By Matt Blanchard
FRISCO LANDMARK: The Ferry Building
Too often grand old historic structures look great on the outside but are dead on the inside, stuffed with a boring museum or dying market. Not so in San Francisco, where the 1896 Ferry Building serves to anchor the waterfront redevelopment area where a highway once ran. It’s a grade A symbol for the area, stuffed with fine restaurants, a wine bar, a tea house, and at least two stores specializing in olive oil. It works brilliantly here because thousands of hungry San Franciscans work in the downtown office district, which is just across Embarcadero Blvd. Would such a development work in Philadelphia, whose office core is remote from the waterfront? Not a chance. What, then, can be learned?
PHILLY LESSON: Save the PECO Power Station now. Because its location is distant from downtown, this rusting, hulking 1920s power plant next to Penn Treaty Park may never be a gourmet market. It may not end up a museum to the work of Alexander Calder, as activist Hilary Regan has proposed. And it may sit empty for another 40 years before we figure out what to do with it. But by god the city must preserve it: Slap some paint on those corroding smokestacks. Fix the concrete spawling that’s exposed the rebar. The example of San Francisco, and that of London, Paris and New York, teaches us that romance has a role to play in urban redevelopment, and the mighty Peco Plant has romance in spades.
PHILLY LESSON: Think Bigger than “Percent for Art” Compare Cupid’s Span to Magdalena Abramowitz’s “Open-Air Aquarium,” a collection of 30 stainless steel fish-like shapes up on poles (below), a product of Philly’s “One Percent for Art” program on Penn’s Landing. Abramowitz is a fine artist and Percent for Art is a noble program. But ask yourself: How far would I walk to see this? Perhaps it’s time we lumped all these percentages into one big, place-defining, tourist-attracting blockbuster piece of public art?
PHILLY LESSON: Celebrate the Ben
There’s not much we need to do with the Ben, other than love it, and perhaps open up the ornate “lost train station” inside the abutment. Regardless, it’s is one thing we’ve got on San Francisco. While the Bay Bridge is more than four times as long, it falls far short on charm, with a drab gray superstructure and naked concrete abutments. The Ben, finished just 10 years earlier, mixes ornate Beaux Arts stonework with American structural steel. Plus, it’s blue. When one thinks of the sub-par condo projects proposed for its immediate area, you can almost imagine creating stricter design controls to respect the genius of Paul Philippe Cret.
FRISCO LANDMARK: Historic Embarcadero Piers
In 1990, alarmed by a spate of proposals for high-rise hotels on piers, San Francisco residents passed Proposition H, a moratorium on waterfront construction. Then they spent the next seven years planning the future of their waterfront. Because of this effort, San Francisco has capitalized on a great stock of historic pier sheds: Some house restaurants, others host light industry, and one will soon become the new home of the Exploratorium, Frisco’s answer to our Franklin Institute. Some piers allow pedestrians to penetrate the street wall and wander out to the pier’s end. But everywhere a restriction on tall buildings on piers preserves the open port feeling and views of the bay and city.
PHILLY LESSON: Keep piers low, historic and public.
Philly’s surviving historic pier sheds are generally larger, fewer in number, and spaced farther apart. But as in San Francisco, they present a wonderful redevelopment opportunity. While our politicians balk at the word moratorium, Philadelphia might take a page from Frisco and start to consider the piers a historic landscape, restricting the development of modern towers (like the ungainly “Dockside” condos near Penn’s Landing) to the landward side of Delaware/Columbus Blvd. Keeping towers off the piers will preserve the open feeling and valuable views of the historic waterfront.
PHILLY LESSON: Isn’t it obvious? Plan hard, invest in strategic amenities, and pray for another real estate boom.
PHILLY LESSON: Maybe we should go with housing…
There’s almost no chance Philadelphia will find such an attraction, unless we load Holmesburg Prison onto a barge. But it does give one ideas: How about sinking a dozen obsolete warships off Petty’s Island and giving scuba tours? How about high-speed ferry service from Penn’s Landing to a spruced-up Fort Mifflin? How about re-creating the legendary “Floating Church” of the 1800s and giving Sunday services? After all, 1.3 million visitors isn’t so much more than the Philadelphia Art Museum (about 1 million) or the Philadelphia Zoo (below 1 million).
But on the tourist front, maybe Rob was right. San Francisco’s waterfront has nationally-known destinations to spare: The Golden Gate, the Presidio, Fisherman’s Wharf. Even if people don’t actually go to Alcatraz, they come to San Francisco to at least say they saw it. Unless they relocate the Liberty Bell, the Delaware Riverfront has nothing like it.
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