The Clothespin in Chains
That sounds benign enough. But you need to know that the stairway's reconfiguration was motivated by a desire to clear the lively meeting spot of some of its liveliness. Because of its location at the confluence of all the Philadelphia transit lines, the Clothespin corner has become an irresistible magnet for vendors, preachers, protesters, and hucksters of all kinds. Those characters make for great street entertainment if you're just hanging around a few minutes waiting for a friend. But I can understand how running that chaotic gantlet could be annoying if you work the building. With the complex's major tenant, Comcast, about to decamp for new digs on JFK Boulevard, Centre Square's owners, HRPT Properties Trust, decided it was time to upgrade the property. They're spending $20 million on a variety of improvements. They've already managed to lease 70 percent of Comcast's 400,000-square-feet, according to the building's manager, Dave Campoli.
If you haven't noticed the exterior changes so far, that's because they're not all that much different than what was there before. Some new signs have gone up over the stores on 16th Street. Perhaps the best improvement so far is the immense glass window that was installed over the main entrance at 15th and Market. It lightens up the heavy bulk of the 1973 design that Eric Chung did for Kling. But if HRPT hopes to nudge the plaza environment upmarket, they'll have to focus on busting open the retail spaces along both 15th and Market Streets, camouflaged by forbidding, three-story-high walls of dreary gray concrete. Nothing would change the mood of the plaza like a decent cafe or restaurant, with tables spilling onto the plaza. Alas, HRPT has that prime retail leased to the most boring retail users in the universe, Sovereign and Wachovia banks, at least through 2011.
We should see results sooner at Clothespin plaza, which is supposed to be finished in early July. Campoli says the redesign calls for defining the property line (ie. plaza boundaries) more assertively. Daroff is installing large planters along the edges. Campoli promised they would be at a convenient sitting height - unlike the fortifications that the Duane Morris law firm had installed on 17th Street, as part of its 'Keep Out' campaign. That renovation, which includes the fenced-off Lichtenstein sculpture, is an example of a disturbing trend of privatizing formerly public spaces. Cities are one of the last places in America where people of all kinds can mix and mingle serendipitously.
The news isn't all bad. The new Domus apartments at 34th and Chestnut Streets just yesterday unveiled a wonderful public sculpture and plaza by Dennis Oppenheim, called Wave Forms, which provides a great welcoming canopy to building's public plaza. The developers there clearly understand a thing or two about the role of retail in encouraging street life.
Without such gathering spots, Philadelphia will be be a poorer place. So keep your fingers crossed that, when the construction at Centre Square is over, we'll still be able to say, "Meet me at the Clothespin."