The blocks of Market and Chestnut east of City Hall remain the gash and gaping hole in Center City's success. They are bleak pockets of squalor and neglect. Landlords in the Market East neighborhood - if you can call it a neighborhood - have sat speculatively on properties for decades, avoiding upkeep or improvement.
These are the blocks that progress forgot, a costly, damaged, and troubling stretch of our city that inhibits not only tourism but investment, jobs, and revenue.
Francis Strawbridge, the final chairman of Strawbridge & Clothier, told me "Market's on a down cycle. Market and Chestnut are two key Philadelphia thoroughfares that have deteriorated."
No neighborhood wants a methadone clinic. Last week, City Council unanimously approved a bill to keep methadone clinics out of the Northeast. So why is there one at 928 Market St.?
The location is blocks from the floundering $1.3 billion Convention Center, a colossal investment of our tax dollars. Aggressive panhandling is a boom trade. And it's having a serious effect on legitimate businesses, safety and security listed as top complaints among tourists and conventioneers scrapping plans to return.
The surface lot at Eighth and Market remains a tract of failed dreams, waiting again for development, this time the crapshoot of a state casino license.
Market East represents one of the city's "biggest challenges," according to a Center City District report, an area of "obsolete and underperforming low-scale structures, unattractive storefronts, neglected historic assets and large, vacant parcels at key locations."
That report, issued in 2007, remains true today.
"It's the last frontier of our city," said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, who said hotel staff frequently recommended that guests take taxis the few blighted blocks to historic sites.
"If people don't come here because of safety and security, this means fewer good jobs for Philadelphians," he said. "It's a shame what it costs us in dollars. We want this area to be clean, safe, and attractive."
Booking at the Convention Center is "pretty grim for the next three years," Grose said, which could ultimately result in a loss of jobs. Between 7,500 and 8,000 people are employed by Center City's 45 hotels, and 80 percent of the workers are city residents, part of the 65,000 people employed in the city's hospitality business.
"You get one shot to make a first impression," said the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau's Danielle Cohn. "They either love the city or they're not coming back. One little thing can make or break a trip to a destination."
The Gallery, opened in 1977 and Market Street's forbidding fortress, is in desperate need of modernization, "turning the building inside out," said Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, with welcoming windows and light.
"Development is taking longer than people want because the numbers are hard to make work," said the Center City District's Paul Levy. "Retailers are waiting for what the guy across the street is going to do. They're cautious."
Finally, though, there is a glimmer of improvement. The massive Girard property, more than four acres between 11th and 12th and Market and Chestnut, has been leased for 150 years by SSH Investments, which will unveil a revitalization project early next year. Attorney Thomas Kline has purchased the spectacular yet decaying Horace Trumbauer-designed 1916 Beneficial Building at 12th and Chestnut. Market Street "is the right trigger for revitalization," said Greenberger, who pledged that he would work during the next two years to "see a significant renovation of the Gallery and better tenants."
Strawbridge, who moved last year to the elegantly restored Washington Square after four decades in the suburbs, told me, "If Times Square can come back, Market Street will, too."
SSH's Peter Soens promised that in three to four years, "you will be blown away" by what happens to the sordid Girard property, which I now go blocks out of my way to avoid. Brickstone Realty has plans to develop an 80-unit apartment complex that will occupy half the south side of the 1100 block of Chestnut. Kline assured me he "fully intends to see the Beneficial Building restored for a significant use and to its original monumental grandeur."
Can't happen soon enough. Let's hold them to their promises.