It’s a zoo out here, we thought as we fanned our faces with our notebooks in vain the other week. The tour guide was telling us all sorts of interesting snippets of information about the area, but our heat-addled brains could barely concentrate. One of the other people on the tour caught our eye: “Nice cool day, isn’t it?”
Maybe it wasn't as cool as the October evenings we found ourselves longing for, but it was certainly fruitful. As we slogged around the harsh over- and underpasses, buzzed by racing traffic fresh off the Interstate, it was hard to remember we were mere blocks from Franklin Square, one of Thomas Holme’s original five -- and quite literally inside Chinatown. And that was exactly the point.
For the Feds had come. As if by magic (or more accurately, because of the Every Place Counts Design Challenge), Chinatown had summoned the United States Department of Transportation into their midst. These USDOT folks were emphasizing “walkability” and “connections” and “multimodality” and “placemaking” and other New Urbanist buzzwords, and even brought a gaggle of New Urbanist consultants along with them.
Fast-forward two days to the Big Reveal. The sketches were rough, little more than graphite and colored pencil on wax paper, hardly anything concrete -- just pretty visuals for the public to think of when they thought about of the idea of a reconnected Vine Street. And they were a treat! Visions of buffered bike lanes danced in front of our eyes (as well as significantly less sexy ones of bus/bike lanes). Underpasses were lit up with public art.
When you cross the Delaware River on the Ben Franklin Bridge, one of the first exits takes you down 8th Street through the edge of Chinatown. Since the 1960s, a large parking garage has spanned 8th Street between Arch and Filbert Street and it's pretty much looked terrible since the day it opened. Here, take a look:
View in the past
We learned a couple of years ago that the PPA, which by the way owns the garage, was planning to renovate the exterior and its dank underbelly and we were hopeful, but appropriately skeptical. We just couldn't wrap our minds around the idea that this garbage building could possibly turn into something attractive. But we've gotta say, with the project seemingly complete since our visit last year, we can see that they actually did a pretty good job. The garage now looks extremely cool thanks to "veils of metal mesh and glass with screening made of glass louvers."
We're always on the lookout for interesting development opportunities around town, and it certainly helps us out when real estate agents post signs that really hammer it home. Such is the case at 251 N. 12th St., a vacant lot at the corner of 12th & Vine that has been used as a skinny surface parking lot for many years. We were zipping down 12th Street the other day and a prominent sign caught our eye all the way from the other side of the Vine Street Expressway.
This past week we checked out some interesting but slightly confusing development activity at 917 Arch St. thanks to a reader tip. This building definitely has some history, having been home to Stewart, Ralph & Company about a hundred years ago, and also housing the Asam Brothers wallpaper warehouse for a stretch. By the 1970s the structure looked pretty rough, but it's taken a turn for the better in recent years.
The building in 1975
Back in 2014
Visit the building today, and you'll see it's getting a three story addition. We've actually seen this happen to a few other properties in Chinatown, usually with a similar scale.
At the time, we said "this means that Realen's planned hotel in the old Liberty Title Building at the corner of Broad & Arch is full speed ahead. Considering the time, money, and energy that's gone into the Convention Center expansion, we're looking forward to the completion of these two projects, at which time the 1300 block of Arch Street will be free of construction activity for the first time in almost a decade." Hilariously, the scaffolding that was about a year old at that point remained in place until only recently.
Looked like this for the last five years
Over the holiday weekend, a reader was kind enough to send us an image of the building sans scaffolding- there's now a fence around the first floor. This is very good news.