Rewind: 2015 Cheers and Jeers

It’s the season to look back and hand out some laurels and darts for a few of the best and worst plannerly happenings this year. Here’s a selection of things I will toast as the calendar turns, and others that make me flush with disappointment. Since either list could go on for days, I’ve kept my picks to five in each category, starting with the good stuff. 

What’s on your list of cheers and jeers for 2015?

CHEERS:

HASHTAG ADVOCACY AWARD: #SaveTheSaucer FTW 

This time last year the fate of LOVE Park’s saucer shaped welcome center was in doubt. The design team was instructed to consider the feasibility of reuse, which fortunately was possible. Kudos to Philadelphia Parks and Red for encouraging reuse and Kieran Timberlake’s design team for finding a way forward for the little charismatic building. But bigger applause are due to the advocates and saucer heads for showing their love and putting pressure on the city to keep the welcome center as part of the new park design both in meetings and via the hashtag #savethesaucer. Advocates may not have crowed enough about this rare preservation victory, but LOVE Park’s flying saucer was not only saved but will be completely overhauled.

Granted there won’t be a ton of original fabric left but the renewed saucer will ground the site in its past. The design plans are at once sensitive to the original building, with recreations like the aquamarine blue tiles at the base, as well as renovations that are faithful to its spirit of lightness and optimism. It will once again be more like a lantern in the park, with huge frameless windows that make the pavilion transparent and inviting by day, and a showpiece by night thanks to a glowing light art installation.

PEACE IN THE STREETS AWARD: Popen Streets

During the papal visit in September, Philly was treated to the incredible experience of a weekend without cars in Center City. It was a true delight to walk and bike so freely, but the real gift was the quiet. No chortling SEPTA and NJ Transit buses, no honking horns, no belching trucks, no idling cars. It was like the bliss of the city during the night of a heavy snowfall, except bikeable. My husband tried Indego for the first time and now he is a regular. I hopped on the PopeRide to cruise the city with cyclists en masse. And we wandered the streets exploring like we were tourists. It was truly special to see the heart of city at once so alive and so at peace. Here’s hoping we find ways to rekindle a bit of that magic during Open Streets events soon. (Disclosure: PlanPhilly engagement editor Jon Geeting is cofounder the Open Streets PHL campaign. He did not lobby for this award.)

RAINMAKER: Grays Ferry Swing Bridge

Who can make it rain money like the tag team of Philadelphia Parks and Rec, the Mayors Office of Transportation and Utilities, and Schuylkill River Development Corporation? Philly is the only big city to win federal TIGER grants in every round, and the one this fall yielded a whopper to complete the $13 million swing bridge project connecting Bartram’s Mile to Grays Ferry Crescent, carrying the Schuylkill River Trail to the western side of the river. The project also scored a piece of the $11 million Civic Commons grants given to 5 projects by the Knight and William Penn foundations. It’s a hugely important link on The Circuit and a really exciting project.

BEST LONG PLAY: Land Bank gets a deposit

After a very slow start, and in spite of shortcomings in terms of annual targets in the strategic plan, the young Land Bank made real headway this year. After clearing titles and hopping labor hurdles, some 1300 properties from four councilmanic districts made their way into the Land Bank in December. It was a hopeful to see more council members than the land bank’s primary champion María Quiñones-Sánchez move properties into the Land Bank and I hope to see even broader participation and transfers in 2016. It’s time to say goodbye to the ad hoc public property dispositions and confusing auctions and move toward the more fair and accessible, if not still politically wrapped, land bank system. The Land Bank should come into full swing in the new year and there’s much to watch. For now, score one for the necessary step of getting property into the bank.

HUMILITY HONORS: Brian Abernathy, Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority 

Outgoing Redevelopment Authority Director Brian Abernathy went on an ersatz apology tour in neighborhoods like Eastwick and Logan, places where well-intentioned but damaging city policies and urban renewal projects of the past require major corrective actions to reverse. His message: The city abandoned you but we have a debit to repay. His goal: to start the city back on a path to right the wrongs of its past, in partnership and collaboration with communities so that change benefits residents. It is a rare thing to see a public official walk into a public meeting, apologise, listen, and promise to try to set a new course. Abernathy did this with grace and I hope this is an indicator of his tone and focus as Deputy Managing Director in the Kenney administration.

It was welcome news to see Eastwick’s long urban renewal era end, and new doors open for residents of this quiet neighborhood. There is a powerful opportunity there for that neighborhood to help plan a new future out of the acres PRA just acquired back from Korman, one that helps combat the flooding that plagues its land. Goldenberg Group was announced as developer of the sinking remains of the Logan Triangle. Logan has a new resident-driven neighborhood plan and they are well-positioned to help craft a new future for this long neglected site.

JEERS:

GONERS HONORS: Theaters and halls

Theaters of every sort are struggling. People don’t go to the movies, plays and musicals don’t pack houses like they used to. And locally historic theaters have long been disappearing from Philadelphia’s streets. But this year felt especially grim for old theaters and social halls. A year to the day after the Philadelphia Historical Commission granted a hardship, demolition came for the Boyd Theatre on Chestnut. It’s replacement: a proposed 32-story tower, a finger of banality that punctuates the end of a very long reuse struggle. Another, similarly long struggle has been in progress for South Street’s Royal Theater. This year another preservation hardship was granted there, making way for a facadectomy to build apartments and retail, fronted by the ornamentation of the old theater’s refined South Street facade. And then there was the refusal to designate the interior of the Blue Horizon historic, a social hall turned boxing arena on North Broad Street. It’s also looking like curtains for the undesignated Society Hill Playhouse at 8th street just below Lombard, as Toll Brothers sees it as a development opportunity site. What do these have in common with churches, that other commonly vulnerable resource? They’re larger sites in desirable neighborhoods and areas where it’s harder to come by big vacant property to build on.

TACKY LIGHTS AND DISPLAY CONTEST: UEDs and the pols who love them

Let 2015 be remembered as the year that City Council voted in favor of an advertising industry drafted bill to enable new kinds of outdoor advertising to tart up Center City corridors with Urban Experiential Displays (UEDs). Though billed as a marriage of art and architecture and advertising, they would really unavoidable, loud, large, advertising and informational platforms inflicted on our public rights of way. Mayor Nutter and City Council should be ashamed for taking the industry bait.

Former councilman turned lobbyist Frank DiCicco helped push the bill through City Council. His stance: “We live in a big city… You don’t wanna see this stuff? Move to Mayberry.” Nah. It’s more like this: If you wanted this bill, you’re being sold a bill of goods. Regular roadside digital billboards or the new, highly animated digital sign atop Lit Brothers are one thing, but a giant hand holding a globe shaped sign, bursting like some lord of the underground from the sidewalk is another. This is next level cheap and tacky. It is only the latest in a seemingly boundless race to the bottom of selling out the public realm for profit. To DiCicco and his replacement in council Mark Squilla: Stop inflicting your bad taste on Philly’s public realm.

The silver lining: The city lost control of outdoor advertising on state roads (like Broad Street) and federal highways. So that would put something like the UEDs originally proposed for Broad subject to state review under the federal Highway Beautification Act. Why? Because Philadelphia can’t be trusted with that responsibility.

INFRASTRUCTURE BOONDOGGLE: Light Masts

I said it in 2011 and I’ll say it again: The Light Masts on North Broad Street look like oversized, glowing car antennae. This $14 million boondoggle is another embarrassment for Philadelphia’s public realm. How come South Broad got dignified recreations of the street’s historic street lamps and North Broad is stuck with such a depressingly austere and gloomy presence. This was an opportunity for beautiful, functional streetscaping that we missed. And it is as much an issue of design equity as it is one of wasted investment. What the city installs as infrastructure sends a powerful message about its commitment, and it should set the table for private investment. North Broad Street has a long way to go, but more buildings are seeing new futures and new investments there are real. This project sends the retrograde message that the future is dim on North Broad. What a costly mistake.

CHARGE OF THE LIGHT PARKADE: PPA

The Philadelphia Parking Authority had the right intent: they wanted to beautify cavernous over-street parking garage at 8th and Arch, a hideous and really embarrassing gateway. The white paint, brighter retail spaces, and hot white light on 8th Street helps. But the iridescent, variegated fins that tilt out from the garage facade are like lipstick on a pig. The fins, on a white metal armature do not disguise the garage. They call attention to it and the attempt to make the long lines of small, hot, white LED lights on the garage’s underbelly look like a wave of light also fail. Because the lights are hung at only slightly different heights, they look like an installation mistakes rather than something with intentional dimension and depth.

VISION? ZERO: Washington Avenue

How is it that a city can willfully decide to keep a street unsafe for more than a year? There is seemingly zero sense of urgency to make Washington Avenue safe during its uncomfortable identity crisis, as its business and residential environment continues to shift. Public meetings reveal little consensus other than a basic acknowledgment that Washington Avenue serves many masters and none of them well. As a result MOTU, Streets, and Councilmen Mark Squilla and Kenyatta Johnson remain paralyzed. Driving lanes were painted in spring but existing bike lanes were not restriped, even when the edge lines were painted a few weeks ago. Whats’s more no noticeable, basic pedestrian safety measures, like longer crossing times, have not been made either. And that’s the easy stuff. Hardly close to the more ambitious plans to shift the mix of auto lanes, add a continuous bike lane, or create safer crossings for pedestrians. This is a total failure of leadership. If, heaven forbid, another pedestrian or cyclist is badly hurt (or worse) on the avenue, that is on the conscience of MOTU and the district councilmen.

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