Convention Center impact on Center City

June 11

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

While the teardown of a group of buildings along North Broad Street brought angst and sorrow to preservationists this spring, the demolition has brought joy and enthusiasm for city developers and tourism officials, including Jack Ferguson, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Seeing the progress of the wrecking ball “brought tears to my eyes,” Ferguson told a crowd gathered late Tuesday afternoon at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, directly across Broad from the planned new entrance to an expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center. Ferguson spoke at the Central Philadelphia Development Corp.’s monthly meeting, focusing on the ripple effects of the expansion, due for completion by 2011.

Those at the museum also have the morning sun in their eyes, now that the 10-story, 115-year-old Odd Fellows Temple is almost gone, along with its neighbors. In place of the old buildings, above the piles of bricks and debris, is the Convention Center in its current form, which from the steps of PAFA looks like it is actually moving west toward Broad of its own volition.

“We always thought we were at the edge of the world, and now finally we feel like we’re in the center of the world,” said Edward Lewis, PAFA’s president and chief executive. Lewis envisions PAFA, with its recently renovated Hamilton Building across Cherry Street and a planned plaza that would close Cherry between Broad and 15th streets, as the fulcrum for the city’s Museum Mile and its Avenue of the Arts.

Lewis said the city’s Department of Streets gave tentative approval for the closure and plaza as far back as 1999, though plans would have to be re-evaluated. He said owners of a high-end restaurant in the Hamilton Building would only be interested in the site if Cherry was closed, enabling perhaps the city’s largest outdoor eating area. Currently, he said he’s negotiating with three Philadelphia restaurateurs and one from New York. Funding for the plaza is to come from the city ($1 million) and a foundation ($2 million). Negotiations are also under way with a “very well known sculptor” for an outdoor installation.

Up and running within 3 years
Ferguson said that January 2011 is an important deadline to meet for the opening of the expanded Convention Center. Two enormous conventions have been booked for that year’s first four months, representing tens of millions of dollars in economic impact.

Keating Construction, the lowest bidder for the first phase of the project, is expected to be awarded the job within a week. Bids for the second phase, interior work, are expected within two weeks, Ferguson said. Steel has already been ordered. “2011 should be a very good convention year for Philadelphia,” he said. “We can’t allow the dates to slide.”

Ferguson and host Paul Levy, CPDC’s executive director, were focused on Philadelphia’s successful development of hotel rooms that are within walking distance of the Convention Center, and the parallel to be seen for the concept of “walkability” for residents and visitors alike. Center City, from river to river, has more than 10,000 hotel rooms, a good many of them just blocks – or even attached – to the Convention Center. That’s a “unique selling proposition” for Philadelphia, Ferguson said, especially when comparing the main convention centers in Washington, D.C, Boston and New York City. It might even trump size. When it is complete, the Pennsylvania Convention Center should be the largest in the Northeastern corridor, with 541,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space, up from the current 315,000 square feet. It will go from 52 meeting rooms to 87.

And there are more hotels on the way – at 17th & Sansom, at 15th & Arch and at 12th & Race – with more than 500 new rooms on the market by the end of 2009. Even more are on the drawing boards (17th & Arch; 16th & Vine; and at 12th & Arch).

By 2013, Ferguson said he’d like to see a Hilton on Market Street at 12th, across from the Marriott. “We’re currently running about 73 percent of 74 percent occupancy [in the existing hotels]. Anytime you’re over 70 percent in a marketplace, investors want to come in.”

A property on the corner of North Broad and Race streets (perhaps a W Hotel) could descend into a passageway for the Broad Street subway that’s not in use. The idea is to connect it as a walkway to the Convention Center, a diagonal underground pathway to East Market Street.

The Gallery re-imagined
East Market Street, or Market East, was also on the table Tuesday, with a representative of the troubled Gallery on hand. Joe Coradino, executive vice president of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, a publicly traded developer that bought The Gallery a few years ago from its original developer, said the mall’s problems represent opportunity.

“Can you imagine a better location?” Coradino asked, showing a map of Center City, including the expanded Convention Center and highlighting its hotels. Typically, malls need a sizable makeover every seven years, he said. The Gallery has never been retouched, he said. Part of the problem is the ownership structure. ‘The kick is we own the stores. The Redevelopment Authority owns the malls space and the property it’s on.”

The solution is better retail and more inviting entrances, with stores that are attractive to convention-goers and commuters alike, perhaps a Target. And they should attract some of Center City’s thousands of new residents, many of whom have never set foot inside The Gallery. Indeed, Coradino’s first slide showed the mall in the midst of a collage that had pictures of the Convention Center, the Reading Terminal Market, the Constitution Center and other Center City landmarks. “What’s the first thing you notice about this?” he said. “None of the people who go to these places go to The Gallery.”

PREIT also manages the huge Girard Estate property across Market Street, a block of unattractive, low-slung, low-end retail spanning from 11th to 12th.
Speculation on what will become of the block has been circulating in the city’s development circles for at least a decade. At one point in the late 1990s, then-Mayor Ed Rendell said that PREIT was trying to woo the high-end Nordstrom department store to take over the site, a deal that eventually fell through.

“Philadelphia, from a retail perspective, pales in comparison to most major cities,” Coradino said. “I mean, Kansas City … Kansas City! … Much better retail.” Any kind of meaningful retail development that will help the Convention Center must come east, he said, along Walnut, Chestnut and Market streets. “The Gallery is the first step, then across the street,” he said, referring to the Girard Estate site. Someone in the audience asked, “Any vision of that?” Coradino hesitated. “Not for free,” he quipped, garnering a laugh from the heat-addled crowd.

Knight Foundation grant to benefit Dilworth Plaza

A grant from the Knight Foundation in excess of $800,000 has been approved for a major renovation of Dilworth Plaza across from Philadelphia City Hall.

Paul Levy, executive director of the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. and the Center City District, announced the funding Tuesday afternoon at the CPDC’s monthly meeting. He said the news came in on Monday.

A new plaza would be good news for an area that most planners and city officials currently consider a dead space. It includes the vast concrete apron outside the city’s Municipal Services Building. At nights and on weekends it is often desolate, and is frequently a gathering spot or a place to sleep for the homeless.

Levy said plans could well include an ice skating rink a la Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan. Details about ideas for the site and information on additional funding will follow in the coming days as PlanPhilly learns more.

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