On a recent Friday night, Peter Cassie watched approvingly as a band of jazz buskers drew a small crowd in front of the Kimmel Center on South Broad Street.
“You can’t do that in the suburbs,” says Cassie, who has played live music all over Center City, but especially likes a spot in front of the storied Bellevue Hotel. Just up the street. “People complain about the city, but this is where the art is.”
For the past 30 years, the stretch between City Hall and Washington Avenue has been known as the Avenue of the Arts—a sensation that dates to Ed Rendell’s first term as mayor. 30 years ago. An investment of $330 million in state, city and private dollars has proven a lasting legacy.
But more than two years after the pandemic brought the performing arts and dining to a standstill, the Avenue of the Arts is figuring out how to reconcile its future.
“The epidemic was horrible,” Cassie said. “I was surprised at how deserted it had become.
“It seems that commerce, in terms of trucking and cars, is back. White-collar workers are working again, but we’re still missing a lot of people.”
Data from Placer.ai suggests a stalled recovery, showing that monthly pedestrian activity on Broad Street between City Hall and Washington Avenue is still well below pre-pandemic volumes. But other metrics, such as occupancy rates at ground-floor premises near City Hall and ticket sales at major institutions, are behind or near pre-pandemic levels.
Residential activity is also increasing along the Avenue of the Arts. Developer Carl Dranoff’s interest in this stretch of Broad Street continues with the recent opening of the Arthouse condominium skyscraper at 301 S Broad and two new projects in the pipeline. Other developers with proposals along the corridor include Post Brothers and Goldenberg Group.
“There’s just a lot of infill and new construction on the avenue. We’re restoring Broad Street to its place of prominence in the city,” said Dranoff, a longtime Philadelphia developer who lives in Symphony House, his first condo project on Arts Avenue. “That’s what happened at the beginning of the 20th century. We were the heart of Philadelphia and we’re getting it back.”
In many ways, this stretch of urban street epitomizes both the promise and uncertainty of this moment.
While residential and restaurant interest is growing, there is uneasiness about public safety due to gun violence in the city. People are generally driving crazier cars in 2020 than they were before. Illegal ATVs are roaming around abandoned. Residents and visitors to the area say there are more homeless and mentally ill people living on the streets in the shadow of arthouses than before.
“The vibe is good, but I think safety in general is down in the city,” said Gregory Costello, a waiter at Volver, a restaurant at the Kimmel Center. “People are more aware of their surroundings when they go outside. I will take an Uber when I go home. I’m not going to walk.”
Philadelphia and most other American cities are facing challenges right now in this pandemic. How can discomfort about the perception of safety be squared with a welcoming environment that is attractive to visitors, workers and residents alike? How can public space be reinvented?
It’s not unlike the question city leaders faced when the Avenue of the Arts was launched in the early 1990s.
When Rendell took office in 1992, Philadelphia was in dire economic straits. A financial crisis gripped the city, the mayor clashed with the municipal union, and crime was at its 20th-century high. Given his limited resources, Rendell looked for winning ideas that already had buy-in.
A proposal to rebrand South Broad Street as the Avenue of the Arts has been circulating for a decade or more. As modern skyscrapers went up along West Market Street in the 1980s, sprawling Art Deco office buildings south of City Hall vacated, calling into question the identity and use of the corridor.
“Ed has said many times when he became mayor, he didn’t have a lot of money to spend and he didn’t have a lot of time,” Dranoff said. “So he looked at the shelves and picked out things that had already been designed or thought of. One of them was this idea of Arts Avenue.”
The city issued bonds, kicked in Harrisburg funds and sought private donations to support the new mayor’s initiatives.
These funds contributed to the construction of the Kimmel Center, which opened in 2001 as the new home of the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra. But they went for more quotidian placemaking, with investments in fancy brickwork, old-looking light poles, and sidewalks along with street improvements that briefly banished mummers to their walks on East Market Street.
opinion Polls at the time showed that the Avenue of the Arts concept, which was later extended to North Broad, was among Rendell’s most popular policies. But this vision of South Broad Street collided with other realities of life in Center City in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Back then, the nearby intersection of 13th and Locust was a byword for street sex and open-air drug use. Attempt a grand opening The area’s strip club eventually struggled, though the owner told a reporter in 2002 that his business would fit right in, given the neighborhood’s glamorous reputation.
“This area is very eclectic, and I think it seems a little extreme that we’re all going to start walking around in white tuxedos,” he said when asked about his proposed club’s proximity to the Avenue of the Arts.
Other challenges have more obvious parallels today. Late at night, South Broad Street can feel eerily empty, with nowhere else to go. Contemporary patrons of the Avenue of the Arts sometimes ask to step over piles of human waste.
This may sound familiar to the man who is now the mayor of Philadelphia.
“It’s getting really ugly out there,” then-Councilmember Jim Kenney said in 2002, before he introduced legislation that sought to curb invasive panhandling. “People are seeing a side of Philadelphia that they don’t need to see.”
The idealistic vision of the Avenue of the Arts lives somewhat uncomfortably alongside the reality of life in a big city with a high poverty rate.
“Many of our board members live in the city, walk the streets, and we’ve all noticed ATVs, safety concerns, homelessness,” said Diane Semingson, chair of Avenue of the Arts Inc., a nonprofit that promotes the area.
But Avenue boosters insist it’s important to distinguish the wave of gun violence that has engulfed some Philadelphia neighborhoods and a more general sense of disorder in areas like the Avenue of the Arts.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of crime because we don’t hear about it,” Semingson said. “Of course, there must be something. But I’m not aware of carjackings or shootings or anything like that.
Around the same time that the prospect of a large strip club on a neighboring block was being fought, Dranoff began development of Symphony House. 440 S. At Broad. The 31-story condo building with the Suzanne Roberts Theater in the basement is the first residential construction on the block in decades.
Since then, Dranoff has built three more buildings, including two more planned, while the neighborhood is filled with renovations and new construction. He is a driving force behind the Avenue of the Arts revival efforts. To that end, Avenue of the Arts Inc. hired architectural consulting firm Gensler to create a plan for the area’s future.
The goal is to modernize Some of Rendell’s administration places architectural touches, such as their decorative light fixtures of A, add trees, and eliminate on-street parking on portions of South Broad Street.
But they also want to bring new features, especially to the south end of the Avenue of the Arts, where car-centric gas stations and drive-thru fast-food restaurants are still prominent.
“Public realm improvements related to physical planning are at the top of our list,” said Oliver Schapper, design director and a principal at Gensler. “Greening through avenues will be included in a plan. As far as traffic calming, there’s an overall sense that there’s space within the avenue that’s probably too valuable to use for cars.”
No decision has been made. Gensler will present its findings to the public in November, when it will release a plan for the avenue’s future. Any dramatic streetscape change would require City Council buy-in, and Broad Street boosters hope a new mayor can also champion the area.
But there are also difficult questions to answer about how to change public perceptions of safety and make people feel comfortable going out again at this point in the pandemic..
On the avenue, Cassie watches his fellow buskers at work, their playful tunes drowned out by the occasional roar of dirt bikes. But he doesn’t think downtown is any more dangerous than it used to be.
“I had a business here in town, and I know very well how much tourism we had between 2000 and 2020,” said Casey, who runs a pizza place in Old City and lives in Frankford. “They are not fully back. I think some people are afraid to come to the city. Everything has been politicized. It plays out how dangerous it is. I am 61 years old. To me, the city has always been there.