Has Philly hit peak pop-up? Vacant lots, valet parking lanes - and, now, The Median

The string of flamingo-shaped lights stirred in the gentle breeze of a passing bus. The soundtrack was bossa nova, honking horns, and the shouted greetings of passersby. “That’s a beautiful thing,” a man said through the open window of his SUV. “I lived in Philly all my life, and I never seen that before.”

Welcome to Philly’s newest, shortest-lived pop-up beer garden, The Median (hashtag: #meetmeatthemedian). It popped up, for one night only, when I hauled tiki torches and lawn chairs, drinks and decorations, across two lanes onto the Broad Street divider, and invited passersby to join me.

I figured, this summer has brought pop-ups in valet parking lanes, the rooftops of parking garages, at the Free Library, the Zoo, SugarHouse Casino. They’re at parks and plazas, parking lots and vacant lots, suburbs and city. Why not take the mania to its logical conclusion? Why not loading docks or back alleyways? ATM vestibules? Why not The Median?

“People think they can do one anywhere,” said David Fierabend, a landscape designer who helped ignite the trend in 2013 when he transformed a Broad Street lot for Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s PHS Pop-Up Garden. “We’ve gotten lots of calls with requests like, ‘We want to do one in our driveway.’ That’s not how it works.”

It raises the question: Has Philly reached peak pop-up?

Early pop-ups were rooted in notions of “creative placemaking”: Through design and engaging activities, they could create a center of gravity in an underutilized space, and provide proof of its potential. “That, and throwing a keg in a parking lot? They’re two different ideas,” Fierabend said. But for some bar owners, pop-ups — which can serve alcohol all season long under a controversial loophole in a 2012 state liquor law —  have been a way to squeeze a little extra revenue out of a slow season.

And yet, the pop-up has proven a powerful development tool. Along the Delaware River, the wildly popular Spruce Street Harbor Park, designed by Fierabend’s Groundswell Design Group, created a backdrop for waterfront redevelopment, including a planned $225 million Penn’s Landing park. City leaders anticipate a similar outcome from The Oval+ — this year, part pop-up beer garden, part urban-planning exercise — as they rethink the Eakins Oval and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH
The West Philadelphia group Project Positive: Inspiring the Youth Through Hip Hop, rehearses during the opening weekend at the Oval+. (TOM GRALISH/Staff photographer)

“Pop-ups allow you to try things. Pop-ups allow you to prove things. And sometimes they are just meant to be temporary, and that’s fine, too,” said Jamie Gauthier, acting executive director of Fairmount Park Conservancy, a partner on The Oval+. “Our public spaces are for us. We should use them, and pop-ups allow us to do that without a high barrier to entry.

“We should be encouraging people to use our city, every inch of it.”

And they are.

On Sansom Street, the valet parking lane outside Square 1682 at the Hotel Palomar has been given over on Wednesday nights to the “Sidewalk Summertime Chill Zone,” a strip of artificial turf scattered with lawn chairs, kiddie pools, and, on a recent evening, a young woman twerking to a Billy Joel ballad.

“It is extreme pop-up,” said Chris Huerte, Square 1682’s general manager. He said no special permits were required. “It’s already our valet zone, so we actually just kind of displace — not displace, but we move our cars around it.”

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
The Sidewalk Summertime Chill Zone, a pop-up on Wednesday nights at Square 1682, in the valet parking lane for Hotel Palomar on Sansom Street.

In Northern Liberties, the six-space parking lot at North Bowl has, for the second summer, been reincarnated as The Lot, with a bocce court and shipping-container bar.

“Summer in Philly is a pretty tough place to do business,” owner Oron Daskal said. He had to do something to build a summertime buzz. “It is somewhat of a response to the beer-garden scene. We have to evolve.”

He wonders, though, whether there’s really room for all these pop-ups.

After all, he’s now competing with the likes of PHS, which runs two bustling Pop-Up Gardens, and Parks on Tap, a beer garden that roves around Philadelphia’s park system.

Those have drawn people of all ages, newcomers and longtime residents alike, said Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Parks and Recreation.

“We were sort of stunned by it. Last year, we were crossing our fingers the first couple weekends. We wondered: Would people come out?”

One thing I learned from my pop-up experiment is, it doesn’t take much to turn a hostile space into an inviting one (even without the inflatable palm tree I scrapped, for fear it’d blow into traffic). Another is, public space really is ours to use; no authorities arrived to kick us out.

And, though it may seem we’re saturated — from Old City Beer Garden to Pentridge Station in Southwest Philadelphia — there are many people the trend has not reached. One woman tried to grasp the concept: “Pop-up? Like, whoever pops up, you party with them?” A 21-year-old named Billy Atkinson, who works in sales for Verizon, said it was his first pop-up. He could not say how The Median stacked up, but he did try repeatedly to sell us FiOS.

Camera icon Staff
I’ve thrown better parties in my life. But I did persuade architecture critic Inga Saffron (center) and Billy Atkinson, a 21-year-old Verizon salesman, to join me at The Median, a very unofficial pop-up beer garden on the Broad Street Median.

Finally, I confirmed that — though there’s been contention, even a lawsuit, over the median’s role as Philadelphia’s longest parking lot — a beer garden is probably not its best and highest use.

Fierabend, who’s worked on three-dozen pop-ups around Philadelphia, plus more from Memphis to Detroit, said he hasn’t seen another city as pop-up-happy as Philly.

He loves that — but he’d like to disentangle the idea of “pop-up” from the idea of “beer garden.” To him, a pop-up should take a neglected space and transform it into something that evokes an emotion, the way he turned broad, bland American Street into a festive dinner party for Kensington neighbors one evening last fall.

“A pop-up, to me, has to be about the community it’s in,” he said. “I don’t think they should be economically driven. I think they should be gathering places.”

In some corners of the city, that’s exactly what’s happening.

On Lancaster Avenue, People’s Emergency Center has partnered with Drexel and the developer Wexford Science + Technology to create LoLa 38, a pop-up in a vacant bank PEC owns. They painted the parking lot and set out furniture and lights, and repurposed the building to host community and arts events.

“PEC doesn’t have a vision, per se, for the bank. We’re relying on the community to tell us what they want,” PEC’s Trish Downey said. LoLa 38 is a way of starting that conversation.

The same idea is behind The Oval+, which just launched its fifth season as part of a reimagining of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

“There were these amazing cultural institutions, but people were not really using the Parkway itself as a destination,” Lovell said.

The Oval has proven it can be a destination. This year, she hopes The Oval+ can guide plans for a permanent renovation — and help drum up the funding and political will to realize it.

To that end, the $400,000 pop-up includes four Soofa benches that can count Wi-Fi signals passing by. There’s a large Parkway map on which visitors can sketch ideas to be captured in a time-lapse video. And there’s a call for feedback, on social media under the #whatsyourparkway hashtag and on postcard surveys.

It’s part of a data-driven, big-picture rethinking to address questions like: How would an Eakins Oval park mesh with all the concerts, races, and events that use the space? Should the city cap the number of Parkway events? Could a road diet turn lanes of traffic into footpaths or green space?

To Lovell and Gauthier, projects like this reflect a cultural shift: a renewed commitment to reclaiming public space.

“To me, it feels like we’re in this renaissance,” Gauthier said. “There is no lack of public space to go to in Philadelphia. So, I don’t think we’ve reached peak pop-up. I’m not sick of it yet.”