June 9th, 2011 | No Comments »

I’ve just been to a public forum, presented by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museums Commission (PHMC) and hosted by DVRPC, which sought comments on the draft state Preservation Plan.  Many of the participants were fellow preservation-geeks, but it was great to see Fairmount Park folks, staff from the Philadelphia City Plan Commission, the city Historical Commission, higher ed people and reps from the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (@CreativePHL) as well.

It was a lively and thought-provoking discussion about how to position historic preservation and the agency’s work out in the world for the next five years.  And the findings of a non-scientific, self-selecting online survey that the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) of PHMC undertook formed the basis of the discussion.  Most of the survey results weren’t too surprising:  people who responded are mostly over age 45, and don’t list “historic buildings” as the places that best reflect what they value about their communities.  But if you think about it, the character-defining features of the communities themselves – the neighborhoods, the landscapes, the trails and waterways – that were the top rated selections in the survey actually embody the heritage that we preservationists seek to, well, conserve.

One of the forum-goers even articulated what I’ve been thinking for some time: maybe we should consider a language change, to what our British and Canadian colleagues call “heritage conservation.”  They avoid “historic.” What’s historic, anyway?  The definition gets fuzzier all the time.  And “preservation,” which sounds like we promote encasing cherished architectural artifacts in amber.

It was also good to hear from the City Plan Commission staffers, and to get some context for their decision to create a stand-alone historic preservation category in the newly adopted Philadelphia 2035 Comprehensive Plan. As I have read the plan during the past few months, I’ve had the slightly annoying feeling that perhaps creating a unique preservation section in the Plan suggests that it’s an afterthought.

It’s great to be singled out in positive ways: historic preservation is important and gets its own chapter.  We’ve all arrived!  But shouldn’t conserving the heritage we’ve got be woven in as an integral part of our planning and development goals and strategies?  Is positive, but separate, attention a way of marginalizing?

The PCPC folks agreed that they’d asked themselves the same questions and decided that education of a public that is largely uninformed and at least consciously uninterested in the built heritage of Philadelphia could benefit from a definitive discussion about the issue in a focused section of the Plan.  They’re likely right.

That same kind of education and conversation need to be a compelling part of the Pennsylvania Preservation Plan as well.  We heritage conservators (see, it didn’t hurt) and our partner, the SHPO, will have to make new friends and allies in the environmental, energy conservation and outdoor recreation worlds.  We will have to learn to lobby more aggressively, network more strategically, communicate more broadly and look at what we want to conserve more diversely.  So onward with more work to craft a meaningful and powerful Preservation Plan for the Commonwealth.

 

 

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

May 19th, 2011 | No Comments »

Eat at the chef's counter, sip great wine, watch them cook incredible food at Val & Marcie's Barbuzzo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heritage preservationists have for a very long time been sent to the irrelevance “time-out” corner by many who unfairly claim that they (we, full disclosure) are focused entirely on pretty buildings and not on cold, hard reality.  But old buildings and existing neighborhoods fans really know, as does everyone involved in real estate, planning, architecture and other real world pursuits, that “use,” “use” and “use” are the three most important words in our language.

Philadelphia entrepreneurs Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney know all about using existing buildings, and their neighbors in Center City’s Midtown Village have enjoyed the benefits of the reborn street life the pair have helped foster.  Earlier this week, the AIA Philadelphia Chapter, along with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, saluted their remarkable love for and commitment to urban life in the heart of Philadelphia.  The AIA, at the Alliance’s annual Awards lunch, lauded the partners with the annual Henry J Magaziner, EFAIA Award, which recognizes those who, though outside the “normal circle of preservation and design, have made a significant contribution to preservation of the built environment.”  The duo’s three restaurants (Barbuzzo, Lolita and Bindi) and four shops (Open House, Grocery, Verde and Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates) near 13th and Sansom, reside in older buildings saved and rehabilitated over the past decade by developer Tony Goldman and have joined several other long-standing businesses in the vicinity in turning around what was once considered a “red light district.”

Congratulations to the pair, who even live above the store.  (How else could two people manage such an empire?)  Val and Marcie have made our neighborhood more lively, safer, more interesting and, well, more delicious.  (All their ventures are great,  but @Barbuzzo, already a James Beard award winner, is not be missed.)  Thanks to them and their unflagging energy and creativity.  Philadelphia is much the richer for their commitment.  So is the salted caramel budino!

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

March 24th, 2011 | 3 Comments »

Slick Art Moderne retail topped by a parking garage. Girard Square, 12th & Chestnut, Center City Philadelphia

Jeez.   Change is hard.  Here I’ve been a change agent for all these years – though I didn’t really know to call myself one until fairly recently.   And now my own life is changing as my story is taking off in new directions.  I’ve spent a lot of time over those years thinking about/helping others to make decisions on/persuading those who resisted making choices about how and whether to preserve the existing built places that make cities, towns and landscapes unique.  For a long time most have called that “historic preservation.”   But those two words have come to be misunderstood, as recently described by Johanna Hoffman in Next American City, if not actively resisted or even despised.  Maybe we ought to try “change management.”

So even as my personal story sees the turn of a few more pages, and I inform, persuade, cajole (and put the bite on) folks in different ways, I can’t help but see the change agent role remaining as a constant in the chapters of my story ahead.

It’s tricky trying to help shape decisions about the art and commerce of making or destroying or changing buildings, spaces and landscapes that people use and live in.  Buildings and spaces require use – an engagement with people in direct ways not usually experienced by the consumers of visual, theatrical, musical, fine or popular arts.  It’s a level of interactivity that places an extra layer of meaning onto architecture and design.  Decision-making and opinion-shaping are more difficult when you’re talking about places.  Managing change with a preservation ethic means having to make hard choices and having to explain and justify them to skeptics who always wonder who made you the taste police.  And the speeding up of development, and development decision-making, in a creative city on the rise like Philadelphia makes being a change manager still harder. #PhillyRising.  We have to not only discern what places are important to people now but anticipate what people might find important in the – maybe not even too – distant future.  Example?  We dodged the bullet aimed at our generation by a previous one that really wanted the “ugly” Philadelphia City Hall erased from Penn Square.  I sure don’t want to be aiming similar guns at the Millenials.

Stephen Girard Building, 1896, , 12th near Market Street

Here’s a more current example.  I saw a presentation recently on the latest proposal for the eminently re-developable Stephen Girard block in Center City Philadelphia.  Previous, pretty grandiose dreams for blading the entire block between 11th and 12th Streets and building a gazillion square feet of mixed uses on Market and Chestnut are thankfully history.  Now, the low-slung, full block Market Street building (a building beloved by few) may be replaced by an exciting mixed-use glass structure, better-scaled and with some cool potential tenants and slick graphics.  For the rest of the block: no announced plans, yet.

And there’s the provocative change management problem.  On 12th Street, in mid-block, is the Stephen Girard Building, an imposing and nicely detailed Renaissance Revival skyscraper.  A little tatty right now, but it has good bones and is marked with an important name in Philadelphia history, after all.  Most preservationists will probably argue passionately for its preservation and repurposing.  I will.

Then there’s the interesting, maybe not as pretty, Art Moderne building filling the block fronting Chestnut Street.  That one takes some more careful perusal and thought.  Built in the 1930s, it replaced much altered rowhouses that had long been used for retail.  Several levels of parking sit atop the storefronts, which are nicely articulated in great Modern Movement materials and finishes.  Certainly, it’s a unique building telling an important story of Machine Age change and urban growth.  I’ll bet there will be fewer passionate advocates for this one, but I’m voting for trying to find a way to better monetize and preserve it.  It’s an important part of the connective tissue in the retail heart of Center City and a subtly urbane streetscape building.

The decision-makers and taste-arbiters are going to have a big change management challenge soon on the Girard Block.  It’ll be interesting.

Johanna at Next American City says preservation is misunderstood.  You think?  After all these years, my family back in Denver still isn’t sure what I do for my day job.  But now that I’m managing change for other organizations and in my own story, they kind of get it.  Kind of.

February 3rd, 2011 | 2 Comments »

It snowed in Philadelphia – again –  yesterday.  But already the piles of white that had turned grey, slushy and icy are melting and the water is flowing into the storm sewers and thence to the rivers.

A proposed rowhouse block urban watershed project by North Street Design

The little rivulets of trickling water among the crunchy piles of snow lingering on the pavement remind me that beneath the city are ancient brick culverts not unlike the Paris sewers in miniature.  In them: a spiderweb of historic streams and creeks that once knitted together the tiny communities and isolated residents of the lower Delaware and Schuylkill watersheds.  In the 18th and early 19th century farmers, millers and factories relied on them.   Wildlife and farm animals drank from them.  They were pathways and destinations.  And then, as the city spread across them, they were channelized, enclosed and undergrounded.

Reopening the historic creeks through the densely built city isn’t likely to happen.  The city’s Water Department says that’s “crazy.”  Nevertheless, Philadelphia architects Gavin and Juliet Riggall have a vision and a business built on capturing the rain and snow from the sky.  These two friends of ours are working on plans for new watersheds in Philadelphia neighborhoods, creating both beauty and utility, which the Riggalls regard as two parts of the design whole.

Married and working together in their emerging young firm, Juliet and Gavin are committed to making a difference.  North Street Design, which they started in 2008, is literally breaking new ground with a diverse portfolio and an even broader vision of how design can make positive change in Philadelphia and across the region.

We knew about their cool design aesthetic and commitment to making their residential clients feel comfortable living through the chaos and disruption of a home renovation project.  My husband and I are one of those clients.  But what I didn’t know until recently is the story of their partnership with another design firm in an award-winning project, “Waterwork.”  It’s about empowering people in city neighborhoods to take control of the spaces they inhabit and helping to answer the question “”how do we turn vacant land into an asset in Philadelphia,” creating long-term solutions for the 40,000+ vacant properties in the city.

There are more than 40,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia. Urban Voids seeks to find ways to capture opportunity from them and making neighborhoods more livable and residents empowered.

The venture, in its fifth year, proposes to reclaim vacant sites and make them green filters by capturing rain water and redirecting its flow.  The City Parks Association and the Van Alen Institute, sponsors of the Urban Voids design competition, praised the Waterwork proposal as they awarded it their Grand Prize:  “This design strategy offers ecologically sound recreational and infiltration solutions for the use of naturally cleaned storm-water run-off.”  The social and economic, not to mention ecological, benefits of the plan have captured the interest and involvement of Drexel’s Civil Engineering department, the City of Philadelphia Water Department and the Point Breeze neighborhood.  There, the Riggalls and their partners are deeply involved in engaging the community in work on a green infrastructure master plan.  What’s needed now is further funding to realize the plan.

Meanwhile, Gavin and Juliet are building a practice that responds to design challenges in a very personal way.  “Good and beautiful environments make people happy,” says Juliet.

The couple met on their first day as graduate architecture students at the University of Pennsylvania’s  Graduate School of Fine Arts.  Gavin’s background and undergraduate education was in art, while Juliet arrived with a civil engineering degree – having switched from aerospace engineering when she saw that her desire to work on (literally) stellar  structures like the International Space Station was less likely to be realized “than working on helicopters and cargo planes.”  Both saw the creative and society-enhancing opportunities that architecture can, in its best incarnations, offer as a profession and a calling.  While each spent time working for other firms, they say that their goals and aspirations are best fulfilled working in their own business.

The historic, Pennsylvania Railroad-built Cynwyd Station. Photo: the Lower Merion Historical Society

They are wisely diversifying their products and their skills to respond to a fluid and uncertain marketplace.  They are not only designing but are involved in the fabrication and installation of rainwater harvesting devices and systems that offer the aesthetic and practical functions that they always demand from anything they’re involved with.  Their current design projects include an exciting rain water harvesting installation on the historic Cynwyd train station as part of an extensive rehabilitation of that landmark by the Lower Merion Historical Society. The challenge there, remarks Gavin, is to appropriately integrate a 21st century technology and application with the historic architecture.  Similar challenges will face them as they begin work soon on a rain water harvesting project at historic Woodford Mansion, in Fairmount Park, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Orchard Project and the East Park Revitalization Alliance.

They are busy, and excited about their prospects.  Gavin describes the many nights at Penn Design when he slept under his desk: “Creation makes me happy – it’s a source of contentment.”  I’ll bet he still sleeps at his desk occasionally, while the 3-D computer models he’s working on take their languorous time to render.  Here’s hoping that the groundbreaking and poetic design ideas that the Riggalls are bringing to the social and economic environment in Philadelphia are as inexorable as the flow of water, falling from the sky, that flows into the streams and culverts and then gathers force and spills into the rivers that help define us as a city.

October 9th, 2010 | 1 Comment »

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia hosted the second annual Neighborhood Preservation Conference at Temple University yesterday.  PAGP  unveiled their Neighborhood Initiative programs and grant opportunities, and presented some terrific seminars focusing on how residents and organizations can help preserve and enhance “middle market” neighborhoods in Philadelphia.  I was thrilled and inspired to see a roomful of conference participants – at a preservation gathering! – that looks like Philadelphia.  In my 30+-year career in historic preservation, I’ve long joined my colleagues in being utterly frustrated and dumbfounded at the narrow demographic of the people we collaborate with, learn from and network with.  We’ve railed against the lack of diversity in the  preservation “community,” but that real diversity of talent and interest has been a long time coming.  Now the Alliance, with partners and supporters led by the William Penn Foundation, have been doing exactly what we should all have been doing all along:  helping folks manage change in and improve the neighborhoods where they live and are invested.

It was an inspiring and informative day.  The workshop on commercial corridor revitalization was moderated by Jim Flaherty, the City of Philadelphia’s senior manager for economic initiatives, whose portfolio includes the city’s Main Street program.  Among his fellow conversation leaders were developer  David Waxman from MM Partners, who’s making incredible investments in Brewerytown along Girard Avenue; Paul Aylesworth, who until recently led the commercial revitalization project for the Korean CDC on North 5th Street; and Patricia Blakeley, Executive Director of the amazing, 150-year-old Philadelphia institution that invests in small businesses in the city, The Merchants Fund.  Each talked  talked about their experiences and collaboration with each other and many more civic leaders, like the Community Design Collaborative,  and residents, in bringing real change to great, emerging neighborhoods in Philly.

The “audience” wasn’t an audience at all.  The participants in the conference are all active change-managers in their neighborhoods all over Philadelphia.  Which is, I recently heard, growing in population again after decades of sliding the other way, with 7,000 new residents last year. Great news.

For-profit developers, nonprofit community development corporations, residents and civic associations, passionate neighborhood leaders, fresh food advocates (I can’t wait to visit Romano’s Grocery in Juniata Park) and historic preservationists were all together, sharing information and working toward common goals.  It’s a a long time coming.  And fantastic.