Wednesday, October 31, 2012

An Emergent Main Street?

Something interesting is happening in the village of Lafayette Hill. A Main Street is coming to be.

This, despite the majority of this Main Street consists of mid-century strip malls and commercial pads. It's a Main Street in use, though decidedly not form. Take a look.
It runs like this from Joshua Road to Church Lane.

But, since the buildings are aging, the majority of chains have moved out, to newer, shinier digs around the Plymouth Meeting Mall. In their place are more locally-owned stores, more boutiques, more inns, and what are generally considered the two best Persian cuisine joints in the region.
Lafayette Hill is the overgrown agglomeration of two older villages: Barren Hill and Marble Hall, which has led to its bipolar development and a small gap in the middle. But the density, the connectivity, the ingredients are all there--and, as the buildings age and rents come down, the more interesting uses, too.
Which leads to the greatest problem in front of Lafayette Hill: its very autocentrism. Strip malls don't create a pedestrian atmosphere, and despite the fact that it's the same size as e.g. Lansdale, walking rates are much, much lower. So what's to be done?

Brand it. Give it a "Main Street Lafayette Hill" identity; play upon its existing strengths. Have a citizens' day; take over a parking lot and use it for a farmer's market; install sidewalks all the way up and down. Make de jure the de facto parallel parking already in front of the Wawa and extend it all the way up and down Germantown.

And in the long term, change the zoning code to remove setbacks and favor rear parking*. Curb minimums, and encourage walking plans for the bars. Preserve the Manayunk vernacular and Victorian buildings already here, of which there are a few. And allow structures to grow to 3-5 stories.
* Transit access is relatively poor, unlike Conshy or Paoli or Lansdale.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Provincial "Provence"

The North Broad casino proposal, the "Provence".
Late last week, just before Sandy's wrath broke over the Northeast, Bart Blatstein unveiled his proposed North Broad mega-casino and resort, the Provence, to local politicos, powerbrokers, and the press. Ambitious in scale, it is nonetheless relatively unambitious in amenity, seeking to replicate a Vegas Strip-type development on North Broad. And as such, an introverted design seeking to lure customers in and up, rather than one seeking to connect what is currently a relatively empty area between Center City and several major neighborhoods, it falls prey to significant urban design and architectural failings.

In the past, Blatstein has shown he does not truly grok urbanism, but that he can be coached by those who do to produce intensely-urban designs; the Piazza, generally considered his greatest success, began life as a strip mall design like his movie theaters on the Waterfront and in Manayunk: it was gradually coached into its final form as a collaboration between he, the developer; Scott Erdy, lead architect of Erdy-McHenry; and Matt Rubin et al. of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. As neither Blatstein nor Erdy are natural urbanists*, we can safely say the Piazza's urban design is largely the NLNA's work.
Blatstein did not produce this by himself.
The fact that Blatstein has learned more a facsimile than a reality of the Piazza's lessons shows in the Provence. It has not one, but several notable urban design issues, which, taken together, fail to capitalize on the site's existing assets, and worse, fail to ensure strength beyond a single life-cycle.

Where to begin...? Let's head west, beginning with the Inquirer building, the structure that dominates the 1400 block of Callowhill. Considering only the 1920s structure**, the section Blatstein owns, it has two wings: the office tower, facing Broad, and the printing house, slung long along Callowhill. Blatstein proposes turning the office tower into a hotel and the printing house into a parking garage.

Were this the lone element of the project, or a phased approach, fine. But it's neither, it isolates the hotel from the entertainment center proper on the 1500 block of Callowhill, and it's a poor use of the second-most-valuable historic resource on the site...
Instead of "rooftop retail", why not repurpose the printing house into a shopping center, like the Stary Browar?
 If Blatstein wants retail, why not put the retail in the printing house? It's already long, low-slung, and marked by a natural concourse, for such are the demands of printing machines; it connects North Broad with the entertainment complex, rather than separating them like the garage does; it would be a truly unique and unusual retail amenity--the only comparison I can think of is Poznan, Poland's Old Brewery.

This allows, secondly, the jettisoning of the "rooftop retail", the proposal's current attempt to be new, and unique, and different. It instead looks trite, clichéd, exurban. It reminds me less of Aix-en-Bains and more of Exton. The rooftop can then become a green roof and a place to put entertainment functions, particularly the mainstream bookings that more natural for a proposal of this nature.

This proposal also needs to compromise between casino operators' demand for windowless main gaming floors and neighbors' reasonable demand for an active streetscape. To do this, the casino's two main restaurants (casinos of this size always have at least two restaurants) are stacked above and below the main gaming floor(s), giving one restaurant killer skyline views, and the other, a killer streetscape to lure patrons in. In this way, the lower restaurant itself becomes a casino entrance.

The skybridge is, unfortunately, in many ways inevitable. However, it is entirely possible to design to blend it in, unlike the current proposal, which would essentially turn it into a barrier overpowering 15th: Seattle's Convention Trade Center shows us how. The Provence's current skybridge design fails in all respects: instead of making the bridge as transparent as possible, it instead turns it into a giant billboard advertising its presence all the way from City Hall, and the resultant stretch of 15th underneath is lined with blank walls: a commandeering, demeaning streetscape, and a natural bum bathroom. Instead, the skybridge can function as a glassy, light-infused critical linkage between the casino, retail atrium, and entertainment-focused rooftop.

The proposal also seeks to convert the underutilized 1500 block of Vine--a block quadrifurcated by the Vine Street Expressway on- and off-ramps into a large park. This is folly: the block would not be one square, but four disassembled parks. Logan Square already suffers from this problem, and it takes a high degree of passive and active programming to keep its Sister Cities Park wedge from ending up like its Shakespeare Park wedge--a bum magnet. With all its functions introverted, can we really expect the casino to program to the degree needed to ensure activity? No: better to allow the undevelopable northern sliver, along Callowhill, to pass into passive use, and the three remaining sections to become developable sites as Franklin Town slowly fills in.

The majority of the site's parking is to be structured, and fronting 16th; shifting the spaces the Inky printing house garage to this side is the next major element. To do this, why not sink some parking under the casino? More expensive, yes, but as Blatstein has already proved, expense is no object. Some more spaces could then be placed to the side of the casino proper.

And, of course, to ensure the pedestrian usability of 16th, active street uses are still needed. Lying between the Community College and the casino, this would be a great place for support retail functions: lunch counters, noodle houses, diners, used book, vinyl, and photography stores, a branch of Zavelle's, and so on. It would also be wise to repurpose the first floor of the 1601 Callowhill garage into at least two retail spaces (one at the 16th and Callowhill corner and the other at 17th and Callowhill), for larger convenience stores and pharmacies, such as Wawa and Walgreen's. Again, this is the support area; the carriage retail area is the section in the Inky printing house.

...This brings up another important retail issue. For this proposal to be successful without being detrimental to the city at large, it cannot suck from Walnut, or Chestnut, or Market East. It must offer something different, but something that complements these places. It would need to be able to compete successfully with Cherry Hill and King of Prussia, particularly for traders who tend to favor mall environments anyway. Again, it cannot merely achieve success by downgrading Walnut--that would be bad for the city at large.

The ninth, and final, issue is with the casino itself. I'm ambivalent about casinos in general, more swayed by CasiNo than FACT, but for the complex to succeed, the casino has to be a destination, and not just feed off the lowest common denominator. It is very easy for a complex of this nature to devolve into a tired Trump Taj Mahal whose retail's dominated by parasitic "internet cafés", gambling dens whose entire business model is predicated upon regulatory loophole abuse. Maintaining a high quality at this complex requires time, energy, dedication, and good urbanism to ensure easy retention and recruiting.

This final thought is necessary even without the casino element; a strong, well-designed center can thrive without it, converting the casino space into something different (like a movie theater); poorly designed, the complex begins to totter and fail.

Should Blatstein listen to coaching and advice, we can jettison the "Provence" name, and instead adopt a grittier, more industrial-chic name. The Old Printing House comes to mind.

EDIT: Find updates in comments below!
* An inveterate Corbusierian, Erdy's attempts at urban planning are some forty years obsolete. He is at his best designing for an individual site (cf. the Radian) rather than an agglomeration of sites, the scale urban design works at.
** The later, northern wing, often called the Daily News Building, is home to the School District's offices.