May 02, 2003

Back in November I posted a piece here as part of TRR's intermittent series, "Philadelphia: Love It or Hate It," in which I discussed the city's financial district (under "love it," expressing my gratitude, as a former New Yorker, that it's small enough that you could walk through it and not realized you had done so), and parking lots and garages (under "hate it," noting, among other things, that "Philadelphia is where parking garages and parking lots go to die, or to live forever, or something, I don’t know what.").

I was grateful, then, to see in today's Philadelphia Inquirer a terrific piece by Inga Saffron, "Longing for [the] Empty Lots of Philadelphia."

Saffron writes:

I couldn't help noticing during a recent junket to the Netherlands that Philadelphia looks a lot like Amsterdam, minus the canals. The houses are also supermodel-thin (just like the Dutch), constructed of brick and squeezed onto narrow streets that don't admit cars gladly.

(Stop snickering, you sneering New Yorkers and Washingtonians. Philadelphia is a great, beautiful, and exciting -- albeit somewhat unusual -- city, and I won't have you saying otherwise. I've lived in all three cities, I'll have you know.)

She continues:

But the more I looked, the more I felt that Amsterdam lacked something as a city. Where were all the surface parking lots?… Try as I might, I couldn't find a single asphalt clearing in the whole of Amsterdam's central city, which is roughly the size of ours….Meanwhile, I returned to [Philadelphia] to find that two new lots had opened for business in Center City. I had been gone eight days. [Emphasis added.]

How on earth do the Dutch they live without these lots? They proliferate here in Philadelphia; they even breed, I think, mysteriously generating one after another, uncompetitive proximity to each other notwithstanding. Gee whiz, within just one block of my building there are three surface parking lots and three parking garages.

And almost nobody here seems to "get it." If I recall correctly, the plans for a proposed residential tower near City Hall call for something like a 40-story building of which the first 15 stories will be a parking garage.

Only in Philadelphia.

Saffron has a few suggestions, though, regarding Amsterdam's much needed remediation, particularly in light of the problems experienced during the last, oh, four decades in Philadelphia, here hinting at the raging debate in this city over how to spark growth:

But density just breeds more density. Despite the limited parking in Amsterdam, there were times I couldn't get my usual cafe table because crowds of tourists had come to gawk at the old buildings. They clogged the museums, spent like sailors in the shops, and added to the lava flow of pedestrians and bicyclists who interfered with decent drivers looking for parking.

By the end of my stay, I knew it didn't have to be that way. All Amsterdam needs to do is pare the clutter. Let's say it razes every other block. Then it, too, could have easier parking and fewer tourists. I wonder if anyone over there ever thought of that?

I'm certain Saffron isn't being naïve, she's making a joke. And I'll bet she would agree that Amsterdam wouldn't consider the notion, though there are dozens of developers in Philadelphia who would jump at the chance to do the exact same thing here.


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