Philadelphia comments

I’m spoiled silly by having too much flash RAM–I never have to download photos from my camera, so I don’t. Anyhow, photos will eventually get posted. In the meantime, some notes I wrote about Philadelphia on a visit a week ago:

– I fell in love with the intimate scale of the streets and the tiny building footprints. 15′ wide lots may not have much economic use anymore, but they sure make for invitingly tiny shopfronts. The one-lane streets are eminently jaywalkable, even without looking. (Yeah, I know it’s dangerous since you’ll never see electric cars or cyclists, but still.) Plus, street vendors abound in the widely distributed office core. (The linear commuter rail tunnel under downtown helped keep office construction from focusing on a single nexus.)
– The tremendous old money influence shines through. Classical palazzos and dozens of old banking halls, especially along Walnut, clutter Center City and present excellent reuse opportunities. It’s somehow satisfying to be back in a preppy Eastern social milieu, although I’m sure the charm would wear off quickly.
– Gentrification has been very un-thorough, possibly due in part to said tiny building footprints; there’s good grit just a few feet away from Rittenhouse Square, and scuzzy shops right on Walnut, Market, and Broad. Fragmented ownership greatly helps to slow gentrification, since not all of the owners will jump to upgrade their shop spaces all at once.
– The Center City District has an admirable wayfinding scheme. Discreet color-coded maps hang above many sidewalks, allowing people to easily see what direction they’re headed in at any given time.

…yet the city and state have not kept up economically. Vacant lots, parking lots, and auto-oriented sprawlboxes sprout even in choice locations, including right in front of City Hall and just a few blocks down Broad from the core; given the awe-inspiring quality of the surrounding fabric, it’s painful to imagine what’s been lost. Mass transit is an afterthought in the regional imagination, and threatened service cuts (20% across the board, killing already scarce weekend and night service) would doom SEPTA to irrelevance. Some here have mentioned that SEPTA’s board is controlled by suburban interests who simply don’t care about transit’s importance to the city’s economic health. The current state of the system is atrocious; service frequencies are already pushing the limits of acceptability.

The lack of adequate transit has already killed Center City’s appeal as the region’s primary center for doing business and flooded the city with cars. The many (otherwise adorable) “baby streets” (the local vernacular for alleys turned into streets), in particular, look positively flooded with cars: an 8′ cartway sandwiched between rows of cars parked on the sidewalks. Sometimes, metal bollards prevent people from driving up on the sidewalk, but attempts to shoehorn monstrous metal cages into walking cities will always fail.

Several of the downtown office towers sported banners promoting a site called KeepPhillyCompetitive, which is really about keeping their own office towers competitive. However, their naked self-interest is also in the public interest; giant corporate tax breaks are not an effective use of Pennsylvania taxpayers’ money. The Keystone Opportunity Zones that the downtown owners oppose are inferior in principle to even TIF districts; after all, the latter literally make growth pay for itself, while KOZ explicitly robs from the existing tax base.