Tuesday, June 8, 2010

return to the piazza

Last week, I went apartment hunting in Philadelphia and visited one of my favorite places (not just in the city, but in general), the Piazza at Schmidt's, a mixed-use development on the site of a historic brewery. It's probably the best product of a mid-life crisis ever: a frustrated shopping-mall developer visits the Piazza Navona in Rome and decides to bring it home with him, albeit in modern clothing.

Like any good urban space, the Piazza is able to accommodate many uses at once. On a Tuesday night at 7pm, it's not terribly busy, but it still manages to be different things to different people.

Off The Wagon
To a family with kids, it's a big park. Northern Liberties, the gentrifying neighborhood where the Piazza is located, has its share of vacant lots but very, very few parks. These little kids had an awesome time with their little red wagon, though unfortunately, one did a major faceplant on the stage in the background. Tears ensued.

Lawn Chairs
To the people in these lawn chairs, it's a place to relax after a long day. The video screen broadcasts Phillies games, so it's also a place to root for the home team.

2006 Called, And It Wants Its My Chemical Romance Get-Up Back
To our friend with highlights, emo bangs, guyliner, a studded belt, and skinny jeans, the Piazza is a place to pretend that it's still 2006. (Not that I have a problem with that, as the studded belt in my dresser drawer can attest.) Do you know this kid? You probably saw him while he was in high school, stalking and posing right here on Ellsworth Drive.

Remembering Piazza at Schmidt's Is Private Property
Though people treat it as a public space, the Piazza at Schmidt's remains private property, complete with all of the restrictions of one. (Despite the hundreds of photos of the Piazza taken since it opened last summer, I wonder if anyone's ever gotten stopped by security for doing so, as our friend Chip Py in Downtown Silver Spring three years ago.)

Is this a worthwhile trade-off? These spaces are often a major asset to an urban neighborhood, but it's unlikely that the City of Philadelphia - or any municipality, including Montgomery County - could afford to build and maintain spaces like this. And as we try to create places like the Piazza - or Downtown Silver Spring, or Bethesda Row, or Rockville Town Square - here, we'll have to make sure that the public can retain their rights to a space that they don't hold the title to.


Silver Spring: Then and Again said...

Unless I'm missing something from your photos, that looks like a really depressing space (as well as a hot one in the summer)!

Dan Reed said...

The Piazza has become one of the major gathering places in Philly - earlier this year, it played host to the city's major gay pride festival. It might seem empty, but there's a lot to be said for giving people in cities a big, blank slate to play with.

That being said, the space could use some trees, which are growing in as we speak. Most places during the summer here will generally be very hot, but I was there in the evening and it was quite nice.

Is it depressing because it isn't traditional or historic-looking? I can't do anything about that. But you should go see it for yourself, in case you are missing something from my photos.

Thayer-D said...

I think it looks depressing because it looks depressing. It's one of those places architects are supposed to like because they mixed belgian block with glass warehousing. There's a limit to what a good urban plan can do, the architecture has to kick in at somepoint. If you're just dazing away the day in Piazza Navone, you're eye will be rewarded by the play of pastel hewes, or maybe the fabulous domes church, or maybe even a Boromini fountain. What do you get here? That being said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Linear Disjunction said...

I'm from MoCo, live in Annapolis, visit Philly OFTEN.

I have friend in NoLibs who think the Piazza is a monstrosity. That might be a gross overstatement, but they worry that the hyped, hipster veneer will overtake some of the more organic growth and redevelopment of the area. Additionally the housing in the Piazza is well out of their price range, so to them it's like some poorly-placed temple to some other religious group. Some richer faith.

But from the times I've visited and been to the Piazza, it doesn't dampen the nightlife of the area. Nor does it necessarily enhance it, beyond its use as a big venue. Mostly it manages to maintain the same level of traffic as NoLibs, minus the fact that its artificial and very well lit.

If you're looking for housing in Philly, by the by, I'd look in Fishtown (home of the exciting 100k house project http://www.100khouse.com/) because it's relatively safe, working class and inexpensive. It's also being developed slowly, is home to a great brewery and by bike isn't all that far from center city or Drexel/UPenn (a friend there bikes to Drexel daily, not a bad ride he says).

Unless you're swimming in money, I'd avoid the Piazza. What's more, if you don't like hipsters, stay away from it and parts of NoLibs like the plague. Though with your belt comment, you will probably survive and may well thrive...

Linear Disjunction said...

Oh, and before I forget. Always remember the "Citywide Special" when drinking in Philly.

Dan Reed said...

I doubt that the Piazza would overwhelm the area, much in the same way that Downtown Silver Spring has not overwhelmed the rest of downtown Silver Spring. You need both. The Piazza will draw people to the rest of the neighborhood. If I was a local business owner nearby, I'd be happy for all the foot traffic coming my way.

I couldn't afford to live there, but that wouldn't stop me from visiting. It's a nice place to go, and I don't feel excluded there because I'm not affluent or hip enough. I don't understand who would feel that way, honestly.

That being said, my friend and I are looking - and hopefully about to sign a lease on - a place in West Philly, as it's closer to school and for the time being more familiar. I've heard of the 100k House Project. It's amazing how much modern architecture, like that and the Piazza, happens in Philadelphia. We couldn't do that here because I guess people are too conservative about style.