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.