What influences the public's perception of Market East more: The mobs of rampaging teens who have descended on the Gallery mall over the last few weeks? Or the building's gloomy fortress walls, which have weighed down Philadelphia's traditional shopping street for well over three decades?
My vote goes to the blank walls.
It often feels as if the Gallery has been in decline ever since it opened in the late '70s, as the nation's first urban mall. Back then, Philadelphia could at least take satisfaction in having a retail amenity associated with the rising suburbs. But now, shopping malls everywhere are fighting for their lives, as anchoring department stores go the way of other general-interest pleasures, and Philadelphia finds itself stuck with an unattractive, underused box in the center of its downtown.
The weak economy has made this bad situation horrible. The Gallery's vacancy rate is up near 40 percent, according to its operator, the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust. The lovely Strawbridge's store, which anchored the mall's eastern end, is approaching its fourth anniversary of darkness.
Given the appearance of the Gallery, and its partner in dowdiness across the street, the Girard Estate block, it's no wonder that teens see opportunities for mischief. It's the old "broken windows" scenario: Criminals are drawn to places where no one seems to care.
The city is just waking up to the seriousness of the street's decline. Market East is probably the slice of Philadelphia most urgently in need of redevelopment, apart from the Delaware waterfront. As developers like to say, it's the hole in the doughnut, the gap between the tourist anchors of the Convention Center and Independence Mall. Visitors are apparently so reluctant to shop the Gallery that convention planners regularly charter buses to King of Prussia mall.
Last summer, when it looked as if Foxwoods casino was about to take up residence in Strawbridge's, the city rushed out a master plan for the area. Although produced as a quickie, by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects of New York, the plan offered a sharp-eyed analysis of the problems and laid out a step-by-step strategy for improvement.
Get the wall of buses off Market Street, it urged. Give nearby attractions like Chinatown and the Reading Terminal Market frontage on the shopping street. Break down those Gallery walls. Accept the fact that grand emporiums aren't coming back, and find other uses to keep Market Street active after dark, like housing, restaurants, and entertainment.
Foxwoods' decision to return to the waterfront took some wind out of the effort. But Planning Director Alan Greenberger says an interagency group has been quietly working on the plan. Because New Jersey Transit buses make only limited stops in Center City, they want to redirect the caravan from Market to Filbert Street, so potential shoppers can actually see into the existing Market Street shop windows. But rerouting is a time-consuming and expensive process. The city wants to acquire federal transportation funds to pay for necessary streetscape changes.
So Greenberger must have been more than a little surprised to discover that Councilman Frank DiCicco has been simultaneously working on his own plan for Market Street. Last month, DiCicco introduced a bill to allow large-format signs, digital displays, and giant fabric wraps on buildings between Seventh and 13th Streets.
He argues that the signs will liven up a dull street and will attract customers to the Gallery. "I want that evening shopper back," he said.
Who doesn't? But his bill, which says nothing about the content, size, or design of the large signs, isn't the way to achieve that goal.
For starters, it's planning by legislation, a shoot-from-the-hip approach that the Nutter administration has been trying to give up. Redeveloping Market East is a complex undertaking that requires many interrelated decisions that need to be worked out by planners and retail experts, not a single, knockout-punch bill.
Done wrong, those large-format signs and wraps could actually increase blight on Market Street by enabling property owners to squeeze revenue out of derelict buildings, as the anti-billboard crusader Mary Tracy has often argued.
Still, DiCicco is onto something when he suggests the Gallery's blank walls are irresistible canvas for something more eye-catching than concrete panels. The decoration could, theoretically, take the form of advertising signs, especially if they helped identify the stores hidden inside the mall and were carefully regulated.
But there may be other, perhaps better, ways to catch the public's attention. The Dutch architects UN Studios helped reposition a similarly dull mall in Seoul, South Korea, by festooning it with reflective disks that shimmer across the surface like the scales of a snake. Maybe a design competition could produce a similarly inventive treatment for Philadelphia's Gallery.
It could help Philadelphians see that old box in a whole new light. But only if the city first does something about that wall of buses blocking the view.
Contact architect critic Inga Saffron at 215-85-2213 or email@example.com.