Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Philadelphia Rendering Rundown: Tower Investments

The Piazza at Schmidt's, photo by Philly Skyline

Among Philadelphia's major real estate development firms, Tower Investments is a most interesting case. The firm had a rather unexceptional beginning in 80s and 90s as a builder of generic, auto-oriented, big box shopping centers, which unfortunately often found themselves near the city's Delaware and Schuylkill riverfronts. Then sometime in the last decade, Tower gradually abandoned its sprawl-type development model in favor of dense, walkable urbanism. Its latest project, the Piazza at Schmidt's, is an ambitious mix of warehouse to condo conversions and stylish new construction, joined together by a spacious plaza flanked by independent restaurants, shops, and galleries. It received a slew of positive press when it opened in May, and I have no doubt that it is Philadelphia's most significant single development project in decades.

So I was more than a bit excited to see these renderings of Tower's upcoming projects posted in the windows of its Northern Liberties office:

The Shops and Residences at Schmidt's:

The Shops and Residences at Schmidt's will replace a currently enormous vacant lot just north of the Piazza at Schmidt's, on the northern end of Northern Liberties. The project includes a large supermarket, more shops, a bit of park space, and two residential high-rises. The shape of this project is the result of years of discussions and negotiations between the developer and neighborhood groups, and has evolved substantially from an original proposal that included a substantial amount of surface parking. The end result however, is a large parking garage hidden from the street by a continous street wall of retail spaces and town houses. Multinational architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle is behind the design.

State Office Building

Tower completed its purchase last year of the former State Office Building on North Broad Street, one of the city's Modernist icons, and intends to convert the building to residential use, while adding an adjoining tower by H2L2 Architects. The tower's original very Modernist concrete plaza will be replaced by a retail podium.

The Residences at Avenue North

Unlike the above two projects, this one seems to be fairly new and has yet to receive any press that I know of. This seems to be another residential addition to Tower's Avenue North theater and retail complex up in Templetown, which already includes one similarly-sized tower behind the one in the rendering.

This is an impressive and very ambitious bunch of projects being put together. Each one is dense and mixed-use, and will include important amenities for neighborhoods outside of Center City. Even better, each project, located within one block of a subway station, is a great example of the type of transit-oriented development that the city needs to encourage.

Tower Investments
Inga Saffron on the Piazza [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Then and Now: Northeast corner of 40th and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia


The 3900 block of Walnut Street has seen its fortunes rise and fall. The duplex at 3931-3933 Walnut Street that still stands today in somewhat shabby condition was completed in 1887, the work of William H. Decker, whose works included several grand estates and institutional buildings in the then-booming West and North Philadelphia streetcar suburbs. The 20th century brought with it both growth and neglect. The corner building at 3939 Walnut St. first grew a storefront addition as 40th Street became a local commercial corridor, and was then demolished around 1963 when the old photo was taken by the Historical Commission. While the University of Pennsylvania devoured the other side of the street, the other pictured town homes soon made way for a 1-story shopping center, which was itself replaced in late 2008 by the massive Radian apartment complex.

These three buildings tell a very rich story. They testify of three distinct eras of the area's history - its 19th century suburban origins; 20th century commercialization and decline; and its 21st century resurgence as a vibrant mixed-use urban neighborhood.

Source: Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
Original photo: "Historical Commission-12404-37." 1963. Philadelphia City Archives. PhillyHistory.org. Philadelphia Department of Records. 15 Jun. 2009. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/MediaStream.ashx?mediaId=164337

Monday, June 15, 2009

Avenue des Champs-Elysées vs. Benjamin Franklin Parkway, part 2.

(continued from previous post, part 1 below)

Interestingly, both the Ben Franklin Parkway and the Avenue des Champs-Elysées are just about one mile in length. Yet Paris and Philadelphia are very different cities, and the two avenues are inevitably quite affected by their different urban contexts. Take these two satellite views from Google Maps for comparison.

The Parkway has only two blocks on its southeast end in densely populated Center City before hitting Logan Circle. For the remainder of its length, it's bordered by the very quiet Callowhill, Spring Garden, and Fairmount neighborhoods. Its surrounding green spaces are abundant but generally not so well used.

What's immediately striking in the satellite view of the Champs-Elysées is how much more dense and built up its surrounding districts are. Consequently, the avenue sits on top of the city's busiest Metro line, and is also directly accessible via six others. It's status as one of the world's most famous avenues and retail meccas doesn't come as much surprise.

The general consensus seems to be that aside from special occasions, the Parkway is not up to its potential and does not get enough users or foot traffic. The avenue has remained quiet as ever while the sidewalks of Center City and its surrounding neighborhoods have thrived with new activity. It ultimately comes down to the fact that the Parkway's adjoining areas simply don't have the required density or mix of uses to support a truly vibrant avenue. As valuable as they are, museums and other cultural institutions simply can't draw the same kinds of crowds as a good mix of residences, offices, and shops.

By no means is this to fault Philadelphia's planners. The Parkway, opened in 1926, is only 83 years old, and as the French like to say, Paris wasn't built in a day. The Champs-Elysées has existed in some form as far back as the 1670s, when it was carved out of its surrounding marshes, and it was not until the 19th century that the Avenue began to take on its elegance. In the grand scheme of things, the Parkway is still an early work in progress, and when the day comes, its fortunes will surely rise alongside those of the city.

Fortunately, re-thinking the Parkway has become one of the Center City District's top planning priorities in recent years, and millions of dollars have been put into installing new lighting and banners, as well as renovations for Logan Circle and its pocket parks. As far as long-term goals, they have also been consistent advocates for denser development and improved transit options, both very essential goals. While those could be far off, especially in this economy, we can be greatful that there is at least one planning organization out there actively working towards solutions.

Planning for Growth: Benjamin Franklin Parkway
[Center City District]

Avenue des Champs-Elysées vs. Benjamin Franklin Parkway, part 1

One of the first things anyone learns about Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway is that it was inspired by and modeled after none other than the world's most famous grand axial boulevard, the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris. One small bonus of spending time in Paris is the great opportunity to think about the two avenues by comparing them side by side in photographs. As fond of Paris as I am, I am simply more inclined to approach the comparison as Philadelphian, and it is mainly the Parkway that I will be focusing on in this small series.

The product of great civic ambition, the City Beautiful movement, and burgeoning industrial wealth, plans for the Parkway were prepared largely by Jacques Gréber and Paul-Phillippe Cret, both of French origin. After decades of visions and planning, construction of the road itself ended in 1926. The new avenue pierced diagonally through the city's grid, linking the city's stunning new City Hall to the newly created Fairmount Park.

The similarities between the two avenues are fairly obvious. Both have two distinct sections: a lush, tree-lined portion flanked by green park space, as well as a more "urban" strip very much in the city. Each avenue terminates at one end at its city's grandest art museum (the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Louvre). Logan Circle and the Place de la Concorde are both glorified traffic circles. Not to mention that the Free Library of Philadelphia and Family Court are carbon copies of the Hôtel de Crillon and the Hôtel de la Marine, respectively.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Then and Now: 3900 block of Chestnut Street, Philadelphia


Original photo: "Law Department-L-8183-0." 1959. Philadelphia City Archives. Phillyhistory.org. Philadelphia Department of Records. 11 Jun. 2009. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/MediaStream.ashx?mediaId=161847

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Then and Now: Le canal Saint-Martin, Paris

c. 1900-2009

Original image: "ND-457 Res." Collection ND/Roger-Viollet. Parisenimages.fr. Parisienne de Photographie. 27 April 2009. http://www.parisenimages.fr/Export450/14000/13695-14.jpg

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Utility box art, Taipei

Though I'm positive that painted utility boxes have been around since my childhood, it was not until very recently that I began to notice them again. The metal boxes used for electric, telephone, and water utilities are fairly common fixtures on the city's streets, and while the majority of them aren't decorated, a very noticable selection of them are.

Just about every box that has been painted features a brightly colored, somewhat kitschy landscape that wouldn't be out of place in a childrens' book. Chunghwa Telecom's (pictured at top) generally seem to be a cut above the others. Otherwise, they can get a little ridiculous and tacky, especially once cartoon characters are involved.

Even so, it's an interesting concept that to some degree adds a touch of "friendliness" to otherwise rather utilitarian streetscapes.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Then and Now: 246 Rue de Vaugirard, Paris


Original photo: "Paris (XVème arr.). 246 rue de Vaugirard." Collection Roger-Viollet. Parisenimages.fr. Parisienne de Photographie. 17 Mar. 2009. http://www.parisenimages.fr/Export450/21000/20268-7.jpg