovating the Pier Shops at Caesars, and it seemed he had abandoned Philadelphia and anyone who gave a shit about his portfolio of unused properties. 

But the truth is, he never left. Whenever we thought he was gone, he'd find himself an unintended voice in a story involving local development. Just two weeks ago he told BizJournal's Natalie Kostelni, "It's time" for North Broad Street, yet half of his vested interest in the Avenue sits vacant. Maria Panaritis dedicated an entire article to the man dubbing him a risk taker, opening exclusively with a love letter to the man's private Rittenhouse mansion.

Meanwhile, developers like National Real Estate Advisors are moving mountains on East Market. Brandywine is redefining the University City skyline with a renowned architecture firm's skyscraper. Liberty Property Trust is partnered in building the tallest building between New York and Chicago. 

While NREA, Brandywine, and Liberty are faceless entities, perhaps it's a man the press is enamored with. Eric Bumenfeld is a similar developer who garners similar attention, but he's hardly a celebrity in the local press. Carl Dranoff, though he's never done anything exceptionally daring or reinvented the wheel, is consistently building and clearly loves working more than attention. 

As someone who made one good move and a few decent ones over the past decade, why do we still care so much about Bart Blatstein? Like someone who just won the lottery, Bart Blatstein can't seem to focus his attention on one purchase, project, or investment. He sprays a sense of capitalistic ADHD across the Jerseyvania Triangle in disordered chaos, that is until he wants to grab a headline. 

Unlike Blumenfeld or Dranoff, and certainly straying from the formality of NREA, Brandywine, and Liberty; Blatstein has become Philadelphia's Donald Trump. Wherever there's a reporter, he's there to tell us what we want to hear: Broad and Washington will be amazing, the Inquirer Building will reinvent North Broad, and that abandoned power station on the Delaware River will be the East Coast's Coachella. 

He's a showman through and through, and it's beginning to look like the one thing he did smashingly perfect - the Piazza - was nothing but a fluke. 

But it wasn't a fluke nor was it that risky. There are a few pieces of Blatstein's portfolio that strategically lack a photograph on his company's website, namely River View and Columbus Crossing, that prove he isn't the urban trailblazer that brought feet back to the sidewalks of Philadelphia.

Neither an indie developer who rewrote urbanism nor one who altruistically saved a piece of North Broad modernism, Blatstein is a calculated businessman who bankrolled projects like the Piazza by first solidifying Columbus Boulevard as a piss-poor suburban wasteland by making strip-malls the new South Philly normal. 

With Blumenfeld bringing the Divine Lorraine back to life and Dranoff keeping urbanism tight, why is Blatstein still the press's Man of the Hour?

Like so many other charismatic moneymen, years of reveals for "the next Piazza" have been nothing more than a dog and pony show. Flashy renderings of towers flanking Broad and Washington and defunct plans for a casino atop the Inquirer Building serve to both distract and divide the public while the media, knowing how easy it is to jingle a set of keys in front of its readers, is his worthy partner. 

Past the pomp and soundbites, he's up to his old tricks. It was recently announced that Blatstein has proposed another strip-mall at Columbus Boulevard and Washington Avenue, a car-centric project that will put the kibosh on the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation's plans to replicate the success of the Schuylkill Banks on the eastern shores of the city. 

Unfortunately for Blatstein, his proposal was almost universally panned. Drexel University's Harris Steinberg called it "a regression." Jason Bock, who helped Blatstein plan the damn thing, even said, "it's going to be an urban development that's going to look like a suburban development."

These aren't words many Philadelphians this side of the New Millennium really want to hear. Given Bock's comments and Blatstein's vision, it would seem that the man who invented the American Piazza doesn't necessarily get urbanism or the New Philadelphians who largely make up his market. Inga Saffron was even more blunt on Facebook, posting, "Guess Bart Blatstein has given up on that new urbanist stuff."

While it's true that the Piazza may never have happened without Columbus Crossing or River View, that doesn't mean either had to happen, and certainly doesn't mean either should happen again. The success of the Piazza and Tower Place have proven that urbanism isn't risky. In fact, it's exactly what Philadelphia wants right now. 

But old habits die hard.

Strip-malls are cheap cash cows, at least for now. If another one on Columbus Boulevard can fund the transformation of Broad and Washington, I'll take it. But with so many other developers truly embracing Philadelphia's urban roots, why is the man who built one good thing once upon a time still the public's go-to guy when the latest thing he's released is so uninspired and architecturally irresponsible? 

We don't need to make any assumptions when it comes to Bart Blatstein and his attitude towards the better city we'd all like to have. Take his own words on the Delaware River Trail, 
"In spirit, I am for the river trail. In reality, it would be sold for a fraction of the market value of the property."

That's no architectural superhero, and not a Philadelphian we should be idolizing. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

S.S. United States Revisited

If you've been following the fate of the S.S. United States, the "big ship down by IKEA," you probably already know that it's been given a stay of execution. Forgive me if I'm not as optimistic as the internet, by Crystal Cruise's interest in returning the ship to service is far from a done deal. 

Personally, I think returning the historic ocean liner to service is the option most befitting her history. Permanently docking her on the Delaware in Philadelphia a la Long Beach's Queen Mary would be a boon for the city and tourism, but that's kind of like embalming a race horse and putting its shellacked corpse in the Kentucky Derby parking lot. 

For the S.S. United States to set sail again would be a true testament to her greatness, but also an unprecedented one. Today, Cunard's RMS Queen Mary 2 is the only true ocean liner in service. "But wait," you say, "there are hundreds of cruise ships floating around the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. What makes Queen Mary - and the S.S. United States - so special?" 

Christened in 2004, the Queen Mary 2 was built for transatlantic crossings. Launched in 1952, the S.S. United States was designed for European and American tourists who had not yet fully embraced air travel. When planes took over the travel industry, true ocean liners all by died. The ships we have today, magnificent and massive as they are, are not designed for choppy, intercontinental travel, at least not with thousands of passengers on board. 

Despite the S.S. United State's transatlantic record, there simply isn't a huge market for tourists who want to spend two days in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And there is next to no market for round-trip intercontinental travel. The Queen Mary 2 spends the year traversing the globe. Its passengers either fly to a port and sail home, or endure a plane ride home from their destination. Very few have the means, time, or desire to spend a year on the ship. 

None of this means that Crystal Cruise's interest in the S.S. United States is a lost cause, and returning her to transatlantic travel is probably only a quizzical curiosity in the company's business plan. Throughout maritime history, a number of ocean liners have been refitted, renovated, or gutted to serve as cruise ships that slowly bobble throughout the islands, and that's likely what Crystal Cruise has in mind for the S.S. United States. 

What is more worrisome is what will become of her once Crystal Cruise signs the deal, purchases the ship, and carts her off. The S.S. United States became a local cause exclusively because she was so visible. IKEA placed its cafeteria in direct sight of the behemoth complete with a massive picture window solely so customers could take a look and snap pictures. If she had been rusting away in Norfolk, dwarfed by Naval vessels and visible only from the highway, she likely would have been melted down for scrap years ago. 

Her visible position is what piqued the interest of Philadelphians, and it's Philadelphians that have staved off her execution. Once the S.S. United States leaves Pier 82 for Crystal Cruise's headquarters in Hong Kong her fate will be in the hands of a new set of local aficionados, maritime enthusiast, and a company interested in making her profitable. Will our historical attention spans endure the entirety of our planet, or will most of us Philadelphians simply forget about the S.S. United States if and when she leaves our port?