Yes, the quarters are a bit tighter than we're used to. But it also feels as if we've left the sleepy suburbs for the hyped-up density of the big city, and that can only do all of us — the company and the city — some good.
East Market Street is not exactly a prestige address, I realize, but then neither was North Broad Street. Once home to a parade of grand department stores that drew shoppers from across the Philadelphia region, the stretch of East Market between City Hall and Independence Mall is now dominated by a dowdy collection of low-price chain stores, cheap eateries, high-security government buildings, and surface parking lots. City planners have been trying for decades to come up with a strategy to bring back the shopping street's lost luster.
For awhile in 2009, it looked as if Foxwoods casino would be the one to rescue East Market. A major planning study, by Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn, heralded the proposed arrival of that 24-hour operation, and called for more housing, more height, more offices, more sparkle (in the form of electronic signage) to support the emerging entertainment district. Instead, Foxwoods imploded, the recommendations were abandoned, and East Market Street got a struggling newspaper company intent on reinventing itself for the Internet age.
It's true that East Market — like our own media enterprise — has seen better days. Yet the street, shabby as it is, still thrums with the kind of urban activity that we craved on North Broad Street. Here, the sidewalks are mobbed with people who actually seem to have destinations — shops, jobs, restaurants. Buses trundle by nose-to-tail, in a never-ending convoy, and the corners constantly erupt with swarms of rail commuters. We can practically smell the food from Chinatown and the Reading Terminal Market. At our old alabaster tower, I can remember times when I stood on the empty Broad Street sidewalk and wondered if there were some national holiday I'd forgotten about.
City Hall, for its part, was so excited about the prospect of filling an empty floor in the old Strawbridge's that it provided our landlord, PREIT, with a $2 million low-interest loan to ready the space, formerly "ladies" clothing, for our dove-gray cubicles. But don't expect the mere presence of 600 office workers to transform East Market Street, no matter what the boosters say. The company that now owns the papers and Philly.com, Interstate General Media, isn't even the biggest single tenant in the building, which has become home to several state and federal agencies since the department store closed in 2006.
Still, as Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger noted when we spoke about the move, journalists are different from government employees. We have a reputation as a hungry and unruly bunch that likes to escape the office and roam around. And because we come and go at odd hours, he's hoping that we will inject some much-needed, evening life into the area.
How much our arrival helps East Market will depend a lot on how the company engages the city below our third-floor offices. As part of the lease, the newspapers and Philly.com will have a public lobby on the ground floor of 801 Market Street. Once construction is finished in August, visitors will be able to enter through the historic Strawbridge doors, into a generous, high-ceilinged space with direct elevator access to the offices and a light-filled event room where public programs are planned. The entrance is flanked by a pair of elegant, brass-trimmed shop windows that were once filled with artful merchandise displays aimed at tempting customers inside.
The hope is that Interstate General will use those windows to create a 21st- century, media-company equivalent of those great display windows — perhaps as interactive as the Internet. Located next to Walgreens' atrocious, street-deadening windows, which have been papered over with vapid photos, a creative display could do a lot to elevate the culture of East Market.
It's true, as publisher Bob Hall told me in an interview, that the newspapers do not have a good record of activating the ground floor on Broad Street, but he says the increased foot traffic on Market Street is an incentive to do better. It's another way that the new heart-of-the-city location can be a fresh start for an old newspaper company. Interstate Media is also preparing to install electronic signage, which will include streaming news headlines, at the Ninth Street corner of the company offices. It's the first recommendation from the 2009 master plan to be put into practice.
Winston Churchill's famous quip about architecture, that first we shape our buildings and then they shape us, can be applied here. We might change East Market Street, but it's more likely that East Market has the potential to change us.
As inspiring as our old Superman-style tower looks from afar, it was, at ground level, an aloof and isolated building. The architecture, by Rankin, Kellogg & Crane, was perfect as a symbol: a noble white knight of a tower staring down Broad Street at its City Hall equivalent, a secular seat of power, promising truth. But it was not so perfect when it came to interacting with the city it covered, especially after the Vine Street Expressway cut its location off from Center City.
The white tower was a relic of the golden age of newspapers. Most great newspaper buildings — in Chicago, Los Angeles — went up in the 1920s, when news flowed in one direction — beamed out from the towers to the working masses who read newspapers as they commuted to work on trolleys and trains. Now news travels in multiple directions on the Internet, from the content producers, who include both professional and citizen journalists, to content consumers and back.
The building ultimately became an albatross, too big for our needs. Making our home in a newspaper building froze us psychologically in history, and kept us from interacting physically in the city. The future for all media is an interactive one. At the Strawbridge building, the linkages are visible and real; the offices are connected directly into the Gallery shopping mall, all the regional transit lines and, most importantly, onto a street filled with people. In equipping the large sunlit newsroom with bright colors and whimsical furniture, the interior designers from Kling were clearly hoping to inspire the freewheeling spirit of an Internet start-up. Having the staff all on one floor could generate more energy, by allowing for casual interactions that encourage creativity and ideas, much as they occur in a dense city.
Unlike the tower, the new office does not have a cafeteria or dedicated parking garage, and that means more of us will have to hoof our way around. Despite some griping about the cost of parking, this is a good thing for the city. Freed from our tower, we have a chance to immerse ourselves in the currents of a fast-changing world just by stepping out onto East Market Street.
Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews and @ingasaffron on Twitter.