What Market St. East could be

June 23

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

The lead architect of the city’s plan to revitalize the Market East corridor gave the public a second look at his still-in-draft-form vision Tuesday evening.

The major themes presented by Stan Eckstut, principal of New York’s Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, did not change from his first public presentation in Februrary: The area already has a lot going for it, including a large transit hub, Chinatown and other vibrant neighborhoods, Reading Terminal Market, the Convention Center, and Thomas Jefferson University. But none of these amenities have much of a presence on Market Street. What these good bones need is strong connective tissue to link them all together.

“The key is Market Street,” Eckstut said. “The answer is that Market Street once again becomes Philadelphia’s Main Street, and that everybody gets back on Main Street.”

The Reading Terminal Market should extend through the HeadHouse area to Market Street, Eckstut said. Market Street should also be the “front door” for transit. And rather than the current separate Greyhound bus terminal on Filbert Street, buses should drive up a ramp to pick people up from waiting areas inside The Gallery’s exquisite space.

Eckstut imagines more hotels on Market Street. And more retail, office, and residential space, too. 

“The only thing we’d like to get off of Market is some of the buses,” he said.

The proposal calls for making sections of Arch and Filbert Streets two-way for traffic, creating a new travel pattern. Removing buses will make Market Street more of a pedestrian destination, he said.

The plan includes new uses for vacant spots, including the abandoned elevated viaduct, which would become a park that comes down to grade at Broad Street.  Eckstut proposes putting tall, residential towers on large parcels of vacant, city-owned land surrounding Franklin Square.  This would be “a city within a city,” similar to Vancouver’s Chinatown, he said.

During his presentation, Eckstut hardly mentioned the proposed Foxwoods Casino.  “The casino is just another building, another tenant on Market, another use,”  he said.

But afterward, as attendees began to gather around a series of renderings of different portions of the proposal, Ellen Somekawa, chair of Asian Americans United and a leader of the No Casino In The Heart of Our City Coalition, circled the room wearing a bright red clown nose, did her best to remind attendees that for a significant number of people, the casino is the issue. The Coalition’s stance is that no casino should be located near a neighborhood.

Somekawa said she doesn’t believe there would be a big emphasis on creating an intermodal traffic hub and changing bus routes if not for Foxwoods’ plan to move into the Strawbridge & Clothier building. City planning boss Alan Greenberger said the goal is actually to get bus traffic out of Chinatown.

Foxwoods has yet to formally file a license location request with the state Gaming Control Board. It has filed a request for an extension to get slots up and running because the current license, which still has the South Philadelphia waterfront location on it, has expired.  Foxwoods also has not reached a lease agreement with the owner of the Strawbridge building, the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, or PREIT. And PREIT has another real estate issue with Gramercy Capital Corporation – another owner in the Strawbridge’s building, which is a commercial condominium.

Eckstut, and Philadelphia Planning Department Executive Director Greenberger, were emphatic that Foxwoods does not drive the proposal. If the casino project dissolved tomorrow, Eckstut said, “nothing changes.”  Said Greenberger: “PREIT would have to find a new tenant.”

Somekawa said there is one thing about the proposal that could benefit Chinatown: Developing the vacant property around Franklin Square.  The key, however, would be that any development must include affordable housing, she said. Eckstut said this was part of what he envisions.

Other attendees were enthusiastic about the vision.

Pam Pendleton-Smith and her husband, James, are both active in community organizations in Yorktown, about a mile north of the area targeted in the plan.

“I remember when Market Street was a destination, when it was well lit, and there were window displays – this was before the age of steel roll-up gates – and window shopping was an activity,” she said. “This plan reminds me of that. It seems like with this plan in place, we would increase the walk-ability of Market Street.”

For Yorktown residents, this would mean no more driving to the suburbs, to Cherry Hill or Oxford Valley, to shop. “This becomes a destination again.”

James Smith said the plan could create a Market Street that would “bring more people into the city, whether to live here or to shop.”

Society Hill resident Mary Purcell said she likes the concepts, too. “I personally think it’s a good idea to get some buses off of Market Street,” she said. And the area around Franklin Square is definitely underutilized now, she said.

The Planning Commission will have to approve the plan to make it official, and Greenberger said he hopes the final version comes before them in August or September.

None of the ideas in the plan will be free. Especially in the current economic climate, Greenberger said.  The city must look for ways to encourage private investment and secure public funding,  he said. End nu

Meanwhile, his staff will this summer work on an action plan – an outline of how to make some of these ideas real. Their first three bites: Bringing the Reading Terminal Market to Market Street. Determining how an intermodal transit hub would work. Changing traffic patterns so that “bus trains” are no longer congesting Arch Street.

None of the ideas in the plan will be free. Especially in the current economic climate, Greenberger said. The city must look for ways to encourage private investment and secure public funding,  he said.

Greenberger said there have already been talks with the folks at Reading Terminal, and they are interested. The project is simplified because the Head House area into which Reading Terminal would expand is owned by the city’s Redevelopment Authority. “It’s a beautiful space,” Greenberger said. There’s a small bit of retail there now: A bank, a bar and a Dunkin Donuts. But a lot of the beauty is hidden by two huge escalators that take people to the convention space. Greenberger estimates the project would cost less than $20 million.

That’s not pocket change, but everything is relative. And the creation of the intermodal transit hub? That will be way more expensive. Greenberger isn’t sure how much. What Greenberger hopes to accomplish over the summer is a feasibility study of what would have to change, who would change it, what impact it would have on nearby streets, and how much it would cost. Studies cost money, too, but the city’s planners are up for a grant that would cover those costs, Greenberger said. He declined to give the name of the grant source unless and until it is awarded. The hope is that the study would put Philadelphia in a good place to lobby for Federal Transportation Act Reauthorization money to do the work.

Other portions of the plan are much more long-term, but equally important, Greenberger said. Conversations have also taken place with PREIT about revitalizing the portions of The Gallery they own. PREIT officials have said in the past they have wanted to improve the property. Greenberger is hopeful that now that PREIT’s Cherry Hill Mall revitalization is completed, they will turn their attention to The Gallery. It’s an important piece of the puzzle, Greenberger said, because a revamped Gallery would signal to other businesses and investors that a new, improved Market East was really happening.

Another thing Greenberger hopes to do this summer: Take groups of people on tours of Market East to point out the places where improvements can be made in real life. (He’s still working out the logistics of how people would sign up, etc.) The ideas and concepts are a lot easier to imagine on the street than on paper,  he said.

Previous coverage

Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

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