IMAGINE CENTER CITY as this big, delicious doughnut, made up of historic landmarks, eclectic eateries, hospitals and hotels, transportation, and most of all, throngs of people.

Planners, architects, politicians, bloggers and just about everyone else with an opinion seem to think that the jelly's been sucked out of the middle - at Market East - by bad planning, bad economies, bad retail and even some bad people who sometimes run amok in the much-maligned Gallery.

"Market East needs help," said Alan Greenberger, the city's deputy mayor for economic development. "We need to get something going."

Market East will work again, its proponents claim, and you will be there more often in the future, shopping, eating and marveling at its beauty.

Today, The Gallery's blank, prisonlike walls make you want to walk faster, like hot sand on the beach; the dark Girard Square building across the street looks like a fortress guarding against enemies at The Gallery, and blocks of shabby, two-story businesses sell the same merchandise as The Gallery - clothes, electronics and jewelry.

After being teased with casinos and Walt Disney, the city wants Market East to become a better version of what it believes it's always been - a mixed-use shopping district that caters to everyone.

The goal is to attract tourists from Independence Mall and the expanding Convention Center, along with city residents who've stayed away. The city's strategic plan for Market East, now almost two years old, calls for high-rises on Market Street where two-story buildings and parking lots now sit, drawing Chinatown and Washington Square West closer to Market, and transforming The Gallery's 1 million square feet into something more inviting from the street.

The sketch for a possible Girard Square transformation on Market Street between 11th and 12th looks as if it were designed by Apple: a glass box filled with white light and likely filled with all the things young professionals crave. So, why hasn't it been done yet? Why can't you walk through this building or a brand new Gallery today when the area's been stagnant for decades?

Stakeholders say that it's all about money. Rents on Market East, they claim, are approximately 30 to 40 percent less than New York City, but construction costs are on par with New York.

"The financing is a factor, and the rents just don't support new construction," said Pete Soens, a partner in SSH Properties, which co-owns the building.

Soens said that the Girard Square building would cost approximately $100 million to complete. He claims that a large anchor store has already expressed interest in the top floor (the rumors are that it's Target), but that deal is contingent on a controversial signage/billboard bill that was approved by City Council's rules committee yesterday.

"It's very important," Soens said. "There's a lot of stakeholders who are presently sitting on properties on Market East. They're in a similar boat, and they're all embracing the signage."

The signage plan is opposed by the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight, along with some civic associations, Market East residents and a man dressed as William Penn who attended the committee hearing yesterday. Mary Tracy, a founding member of SCRUB, believes that large signs, particularly of the bright, digital variety, will mar the area's historical significance. She also believes that there's no evidence that large signs will bring more business.

"The simple reason no one is going there is because there is nothing to do," Tracy told the committee. "It's a pretty dead zone on a Sunday or at night."

Other critics of the billboard/signage plan believe that the city would lose control of the content, allowing for billboards touting sugary sodas or violent video games. Some suggested that the digital signs themselves are dangerous, a possible distraction for motorists. They called it Vegas-like and "Times Square South," something that would annoy them at home.

"There's a quality-of-life issue here," said Steve Wexler, of the Society Hill Civic Association.

Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, said that Market East's history is grounded in retail, and he thinks that the vintage black-and-white photographs of large signs on Market East stores a century ago prove it.

"The goal is not to create large-format signs," he said. "We're trying to create a little excitement and additional revenues for the developers."

The signage measure would require building owners to make at least $10 million of improvements to their properties to get the OK to install larger signs.

Temple student Stephen Stofka, who started the Facebook group Concerned Citizens for Market East, said that there's almost no signage on Market East now, at least none that you can see from Independence Mall.

"There's an invisible wall here," he said at 6th and Market. "Why would anyone walk up there? It looks boring."

Stofka walked around Market East and The Gallery for an hour one recent day with the Daily News, unable to hide his concern.

"It's not rocket science to know that this parking lot shouldn't be here - it's taking up valuable land," he said, pointing to a street-level lot at 8th and Market, also known as "The Disney Hole." (Disney's plans for an indoor amusement park at the site failed.)

The Goldenberg Group owns two acres on Market between 8th and 9th. Senior partner Robert W. Freedman said in a statement that the company is "continually analyzing retail, hotel, entertainment and office uses to sculpt a dynamic mixed-use project that will add vitality to Market Street East."

Even without flashy signs or the welcoming aisles of Target and Apple, Market East does work for the thousands of people who use its transportation hub daily, buy its electronics and jewelry, and grab some fast food in The Gallery's basement. It can work better, with everyone involved, and that's the hardest part.

"It's the heartbeat of the city - at least it should be," Councilman Frank DiCicco said. "I'm old enough to remember when it was."