Reclaiming Streets for People - Gray's Ferry Avenue

New York City's Janette Sadik-Khan has become famous by way of bike lanes and the City's plaza program... the both of which involve converting overbuilt vehicular roadways into spaces for people, but the latter is probably most innovative due to the seemingly guerilla start to many of these projects, where paint, cheap bollards, and simple seating come long before concrete, granite and tree planters. But such opportunities abound far beyond the Big Apple.

Gray's Ferry Avenue at South Street and 23rd Street
One such spot is Philalphia's intersection of 20th Street, 23rd Street, and Gray's Ferry Avenue. The intersection and street grid create a small, triangular park space separated from the buildings fronting on Gray's Ferry by a section of street that barely gets used, but for four or five parking spaces.  While recently visiting the neighborhood, we saw a jazz trio jamming on the Gray's Ferry sidewalk, and fans filled the little park, spilling into the street.   

I'd propose closing this small section of street with simple, removable bollards to give shop owners the opportunity to spread out into the street, music to be played, and friends to gather.  After all, Philly has the proud tradition of to populating a parking space with a lawn chair... here's a chance to do so for better reason than reserving he space to park your car.

Such an endeavor might grow out out of the City's Parklet Program, which has been great at reclaiming on-street parking spaces for human use, but this is a case where parking is actually the ONLY useful function (the direction of the surrounding streets don't even make it helpful for circulation) of this block of the street, so closing it totally down is certainly worth a shot.  If this public space becomes more successful, then maybe, through the City's capital program, the plaza space can be better formalized with new curbs, planting, benches, and the like.  Until then, make the most of playing in the street.  

Schuylkill Riverfront Development Anxiety: Focus Down, Not Up

With the huge to-date success of Schuylkill Banks and the Schulkill River Trail, along with lots of extensions and expansion underway, planned, or in theory, it's no wonder that Dranoff wants to build a new residential building at 25th and Locust Streets to double down on their early investments in loft conversions on the 2400 block of Locust.  Re-use is one thing, but as the urban revitalization story often goes... new construction has many in a tizzy.

Just a matter or orientation, the development is proposed to take place on what is currently a parking lot, immediately north of Schuylkill River Park and its Community Garden.  These are connected to the Schuylkill River Trail by a new bridge over the freight railroad tracks and are a real treasure.  The railroad is immediately to the west of the site, and 25th Street is immediately to it's east, with one of the Dranoff conversions across the street.  Locust Street, which creates pedestrian and bicycle across the tracks to the Schuylkill River Trail, creates the northern edge of the site and connects the project to Rittenhouse Square and all its amenities six blocks away. Suffice it to say that I can see why anybody would want to built there.  

As Jared Brey at Plann Philly reports, some nearby residents don't want anything to be built on the property at all, expressing concern about it being too tall and degrading the character of the neighborhood and riverfront trail experience.  Some even suggest that the property shouldn't be zoned for development in the first place (something about a "quirk"of the code), and that the City should change the zone and not allow the development to proceed (possibly offering to swap with Dranoff for another piece of land somewhere).  Unfortunately for folks of that persuasion, if the development is allowed as of right and no variances are being pursued, I just don't know how such a negotiation can be made.  Frankly, I'm not sure if I want to live in a society where I can buy property, play by the rules, and then get the rug pulled out from under me (and I suspect the City will be rather cool on the prospect of paying a developer to not build, instead of soon collecting additional property taxes).  Self governance and property rights need to learn to play in the sandbox together.

THIS is precisely why planning, zoning, and regulations matter.  Debates about where development should happen and what scale/intensity it includes need to happen during that process (which the City finished not long ago), not once land is bought and development proposals are submitted, (and I'm sure this came up before, and many residents feel like this is their last chance, but sometimes that's how the cookie crumbles, I suppose).  

That being said, having reviewed the material presented by Dranoff, allow me to make a few comments regarding the plan and its urban design (all of these could be addressed through regulations on form, so developers and the communities they work in can have clear mutual expectations).

Will the height of the building degrade the neighborhood and the trail/park experience?  My guess is not.  Rittenhouse Square, the single greatest public space in the City is surrounded by buildings roughly this tall.  Four blocks away, the Carlyle rises twenty stories about its adjacent Locust Street row houses, and evidently results in the neighborhood being no less desirable.  My only hope would be that building materials keep Inga Saffron's concerns about damage to the community garden from materializing. 

Dranoff's renderings are all from an aerial perspective, no doubt exacerbating residents' concerns about its scale etc.  I really wish they had shown a street/garden/park-level perspective, to show not how helicopters would view the building, but how neighbors an passersby would experience it.  Because at the end of the day, it's the human scale that people experience that really affects quality of life... that impact decreases with every floor you go up, so how the birds eye view?

I say that, because with the exception of a cafe fronting on Locust Street at the entrance to the Schuylkill River Trail (which is a great amenity for the neighborhood/trail, and I suspect will be hugely successful), it's the sidewalk experience that leaves something to be desired for me in project, not necessarily the building's height or massing in the neighborhood.

As you can see in the material presented by Dranoff, the building itself occupies little of the 25th street frontage of the property, in order to protect the view shed (notably, of residents of Dranoff's own building across the street).  Its frontage includes the pedestrian entrance, windows to a lounge inside, and 23 feet of loading bay.  The rest of the property, north to Locust Street, will be an elevated "terrace," so that 31 parking spaces on the ground floor can be added to the to the 55 that will be below grade, for a total of 86, (despite only being required to provide 51) which means at ground level it will be a blank (with some decoration, no doubt) wall, only broken up by stairs from the sidewalk to the terrace and an entrance to the parking garage.  I suspect the developer thinks of the "terrace" as a benefit to the neighborhood, but in reality, these elevated public spaces that don't actually go anywhere tend to be used by building tenants only, not the general public... since they really don't feel that public.

An active streetwall contributes much better to a walkable street than an open space atop a parking garage.  With that in mind, my recommendation on the project would be to replace six of the parking spaces and some of the side-of-building-greenery with six modest row houses, about 16-feet wide and 25-feet deep, as illustrated to the right.  These three story buildings are completely part of the neighborhood vernacular and could each be individual units or broken up into two or three apartments.  At street level, this would make the building, which is actually rather nice and slender, not feel like it's part of a large, imposing complex, but just a taller section of a nice block.  And the at-grade parking behind would still go unnoticed.  I'd imagine the terrace would still work well for residents of the tower and row houses, and maybe or maybe not the general public.  Most importantly, the street would be much more in line with the context of the neighborhood.

But the parking! What about the parking?! Some neighbors have expressed concern that there already isn't enough parking for the project (despite providing more than the city requires), and that people will cars in these apartments will flood other coveted neighborhood spaces.  I suspect that if enough spaces aren't provided, you'll actually just have people moving in who don't own cars.  Given the city's growing bicycle culture, this isn't a great stretch of the imagination.  Just ask the developer of these recently constructed 104 units with no parking spaces.  And then the question of Dranoff is, what generates more revenue, an additional parking space, or an additional rentable unit or two?  

Again, the moral of the story here is that zoning and regulations matter.  You want development to happen without having to go through too many hoops, but you can only do that if regulations sufficiently reflect community needs and aspirations.

On the (rail)Road; Jack Kerouac Redux for Millennials?

Last night, we took a midnight Amtrak train from Philadelphia and woke up in Boston.  Today we're spending the day in America's arguably (right Philly?) most historic city, and this evening we're taking a train down the Cape on the Cape Flyer, something that hasn't been able to happen in about twenty-five years.  Needless to say, trains have been around for a long time in this country, but there's some real change afoot these days, after decades of stagnation and decline, America seems to be rediscovering its railways.

Millenial Rail Project route map
Yesterday, we weren't the only ones taking to the train.  August 8th was also the inaugural ride of the Millennial Trains Project, from San Francisco to Washington, DC. The precise purpose is a little muddy, but the ethos is crystal clear; young entrepreneurial people taking to the railways to discover America, make something of themselves, and change the places they live for the better.  Freedom and adventure for this generation seems to no longer be loading up the car and hitting the open road.

Philly welders, showing off their skills at a street fair
These are the same people, not only choosing living in cities and towns over the vast suburbs, but increasingly rejecting (by preference or necessity) their parents' conventions of adulthood: home ownership (you can thank childhood boredom in the suburbs, validated by disillusionment resulting from the recent housing and financial crises), buying a car (communication technology is the prefered use of limited cash, and the rise of the sharing economy makes car ownership increasingly unnecessary, if one so chooses), and cushy corporate careers (by necessity, since finding work right out of college isn't what it was just a decade ago, but you're seeing everything from startup companies to the rediscovery of farming and food production). One of the more amazing things to me is that as the organization's video states, "where early pioneers went west, a new generation will go east."  It's not so much a statement of fact as a call to arms, but a bit of an amazing thing... to think that, with the mythology of California being so rooted in its reputation as a place for adventure-taking and self-making, young West-Coasters might now go "back east" to do the same.

You might say this is all dreamers and upstarts. But intercity rail ridership is breaking records nearly every year, with Amtrak ridership going up by 49% since 2000. The northeast corridor, alone, grew ridership by 4.8% in the last year. This growth, higher than population and GDP is indicative of a shift; something out there is changing. People are voting with their feet and wallets, and train travel for business and pleasure is increasingly their choice. The simple conclusion? Cities with good passenger rail service will attract people and reap the economic benefits, and those without will likely not.

Forty years ago, Arlo Guthrie sang bittersweetly about the train called "The City of New Orleans" and its demise.  So here's to a resurgence in the coming years and decades.

Throughout this blog, I'll report on planned service expansions, and make my own recommendations on how to improve service and better integrate it into the fiber of our cities and towns. Stay tuned.

ThirdPlace WorkSpace Thursdays - Nook Bakery & Coffee Bar, 20th and Chestnut

You may remember when Nook used to be on the Walnut Street Bridge, which was great for students, staff, and faculty heading to Penn or Drexel.  Three years ago, Edna and Mike moved their shop to 20th Street, just north of Chestnut Street, where they say they're getting much more foot traffic.  It's a nice spot to get some work done or have meeting, and even better for a cup of coffee and some freshly baked goods.

Nook is a place that can easily become your regular coffee shop, further contributing to the emergence of 20th Street as an ideal neighborhood retail corridor.  They bake all their quiche, scones, and muffins on-site (along with sandwiches and some entrees), and work with a small roaster to perfect their blend of coffee (suitable for coffee or espresso), which gets tweaked closer to perfection every week.  The walls are adorned with works of art painted by Mike's mom (all available for purchase of course), which lends a nice splash of colorful personality.  He also plays iPod DJ, which this guy appreciates.

When it comes to arrangement of the space, Nook offers a nice variety, which is actually more unusual than one would guess in the coffee shop world.  In the back, there are a couple couches with small tables that work well for a meeting.  Small tables along one wall are good for a one-on-one conversation or doing some reading (iBook or real book) over your coffee and biscotti.  A couple larger tile mosaic tables are idea for working on a laptop without getting in anybody else's way.  A table for six with benches is sometimes used by groups of people, sometimes by individuals (also good for workspace).  A bar at the window let's you do some people watching (as inspiration or distraction) on 20th Street.  It's a small space, but they give you a lot of options, which is really nice.

There's a constant mix of people flowing through the shop... some are clearly regulars getting their caffeine fix before work, some set up at a table to focus on getting some work done, and plenty come in for more casual business/networking meetings.  Edna and Mike work the counter themselves, which is a personal touch that really goes a long way.
15 S. 20th Street, Philadelphia

Table Space – lots of variety
Wi-Fi – strong and readily accessible
Natural Light – abundant, by way of a wall of full height windows
Atmosphere – friendly, for sure
Bicycle Parking – one rack at the end of the block; unfortunately, there aren't any poles closer
Coffee – $1.80/$2.10

Third places in a city or town are those that are neither home, work, nor shopping… they are the informal places in between, the public living rooms where we gather or go to be alone in a crowd… and there’s good argument that a culture of solid third places (Parisian café culture is so good as to become cliché) is a driver and indicator of community vitality. They can also be great workspaces for those of us not wanting to work from home, not yet being ready to pay for “real” commercial space, looking to get out of the office, or have a more informal meeting.  There’s etiquette (called buying things and not being a slob with your belongings) to working in a café, but doing so can be good for you and the proprietor alike.  In this blog, I’ll take you on a reviewed tour of some of Philadelphia’s ThirdPlace WorkSpace (trademark pending) opportunities.  I hope you join me.

Shifting the Balance on Park Drives

Made most famous by the post-earthquake non-reconstruction of the Embarcadero Freeway, and Boston's removal of its elevated Central Artery (which I still can't believe actually existed) with the "Big Dig," many cities have rightfully gotten into the act removing urban highways.  But another interesting thing seems to be happening with parkways that morphed into highways, and are now trying be turned back.

You know the story... Frederick Law Olmsted (or FLO Jr.) designed a parkway in the early days of the automobile, when pleasure drives were thought to be the wave of the future.  And they probably were, until these parkways became great commuting roads and all the fun was really sucked out of them.  The Merritt Parkway through southwestern Connecticut still holds up pretty well as a scenic drive (despite the traffic), but the closer to the city such roads get, the worse they tend to become.  And more often than not, being a pedestrian or a cyclist on such "parkways" runs the risk an unfortunately cocktail of pity and derision.

But change does seem to be afoot.  The city of Chicago, together with the Illinois DOT is starting the process of redesigning its historic and scenic Lake Shore Drive.  Ever-sustainable Vancouver is favoring bikes over cars on its waterfront.  On a much smaller scale, Hartford (where the State is also planning for a major overhaul of I-84) will soon be improving the pedestrian environment of Bushnell Park North as part of an multi-modal remake of its downtown (full disclosure: your dutiful correspondent worked on that project).  Philadelphia's trails along the Schuylkill River have been incredibly successful and are ever expanding, so I think it's only a matter of time until increased pedestrian and bicycle activity, especially at Boathouse Row, lead to the City to re-evaluate the design of Kelly Drive, which today operates mighty fast and furious.

Such road diets, traffic calming, and right-of-way repurposing, are different from but related to highway teardowns. It wasn't always so, but people are beginning to compete with their cars for use of urban parkways.  The two can co-exist, but it takes a policy decision and a concerted design effort to do so.

Media Mondays - Parking and the original Portland

Right of the bat, this is not an article about Portland, Oregon... like many an urbanist, I've simply grown tired for hearing, over and over again, about the magical things happening in the great northwest.  I'm talking about that city's namesake, Portland, Maine and the smart decisions being pursued there in the realm of parking, revitalization, and affordability.

As the Portland Press Herald reports, the Portland Housing Authority is proposing a downtown mixed-income development with no off-street parking provided.  It's a great way to keep housing affordable (with a small "a") and shows the PHA understands the impact of parking on it's balance sheet and the urban fabric, so let's hope that when this comes before the Portland Planning Board, they grant the requested waiver of parking requirements.  That said, I'd like to take this post to unpack some of the issues of parking in the urban environment.  

First, let's take surface parking.  It's cheap (though not free) to provide, and because of the fairly simple economics of parking management (as little infrastructure improvement as the municipality will allow you to get away with, a minimally paid attendant, and wads of cash for each hour/day/month that each car parks), it's easy for parking lots to proliferate (or at least remain, seemingly indefinitely, once it's allowed to take hold).  The problem of course is that surface parking as almost uniformly devastating to the urban environment.  In addition to not being active space, the size of many a parking lot makes it a barrier between otherwise continuous sections of a downtown or neighborhood.  Even at that, an entire acre of surface parking only gets you about 150 spaces, which you can get from about a quarter-mile of onstreet parking on both sides of a street, without the deadening impacts.

Of course, if you want to perform better than 150 spaces/acre, you start talking about structured parking.  But even then, the geometric implications are simply devastating.  Think of it this way: office space is being built at about 150-200 square feet per worker these days (down from what it used to be), which means that, generally speaking, a 20-story 200'x 200' office building (accommodating over 5000 people), assuming everybody working there drives to work alone, would require a garage with four times the footprint of the building, standing nearly twelve stories tall.  By the same token, a smaller building (say, five stories tall and 100' x 100') would require a five story garage with double the footprint of the building.  Retail and gussying up of the first floor can help, but garages that size just crush the cityscape.  

And all of that is before we even get into the dollars and cents of it all.  The numbers fluctuate with construction methodology and construction costs (which have come down some in the past few years), but structured parking can cost between $20,000 and $40,000 per space to build.  Either way, the spaces often cost more than the cars that reside in them.  And guess what; that money needs to come from somewhere, be it privately or publicly built - parking fees, office rent, apartment rent, or taxes (in the event that a publicly built garage goes into the red).  It's why weak markets all too often see all their regional growth happen "out there" in the region, where surface parking is abundant. 

Throughout this blog, I'll certainly come back to parking (as most planning discussions tend to do, much to my chagrin), in which I'll tackle some of the solutions for this real conundrum.  But for now, suffice it to say that if we want walkable, sustainable cities and towns, then playing by the parking rules of the suburbs just can't be in the mix.  It's a game you can't win and different types of communities need different strategies to cope with it.

Russia, Vodka, Gays, and Urbanism

It's no secret the the LGBT community has long been a part of revitalizing cities by pioneering into neighborhoods the "rest" of the population isn't comfortable with and bringing some style and culture along the way.

I've heard New Urbanist guru, Andres Duany, say that gentrification of neighborhoods basically follows the settlement pattern of immigrants and the poor, artists and gays, hipsters, yuppies, and then finally, once the market is ready... dentists from new jersey.  It may be because of an inherent risk aversion, desire for community, appreciation of old architecture, the benefit of diverse places, or any number of other factors, but the confluence of gay people and cities is undeniable.  Richard Florida has made the fairly compelling argument that tolerance (for LGBT and otherwise) is an indicator for a city and nation's overall prosperity, and I would submit that despite our need to prove this over and over again, I'm pretty sure these enlightened guys would feel the same way.

Quince Street
Here in Philadephia, there's even a neighborhood called the "gayborhood," complete with rainbow street signs and all.  And no matter what Zillow tells me, I refuse to call it "midtown village" (because that's generic and lame).  The cool thing about the gayborhood is that unlike many a gay enclave, it's actually squarely in the middle of the city, not on some edge frontier.  And as the trajectory goes, it's now become quite posh and pricey, and I can see why... what with the good retail streets and absolutely unique tiny residential streets.  

But what about the Russians and the vodka you ask?  Well, as it turns out (big surprise), the Russian government is not very keen on the gays, forbidding homosexual behavior, forbidding "homosexual propaganda," and evidently doing little to stop (or even encouraging) violence at attempted gay pride parades.  With the winter Olympics to be in Socchi next year, the international community is taking increased notice, with some folks pressing for a boycott.  I tend to agree with Outsports that LGBT athletes actually should compete, win medals, and stick it to President Putin like Jesse Owens to the Fuhrer.  

The longer this persists and things worse it gets in Russia, I can only suspect that people will leave.  They will go to more tolerant places, be it the United States, Germany, or what would be a great twist of history, the Baltic States (with any luck, other elected officials in Lithuania will continue to follow the lead of its first female president, Dalia Grybauskaite and her views on the matter).  And at the end of the day... that's awfully bad for Russia.  After all, would you rather be a magnet like Austin and Philadelphia, or a backwater (only worth staying in for the the economy of resource extraction) that everybody's trying to get out of?  I'd hate to see St. Petersburg or Moscow suffer such a fate.  The alternative is upheaval from within.

But the vodka... what about the vodka?  Ah yes... of course.  Russia has long been famous for the spirit and there's a movement underway to boycott not the Socchi Games, but Russian vodka itself.  Nothing like lots of individuals collectively hitting an intolerant regime right in their wallets, eh?  It makes that upheaval from within much more palatable to submit to, and it's something I could really get behind.  And while we're at it, let's go local with something like Philadelphia's own Penn1681 or New Haven's Velocipede Vodka.

So this weekend, head to your local watering hole, and take a shot for tolerance.

ThirdPlace WorkSpace Thursdays - Cafe L'Aube, Rittenhouse Square

Café L’Aube on the 1900 block of Locust Street at Rittenhouse Square gets an awful lot right.

First, and possibly foremost, is the location.  It’s on the ground floor of a blonde brick pre-war apartment tower, just around the corner from my apartment and stone’s throw from the Square, itself.

But with a good location, comes high pressure to deliver a good experience inside, and boy do they deliver.  The small café is decidedly French, with jazz, folk, and accordion music playing over the speakers, fresh crepes, sandwiches, and baked goods served from behind the counter.  They roast their own coffee, which is nicely priced at $2 hot and $2.5 iced.  The Internet service is good (though you have to ask for the network and long password rather than having it written on the chalkboard) and tables are sturdy rounds for two that give you enough room for your laptop and/or notebook but don’t make feel bad about occupying all of with your laptop or sharing with an unwilling stranger.  My favorite quirk of this lovely spot might be the fact that, among their coffee fixings, they provide plastic cups with a water faucet (in the event that you are reaching your caffeine limit). Oh, and I'm told they're working on getting permitted for outdoor seating, which would be a big hit so close to the Square.

The clientele are a mixed bag of people coming in and out for a cup and those staying for a while; some working, others conversing.  I was joined by a handful of ThirdSpace workers, a small group of high school girls clearly looking for something a little more sophisticated than what might usually expected of them, and an elderly couple kindling that romance that must have started sixty years ago in the shadow of the Louvre. 

Apparently, they have two more locations; with expectations set high… I’ll have to check out the others later.

Table Space – comfortable and not intrusive to others
Wi-Fi – strong and readily accessible
Natural Light – abundant, some of it through stained glass
Atmosphere – intentionally and effectively Parisian
Dirty Looks? – nope (you won't be the only person working, but most aren't)
Bicycle Parking – street signs out front
Coffee – $2.00

Third places in a city or town are those that are neither home, work, nor shopping… they are the informal places in between, the public living rooms where we gather or go to be alone in a crowd… and there’s good argument that a culture of solid third places (Parisian café culture is so good as to become cliché) is a driver and indicator of community vitality. They can also be great workspaces for those of us not wanting to work from home, not yet being ready to pay for “real” commercial space, looking to get out of the office, or have a more informal meeting.  There’s etiquette (called buying things and not being a slob with your belongings) to working in a café, but doing so can be good for you and the proprietor alike.  In this blog, I’ll take you on a reviewed tour of some of Philadelphia’s ThirdPlace WorkSpace (trademark pending) opportunities.  I hope you join me.

Taoism for buildings: Penn Center vs. South Broad Street

The same distance from City Hall (seen in the distance).  Similar massing and overall proportions.  Both were consciously created as frontages for important buildings.  Yet one is a bustling and successful public space, and the other has been reduced to a cigarette smoking and bicycle storage pit... with a couple planters hoping, in vain, to reduce its devastating harshness.

I would contend that there are two major contributing factors to these divergent results (and no, the amount of linear space between buildings is not one of them) - 1. the modernist design of Penn Center is about as souless and non-human-scaled as can possibly be, and that eventually takes its toll on a place's attractiveness, once the new-car-smell wears off; 2. South Broad Street is a street, plain and simple. Whereas Penn Center is a midcentury attempt at pedestrianized space (without any ornamentation, passive, or active programming), the constant buzz of traffic (which could probably use some calming) keeps Broad Street interesting and alive.  It gets even better when programmed with events like the PIFA Street Fair or the Mummers Parade.  

To me, it's as simple as that. No wonder retail spaces in Penn Center sit vacant and South Broad is alive and well.

Penn Center, Philadelphia

South Broad Street, Philadelphia
We mold clay into a pot,
But it is the the emptiness inside 
That makes the vessel useful.

- Tao Te Ching

Moving pt. 2: The appealing informality of the city

Despite yesterday's semi-grumbling about the challenges of moving apartments in the city, it exemplifies something about the urban environment that you just don't get out in the sprawling hinterland. Unlike that highly programmed and structured way of life (yes, some of those stereotypes of the fifties do seem to ring true), in the city, you get much greater spontaneity, informal economy, and fluidity.  In other words, cities offer a pleasant escape from the restrictive rules and norms of the suburbs.

notice there's no driver in that truck
First of all, I was able to ride my bicycle from the old apartment to the moving-truck rental in a matter of ten minutes.  And though space in the city is limited, it's apparently been deemed OK to store moving trucks in the middle of Washington Avenue, which I think is pretty remarkable, and something you'd never see in the burbs (or most other American cities for that matter, I'd suspect).  I tossed my bike the the truck, went back to the apartment, loaded up the truck, moved it, unloaded it, then took the truck back with bicycle in tow, and was able to ride back to our new apartment, again, in less than ten minutes.

eat your heart out, craigslist
Now, sometimes there are some things that you just don't feel like moving again... that desk with the drawer that won't open, the hand-me-down dresser that was never quite your style, or the kitchen table you've just had enough of. In many circumstances this would involve finding a friend or family member to take it off your hands, taking it to the dump, or illegally dumping on the sidewalk or worse yet, in a park.  In our dense residential neighborhood, on the other hand we put four no-longer-wanted pieces of furniture on the sidewalk on trash night, stuck a note on it, and put out notice on craigslist that we were giving away furniture.  Within twenty minutes, some of our next door neighbors came upon our stuff, decided they liked a couple of the items, and made them their own. By the time we walked by the next morning (before the trash truck came), the other two items had been scooped up.  It was remarkably easy for us to get rid of old items, and for others to make them their new ones.  Thats a product not just of density, but a fine grained development scale that fosters such interaction.  Pretty cool.

just make sure you tip nicely
After moving, you've always got to go back for that final cleaning, and that often involves a few straggling items, not just a vinegar wash of the wood floor.  In the suburbs, these last items are easy to put in a car, and might seem challenging when carless in the city.  We thought about getting a bicycle wagon or schlepping everything back and forth, but then suddenly remembered the often forgotten taxi - another convenience made possible by density.  In my eyes, it's not an official move until you ask a  cabby to pop the trunk and toss in your vaccuum, trash can, and last duffle back of knicknacks.

There's something organic, fluid, and wonderful about cities... and the economist I play in my armchair says that's a mighty good competitive advantage.

"M" is for "Monday;" it's also for "moving"

So it turns out that the Center City residential market is really hot these days. The Philadelphia Business Journal reported recently that 2,500 soon-to-be-developed residential units will cause the vacancy rate to "shoot up" from 1.6% to a whopping (yes, heavy on the sarcasm) 3.4%.  So naturally, we this is where/when we had to be looking for an apartment.  

It wasn't easy... Looking for an August move-in in June was aparently much too early, and July just didn't seem to have as much to offer.   Many of our responses to craigslist adds went unanswered; many more just to inform us that the apartment we like was already taken (even in one case where we responded only two hours after the original post).  Much of what was left in our price range was either tiny or totally dilapidated... but such are the casualties of a successfully turned around real estate market.

But, after much trial and tribulation, we nailed down a great place with about a week to spare.  I'll spare most of the gory details, but here are a couple pictures worth sharing.

Yours truly, robotically packing dishes, one at a time. And for this, I'm dubbed a hero.
Washington Avenue - in Philadelphia, it's apparently totally acceptable to park a truck in the middle of the street
This is what it looks like when you pack all you own into boxes and put them in one room of your new apartment.

But all the craiglist headaches, fears of homelessness, and strain of moving (good thing we've got good friends and family), are worth it for a view like this.

We were definitely priced out of the neighborhood we originally wanted to be in... but this one will work out just great.  But I'm assuming we weren't the only ones, so the question is... where has everybody landed? Where will they continue to land?

Center City Cycling - The Culture is Strong in this One

To the naked eye, it sure looks like Center City Philly is undergoing a real bicyclization... and no matter what Stu Bykofsky @ the Daily News will tell you, that's a good thing.  I'll get further into why that's a good thing in more detail at some other time, but today, I'd like to just share some observations about the indisputable bicycle culture the city now has.

Rittenhouse Square, with its high rent and fancy shops, is totally welcoming to a cyclist taking a break.  That's the nature of good public spaces, and this is what a healthy bicycle culture looks like.

Here's Chestnut Street, the City's second most successful retail street, and a very busy transit corridor.  Curb to curb, it's an astonishing 26 feet wide (narrower at the intersection bumpouts) - that allows for a parking lane (more on that below) a travel lane, and a bus/bike lane, which doubles as a right-turn lane when need be.  Allowing bicycles in the bus lane works very well, since the buses, while frequent, aren't frequent or erratic as cars... not to mention that the limited access improves the transit service (though that still leaves a little to be desired)

I'm impressed with how many bicycles are parked on 18th Street, right next to DiBruno's posh market.  Not only are there lots of bicycles, but there are more of them parked than there are cars... which would suggest that by having bicycle parking you can accomodate more customers than when you have vehicular parking (though, clearly, the two need not be mutually exclusive).  Next time you're walking around, notice just how many bicycles are chained to everything that's bolted down... then imagine what would happen if the people on those bikes couldn't be there.

Speaking of which, replacing a single car parking space with bicycle parking gives you room for 6-12 more customers at minimal (given the simple materials used) cost. Stop by 18th and Chestnut some time... you'll see just how much use this is getting.

And it looks like office buildings are getting into the act too.  Here's a shot of the 1700 block of Ludlow Street (between Market and Chestnut). If there are 25 bicycles there, that's 25 fewer parking spaces being used, and those spaces aren't free, which means a company can pay its employees more or return more to its stockholders.  As a developer, tell me what makes more sense, building a garage at 20K/space or creating bicycle parking (and if your'e really good you'll cover it and include shower space in the building).

(Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia)
The City made big moves a couple years ago by created dedicated bike lanes on Spruce and Pine Streets.  Though they occasionally get blocked by a deliver truck, they generally remain clear... providing comfort to less adventurous riders, and from the best I can tell, not reducing the streets to gridlock for cars. Thumbs up.

Why has bicycling gained such traction in the City of Brotherly Love?  I'd say it starts with the natural and built environment the City has long had - incredibly flat terrain and wonderfully narrow streets (and an lack of demolition to allow for their widening), the latter of which limits the preference of driving.  The next reason is one of simple economics - bicycles take up little space when parked and in motion (which makes infrastructure for them easier to provide).  When supply of land is limited, but demand for access is high, you get worsened traffic conditions, we seek alternatives to driving (walk, bike, bus, roller skate!), or the demand isn't met and a city stagnates.

So the city has taken some strategic, albeit limited, steps (shared lanes, bike lanes, and increased parking options) to to balance out priorities in the street and make bicycling more attractive than it used to be.  No, Stu, it's not a massive conspiracy by the Nutter administration; the city is just finally unlocking the potential it has nearly always had... and demonstrably reaping the benefits.  Sit back and enjoy the ride.

ThirdPlace WorkSpace Thursdays - OCF Cafe, Federal Street

Third places in a city or town are those that are neither home, work, nor shopping… they are the informal places in between, the public living rooms where we gather or go to be alone in a crowd… and there’s good argument that a culture of solid third places (Parisian café culture is so good as to become cliché) is a driver and indicator of community vitality. They can also be great workspaces for those of us not wanting to work from home, not yet being ready to pay for “real” commercial space, looking to get out of the office, or have a more informal meeting.  There’s etiquette (called buying things and not being a slob with your belongings) to working in a café, but doing so can be good for you and the proprietor alike.  In this blog, I’ll take you on a reviewed tour of some of Philadelphia’s ThirdPlace WorkSpace (trademark pending) opportunities.  I hope you join me.

The cool thing about OCF Café at 20th and Federal in Point Breeze is that it’s a café that is almost explicitly about more than just being a café.

OCF Realty recognizes that we urbanites often yearn for that public living room, so in neighborhoods in which they’re doing residential development, they’ve started up coffee shops that serve as amenity for existing residents and their prospective tenants.  Maybe it’s a loss leader, maybe not; either way, it looks like mighty smart business.

But just because they’re started by a sometimes-controversial developer, doesn’t mean they don’t know what it takes to do a café right.  The barista/manager is a very friendly guy (and sufficiently in character with a scruffy beard and tales of his trip to upstate NY for a Phish show) who seems to know many of his customers personally.  He also tells me he’s working on getting bike racks installed on the sidewalk, which is a big plus in my book.  The coffee is good and the pastries locally prepared.  Two-person tables line the walls/windows (tons of light) in the space, lending comfortable workspace without monopolizing it away from others. 

You really get the community feel at OCF.  As the barista, another customer (whose dog came in and got a biscuit), and I had discussion about how we all like to make our pasta sauce from scratch, a gaggle of neighborhood 8-11 year olds came in and asked for cups of ice water; he happily obliged, but declined when one of them asked for sugar in his (he certainly didn’t need anymore). As Jane Jacobs told us so many times, the butcher isn’t just a butcher; he’s another set of eyes on the street, and that’s what makes a neighborhood.

Table Space – comfortable and not intrusive to others
Wi-Fi – strong and readily accessible
Natural Light – abundant
Atmosphere – casual/neighborly
Dirty Looks? – never
Bicycle Parking – street signs around the corner; working on better ones
Coffee – $2.25/$2.75

Enter the Ether

Cities = innovation, right?  Back in March, the guys at Deft Collective in Hartford asked me to join them for for their inaugural podcast.  The subject was urbanism, and we got into great discussion about history, resilience, what it means to be innovative, and why cities do or do not spur innovation.

Ether Podcast: The Modern City

The podcast was recorded at a local watering hole, so you'll hear plenty of background chatter and glass clinking.  Contrary to the occasional narrative you hear that the internet and exponentially increased communication threaten to render cities irrelevant ... I remain serenely convinced that they actually do so for the sprawling suburbs instead, and that they're making cities and town centers more interesting and livable.  After all, recording a podcast at a TGIFridays on the turnpike just feels a little lame.