Tuesday, August 26, 2014

About Cars

I like my car, and I use it a fair amount. But I'm glad I live in a city where I have a choice -- I can walk, ride a bike, take a train or a subway or a bus. We in the Northeast are fortunate that we have these options. A monoculture of cars is, in the end, self-defeating. And the demands of car culture over the last century have damaged older cities, like Philadelphia. I have no desire to park my car in my living room, but that is the way many homes have been constructed in Philly. We need to push back a little on the car.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Off-Street Parking at the Italian Market - Current Conditions

In my last post (August 3) I looked at the old Moyamensing Prison site at 11th and Reed in South Philly, which is currently occupied by an Acme supermarket and a 202-place parking lot for Acme shoppers only.  I suggested that the lot should be open to the general public, and that this would help relieve the shortage of parking for the Italian Market.

A reader gently suggested that if I was going to write about off-street parking at the Italian Market, I might want to learn about what's already there.  And so I went and educated myself.

First stop was the Internet, where I quickly found a website called Philadelphia 9th Street Italian Market:  http://www.phillyitalianmarket.com/contact/map.htm.  Attached to the site is a map of off-street parking lots:  http://www.phillyitalianmarket.com/contact/9thst.gif.  It lists seven lots with a total of 560 spaces.  Not bad.  Certainly more spaces than I expected.

I'd been aware of several of these lots, but a number of them were new to me, so on August 21, after acupuncture, I walked around, map in hand, and counted spaces.

Instead of seven lots, I found five.  The municipal lot on Ellsworth between 9th and 10th is now Cedars Village (921 Ellsworth).  The website says it's for older people, and construction was completed in April 2014.   Nice apartment building.  Parking lot had been listed as having 47 spots.

The lot on the north side of Carpenter between 9th and 10th has also disappeared.  There is new construction on the spot, which had been listed with 75 parking places.

On the same block of Carpenter, on the south side, there's a lot listed with 65 spaces.  I counted 53.

The lot on the south side of Washington between 9th and 10th is listed with 120 spots.  I counted 82.

It's true that I'd just come from acupuncture, it was a warm day, and I was hungry.  My counts may be off by one or two, but they're not off by 38.

The only lot where my count agreed with the map was the lot on the south side of Washington between 8th and 9th:  43 spaces.

An Improvement Opportunity
This lot is, to my mind, an interesting improvement opportunity.  As you're walking on 9th Street below Washington, there's a lengthy plywood barricade on the east side.  Behind it is a dead zone of uneven land where presumably there were once buildings.  And behind that is the parking lot, occupying perhaps half of the vacant land.  Philadelphians, unite!  You have nothing to lose but your dead wasteland in the center of the bustling Italian Market.

At the very least we should be able to add 50 places and have an attractive frontage on 9th Street.

The municipal lot on the north side of Washington between 8th and Passyunk is rated for 120 places and has 74.

Finally, the municipal lot on Christian between 7th and 8th is listed for 90 spots but only has 27, plus four spots reserved for Zipcars.

This last lot is adjacent to the lot for the Fleisher Art Memorial.  Perhaps at one time all of this was one lot, but that's not the way it is today.

So, as I noted above, the map totals 560 spaces.  I counted 279, a little less than half of 560.

Those 202 spots down by the Acme are starting to look pretty good about now, aren't they?

Especially since off-street parking near the Italian Market seems to have declined in recent years.  Remember, the map said seven lots, and I found five.  Minus 112 spots, by the map's shaky count.

Who's Looking After This Mess?
This business of a neighborhood getting new construction, and parking lots being turned into condos, is predictable.  It's happening around the Italian Market, it's happening down by the South Street bridge.  And I think it's a good thing.  But there's an obvious downside.

Tectonic shifts like this call for a coordinated institutional response.  If the area has lost 112 public off-street spots, maybe our city elders should look at the old Moyamensing Prison site and figure out how to add 200 spaces.  I believe the merchants would appreciate our concern, as would the customers.  Me included.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Once There Was a Prison

About a block from my acupuncturist in South Philly is an unusual sight for the area -- a very large open space.  It's a parking lot for an Acme supermarket that's pretending it's in the suburbs, sitting way back from Passyunk Avenue, with its rear facade on Reed Street.  There are 202 parking spaces in this lot by my count.

How did such a thing come to be in a part of town noted for its lack of open space?  Well, there's a plaque.  It says this is the site of the old Moyamensing Prison.  For those of you who have read The Devil in the White City, this is where the serial murderer H.H. Holmes was finally executed.

On the site there's also a senior citizens' center on Passyunk, with a really pretty garden in front, and over on Reed, behind the Acme, a city-owned lot that used to be for police cars but now sports a random selection of battered city vehicles, along with piles of rusting metal junk from road work.

The impression of a hodgepodge is locked home by the Acme store.  It's a refugee from a mall, and it simply does not belong in a densely built-up neighborhood.  The low, rambling building, the vast apron of parking asphalt, and worst of all the back wall of the store on Reed Street.

Across Reed is an old, tall, imposing masonry structure.  The city's fleet management operation has repair shops there, but much of that work is apparently now farmed out to private contractors, and I think we're looking at an incipient high-end condo.

What will the future condo owners look out on?  Well, across Reed Street, the Acme has essentially dropped its trousers and mooned the world.  There are a few grimy loading docks, stretches of blank wall, and odd pieces of ground where the architect apparently gave up.  This being Philly, some of these spaces are now being used, awkwardly, for parking.

This rear service area is standard treatment in the suburbs, but usually you don't see it.  It may back onto a bit of woods.  And there's often a chain link fence to discourage exploring.  Here, it's facing onto a city street that's being treated as an alley.

In terms of urban redevelopment, the Moyamensing Prison site is a disaster.  The structures have no sympathy for their surroundings, and they're wasting a lot of space in a tight neighborhood.  This is particularly true of the parking lot, which is placarded for customers only, with a 90-minute time limit.

Have I mentioned the idea that parking is in short supply in South Philadelphia?  And here is a 202-car lot which, when I pass it, is largely empty.

A Parking Lot for All
So, first things first.  Let's get our head out of the suburbs and turn this parking lot into a real city lot, available to all.  Charge money.  Give Acme shoppers at checkout a voucher for reduced-rate or free parking.

If you're looking for an example of what to do, take a gander at the lot next to the Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue.  Also, many of the parking garages around the Reading Terminal Market accept reduced rate vouchers from the merchants in the Terminal.

Maybe, if Acme was willing, even Pat's and Geno's could offer vouchers.

This brings me to who would benefit from these new spaces.  Complaints about parking are legion in South Philly.  If you listen carefully, I think there are two main issues -- overnight parking and the Italian Market.

There are a lot of cars in South Philly.  Many of them leave in the morning and come back at night with their owners.  There are actually spaces during the day -- except for the Italian Market, which is in my opinion impossible all the time.

Well, the Moyamensing Prison site is a block south of Pat's and Geno's, the beginning of the Italian Market, which then runs up 9th Street to Sarcone's, above Christian Street.  It's a linear market, so walking is built into the experience.  Parking at the Acme would allow you to take a leisurely stroll and look around.  I'm particularly fond of the live chicken place.  If your feet get tired, have an espresso at Anthony's.

And if you live in this part of South Philly and you come home late, and there are no street spots anywhere, the lot will beckon.  Or if you're from Center City and you have a dinner reservation at the Victor Cafe, wouldn't the lot be convenient?

Pie in the Sky
What the Moyamensing Prison site really needs, of course, is a complete do-over.  In Philadelphia, we actually know how to do urban supermarkets.  Go to South Street -- look at SuperFresh, look at Whole Foods.  They don't wear their parking lots as aprons.  They wear them as bonnets.  Store on the ground floor.  Cars on the upper floors.  Been done.

So let's rebuild the Acme as a three-story building with the store on the ground floor and the parking upstairs.

But wait a minute.  Let's have a look at the Piazza up in Northern Liberties.  What would happen if we took the Moyamensing Prison site and ringed it with buildings, and had a large open space in the center?  Then we would have an actual urban open space that, with the right programming, people would flock to.  Open air cafes, a bocce court for the senior citizens, maybe even a big TV screen where we could watch the World Cup. 

This isn't really pie in the sky.  All of it has been done here, in Philly, and all of it works.  What it does require is some imagination, some teamwork -- and some leadership.