Changing Skyline: Can Philadelphia's most boring street get energized with new retail?

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A rendering for the three-story addition to 1700 Market. The addition will fill in the existing plaza at 17th and Market with a small building housing three restaurants.

The east side of Market Street has been getting all the buzz lately, with new residential buildings, a sophisticated mixed-used development at 12th Street, and the renovation of the tired Gallery shopping mall. But the stretch of Market west of City Hall is changing too, just more quietly.

West Market is, hands down, Philadelphia's most boring street, a parade of undistinguished office towers where virtually every corner retail space is colonized by a bank branch - as though people still flooded the teller lines to make deposits and withdrawals. Snooze.

If you stand on West Market at lunchtime, you can see hordes of office workers making "a mad exodus south" to the lively blocks around Rittenhouse Square in search of food, says Glenn D. Blumenfeld, a partner at Tactix, the commercial real estate broker. After business hours, it's so dead they might as well roll up the sidewalks.

The problem with West Market is that it was designed to be dull. After the Pennsylvania Railroad began taking down its elevated tracks - dubbed "the Chinese Wall" - in the 1950s, city planner Edmund Bacon recommended turning the corridor into a new financial district, modeled on Manhattan's Park Avenue. West Market inherited all the weaknesses of that office canyon, but none of its glamour.

Until recently, the big real estate companies that owned West Market's skyscrapers didn't seem to care that the street was an urban monoculture. But in the last few years, many towers have been bought up by even bigger real estate companies that smell a bargain, and that believe they can increase the value of their new properties by improving the amenities. And, fortunately for us, they are starting on the ground floor.

The new owners have been upgrading their lobbies, and filling in arcades and plazas to enlarge their retail spaces and energize their sidewalk frontage. Frankly, the changes so far, at 1601 Market and at Independence Blue Cross, are disappointing, both architecturally and urbanistically. But this month, the owners of 1700 Market will break ground on what could be a better model, a three-story food hall that will house three restaurants (Three Forks steak house, Cantina Laredo, and a yet-to-be-determined fast-casual chain). More improvements are coming to 1635 and 1835 Market.

The food hall, designed by DAS Architects, will occupy a small plaza along 17th Street that was set aside as a public space when the building was approved in the 1960s. That was the heyday of America's plaza craze, when cities granted developers generous zoning bonuses for height and bulk in exchange for the creation of public open spaces. But all too often, their owners treated those plazas as a throwaway, with poor landscaping and few amenities.

Such was the case at 1700 Market, designed in 1968 by Murphy Levy Wurman. Because the original owners never made the plaza truly usable, it became a glorified cut-through, valued by no one. So when the new owners requested a variance to build on what could be considered public land, the city readily agreed.

The precedent is a bit worrisome, and yet there is a practical argument to be made that the public will benefit more from the food hall than it ever did from the barren plaza. The project was the brainchild of Michael Salove, of MSC Retail, a strong proponent of enlivening the ground floors of the West Market towers.

"It's something we've been advocating for as a company, and not simply to create revenue" for the new owners, he told me. Adding restaurants and retail variety, he says, "will make Market Street a better place."

He's right. DAS's glassy food hall should finally give people a reason to linger at that important corner. The renderings show a small outdoor seating area on 17th Street, along with a dramatic roof deck that will be shared by the two restaurants, which are supposed to stay open for dinner. The food hall will overlook another open area to the south, United Plaza, a lushly planted space that - irony of ironies - was made off-limits to the public in 2005 after the Duane Morris law firm became that tower's main tenant.

West Market was never overrun by such plazas. Philadelphia, for some reason, was more focused on equipping its office towers with covered arcades, like the kind you see in Europe's hot southern cities. The arcades were good if you were a pedestrian trying to avoid the summer sun, but they pushed the retail spaces back a good 10 feet from the sidewalk, draining them of their energy.

At 1601 Market and Independence Blue Cross, the new owners have recently walled off their arcades behind glass. In theory, sacrificing these slivers of public space could be a good thing if it helped attract more interesting retailers to the street.

But 1601 simply increased its rentable square-footage without giving anything meaningful back to the public. Instead of finding an interesting tenant, it welcomed back the same boring bank at 16th Street, one of the city's most heavily trafficked pedestrian corners.

The designers who handled the renovations, JKR Partners, also have squeezed the personality out of the tower's best feature, its heroic concrete columns, designed by Emery Roth & Sons in 1970. Those columns are now camouflaged behind generic glass panels. It's as though the original design had been run through a blanderizing machine.

The results are worse at Independence Blue Cross, where the building's Market Street columns were entombed, not to create more retail space, but to enlarge what was already a huge lobby. As part of the new design, it shifted its entrance to 19th Street, a big poke in the eye to Market Street. Though not a great building, it's still sad that this postmodernist design by WZHM was treated so crudely.

There is more hope for a plaza conversion planned next door at 1835 Market. The angled facade of that tower, designed by Kling Lindquist in 1986, creates a triangular plaza. The only purpose seemed to be to play host to the Timothy Duffield sculpture The Family. That piece is now in storage, as the owners contemplate erecting a small pavilion for a cafe. The owners of 1635 Market, home of the Turf Club, also are exploring changes to the strip of plaza that surrounds the tower.

These alterations are only the beginning. Like its eastside sibling, West Market is getting an influx of residential buildings, including new apartments at 1919 and Two Liberty Place. The new observation deck at One Liberty Place will bring tourists into the mix.

Giving up these scraps of poor public space promises to make West Market a more dynamic place. But only if city officials insist that they are used as originally intended - for the public good.

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