Expanded Convention Center: Economic Failure, Urbanist’s Nightmare

 

Lookin' back on a track for a little green bag: Mayor Nutter posse walks in slow motion on North Broad Street as the wrecking ball swings on Odd Fellow Hall | Photo: Bradley Maule, 2008

Lookin’ back on a track for a little green bag: the Mayor Nutter posse walks in slow motion on North Broad Street as the wrecking ball swings on Odd Fellows Hall | Photo: Bradley Maule, 2008

This past weekend, after a visit to Articulture, the Flower Show’s lovely 2014 installation, I paged through my archives looking for past thoughts on the Pennsylvania Convention Center’s expansion and the buildings it replaced. I was surprised to find, in a story from August 2007, written as Geppert Bros. assembled their fleet of wrecking balls, that I was mostly okay with the expansion and the demolition it spelled, because an expanded Convention Center meant economic growth. Oh, youthful optimism.

Then and Now: the Convention Center's footprint in 2007 and 2014, viewed from City Hall observation deck | Photos: Bradley Maule

Then and Now: the Convention Center’s footprint in 2007 and 2014, viewed from City Hall observation deck | Photos: Bradley Maule

Seven years later, demolition in Philadelphia shows no sign of slowing down, some for good and some for not. But with 20/20 hindsight and Tom Ferrick’s declaration of damnation last year, it’s difficult not to see the loss of the 19 buildings cleared for the PACC as tragic. More to point, it’s difficult to view the PACC expansion as anything but a failure: an economic disappointment, a missed opportunity for Mayor Nutter’s green team, an urbanist’s nightmare.

Taxpayers all across Pennsylvania spent nearly a billion dollars for Philadelphia to enlarge an already iffy Convention Center, justified by promises and lofty expectations. And especially now, fresh off of a Flower Show that occupied the same space it always has—in the older facility—I just can’t grasp the expansion. In fact, I couldn’t even get to it. While I realize there are supposed to be multiple event spaces with multiple simultaneous purposes, am I just missing a passage from one side to the other? The exterior was made to look contiguous—the giant bays on Arch Street and the horrible emptiness of Race Street—is the inside not contiguous too? On each floor I attempted to find the way there, I met with strange offices or dimly lit corridors suggesting I turn around.

If the expansion meant to bring a new, ceremonious entrance on North Broad Street—the kickstart this forlorn but hopeful stretch of city needs, we were told—why can’t you enter the Flower Show, one of the PACC’s most popular and beloved events, from that side? Handwritten signs on Broad Street directed visitors to 12th & Arch, three wintry city blocks away.

The rumbling, blocks-long face of the Convention Center as it fronts Arch Street; at left is the still-empty Liberty Title & Trust building | Photo: Bradley Maule

The rumbling, blocks-long face of the Convention Center as it fronts Arch Street; at left is the still-empty Liberty Title & Trust building | Photo: Bradley Maule

The North Broad Street side of the Convention Center is simply an embarrassment. Starting on the corner of Arch Street, the Liberty Title & Trust Building—the only one of twenty between 13th and Broad Streets to be spared, and which was to become a grand new hotel—still stands empty and covered in scaffolding at street level. Next to that scaffolding, an empty lot protected by a chain link fence stands as a monument to the 11th hour demolition of the Philadelphia Life Insurance Company buildings. The five-story façades of the original, circa-1915 Beaux-Arts hall by Adin Lacey and its 1962 addition by Mitchell/Giurgola, were originally incorporated into the design, protected by the PA Historical and Museum Commission, but overruled by PA Department of General Services (who oversaw the expansion). Despite the efforts of preservationists, those two buildings came down, and in their place, we got a fenced off wall of spite.

The two buildings Philadelphia Life Insurance Company once occupied—Adin Lacey's five-story 1915 Beaux-Arts original and Mitchell/Giurgola's 1962 addition—once stood here, where a blank wall of nothing is commemorated by a chain link fence | Photo: Bradley Maule

The two buildings Philadelphia Life Insurance Company once occupied—Adin Lacey’s five-story 1915 Beaux-Arts original and Mitchell/Giurgola’s 1962 addition—once stood here, where a blank wall of nothing is commemorated by a chain link fence | Photo: Bradley Maule

These doors? Don't use them. | Photo: Bradley Maule

These doors? Don’t use them. | Photo: Bradley Maule

As to the grand new entrance itself, one has 18 doors from which to choose, but most likely only two (or one) of them actually opens. In fact, most of the doors facing Broad Street have etched onto them a notice saying to not use these doors, but those other doors, down that way. The pedestrian crossing and traffic light, however—these are a welcome addition, leading across Broad Street to Lenfest Plaza.

But even the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has been infected by the stench of the Convention Center. As nice as Lenfest Plaza is, the signature, eye-drawing sculpture there is the worst piece of public art in Philadelphia. Claes Oldenburg’s Paint Torch looms between PAFA’s Furnessian opus and the new school Hamilton Building, supposedly serving to bring art and the art process to cartoonish life, instead dropping a giant red turd right on Broad Street.

At least the PACC got a perfect piece of complementary art across the street | Photo: Bradley Maule

At least the PACC got a perfect piece of complementary art across the street | Photo: Bradley Maule

New look of North Broad Street: steel door-shaped-things that are not doors | Photo: Bradley Maule

New look of North Broad Street: steel door-shaped-things that are not doors | Photo: Bradley Maule

On the way to the corner of Race Street, the expanded Convention Center breaks up its monotonous blank stone wall with monotonous blank steel doors-that-aren’t-doors. At Race Street, where no stairs lead to the subway downstairs (the Race-Vine station is three doors north on the other side of Race), an enormous impervious plaza with three small trees has a single bench and a bike rack with spots for four bikes and a whole lot of nothing else.

It may not be much to look at, but this plaza reduces travel times for those on foot between Broad and Race Streets by at least 30 seconds | Photo: Bradley Maule

It may not be much to look at, but this plaza reduces travel times for those on foot between Broad and Race Streets by at least 30 seconds | Photo: Bradley Maule

All in all it's just another blank urban wall | Photo: Bradley Maule

All in all it’s just another blank urban wall | Photo: Bradley Maule

Rounding the corner onto Race Street itself? Welcome to the Dead Zone. The three blocks of Race Street between Broad and 11th Streets are probably the single worst stretch of Center City. The expansion begot a giant, blank brick wall at Broad Street to complement the one already at 11th & Race, the two bookending three blocks of parking garage vents and curb cuts.

And let’s not forget 12th and 13th Streets. North-south pedestrians have no choice but to walk through the PACC’s dark, two-block-long tunnels, soaking in the sounds of echoing traffic and breathing in the exhaust of idling tour buses.

Depending on the definition of “city streets,” the Pennsylvania Convention Center now consumes either three very large city blocks, (more accurately) six regular-sized blocks, or about a dozen small blocks. To understand the scope of just how large that is, look out your window the next time your plane comes in for landing at PHL. The PACC scars the Center City streetscape with all the elegance of a white bandage—not even a Band-Aid, but the cheap knockoff kind. And that roof you see isn’t green, it’s white. So white.

Breathtaking and Mondrianian, the view of Home2 Suites from the Convention Center | Photo: Bradley Maule

Breathtaking and Mondrianian, the view of Home2 Suites from the Convention Center | Photo: Bradley Maule

Mayor Nutter, on whose watch the entirety of demolition and construction happened, promised to make Philadelphia the greenest city in America by 2015, his last year of office. As I contended in 2007 (7 November 2007, “It’s Mayor Nutter Jelly Time”), the PACC’s expansion provided him with the chance to put his money where his mouth was, to provide a can’t-miss benchmark for Philadelphia’s and Pennsylvania’s new green economy. But nope.

Whatever the case, it’s gluttonous, it’s ugly, and it’s a bummer. We can thank the would-be development catalyst for directly spurring the construction of two whole projects in four years: a parking garage that hulks over Arch Street United Methodist Church and the Masonic Temple, and the architectural dunghill at 12th & Arch—38 percent of which we also paid for!

After last year’s disaster at 22nd & Market, it’s understandable that officials in the City’s Department of Licenses and Inspections have taken a more proactive stance, approving the demolition of potentially dangerous vacant buildings. But the 19—nineteen—buildings demolished for the expansion of the Convention Center were far from vacant. The Odd Fellows Hall. Buck’s Hardware. Vox Populi and the Fabric Workshop & Museum. Paul Green’s School of Rock. The PLICo pair. The Race Street Firehouse. The Pleasure Palace.

They’re all gone. And for what?

About the author

Bradley Maule is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland OR, Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.



27 Comments


  1. DanielDaniel Gilmore

    Good article. While I agree on the unfortunate architectural results of the convention center expansion, could the larger reason of why the expansion has failed to pay off thus far be because it was developed right in the midst of the beginning and height of the financial collapse? Seems to me that that was probably a pretty damning development to have to deal with which no doubt stunted convention booking right when they needed it to grow. Just a thought!

  2. I liked the corner of Broad and Race much better when there was a White Tower restaurant there…

  3. Agreed. Any they couldn’t even afford to put a sign on the Broad Street side announcing that it is, in fact, the Convention Center. Talk about turning your back to the street!

  4. Bookend to the Kimmel Center. Two anti-urban structures. Financial black-holes.

  5. You are really going way too far with your personal vendettas here. There are far uglier pieces of public art in this city than PAFA’s Oldenburg. Ever seen the Rizzo statue?

    • NickFromGermantown

      The paintbrush “art” is a complete disgrace. There is no personal vendetta. I don’t even know of this artist and I recognize this “art” as terrible. It’s uninspiring and unfortunately suggestive.

      Like Rizzo or not, a statue is a statue. Not sure what makes it so ugly in your opinion. The board game pieces at Paine Plaza are terrible. “Government of the People” is one of the worst however.

      There’s nothing wrong with classic art because it’s already accepted. We can leave progressive design to the private collectors.

  6. Nice article indeed- and yes that paint brush and poop is just awful , I don’t care how famous the artist is! The damage is already done ,time will tell if it pays for itself. But considering the number one reason that conventions won’t come to Philadelphia is working with the unions, I think the future looks bleak. Just because you build a bigger convention center doesn’t mean they will come. Take a look at what shows have been booked, and you will see what I mean.

  7. i appreciated the article. However, I was surprised that the author truly believed that the expansion could be justified by economics alone (I will give him the benefit of the doubt but I assume that he was being sarcastic). Anyone with a concern for the health and heritage of this city saw the expansion as an utter embarrassing affair for all Philadelphians. And we should remember this example whenever a developer tries to push an anti-urban design that seeks to further liquidate our history and culture for the supposed sake of economic development. I mean I’m sure the locals of Theresienstadt were excited when they saw the Germans building their compound nearby and I’m sure a lot of jobs were gained from such a venture-but at what cost? will this may be an extreme metaphor to make, the same logic is at work. Now all we have left on North broad is a burden for both taxpayers and our eyes.

  8. I think it is unfair to criticize the Nutter administration in this piece while not even mentioning Ed Rendell. This is Rendell’s baby, and the State pretty much steamrolled the City on this one.

    • This is a fair point, and thanks for bringing it up. Mayor and Governor Rendell absolutely made the sale to the rest of the state, but I specifically focused on Mayor Nutter here for two main reasons: 1. During his first run for mayor (and in press conferences since), he promised a green renaissance in Philadelphia, and as I wrote a number of times in 2007, this was a major opportunity for him to prove that. And more importantly, 2. Nutter was the Chairman of the Board of the PA Convention Center Authority for the four years preceding his election as Mayor.

      The Convention Center’s expansion was a golden opportunity, certainly requiring some support from Governor Rendell’s office, for Mayor Nutter to prove himself right off the bat. But well, he sure didn’t.

  9. Consider that PACC is under new management for many reasons already mentioned. Also consider what pedestrian experience greeted potential conventioneers and planners who visited: panhandlers, the Gallery, a methadone clinic, RTM as the high mark of an otherwise dismal dining/shopping area, and a slew of vacant parcels. The clumsy design of the PACC is not to blame for failure. There’s a pretty long list of entities owning some of that responsibility.

  10. This mass demolition still upsets me. They took down beautiful buildings that can never be replaced. I miss the firehouse. When they first started to talk seriously about expanding the convention center. My first thought was to expand towards Vine St. Either between 11th and 12th or 12th and 13th or both and they should have made the street solid walls of retail. Unlike the sad attempt of retail on 11th St of the original portion. That always made more scene to me as Vine St is a dead zone anyway and there are less buildings back there. Yes they would have to reword the 2nd floor loading docks. That corner on Broad and Race is horrible. They should either expand it out and put a couple of restaurant spaces or they could have incorporated a more grand Broad St line entrance way. It was a poorly conceived project. This city does not need 3 solid blocks of dead space and we need to stop tearing down all those historic buildings. Maybe 1 building here or there. But an entire block of buildings along Broad St. That is insane.

  11. This article is good but it skirts around the biggest issue, occupancy. If the Convention Center regularly produced the kind of sidewalk choking traffic that I experienced during the car show I could forgive a lot of its urbanist sins.

  12. Today I took my lunch on that solitary bench in that “enormous impervious plaza” you mentioned in your piece, just to let the failed urbanism wash all over me. My nearest neighbor was a guy perched on the edge of a planter, about 80 feet away, waiting for a bus or something; he couldn’t have been just enjoying the good weather.

    The view from the plaza: Hahnemann University Hospital’s eminently approachable mural, depicting a 10 story tall everyman in a flannel and jeans with a beer gut, flanked by his wheelchair-bound friends, Tolerance and Inclusion. You have to hand it to the Mural Arts program for its insistent, shrill optimism in the face of so many barren plazas, blank walls and high-rise parking garages that do nothing to inspire civility.

  13. Fun fact: there was a staircase leading to the broad street line at that Broad and Race corner that was “decked over” shortly before demo began.

    Fun fact#2 That “plaza” could fit the White Tower burger joint that stood at that corner for some time and still have ample room to spare….

  14. Keep in mind the State of Pennsylvania is the one that floated bonds and issued the contracts for the Convention Center expansion. What has happened is that recession hit and the effects are still being felt but what more has happened is the bullying and noncooperating attitudes shown by the union workers at the Convention Hall that has customers pledging never to come back to Philadelphia. In all fairness, other cities have expended their convention centers like we did.

    The tall building on corner of Broad and Vine which has stood abandoned next to the new expanded Convention Center and is still owned by the state is a good site for a rehab job as a hotel. State needs to get off thetir duffs and get a hostelier to invest in a rehab job by selling the building at a discount incentive.

    It was fear taht motivated the State to proceed with demolition on adjoining buildings. THe property belongs to the state, not the City of Philadelphia. To find a viable use will require a lot of give and take with the state to fill the blank wall spaces.

  15. I suggest the State sell the Convention Center. If a new owner wants to knock it down, so be it.
    In architectural terms, the building is out of scale, not made of local materials and without ornamentation.

  16. So HiddenCity posts this less than a month after its Rendell softball interview? The three biggest issues facing Philadelphia outside the public school debacle are the Pennsylvania Convention Center, DROP, and public sector pensions. Rendell is directly to blame for the ENTIRETY of the PCC and DROP and enabled the pension problem as mayor and governor. Why not grab the bull by the horns and call Rendell for his bullshit? This isn’t Portland where this attitude is tolerated and expected. This is Philadelphia! We should call it like it is and let this phony Rendell get our real feelings. It just seems disingenuous to have a story like this considering that interview.

  17. Minneapolis had a similar situation with the expansion of their convention center. Streets had to be rerouted out of an extremely regular grid, in order to accomodate a much larger building. Not so much was torn down, perhaps, in a downturned section of downtown, but it is a jarring site. Perhaps it is an unavoidable clash between 19th-century or older street patterns and a need for huge indoor spaces. It remains disturbing. But younger people will know nothing different.

  18. At this point the demolitions are beyond commenting on and it seems that the economic generation idea has not been what was advertised. But I’m not an expert on the economic factors. What I do personally know about are some design issues that have been handled poorly. I have the neon museum collection that Hidden City wrote about in Fall of 2013. Many years ago when Bob Butera ran the Convention Center he wanted to liven the 12th Street underpass with vintage Phila and Pa neon signs. It seemed a no brainer as the Center is there to promote business and culture. An historic display of vintage signs would be a spectacular way to fit the mission and brighten the building.

    The Center’s Board shot down the idea (Butera’s explanation to me: “They are a bunch of conservative Chestnut Hill people,”). Yet they approved an installation of white overhead neon lines and gong that cost a fortune, hardly worked, had little impact when they did work, and won’t run again as the electronics cost a fortune to fix. I have no idea who made or designed this failed art.

    During the expansion, I was again approached by an architect working on the building who wanted to do the historic neon in the cavernous Broad Street entrance. Another no brainer, and even more spectacular attraction given the volume of space for signs. However, the folks from Harrisburg running the addition wouldn’t talk to me, and we are left with an unwelcoming (to put it nicely) LED animation on Broad Street.

    There are still major players from Philly who tell me they want to make the Broad Street entrance glow with iconic signs, but everything is so political and behind-the-scenes that I have my doubts. Other developers/sites have approached me and by the time the Convention Center gets it together (if ever), the signs will probably go into a less perfect fit.

  19. This place is pretty much a disgrace on our urban landscape. I hate it with a fiery passion. And considering it’s now underperforming, it’s the architectural definition of “insult to injury”.

  20. Don’t blame the under performance of the convention center on the economy. That is total non-sense. The National conventions and meetings that were used to justify the expansion did not come. Guess what, they still met, just someplace else.

    This is what happens when you let political people make business decisions with tax payer dollars and no skin in the game.

    I am not opposed to government using its powers to help the economy but, the proliferation of these “authorities” that have eminent domain powers and the ability to borrow on tax revenue are out of control. Their boards are composed of un-elected members appointed by politicians. The vast majority try to justify their existence and increase influence by increasing their own perceived (real or not) scope of responsibility. In this case it was a literal increase in square footage without a significant amount of signed contracts to fill or justify the building of new the space.

    Why worry, it’s not their money they are squandering. Just look at The Delaware River Port Authority (PATCO) for another local example.

    I hope the new team in place can turn it around because the old one screwed it up pretty bad.

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