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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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