Friday, December 21, 2007

Eating the Illadelph: Deciphering Why CityGrange’s Seemingly Imminent Demise Was Almost Unavoidable

In order to answer how and why CityGrange came to begin its, what we can only assume will be, too short existence with one foot already in the grave, we can simply look towards one of Mr. Bruni’s First Impression posts over on Diner’s Journal, where he pretty much explains it perfectly.
Hotel restaurants that don’t have their own entrances on the street — that are tucked inside the hotels they inhabit, accessible only through the lobbies — have it tough.

They’re sometimes far enough from the nearest source of natural light to seem like culinary catacombs of a sort, and they can have the atmosphere of afterthoughts, of add-on’s: mess halls necessary for the feeding of guests, not dining destinations with enough merit and panache to lure discerning locals who are choosing from a whole city’s worth of options.

[CityGrange], the new restaurant in the [Westin] Hotel, is a case in point. You walk a long way from the hotel’s entrance on [17th] Street to reach the restaurant, buried deep inside, and by the time you get to the host station, you’re likely to feel that you’ve passed all of the action, not that you’re joining it.
We took the liberty of replacing “Brasserie 44” with “CityGrange”; “newly renovated Royalton” with “Westin”; and “West 44th” with “17th.” Mr. Bruni was talking about another hotel restaurant entirely. But, honestly, we don’t know if it’s possible for that description to be any more apropos.

It might be unfair, but atmosphere is simply way too important these days to consistently drawing a crowd for a spot like CityGrange to have a fair shot. The writing has been on the walls forevs. Le Bec Fin. The Grill at the Ritz Carlton. Even Stephen Starr is susceptible — look at Washington Square.

Now, it’s not the rule — some interior hotel restaurants can get by on their good looks cuisine (read Lacroix and Fountain). But look at Tavern 17. Compare that with what used to be there (Circles on th Square). The new space is much more open and much more oriented to 17th Street, i.e. potential customers not associated with the hotel.

It’s a shame really, because the concept of CityGrange is good and one that we’d love to love. (Anyone who’s all about supporting local farms and their foods, and thereby preserving open space and conserving natural resources, is someone we’d happily endorse.) But with a space like that, you’re basically starting off with one hand already tied behind your back. And then to under-whelm basically everyone, including several critics, from the onset… that’s just not a formula that’s going to get it done.

If this were Eater, CityGrange would have been DeathWatched, like, yesterday.

Tough break. Especially because those sliders are fucking good.

First Impressions: Brasserie 44 [ Diner’s Journal ]
CityGrange [ Official Site ]
Craig Laban to CityGrange: I Eat Pieces of Shit Like You For Breakfast [ Philadelphia Inquirer ]

[ Photo via Foobooz ]

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Official Preemptive Illadelph Crush: Penn’s Weave Bridge by Cecil Balmond

Penn's Weave Bridge by Cecil BalmondDesigned by Cecil Balmond, the British engineer-cum-architect (and, ahem, part-time Professor at Penn), whose bold designs seemingly enable steel to defy gravity, the Weave Bridge (rendering above) signals the beginning of Penn’s ambitious plan to create a vibrant, mixed use neighborhood on the eastern edge of its campus that will connect the campus with Center City. Appropriately, that plan is called Penn Connects.

And an auspicious beginning at that. The bridge, slated to open in 2008, is truly one-of-a-kind. The bridge’s span actually doubles as the bridge’s support.
Penn initially planned to construct a purely functional, temporary walkway over the Amtrak rails. But as it was putting the finishing touches on its new 30-year master plan with consultant Sasaki Associates, the university began to see the overpass as a kick-off project that could demonstrate its commitment to bold architecture. It sought out Balmond, who, despite being an engineer, teaches an architecture studio in the School of Design.
With the completion last year of Balmond’s own charmingly asymmetrical bridge in Coimbra, Portugal, he finally got to affix his signature to a project. The Weave Bridge will be an important next step for Balmond’s Advanced Geometry Unit at Arup, a sort of think tank, or R&D unit, that he founded inside the engineering giant. Working together with Daniel Bosia and a select group of designers, he specializes in finding elegant solutions to engineering problems. Balmond may be dipping more into architecture, but engineering structure remains his point of departure.

Unlike Frank Gehry, who is happy to drape his bloblike forms onto any old framework that can hold them up, Balmond sees structure and design as one and the same. There are no vertical supports holding up the Weave Bridge because its twisting stainless-steel strips carry the load, in the way that cables and trusses do on conventional bridges.
The bridge will be located in a currently off-the-beaten-path area of campus behind Franklin Field (see image below). But no matter — it will definitely be worth the trek.

Map of Penn Connects and the Weave BridgeLet us just say this: bold architecture is good. Bold architecture in Philadelphia is also good. Philadelphia’s propensity for red brick notwithstanding, there is plenty of room for awesome modern architecture to coexist with Philadelphia’s esteemed and diverse architectural past.

Accordingly, we are definitely looking forward to the two major projects coming to the Parkway — remember the Free Library expansion (one non-winning proposal for which is depicted below) and the relocation of the Barnes?

Ten Arquitectos proposal for the Philadelphia Free LibrarySo it is without apologies and with open arms that we prematurely welcome the Weave Bridge to Philadelphia. (Especially, when compared to what’s happening on the other side of the river.)

Well done, Penn. And well done, Mr. Balmond.

We just wish Penn would build the promised pedestrian bridge over the Schuylkill River by 2020 — not 2040 (as recently reported by Ms. Saffron).

Rendering of Penn Connects including pedestrian bridge over Schuylkill RiverWe mean, really. What. The. Fuck.

Not building that for another 30 years is simply total bollocks.

The Weave Bridge at Penn Connects [ Official Site ]
A Bridge That’s Way Beyond Pedestrian [ PDF on Penn Connects via Philadelphia Inquirer ]
The Weave Bridge: An Impossible Structure [ Esquire ]
Why Does a Philadelphian Cross the CSX Tracks [ Changing Skyline ]

Penn's Weave Bridge

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Ballad of Billy the King, Fall Guy Extraordinaire *

Billy King and Allen Iverson1997
+ Keith Van Horn
+ Jim Jackson
+ Tim Thomas
+ Eric Montross.
- Keith Van Horn.
+ Theo Ratliff
+ Aaron Mckie
- Jerry Stackhouse.
+ Eric Snow
+ Joe Smith
+ Brian Shaw
- Clarence Weatherspoon
- Jim Jackson.
+ Larry Hughes
+ Nazr Mohammed
+ Jumaine Jones
+ Todd MacCulloch
+ Toni Kukoc.
- Larry Hughes
+ Speedy Claxton
+ Dikembe Mutombo.
- Toni Kukoc
- Theo Ratliff
- Nazr Muhammed
- Pat Croce
+ Samuel Dalembert
+ Jiri Welsch
- Jiri Welsch
+ Todd MacCulloch
+ Keith Van Horn
- Dikembe Mutombo
- Larry Brown
+ Randy Ayers
+ Willie Green
+ Kyle Korver
+ Glenn Robinson
- Randy Ayers
+ Chris Ford
- Chris Ford
+ Jim O’Brien
+ Andre Iguodala
+ Kevin Ollie
- Eric Snow
+ Chris Webber
+ Rodney Rogers
+ Jamal Mashburn
- Glenn Robinson.
- Jim O’Brien
+ Maurice Cheeks


- Allen Iverson …

And so ended our affiliation with the Philadelphia 76ers, a team we loved oh so much. A team, for which we still retain hope that we will, someday, love again.

But that won’t occur while the franchise is owned and operated by the despotic whim of Ed “the worst dude in Philadelphia history” Snider.

Excuse us for a minute as we need to address Mr. Snider directly.

Confidential to Ed Snider: You have single-handedly ruined a great NBA franchise. Please, please sell it. You were right to have considered selling the team last year. Keep the Flyers if you want. But please, PLEASE sell the Sixers.

The abysmal attendance and unbelievably depressing atmosphere at Sixers home games is a direct result of and a perfect metaphor for your colossally poor ownership.

You have been nothing but a nightmare for professional basketball in Philadelphia. Please make this nightmare stop.

At this point, not even Kate, Jenn and Erica could get us in one of your seats.

Philadelphia 76ers Dance TeamAnd that, old man, is saying something.

* Obviously, Billy King was not a true fall guy. The point, however, is that he was hardly the real problem.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Hotel Hotwire: Winners and Losers, Boom Edition

So a flurry of new hotels would have you believe that they wish to grace Philadelphia with their presence.

Does this mean the Philadelphia hotel scene is finally going to catch up with the rest of the city and start being cool?

It could.

But it definitely means it’s time for us to we weigh in on the plans.

So without further ado.

- Aloft Philadelphia. We first caught wind of Aloft, the first of three Starwood properties on their way to city, back in ’06. At that time, we had a few qualms with their location choice at Philadelphia International. We have a little more information now. Aloft’s business model actually dictates that it locates its hotels near airports whenever possible (doing as much in Chicago, DC region, Mass, etc.).

Fine, but Aloft adjusted the model when it wanted to move into a market that was more urban — Aloft Brooklyn will be located downtown. That’s exactly what should have happened in Philadelphia. Starwood definitely dropped the ball putting Aloft Philadelphia at the airport. That location adds pretty much nothing to the city or the visitor experience.

Sure the hotel might do fine economically with its airport locale, but it could have done so much more with a Center City location. (Midtown Village to be exact.) It could have been a positive addition to the city and actual active participant in Philly’s buzzing night scene. But, alas, Starwood didn’t have the vision to realize as much and Philadelphia now has one more cookie cutter hotel for culturally-challenged travelers to enjoy
nice and close to the beautiful Philadelphia Airport.

Bravo, Starwood. Bravo.

Verdict: LOSER. Giant. Effing. Loser.

- But wait. That’s only one of three Starwood properties headed to Philly proper. Don’t count them out just yet.

The next Starwood project slated to open here is the W Philadelphia
two renderings of which appear above. The W was also announced last summer after years of rumors about a W coming to town, in places like Headhouse Square. So when Starwood finally announced plans for the W Philadelphia and that it had selected 12th and Arch as the location, eyebrows were raised.

And many (we among them) began to second-guess the competence of the Real Estate Development Group at Starwood. Sure, the location is right next to the Convention Center, which is great for convention/business travel, but doesn’t the W want to be more hip than corporate. Wouldn’t a location where there’s a little more nighttime activity make more sense for the W?? 12th and Arch gets kinda quiet after 5 p.m.

For that reason, rumors persisted after the announcement that the W was reconsidering its location choice, trying to find a location “closer to to younger demographic it seeks.” But local parking titan, Joe Zuritsky, dug in deep and Starwood was convinced to move ahead with situating the W on his lot at 12th and Arch.

Starwood has procured Stephen Starr to do the restaurant. So maybe he can help. Projected opening: sometime in 2009. They were supposed to break ground this summer. Then it was this fall. Not sure if they actually have yet.

Verdict: Neutral. The W Philadelphia will surely be successful. (And a good addition to the city.) But we could easily, off the top of our heads, name a half-dozen downtown locations at which it would be considerably more successful. (Bang-up job so far, Starwood Development Group.)

- Starwood’s third property headed to the City of Brotherly Love? That would be one of their Le Meridien brand.

Le Meridien Philadelphia will be going into the old YMCA building on the 1400 block of Arch Street. We first told you about a hotel going in there back in April when the building was sold. The lobby and floors 5-10 will be the hotel’s. The building is historic and a prime candidate for a reclamation project. It’s like 50 feet from Love Park and will be less than a block away from the new main entrance of the Convention Center on Broad after it expands.

Projected opening: 2009.

Verdict: Winner. This could be amazing if done well. And help North Broad's rebirth.

UPDATE: Today, 12.4, details were announced.
The 202-room hotel will offer five floors of 4-star accommodations, a 90-seat restaurant with a 30-seat bar and lounge at the lobby level, a state-of-the-art business centre, 5,300 square feet of technology-enhanced meeting space, and a grand ballroom, which will be located on the third floor and feature dramatic views of Philadelphia’s architecturally striking City Hall, three blocks away. The hotel also will feature a central atrium courtyard on the fifth floor of the historic building, boasting a skylight at the crown of its 75-foot ceiling. [ Yahoo ]
Bueno. Although it won't be complete until 2010.

- Stephen Starr's Micro Hotel. Some of you may remember when we were making a big stink about Stephen Starr trying to renege on his self-professed desire to open a boutique hotel in Philadelphia.

So why, after we heard about him actually doing one at 706 Chestnut Street, didn’t we make a bigger deal about it?

Because it’s a frickin’ four-room micro “hotel.” That is not what we were talking about when we said Starr should keep his word and open a hotel in the illy. Sure, at least it’s something. But a four-suite micro hotel doesn’t really do anything to address the massive dearth of cool, independent, designer boutique hotels we have here in Philadelphia.

Oh, great. He's working with Taavo Somer on the design. Super. That doesn’t make up for the fact that it will have all of four rooms. It’s simply too small. A place this size will have no lobby scene or hotel restaurant. (Yes, there will be the restaurant on the first floor in the space that most recently held Angelina, but that was going to be a restaurant anyway. Also designed by Taavo.)

But beggars should not be choosers, right? Admittedly, Starr adding this hotel to Philly’s offerings is definitely a win for the city. We just wish it were going to be a bigger win. Like 10 to 20 times bigger.

A legitimate independent boutique hotel with at least 40 rooms is, however, still very much needed in Philadelphia. Starr gets a pass with this project. We’ll let him get his feet wet with this little mini-endeavor. Hopefully, it will boost his confidence so in a year or so, he’ll be serious about adding a “/hotelier” to his “restaurateur” status and be ready to develop an actual boutique hotel. You know, one with more than, like, four rooms. (It doesn’t even need to be new construction — there are tons of buildings ripe for conversion.)

Verdict: Winner. But not a very exciting one at that. We will take it. We’re just a little disappointed Starr went with a micro boutique hotel instead of a legit boutique hotel. Hopefully, it's only an apéritif.

- Let’s see — what’s next? How about Stephen Starr’s old rival, Mr. Neil Stein? We’ve discussed Mr. Stein’s hotel dreams in the past. He wanted (wants) a hotel project of his own, but he may have to wait on that. Last month, Dan Gross reported that Stein was working on a potential project with the Morris House Hotel, a five-year-old, 16-room boutique hotel on South 8th Street in the historic Morris residence. The project is two part: 1) do a restaurant in first floor of the hotel, where Restaurant M opened in ‘06 and closed in ‘07; and 2) expand the hotel into another building on the same block.

Verdict: Winner. The outdoor dining/drinking area at the Morris House could easily become a hotspot. And make the hotel a little cooler by association.

- And finally, we have the Kimpton Group. Kimpton appears to have been tipped off to the fact that Philadelphia is fucking ripe for some cool hotel properties — and they want to fill the void. We hear that Kimpton is currently looking at three historic buildings to convert into Kimpton Hotels.

And, apparently, whomever the Kimpton Group has running their Real Estate Development Group is a lot more proficient than their counterparts over at Starwood. Because the three buildings they’re looking at are all hot shit.

The first, which Michael Klein reported last week, is in the Architects Building at 17th and Sansom.

This is, without a doubt, going to be the coolest project of any on the horizon — present company included. The location is a ten. The W passed on this location and their loss has turned into Kimpton’s gain. With the Sofitel already holding it down across the street, this block of 17th Street is destined to be the place where all the cool kids want to stay when they come to town.

Moreover, the Architects building is sick. And Kimpton is working with the Heritage Consulting Group to restore and convert the space. So expect the hotel to be awesome. We certainly do.

The other two locations Kimpton is working on are behind the new Comcast Center (with a totally rad green roof) and on Independence Mall respectively.

Verdict: WINNER. Huge. Effing. Winner. Well done, Kimpton. We are happy to have you in our fine city. Please do plan to stay a while.

UPDATE: No sooner had we posted about the hotel boom in Center City then we heard of another hotel, this one proposed for University City. (Via Philly Skyline and one of our astute commenters).

Hilton Homewood Suites Philadelphia — at 40th and Pine. (Rendered above, from Pine Street.)

Verdict: WINNER. The four-block 40th Street corridor, from Chestnut at the north and Pine on the south, is a veritable destination these days. There is the Hub, which will soon have Chilango; Fresh Grocer; The Bridge, Marathon Grill and MarBar; Smokey Joe’s; The Greek Lady; Copabana (oh, poor Billy Bob’s…), etc.

Inevitably, there are a few NIMBYs who are complaining that the location is too residential. They are wrong. The 3900 and 4000 blocks of Pine, Delancey, Spruce, and Baltimore are predominantly occupied by students. Students like vibrancy on the street, so the more pedestrians, the better.

“Of the 50 properties [closest to the proposed] the location, added Lussenhop, only one is owned by an individual; the remaining are owned by commercial landlords and Penn.”

It is a great hotel for the location. It gives people visiting Penn another option to stay at other than the Inn at Penn, and the Sheraton. Moreover, University City is burgeoning with young residents that aren’t even affiliated with Penn.

Moreover, the building design is sensitive to the historic nature of the block. Sure, it’s not an uber-hip, designer hotel — but that’s more than ok. [ UC Review ]

- If you’re looking for a hip boutique hotel in an outer neighborhood, look east, toward Northern Liberties. Bart Blatstein wants to build a boutique hotel in Northern Liberties, catercorner to Standard Tap. (Hat tip to Philly Skyline, again.)

Verdict: WINNER. Obviously. Second Street is hot. Sure, a few die hard Northern Liberties preservationists may want to see their neighborhood never change, but that’s what city’s do. They change. And the trick is to get them to change for the better
— to progress and improve. That’s what good city planning and urban design can accomplish.