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Remaking Market East

Dan O'Brian on Market street

Historic restoration at 8th and Market

The Loews Hotel

Vacant frontage on Chestnut st

Milkboy Coffee has capitalized on the space opportunity

Dan O'Brian

New business (at right) beginning to take a hold

Looking West from Market East

Picture this: you fly into a new city for a conference. The just-expanded convention center is impressive, your premium hotel is just steps away and you rave about the lunch you ate at an adorable indoor market you discovered right between the two. But come nightfall, not everything in your adopted neighborhood seems so appealing. The streetscape seems a bit barren. You trip over a sidewalk vendor selling miniature turtles (turtles!). The same panhandler asks you four times for "train fare." 

Would you take your family there for vacation?

These are actual complaints that Philadelphia's convention and hospitality leaders field from tourists to the Market East district. On the positive front, the $786 million convention center expansion is luring visitors to the city, Reading Terminal Market's renovation is a draw, and renovations to Independence Hall and Dilworth Plaza anchor the Eastern stretch of Market Street. 

Yet concierges in the district's eight hotels still hail cabs for tourists heading five blocks east to Old City and five blocks west to the Ben Franklin Parkway. If you're going to spend scores of money to lure outsiders to the city, do you then have an obligation -- and an opportunity -- to make the atmosphere feel safe and lively even after their day ends? What can the city do to transform an area that serves as a regional transportation, business and shopping hub during the daylight hours into a space that appeals to both out-of-town tourists and savvy locals after dark? And, most importantly, can you do that without privileging certain kinds of people and activities (tourists, high-end retail) over the neighborhood's current residents and business owners?

"Sometimes a visitor's first and last impression of Philadelphia is what's happening around the convention center," says Danielle Cohn, vice president of marketing and communications for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau (PCVB), which calls Market East "Philadelphia's Main Street."

"Market East represents our entire city," she says. "If that street is doing well and thriving, that will certainly have a great spillover effect."

So the PCVB is pushing hard on an initiative it launched in conjunction with the Center City District (CCD), the city managing director's office, the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association and others to turn Market East into an unofficial hospitality zone. 

The groups are holding joint meetings with police, homeless advocates, code enforcement and other social service departments and agencies to make sure that everyone knows who to call when a problem arises and that the problem gets handled appropriately, humanely and holistically. 

"We don't want to criminalize poverty," says Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. "We're trying to make it easier for people who need help to get help … (because) we're trying to make Market East a more welcoming place for our guests." 

The timing couldn't be more critical. Real estate watchers are waiting for the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) to announce a rumored upgrade to The Gallery mall's worn-out retail mix and a street-friendly redesign of its facade. In addition, SSH Real Estate hopes to finally start reconstruction of the long-awaited multi-story Girard Square retail and office building on the southern block of Market Street between 11th and 12th streets, and Marshall's has taken over the former Staples location half a block away. The Goldenberg Group is proposing a $500 million entertainment complex at 8th and Market -- complete with casino, night club, concert venue and hotel tower -- and Amtrak is talking about running a high-speed train to New York through Market East station. 

That's in addition to hundreds of relocated Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com employees already reporting to the old Strawbridge's for work, and the Navy Yard running its Center City Express shuttle three dozen times daily from 10th and Filbert, collecting employees and visitors commuting in from PATCO, SEPTA and points walkable. 

The City's PhillyRising neighborhood improvement program is effecting the most visible change. The program has targeted Market East as its only commercial zone (out of 15 total) and has spent the past three years regularly and frequently sweeping the area for panhandlers, unlicensed vendors and street performers, while cleaning up missing bricks, ugly scaffolding and graffiti. Police statistics show that the incidence of violent crime decreased five percent over the first full year Philly Rising operated in the neighborhood, while petty crime decreased nine percent. 

This spring and summer, PhillyRising will expand its free outdoor entertainment schedule, placing musicians -- whose licenses and fees are discharged by the program -- at busy corners during convention weeks and weekends. Eventually, locals and tourists can expect to see some sort of legalized busking system, wherein artists, performers and people-friendly fundraisers like Alex's Lemonade Stand activate sites throughout the neighborhood. 

"I'd be happy to have the problem down the road be having to find a place for everyone," says Daniel O'Brien, PhillyRising's central division coordinator.

O'Brien and the working group are also looking for organizations that can help fill empty windows with appealing displays and others that can cultivate green space and improve landscaping.

The group is also working to re-implement CCD's Real Change, a program that hangs up signs to encourage sympathetic passers-by to donate to homeless organizations, and the hotel association is in the early stages of negotiating a unique-for-the-city camera-surveillance network that's paid for by participating hotels yet monitored by police. This should help put eyes-on-the-street after the 9-to-5 throng departs the neighborhood.

Though the pace of trying to get multiple disparate entities to talk to one another -- much less agree -- can get frustrating, participants in the working group acknowledge that success is obtainable. 

"The key areas that are connectors in greater Center City for us are Market East and North Broad, and I think there's a tremendous amount of momentum," says Anne Bovaird Nevins, senior vice president of marketing and business development for the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, which negotiates major commercial real estate transactions for the city. "It's only a matter of time."

TARA NURIN is a freelance writer based in South Jersey. Send feedback here. 

Photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO
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