Friday, July 11, 2008

Amenities Make the City

Increasingly, smart cities realize that amenities and parks make them desirable places. New York, one of the most densely populated cities in the country, is paving (or, unpaving) new ground for open space. As the New York Times reports today, the Bloomberg Administration is colonizing two lanes of Manhattan's fabled Great White Way for a strip park of lunch tables. Wonder if that would work on Market Street? Or, the Parkway? What automobile territory would you seize for people?
Speaking of seizing open space, my Changing Skyline column today offers a couple of alternatives to the Delaware Waterfront for the planned casinos.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

YIP to Nutter: Bring America's Mayors to Philly

What major American city has never hosted a national conference of the Mayors' Institute on City Design?

Yes, that would be Philadelphia.

The folks at Young Involved Philadelphia - one of the worst-named, but best-intentioned good-government groups in the city - recently discovered this embarrassing lapse and is beating the drum for the city to make amends. Last week, the group sent a letter to Mayor Nutter encouraging him to make up for Philadelphia's lack of hospitality by signing up immediately as a host city for the group. So far, Nutter hasn't sent out any invitations, or even responded to the group. What's he waiting for?

This kind of conference, which allows you to have your photo taken with all the marquee names of urban America, seems right up the alley of our publicity-savvy mayor. You get to show off your town to tourists, chow down in some choice local boites, trade municipal secrets - and then the Mayors' Institute picks up the tab for the event. The group so badly wants to hold its conference here that its director, Jess Wendover, recently asked a YIP member if he could help bring the subject to Nutter's attention. The Mayors' Institute was set up two decades ago to show America's urban leaders how design can be used to revitalize cities.It's a joint project of the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Architectural Foundation and the US Conference of Mayors.

Almost every big city worth its salt has hosted one of these conferences - Denver (Recognize Mayor John Hickenlooper in the photo above?), Chicago, D.C., New Orleans, Boston, Miami, Baltimore. It's true that Philadelphia did serve as the host for a regional conference in 2005, but Philly's mayor at the time neglected to show up. Lemme think - wasn't that John Street? Surely Mayor Nutter can do better.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Erdy McHenry Sails onto Mall

If you were too busy Friday enjoying the waves and the fireworks to read the Inquirer, you may have missed my Changing Skyline column on Erdy McHenry Architecture's newest building, a ship-tight, 28-foot-long, open-air cafe on Independence Mall. As these images by Roman Torres of Pixelcraft (none of which made it into Friday's Inquirer. Grrrrr!) suggest, their new Independence Al Fresco Cafe is a taut piece of architectural craftsmanship, unlike any of the uber-conser-vative structures that have been built on the mall. The cafe may appear to be just a simple park pavilion. But you really have to experience it to appreciate its beautiful efficiency and clever subversion of the mall's long-standing brick imperatives.
Erdy McHenry has been on a tear in Philadelphia since they completed One Hancock Square, the apartment building on Second Street in Northern Liberties, for developer Bart Blatstein. They've completed so many complex projects since then - Avenue North, a Drexel University residence - that it was a surprise to stumble upon a feature about the already-familiar Hancock Square in the June issue of Architectural Record. (Here's a short version). The story was a real coup for the firm. You could almost count on one hand the number of completed Philadelphia buildings that have made it into the architectural profession's official magazine in the past five or ten years - Vinoly's Kimmel, MGA's Penn Facilities building, Kling's De Seta building (okay, it's in Wilmington), Gluckman-Mayner's Perelman addition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
And there's more coming: the controversial and humongous Radian near the Penn campus and yet another student housing project for Drexel, now going up at 34th and Race Streets. The tower (left) is a circular structure that appears to spin as it rises and looks to be their most daring project yet. Its faceted opening will have views of Center City. Pretty nice digs for student housing. No wonder they don't call them dorms any more.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Filling the Convention Center's Gap

It looks like Phila-delphians will have to wait at least until September to find out how the Penn-sylvania Convention Center plans to fill the big Broad Street gap, created when the state Department of General Services callously tore down a group of protected buildings that were supposed to be incorporated into the center's new facade.

The Convention Center Authority, along with its bosses at DGS, had been expected to show up at the Art Commission's July 2 meeting with renderings in hand, showing how they intended to screen the three-sided opening where Pennsylvania Life Insurance Co. buildings once stood. (They were located just to the right of the now-departed Odd Fellows building, in the photo.) But the convention center isn't listed on tomorrow's Art Commission agenda and, since there is no August meeting, that brings us to September. No doubt, camouflaging DGS' mistake is turning out to be more complicated (and expensive) than first envisioned.

The front walls of the insurance company buildings, which included a remarkable addition by Philadelphia School architect Romaldo Giurgola, were originally supposed to be woven into the center's long glass front, perhaps to house a restaurant. So, why not just continue the center's airport-modern glass facade a bit further south on Broad Street? That's not so easily done, it seems. The center's design has an elevator core at the back wall of the gap, which is about 40 feet in from the original streetwall. So the three-sided space is something of a dead end. At one point the convention center said it would turn the gap into a pocket park. But the park would be so tiny and closed in, some complain it would end up a dark hang-out for the homeless - a waste of public space. Another reason why the expanded convention center is likely to end up the SUV of meeting halls.