Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Plans unveiled for the "New" Fairmount Park

Fairmount Park Waterworks, South Garden | Philadelphia

If you thought Philadelphia's famed Fairmount Park could not get any better, you would be mistaken. The funny thing about FP is that it gets mixed results from those who live around it ... seriously, it does.

Some love Fairmount Park, and some hate it. Some think its potential has been reached, and some think there is only room for improvement. Some Philadelphians use it every day, and some locals have never set foot in it.

For being one of the world's largest urban park systems (aka "The Largest Landscaped Urban Park in the World," according to Wikipedia), I personally feel that the park itself is underutilized. There are so many different elements to this 9,200 acre Philadelphia green space, that it's too hard to recognize all of them. The most recognizable places include (but are not limited to): Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Zoo, Boathouse Row, Please Touch Museum, and Bartram's Garden.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

What I really love about Fairmount Park is that it's so well protected and preserved, considering it's located in the 5th largest US city. What was originally an 1858 agreement to protect Philadelphia's main water supply (aka the Schuylkill River), has turned into a phenomenal public park system (63 different neighborhood parks, to be exact). This gives all Philadelphians the option to escape the busyness of city life (any day of the week), and still be within close proximity to their homes.

Okay, that should be enough background and history to get us started here.

Close to 1 year ago, Philadelphia Parks & Rec teamed up with local community groups and Penn Praxis (the design arm of UPenn) to discuss how East/West Fairmount Park could be better connected and utilized as a whole. The result, a comprehensive plan called "The New Fairmount Park."

As to not deviate from my usual approach, let's break this jawn down in traditional PUL fashion:

- "Why East & West Fairmount Park?": Well, simply put, East/West Fairmount Park are the core of Fairmount Park as a whole. They both touch Center City (East) and University City (West), which both happen to be the biggest growth areas in Philadelphia today. On top of that, no other city in the US can match East/West's combined size and overall value to the health of local residents. From a tourism standpoint, these 2 park sections draw 7M visitors every year, are home to some of Philadelphia's most significant cultural institutions, and offer a wealth of sculptures and public art. In other words, East/West are a big draw for tourists. From a recreational standpoint, there are 54 trail miles, 16 creeks, and 4 playgrounds. In other words, East/West serve as a huge public playground for those younger and older alike.

- "The Big Vision": This one has to be seen on the plan itself. In general, it capitalizes on some of FP's greatest assets: creeks, trails, and park entrances. To see some of the graphics depicting the plan's ideas and calls-to-action, click here.

- "First-Steps": With any comprehensive plan, the goal is to start small by meeting short-term goals for long-term gains. That's exactly what the plan calls for in this section. Things like improving watersheds, traffic studies, and pedestrian accessibility all contribute to exposing the park's physical attributes and overall beauty. Simple things like painting bike lane lines on bridges that cross the Schuylkill River will help connect East and West. Making park entrances more visible to those walking, riding, or driving by will increase Fairmount Park's curb appeal and encourage more usage. Steps like these do not cost millions of dollars to complete, they just require a plan and some attention to detail.

- "Focus Areas": This section of the plan focuses on 5 key areas, and they mostly revolve around the same simple concept: bring people to the water sources in Fairmount Park. By following the 16 creeks that flow down to the Schuylkill River, park users will have a natural path from uphill to river (and vice-versa). The funny thing about the neighborhoods surrounding FP, is that many residents in those communities don't realize how easy it is to access the park. Both natural and man-made barriers are the culprits. The goal is to use waterways as a guide to increasing park usage and park access.

Done and done.

My hope is that this blog post will serve as a launching point for all PUL readers to see how great Fairmount Park really is, and how much greater it will become in the not-too-distant future.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What has long been in store for Market East, is now coming to fruition

This image lays out the entire plan, click to enlarge.

My last post on PUL.com talked about Paul Levy and some of the projects he has worked on over the years to help move Center City Philadelphia forward.

One such project I mentioned, "The Road to Dilworth Plaza Park," is a solid anchor for Market East, from City Hall all the way down to Old City. Not to mention that it will also serve as an anchor for the recent activity on Market West, but let's keep our focus toward the east for now.

Well, good things are being talked about in the news.

If you have ever taken SEPTA regional rail to Market East, walked through the sets of doors to the escalators, taken the escalators up to street level, and walked through the additional sets of doors onto Market St, you have probably noticed an outdated, unsuccessful string of retail shops directly across the street.

This retail strip is known locally as Girard Square.

To be honest, these stores are pretty weak for where they sit in proximity to both Midtown Village and Old City. Not even considering the fact that they're right across the street from one of Philadelphia's busiest public transportation hubs.

If you shop at Girard Square, please do not take offense. I just think Philadelphia can do better, and they are about to make good on that statement.

Come summertime, Girard Square will be no more. In its place will be an updated, modern, mixed-use, shiny new development that will include new shops, new restaurants, and new residences, along with large digital marketing displays outside (now allowed along Market East, per a new zoning ordinance). Finally, Market East is starting to realize it's potential, as I have blogged about this before (over 2 years ago).

Here are some of the details, per the article from PBJ that inspired this post:

"The 4.3-acre site takes up an entire city block bound by Market, Chestnut, 11th, and 12th streets. The building fronting Market St will be taken down, and the first phase will rise in its place. It will total $230M and encompass 650,000 square feet.

"That initial phase will include constructing a 17-story tower that will have the first two levels dedicated to 160,000 sq ft of retail space, and the remainder an apartment structure with 322 units. It will also involve renovating the 200,000 sq ft family court building and preparing that for retail space on the street level and office space above."

Right on, Market East!

Not only do I like that the developers are phasing this project properly (supply and demand), but the most visible part (remember that picture I just painted for you in Paragraph 4, walking out of Market East station) is first in line for redevelopment.

All in all, the project is shooting for 2M total sq ft of brand-new, mixed-use space, and a total investment of $500M.

Not bad, not bad at all.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Paul Levy is determined to make Philadelphia better ... for everyone

Paul Levy in Center City, PHL | Image courtesy of Hidden City Philadelphia

He has been called the "King of Center City," and "one of Philadelphia's most powerful people." To me, he is both a game-changer and a man with vision.

Paul can see what most people don't see, and he can also see the path to get there. His visionary approach to changing Center City for the better has resulted in more development, more restaurants, more overall investment, and a new Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Needless to say, this guy just finds a way to get things done.

I have always been a big fan, and take the time to read articles that are either written about him or are written based on an interview with him. It's cool to see someone who has a plan, and is able to stick with that plan for over two decades.

This article is a good way to see what Paul is currently working on for our beloved city. In traditional PUL fashion, here is the breakdown:

1. The Road to Dilworth Plaza Park: This was one that Paul pushed for a while, and it's now set for completion at the end of 2014. The multi-million dollar transformation will take "Dilworth Plaza" from a stale, outdated, granite-ridden nothing into a usable, sustainable, public green space (which will then be referred to as "Dilworth Park"; nice touch). There will be greenery, fountains, public art (which is a standard for Philadelphia), a skating rink, and a new cafe. Think of it as a new kind of Rittenhouse Square, only with a castle in the middle, easy access to trains/subways, and a new place to eat. It's a great project, and should help jump-start all of the proposed projects/speculation for Market East; including a reimagination of The Gallery.

2. The Public/Private Partnership: Otherwise known as CCD, or the Center City District. What a beast the CCD has become in changing Center City for the better. Let's clean the streets ... check. How about some better lunch/dinner options ... check. Let's get some more people to live down here ... check. Oh, let's light the streets better, create more places to hang out, spruce up the Parkway, and just make Center City awesome ... check. So, how does he do this? There is no clear cut answer, but in general Paul is able to bridge the gap between city/state government and private corporations/companies. The result, Center City is booming and better than ever today.

3. CCD has transformed Center City into one of the most livable downtowns in the US: Center City Philadelphia has history, it has modern amenities, it has a fantastic food/shopping scene, it has great parks, and it's considered the 3rd Most-Populous Downtown in the US. With suburbs garnering less attention these days, and cities getting more attention daily, "downtown" (in any major US city) is its heart and soul. It's the core, the base, the identity. This is why Philadelphia is growing and getting a more notable national reputation. Do we have our fair share of issues? Yes. Political corruption, poverty, litter? Yes. Slow to get things done? Yes. But ... it's slowly starting to change. Philadelphia is an exciting place to be, and the energy is contagious. Paul Levy is a big reason why Philadelphia has so much momentum today.

Another day, another soap box.

Being that I was raised just outside the city's northern boundary (What's up, Abington), some may say I'm a bit biased; fair enough.

But if you have been away from Philadelphia for a while, or have moved away altogether, here is my advice to you. Look at your calendar, plan a visit to Center City on a sunny spring/summer day, keep an open mind, and my guess is that you will also see what I am seeing ... progress.