Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Macy's At Home Again in Center City

Why aren't Philadelphians making a bigger deal about the recent opening of Macy's new housewares department in its grand Center City store? Ever since the Market Street Strawbridge's closed in 2006, downtown residents have had very few outlets to purchase the necessities of good housekeeping , like sheets, towels and blankets.

Of course you could always visit K-Mart in the Gallery, which claims to feature Martha Stewart products. More often than not, though, the thing you came to buy would not be on the shelf. Or it wouldn't exist in the size you needed. Or the design quality was so horrendous that you just couldn't make yourself buy it. The experience always made me suspect the K in K-Mart actually stood for Kaos. The alternative was to trek out to the periphery, to a Target or a BedBathAndBeyond. But the odds of finding the right thing were in those places were only marginally better.

But now my prayers have been answered in the most wonderful way. Macy's has opened a real housewares department in a closed-0ff section of the third floor, a gorgeous high-ceiling space with an intact forest of the great old Wanamaker columns. Macy's basically painted the architecture white and threw in some new lights, but that's okay. It does the soul good to be able to squeeze the down pillows (Levels, 1,2 and 3) in such a glorious room. Macy's has made the whole housewares-buying experience far more civilized by offering an excellent selection of products, neatly displayed on dark wood shelves. Besides bedding and towels, they also sell kitchen items, vacuums, luggage and fancy dishes and silverware, at prices that seem competitive with Target's. The only odd note is that they have chosen to staff this domestic paradise with teenage boys.

Otherwise it's just like being in the suburbs!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Why We Can't Trust On-Line Polls

There was passion aplenty in response to my Friday column on Fox Chase Cancer Center's efforts to take over a third of Burholme Park so it can expand its medical operation. While it's all well and good and desirable for Fox Chase to grow and prosper, I took the position that it shouldn't do so by gobbling up public park land, especially when that land was bequeathed to the people of Philadelphia "forever" by the Burholme estate's former owner, Robert Waln Ryerss.

When I wrote that column, I assumed - naively, I guess - that I was pretty much arguing for the equivalent of mom and apple pie. Who could really take a hard-line in favor of paving over 20 acres of park?
Well, lots of people, it seems. If you read the on-line comments, you'll see many people think I am evil incarnate for favoring a park over a cancer treatment center. (Actually I think we should have both.) I was particularly surprised to see that the on-line poll the Inquirer sponsored favored Fox Chase's expansion by a landslide - 73 percent for Fox Chase, 27 percent for keeping the park intact. How interesting that so many people are willing to to get rid of a park. That bucks the conventional wisdom.

Then I received an email from a Fox Chase employee that made everything clear. It was sent out Friday afternoon by Fox Chase 's president. Remember it next time you look at one of those on-line polls.

Subject: Note from the President...Express yourself to the Inquirer

Dear Friends,
Some of you might have noticed an opinion piece in today's Inquirer that spoke negatively about our expansion into the park. Currently the Inquirer is conducting an online poll that will allow you to express your opinion as to whether we should be allowed to expand into Burholme Park.
I encourage you to log on to http://www.philly.com/ and cast your vote!
Michael Seiden

BTW: The Sledding painting above is by Rob Lawlor, whose artwork is inspired by Northeast scenes.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Planning Starts for Downtown Casino

The Nutter Administration
isn't wasting any time in laying the planning groundwork for a Center City casino. No sooner did City Council approve the creation of a Market Street entertainment district yesterday , then the Planning Department and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. posted advertisements seeking five separate consultants to help the city prepare for the expected arrival of a Foxwoods slots parlor in the western end of The Gallery.
The job with the greatest implication for the city's future is the one listed third, calling for a firm capable of developing a strategic plan for the Market Street East corridor, from the Convention Center to Independence Mall, Chinatown to Wash West. The big reason that a Gallery-based casino has drawn such wide support is that many are convinced it will be the catalyst for new development on that tired street. Writing in the Center City District's Fall newsletter, Paul Levy argues that the casino will enable the city to use a special financing mechanism called a TIF to pay for infrastructure, transit and streetscape improvements, which would presumably make the street more attractive to hotels, retail and other development. It's astonishing how that once great shopping street has been allowed to languish. Poor Strawbridge & Clothier has been waiting for a suitor for well over a year. Which, of course, is nothing compared to the lifespan of the empty lot at 8th and Market - over 30 years. In the last few months, the number of empty storefronts has been increasing at an alarming clip.
Ideally, the development of the city's strategic plan will be accompanied by a vigorous public debate about how Market Street should evolve, similar to the open and lively conversations that occurred during the Penn Praxis study of the Delaware waterfront. Several people, including Levy in the Center City District newsletter, have been floating the idea of turning Market Street into Philadelphia's answer to Times Square, and allowing the same kind of exuberant lighting and signage. Just recently, the head of the Redevelopment Authority, Terry Gillen, who has been advising Mayor Nutter on the casinos, raised the possibility that SugarHouse may ask the city for a Market Street location - the obvious choice being the big empty lot at 8th and Market.
While Nutter says he strongly opposes a second downtown casino, it's not too early to start worrying that he could reverse that position. One casino, located on the third floor of the Gallery's anonymous box, is something, I believe, the area could absorb. But add a second, purpose-built casino and you start to create a gambling district. Better to talk about other uses that could be compatible with Foxwoods, like hotels and shops. It's not even unreasonable to imagine someday - after the current bust subsides - some residential towers creeping onto Market Street.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Caution Ahead: Council Votes on Foxwoods

Take a look of these photos of Harrah's New Orleans casino and tell me what you don't see.

Okay, I'll answer that. You don't see any big, revolving, neon, roof-top signs. Sure the building has decorative night-time lighting and signage. But what they have is surprisingly low-key and tasteful, the kind of lighting that you might find on any urban civic building. Even the hotel tower, shown to the right of the casino, has very minimal signage. Harrah's branding of its downtown casino largely amounts to a pair of its globe logos on pedestals flanking the entrance. There are also a pair of globes on the roof of the porte-cochere, visible in the photo below.

You know how Harrah's lighting scheme differs from the average casino? It's pitched to the pedestrian, not the car. You only need a revolving roof-top sign if you're trying to lure motorists off the highway.

I bring this up now because tomorrow City Council is scheduled to vote on the Commercial Entertainment District legislation that will pave the way for Foxwoods to open a slots-only casino in the Gallery shopping mall, at 11th and Market Streets. And that bill will allow way more intrusive lights than those allowed at Harrah's - including animated and revolving signs. The bill also says nothing about requirements for landscaping - one of the things that makes the New Orelans casino so attractive - or transparency at street level.

New Orleans is currently the biggest city in America with a downtown casino. If Foxwoods jumps from the Delaware waterfront to the Gallery, Philly will gain that title. As I argued in a recent column, I think the move makes the best of the bad hand that Philadelphia was dealt by Gov. Rendell and the state legislature when they legalized slots-only gambling.

That said, I'm starting to worry that the Nutter Administration and City Council are moving too fast to facilitate the move. There are still lots of issues that need to be clarified. Signage is one. As I wrote in my column, Nutter has a responsibility to assure Chinatown that it will be protected.

How will the mayor prevent this great neighborhood - the last in the city where people live, work and shop - from being swamped with pawn shops and check-cashing outlets? What kind of planning and streetscape improvements can be made to buffer Chinatown from casino-related nuisances? How does the city expect to control traffic flow and parking to minimize the impact on Chinatown? Of course, the city doesn't have all the answers yet. That will take serious planning and traffic studies. But the city should be able to provide a general overview of its strategy.

Administration officials insist that it's still early days. They say the zoning bill is merely a first step, and that Foxwoods still must win approval for a Plan of Development from the Planning Commission. Part of the problem, I think, is that Chinatown bet the house on keeping Foxwoods out of the Gallery, rather than negotiating for protections. Now that it looks like they lost that game, it's crucial that the neighborhood representatives start negotiating with city officials for guarantees. And it's crucial that Nutter Administration and City Council respond in good faith.

Weak Market Hits MoMA Pre-Fabs

Not that we need any more evidence that the real estate market is frozen, but it appears that the architects who participated in this summer's widely-praised MoMA show on pre-fab design can't sell their model houses. So reports New York Magazine . Only the smallest of the bunch, the MicroCompact House (watch the video) managed to snag a buyer. Meanwhile several other architects are slashing prices. Not Philly's own Kieran Timberlake, which listed its Cellophane House for $1.75 million. They're disassembling the see-through house and will store it till they get their prices. Any collectors out there?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Green Light for Transit

Navigating Philadelphia's underground transit system has always been a challenge, particularly for occasional users. SEPTA's underground offers riders an abundant, but confusing, choice of "modes" - that is, subway, trolleys and regional rail lines - not to mention connections to Jersey's Hi-Speed Line. Then there is the diabolically confusing nomenclature for the services. Are you looking for the trolley to West Philadelphia or the Subway-Surface Line or the Green Line? My greatest sympathy goes out to the poor out-of-town souls struggling to find their way to the exact right spot on the right platform for the right regional rail train going in the right direction.

In the hope of standardizing the system, the Center City District commissioned a bunch of new signs, which were unveiled last week. They're doing a trial run to see how people like them. So in addition to any comments you leave here, be sure to register your two cents at the district's special website.

The District's goal is to mark every underground transit entrance, and every bus and trolley stop, with the lighted green T sign you see in the first photo. The poles can take up to four vertical signs identifying the lines that are accessible from that entrance. The designers - Joel Katz Design Associates and the Bresslergroup - have standardized the colors. Blue is Market-Frankford, Orange is Broad Street. Additionally, the district wants to dispense with the various names for the trolleys and identify those lines exclusively as....Trolley, which gets a green sign.
In some respects, the system is similar to what's there now. (see second photo). But the designers cleaned up the graphics and presentation. They've also ditched SEPTA's familiar, patriotically-colored, double-chevron logo. I agree it's high-time to retire this Bicentennial hold-over. I like the look of the green T, with its stylized rail lines, though I do worry it won't work as well at bus stops. The last we need is two identifying markers.
If you wander near SEPTA's concourse entrances at 15th and Market, you'll as see some additional signage. You may
recognize the look of these wayfinding signs from the green destination signs that you see around down. Katz design created those too.

The idea of standardizing and color-coding SEPTA's various service seems like a good idea, but I wonder if it's as simplified as it could be. If you're a tourist, the words "Market-Frankford" and "Broad Street Line" might not be all that illuminating. (Especially when you're told that you have to go downstairs to get to the El.) Would we better off if every rail, trolley and bus line were assigned given a number and a color?

I also believe that bus routes remain one of SEPTA's closely guarded secrets. Yes, you can view a schematic image of each route if you go to SEPTA's site. But those pitifully scanned versions of their paper schedules are hard to decipher. Why can't SEPTA at least post these schematics at the bus stops, as New York does, so you can figure out where a particular bus goes at the stop? And would it be too much to ask for SEPTA to show the points where you can make connections to other bus and rail routes?

Monday, November 03, 2008

Smaller Casino is a Better Casino

To the surprise of no one, City Council's rules committee gave its blessing Saturday to a bill that would rezone the Gallery shopping mall for gambling and a Foxwoods slots parlor. The next step is for the entire council to take up the measure, which would create an overlay for an entertainment district on Market Street, between 8th and 12th Streets. Although it appears that the city is eager to smooth the way for Foxwoods, to get its planned casino off the Delaware Waterfront, City Commerce Director Andrew Altman says that the gambling operator still must clear several planning hurdles before it can move into the western block of the mid-'70s shopping mall, a joint design by what was then Bower and Fradley (nowB LT) and Cope Linder Associates.

In Friday's column, I suggested that one of the city's key demands should be the right-sizing of Foxwoods to fit more comfortably onto Market Street. Events have been happening so fast since Gov. Rendell announced that he would consent to the downtown location that there hasn't been any serious reconsideration of what sort of casino Foxwoods should operate at 11th and Market. As I argued on Friday, and in a similar vein back in September, it's dumb for the state to think you can "simply move a replica of Foxwoods' waterfront slots parlor to a downtown location." Foxwoods, like all the slots barns in Pennsylvania, was conceived as a stand-alone, highway box with 5,000 slot machines and a massive parking garage. (See my column on Harrahs Chester.) Altman and the rest of the Nutter Administration already acknowledge that a casino garage probably won't be necessary downtown, since the Gallery sits the region's best mass transit nexus. Now it's time for them to tell the governor that 5,000 slots isn't necessary or desirable either.