Friday, October 27, 2006

Go East, Young Man

Market East is the buzz of Center City watchers of late. The recent leasing of the Girard Estate property on Market from 11th to 12th means that there may be big changes coming to a block that was once home to the long lost Snellenburg's department store. Trinity Capital Advisers, LLC of Conshohocken will lease the property for $90 million. The leasers say they don't plan to move too quickly in making big changes to this long underdeveloped parcel of land.

Many observers were surprised that this block is supposed to change drastically through a leasing option, rather than a sale of the property.

When one walks down Market East from City Hall to 7th Street, they cannot help but notice that the pieces do not quite fit together. The Market East of today is a shadow of what it was in terms of architectural stock 30 years ago. The demolition for the Gallery project's stages in the 70's and 80's took many visually interesting buildings away from Center City. Granted, most of those buildings were in need of great restoration, but market forces downtown today probably would have brought such renovations in due time.

The "Disney Hole" at 8th and Market seems permanently empty. But rumblings have floated around for several years about a possible Target store and residential development for the site. The culprit in blocking the redevelopment of this site remains the Parking Authority, supposedly, and issues about putting a garage at 8th and Chestnut for the project. I don't think we'll ever get a clear reading on what's kept the 8th and Market hold empty since 1980. One can only wonder what the old Gimbel's buildings there would have become today had they remained standing.

We are going to see major changes, ideally, along Market East in the next 10 years. The Center City District seems committed to focusing no shortage of energy at long last on this beleaguered stretch.

What should the vision be for Market East? Several plans in the past have called for Market East to become rather like Times Square. Bright lights, tourist-oriented entertainment and retail options. Perhaps this would be a much needed addition to Center City to further increase the feeling of vitality that we're blessed with downtown.

Whatever the vision for Market East, there must be a committed vision from PREIT, the owners of The Gallery, toward upgrading the interior aesthetics of The Gallery, and certainly, a full-scale exterior renovation of the complex. While one should admit that The Gallery serves many Philadelphians in many ways daily, it warrants serious attention to ensure it no longer is the butt of jokes by those that see themselves as being "above" The Gallery and those that patronize it.

Changes along Market East will raise growing issues of providing retail that does not merely pander to tourists and the well-heeled shoppers of Center City. A strong downtown serves people of all cultures and incomes, and increasingly, that's becoming harder to find in most major city downtowns as they boom with new residential and commercial development. Yes, a balance must be found between the City Blues and the Burberrys. Like everything else in America, though, market forces will make the final decisions in how the changes along Market East transpire.

It is certain that the next 10 years belong to the part of Center City east of Broad Street. We will hopefully be surprised just how exciting Market East is some years from now.

Oh, and don't even get me started on Chestnut East....