Reflecting on how public space is shaping up

Whether covering the Historical, Parks & Recreation, or Arts commissions, or simply noodling around town and noticing trends, what most continues to interest me are issues surrounding the public realm. The year wasn’t especially significant on that front — but here’s what grabbed my attention:

• Do We (Finally) Know It’s Christmastime? Yes! For the first time in the more than two decades since I moved here from New York, I’m not feeling that Philadelphia hasn’t a clue about how to celebrate the winter solstice. We’re still behind — but the gap isn’t so yawning.

In addition to the Comcast show (better than ever), Penn’s Landing has pulled out all the stops in decking its River Rink. “Winterfest,” as it’s called, features indoor/outdoor dining (blankets, fire pits) designed by local firm Groundswell Design Group, a quite cool lighting show by locally-based Klip Collective, and a coterie of craft shops housed in (a pop-up cliche) container crates. Pedestrian access is neither easy or well-marked, but that’s not surprising given the site. A less impressive lighting effort at Franklin Square at least keeps the park active on wintry nights. The LoVE Park Christmas Village (the politically correct but much-maligned tag of “Holiday” has disappeared, thankfully) is back, also better than ever and bringing great tidings of a promising restoration (although, come on!, not with seven restaurants). And. . . whaddya know, the new majority owners of The Piazza at Schmidt’s went ahead and installed a pop-up rink made of artificial ice.

• Pop Ups Redux. Alas, the pop-up thing is already getting tired, with all manner of retailer and museum getting into the act. But the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society was a pioneer, with its gardens hastily and temporarily occupying prominent vacant downtown lots. This year’s, on South Broad Street was, yes, better than ever. With late-night hours, terrific dining, alcohol (!) and loads of fun seating (design was by Groundswell), the greenery and hardly mattered (sorry, guys). I can’t wait to see what’s in store for next year. Meanwhile, The Oval, a game attempt on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, seemed less successful. It too was artfully designed (by LRSLAstudio), but it came across as meager — a painted “beach” was just plain disappointing and the food truck lineup was too minimal — and, as with the Penn’s Landing skating rink, nothing could save it from its pedestrian-unfriendly location (except being moved elsewhere).

• Beefing Up the BFP. That said, this pop-up was an initial gambit — fast, cheap — in a larger effort, given the moniker More Park, Less Way, that involves Parks & Rec, Penn Praxis, and others. We all know that the western end of the Parkway needs help and the ideas that have emerged from charrettes are sound ones. My only beef with this beefing up: why persist in treating this strip of land as an amenity for the not-so-immediate neighbor when, really, it’s a critical public space for the entire city. Keep an eye on the Parkway as this plan moves forward — and a huge celebration to marks its centennial in 2017 starts to come together.

• “Anything” Isn’t Always Better Than Nothing. That was the takeaway in a case before the Art Commission that caught the attention of the local press. When a group of well-intended locals presented their ideas for a proposed 9/11 memorial, the art community came to life, universally panning the design as amateurish and heavy-handed, while the commission comported itself with more dignity. It made for some good theater — but in the end, the memorial idea simply faded away.

• . . . .Except When It Comes to More People! Although it began merely as an observation that an under-the-radar architectural firm, DAS, was responsible for two major apartment buildings coming online, my story gained a lot of attention because it briefly noted that greater Center City was in the midst of an apartment boom. At that point, I estimated some 1,000 units were in the works; that’s since been added to. More people can only be good (although some neighborhood associations continue to panic at the threat of an increased crunch on precious parking) because it means we can all get more of the things we want, including great public space and amenities.

• These Things Matter. I covered a successful crowd sourcing attempt to restore a historic facade, a neighborhood vigil to curtail a development across the street from Mother Bethel, an effort by our local tourism agency to get visitors to more deeply explore the neighborhoods just outside of downtown, and seemingly endless panels that examined civic horticulture and rail parks. Each story demonstrates that Philadelphians care about the built environment of their city and want to make sure it is, and becomes, as good as it can and should be.

• The Future. I’m excited to see how the host of hotels — always a special interest of mine — that are currently under development play out. And, I’m eager to be among the first to step foot onto the newly rebuilt Dilworth Plaza, which has the potential to be a game-changer for how we experience the area and, importantly, its transit.

• A Final Thought. I’m curious, but not enough to really examine how and why South Street has become such a mecca for hookah shops. Kerkstra, you want it?

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