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.

No comments:

Post a Comment