By Kellie Patrick Gates
A New York architectural firm has been chosen to craft a strategic plan to overhaul the Market East corridor - with or without a casino.
After reviewing the qualifications of about a dozen firms, a team of representatives from the City Planning Commission, Commerce Department and Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp selected Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, which also has offices in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Shanghai.
"They have a broad range of experience," said Philadelphia Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger when asked why EE&K was chosen to tackle the future direction of the swath of the city between Sixth and Broad and Walnut and Vine. “They've done urban planning and design to commercial/retail to institutional and public facilities,” he said. "A big range of project types, including some intersection with the casino world."
Casino-related experience might prove important because Foxwoods Casino is pondering a switch from its originally planned waterfront location to The Gallery at Market East. City officials say they haven't signed off on the idea yet, but elected officials and planners have said it seems to have more potential than a waterfront location.
Many residents from nearby neighborhoods, however, stand firmly against a Gallery location.
The new strategic plan will look toward two futures - one with a casino, and one without, Greenberger said. The need for such a plan "doesn't emanate from a casino, but from a desire to make Market East better," he said. "We don't have some kind of fixed agenda about it or even bias going in. It starts with a simple observation most people agree with - that Market Street, for decades, is less alive and less vital than it should be."
But because Foxwoods at The Gallery is a possibility, the strategic plan must consider it as a possibility for that part of the corridor, Greenberger said. In fact "we may want to have them focus on this particular issue at first" so that the work on the strategic plan can help guide any plan of development for Foxwoods, he said. Then, after the end of the Foxwoods process, when it is known definitely whether or not a casino will operate at The Gallery, the city might want EE&K to come back to the Gallery area to fine-tune the plan.
The City has not received a Foxwoods proposal. Greenberger said he does not expect a detailed plan of development for several months. But "I assume that they are starting to develop thoughts about what they want to do, and are warming up to giving us at least some hints here," he said. Even just broad concepts would be good, he said. "We'd like to know."
Foxwoods spokeswoman Maureen Garrity said earlier this week that the casino developer is still in negotiations with Gallery landlord PREIT, and the plans are contingent on the result of those negotiations.
While the Planning, Commerce and PIDC team has selected EE&K, there are details that still need to be worked out before the contract is signed, Greenberger said. That includes the scope of the work to be done, the amount of time that will take and, consequently, what the city will pay for the work.
The request for qualifications that led to EE&K was issued by the PIDC in November, along with RFQs for casino and retail architects, real estate and economic advisers, and traffic study consultants. The reviewing team has also made its selections in the other areas, Greenberger said, but he would not give any names until a planned announcement, which he expects by the end of the week. Greenberger said he was only talking about EE&K and the work they will do because PlanPhilly already knew they had been selected.
The contract may not be signed, but EE&K will be working on the project Wednesday. Representatives from the firm and city planners are holding a series of meetings with people who have an interest in what a revitalized Market East corridor would look like, including representatives from civic groups, the business community, the convention center, the tourism industry and the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) - which owns The Gallery at Market East.
Greenberger said the goal of the stakeholder meetings is to give the planners and the architecture firm a chance to hear what plans the different stakeholder entities have for the Market East corridor, along with their concerns and hopes for the future of the area. "We'll talk about aspirations - what do you want to happen over the next 5, 10, 20 years," he said.
Helen Gym, a board member with Asian Americans United, confirmed that she will be attending a session on Wednesday. Judith Applebaum, president of the Washington West Civic Association, said she is also attending such a meeting on Thursday.
Asian Americans United has taken a firm stance against Foxwoods. Members fear a casino would lead to higher rates of gambling addiction and increased crime rates in Chinatown, and would harm existing local businesses.
But Gym said members have plenty to add to a discussion about how the area could be improved and any future development. Market East "is surrounded by some of the most vibrant neighborhoods you'll find in any downtown across the country," she said. Gym believes Chinatown, Old City and other areas have succeeded because of the mixture of business, commercial and residential areas. The area around The Gallery and around some of the government buildings in the area would be greatly improved if it had more of a mix, too, she said. Gym also said more public and green space is needed, and that any development, residential or commercial, should be geared to serve people of varying income levels. Chinatown is one of the few vibrant neighborhoods with affordable housing in the city, she said.
Applebaum's organization has not taken a position on the casino because they are still waiting to see architectural plans, traffic studies and other impact studies. "You can't take a position when you're uninformed."
But her association's zoning committee - which will attend the meeting Thursday - has concerns that it hopes a strategic plan will help address. Not only are they worried about Market Street, but about Chestnut and Walnut east of Broad Street as well - especially Chestnut.
"It's not a street that attracts people. It's dead at night for the most part," Applebaum said. "We would really like to see it revitalized with a variety of businesses and restaurants, so there is life both day and night."
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