Monday, June 23, 2014

Butt Fugly Building: Society Hill Club

250 South 5th Street
Better off covered in trees
               Ever wonder why Society Hill is rife with the NIMBYest of NIMBYs? Ever wonder what crawled up their butts and died, causing their souls to be infected with a hate for all new development, big and small? Well, this isn't the definitive reason, but a symptom of that problem. I am talking about the old Society Hill Club, now Philadelphia Sports Clubs. Its story embodies all the fears and anxieties that NIMBYs assume will come with any new development. It, along with the complex its attached to, is a NIMBY-creator.
              First of all, what an ugly bastard. Putting a fancy entrance on a building doesn't mean that the rest of the building will look good. Its a big, doo-doo brown brick box with a bunch of mismatched windows. There's a big-ass flat metal cornice-like decoration thingy at the top that is thankfully covered by the street's trees. As if this ugly bastard wasn't enough, facing the pedestrianized 500 block of Locust Street is this:

                     Back in the early 1970s, a developer simply called "Philadelphia Banker" came along and bought up a huge swath of properties between the Southeast corner of Washington Square and 5th Street owned by the Redevelopment Authority. They promised to build a gigantic mixed-use development that would include townhouses, retail, a parking garage two residential towers, and this, a giant fitness center for the neighborhood. They immediately went about demolishing the shit out of a buttload of historic homes, an ancient firehouse, and the old Heywood Wakefield plant.

Destroyed to make room for the Society Hill Club. These motherfuckers made my coffee table! Image from the PAB.
                  Then, the land remained an empty lot for a few years [NIMBYism intensifies]. Denny Development Corp then took over the project, building the underground parking garage (Washington Garage), the lowrise townhouse part of the project (St. James Court) and the fitness center, the Society Hill Club. All of it was designed by Cope, Linder, and Walmsley (now Cope Linder).
                  When it opened at the end of 1974, this place was considered the fucking shiznit. It featured a state-of-the-art gym, a pool that was both indoor and outdoor, a fancy restaurant called Cobblestones, and offered nude sunbathing on the roof. That's not a joke. The building was also expandable vertically, built to take on a few more floors on top if necessary.
                    On top of being a gym, the Society Hill Club became a quasi-community center, where the Society Hill Civic would meet so that they could vote down whatever great development was coming their way. From here, the SHCA opposed all kinds of wonderful shit for the neighborhood, most famously killing the plan to build the African-American Historical and Cultural Museum of Philadelphia in an empty lot at 6th and Pine, located in the city's oldest black neighborhood. It ended up at 7th and Arch, only to have the federal lock-up built across the street.
                 After this part of the complex was built, the developer handed off the project to a related company called Empire Associates. They sat on it for the next 4 years, making the southeast corner of Washington Square an empty lot and the roof of an underground parking garage [NIMBYism intensifies].
                 Finally, in 1978, Empire came back and got permission from the RDA (despite vociferous opposition from the SHCA) to add more height to the planned towers in order to make the development profitable enough to get built. They also brought in a few other developers to help get it all going (also despite vociferous opposition from the SHCA). Despite promising residents that the construction would not disrupt their peaceful neighborhood, much turmoil was created over the 5 (FIVE!) year construction period.
                First of all, those who relied on the Washington Square Garage for parking got fucked. Not only was there a constant stream of construction vehicles coming in and out, they closed off all the pedestrian entrances, making it only accessible by the vehicle ramps [NIMBYism intensifies]. Then, for that five year period, construction debris fell into the Society Hill Club's pool from the towers, mostly in the form of candy bar wrappers and hoagie remains from the worker's lunches [NIMBYism intensifies]. Moreover, the once sun-drenched pool at the Club was now covered in shadow for most of the day and the nude sunbathing was no longer an option [NIMBYism intensifies].  Once it was all finished in 1986, public art had to be added, so Independence Place, as it came to be known, installed this piece of shit called Total Environment [NIMBYism intensifies]. Meanwhile, the Club, as ugly as it was, kept going strong.

The Society Hill Club in 1987, ugly metal cornice thing now visible. Image from the PAB.
                In 1989, the Club was featured on Good Morning America due to its role in the Rambo Aerobics craze that year (look it up). The same year, the SHCA started to warn the operators of the club that the big ugly fence around their tennis court was starting to get fucked up and should probably be replaced. See that picture of the fence at the top of the post? Obviously it never was [NIMBYism intensifies]. In November of 1990, out of the blue, the Society Hill Club closed with no warning [NIMBYism intensifies].
              After it closed, neighbors held out hope that maybe it was just a temporary closure and they'll be back soon. Then years started to pass [NIMBYism intensifies]. Numerous chain gym operators attempted to lease the place but the owners rejected them time after time for one reason or another [NIMBYism intensifies]. In 1995, a young go-getter named Eric Blumenfeld came along and stated he would buy the place and get it all spruced-up. The deal fell through [NIMBYism intensifies]. By 1997, bums were living in the place and the pool was leaking into the surrounding streets [NIMBYism intensifies].
             Finally, after being shuttered for 7 straight years, developer-hero Hal Wheeler came along and bought the place for $900,000. He renovated the entire building and was able to secure a 15-year lease with Town Sports International, who opened it as a Philadelphia Sports Club in 1998. In 1999, Wheeler flipped the place for 2.2 million to Yaron Properties. In 2007, they sold it to D.C. developer Douglas Properties for 4.65 million, who promised to build out those extra floors from the original plan as residential. Of course, that never happened.
             So you see, this is how NIMBYs are made. A string of broken promises, year after year of vacant lots and/or buildings, and a ton of inconvenience created when the shit finally gets off the ground. No wonder the SHCA makes a career out of rejecting shit.

Evolution of a Society Hill resident.

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