Less than two weeks before Christmas, Philadelphia is up for sale. School buildings. Roadside views. City parks. Pretty soon, we could be auctioning off naming rights to the years, like they do in David Foster Wallace's dystopian novel, Infinite Jest. How does "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" sound?
Unfortunately, the reality in what we are still calling 2013 is that tax revenue isn't nearly enough to pay the bills, and Philadelphia is under increasing pressure to come up with clever ways to fund services. Whether we like it or not, we can expect the future to bring more sponsorship deals and more private businesses in public places. But Council President Darrell L. Clarke's proposal to wring every last penny out of LOVE Park may be a textbook example of how not to leverage a public asset.
Last week, Clarke preempted Mayor Nutter's plans for the 2.4-acre park by unveiling his own design, one that would stuff commerce into that benighted square in City Hall's plaza-land. Clarke's proposal calls for installing seven free-standing restaurants, an unspecified number of retail kiosks, and a stage. He would use the rent to pay for the city's planned, $16.5 million reconstruction of the park, which calls for removing walls and modernizing the infrastructure.
As a general strategy, there is nothing wrong with Clarke's approach. Nor is it particularly groundbreaking. In the last few years, the city has transformed the lackluster Franklin Square and Sister Cities Park into wildly successful public spaces by installing concessions and using the rent for white-glove maintenance and free events. That public-private model was perfected 25 years ago at Manhattan's Bryant Park and is used today in cities around the country. As long as the emphasis is on the public part of the partnership, it's a good way for cities to get high-quality parks.
Clarke's plan, though, seems to be more about making money. If Philadelphia were actually able to secure leases for seven food vendors, there wouldn't be much room left for anyone else.
In Clarke's plan, 26,000 square feet is set aside for commerce, about 30 percent of the park. Compare that with Bryant Park, which is sometimes criticized for being too commercialized. Private uses occupy just 5 percent of the land, according to Daniel A. Biederman, who runs the Bryant Park Corp.
With LOVE Park packed with seven restaurants, it would be like Christmas Village every day. While a cafe overlooking the glorious Parkway vista certainly has appeal, what about the office worker who brings a homemade sandwich? When I mentioned the plan's paucity of unassigned space to Clarke, he pointed to the rendering, which showed a low wall around a sleek pavilion, and suggested the nonpayers could park their bottoms there.
But, according to Clarke, he wasn't actually the one who specified seven vendors when he commissioned the plan. It was the architect, Daroff Design's James Rappoport.
How did Rappoport fix on that number? Did he do a market analysis to determine demand in the LOVE Park vicinity?
No. Rappoport said he called a couple of people in the food business to find out the average size of a typical park cafe. Then he divided the available 26,000 square feet by that number. Seven cafes are what fits, not what the market can bear.
Rappoport, it's worth noting, is the same architect who created the bizarre, futuristic River City concept design for developer Ravi Chawla in 2006. His renderings showed 10 immense skyscrapers perched on the SEPTA viaduct near the Schuylkill, all linked by skybridges. At the time, there seemed no logical basis for specifying so many large towers, especially ones that would exceed the area's height limit. Chawla was later found liable in a civil case for trying to defraud investors.
Rappoport was not implicated in any wrongdoing, but the methodology behind his LOVE Park proposal seems just as fantastical. For instance, he told Clarke that the seven restaurants could generate $2 million in revenue.
Based on that figure, Clarke argues that the city won't need to spend its own money to renovate LOVE Park, because the income from food vendors will be enough. That position could have serious consequences.
To get Nutter to implement the Rappoport plan, Clarke has threatened to block a bill to approve the sale of LOVE Park's underground garage to InterPark Holdings, a Chicago company. Most city officials, Clarke included, consider InterPark's bid of $29.6 million a good deal.
It's Rappoport's $2 million revenue estimate that's out of whack. Bryant Park, which is in the densest part of Manhattan, just off ritzy Fifth Avenue, throws off only $2.5 million in annual revenue, Biederman said. He guessed LOVE Park might generate $1 million, tops.
But it could easily be much less. Stephen Starr's Square Burger in Franklin Square pays the park's not-for-profit operator $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Several people involved in these kind of ventures say such restaurants should be viewed as public amenities rather than cash cows. Clarke seems to think those businesses would generate enough money to pay for the entire $16.5 million renovation.
Bryant Park, incidentally, operates on a $12 million budget. Biederman supplements the restaurant rent by raising money from foundations, philanthropists, and nearby property owners. It plows earnings into activities, from ice skating to the game of pétanque.
Biederman has been so successful, he's been hired to run other parks, like Dallas' spectacular new, five-acre Klyde Warren Park, where you can sit in an outdoor library, play volleyball, or just lounge on the lawn, all for free. It has one restaurant and several food trucks.
Rappoport's plan essentially hews to the design guidelines the Planning Commission set two years ago, but it's a hocus-pocus design.
Of course LOVE Park should be renovated. Of course it should be improved with amenities that generate money for upkeep.
With the Convention Center and new Family Court nearby, there is sure to be more demand for a place to unwind.
But parks are meant to serve the people, not pay the city's bills.