The Pennsylvania Convention Center has historically been seen as something of a white elephant in the City of Philadelphia. Despite having a million square feet of space (some 680k of which is exhibit space, making it the third largest convention center by exhibition space in the Northeast), the Convention Center has long suffered from the curse of relatively few bookings, an issue that an expansion about a decade ago was supposed to solve (and didn’t). Blame for the sorry state of the Convention Center’s operations was laid squarely at the feet of its laborers, in particular the Carpenters Union, who were summarily evicted from the Convention Center back in 2015.
Over the last couple of years, the Convention Center’s operations have undergone a night-and-day change. From being a large yet sleepy facility that only rarely booked shows large enough to fill the entire space, the Convention Center has become an attractive convention destination, having, so it seems, a revolving door of conventions constantly coming in and going out. Conventions large enough to fill the entire space are not such rare occasions anymore, with two major ones — Lightfair International and BIO — having arranged back-to-back conventions just last spring, and conventions that comfortably fill half the available space being regularly comfortably hosted (though, still, not two at the same time; this is, however, clearly an issue internal to the building administration).
In other words, the Pennsylvania Convention Center is now the rival to DC’s Walter White Convention Center and the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC) for major conventions in the Northeast. It is also making good use of its newfound muscle, having been able to attract the region’s premier comic-con from Valley Forge some years ago and, more recently, the Natural Products Expo East from Baltimore (where they outgrew a decidedly undersized convention center), as well as hosting shows like Lightfair which more typically exhibit in ultralarge convention centers like Chicago’s McCormick Place or the Las Vegas Convention Center, two of the country’s largest.
Statement of Need / Purpose
Philly, all of a sudden, is a hot commodity in the events industry, and it’s starting to throw into stark relief the fact that the Pennsylvania Convention Center only has two dedicated major hotels — the Loews and Marriott, the latter being the only hotel space to have a physical connection with the Convention Center proper. This is in contrast with most of its peer convention centers, which are all but ringed with a belt of sizable hotels: the Boston Convention Center, for example, has a Hyatt Regency, Sheraton, and Hilton all directly connected to it, as well as a plethora of significant other hotels within a short walk. Most of the hotels servicing the Pennsylvania Convention Center, by contrast, are relatively small facilities reflective of its history as a fairly sleepy building that could demand Center City hotel space on the rare occasions it filled up for a major convention.
But with the ramping-up of Philadelphia’s events industry over the past 2-3 years or so, Convention Center demand is taking an ever-larger bite of Center City’s hotel space. The local hotel industry is waiting to see how Brook Lenfest’s W/Element project at 15th and Chestnut will affect Center City’s hotel-space demand, but if Convention Center business continues apace, the likely answer is: by barely a blip. Center City’s hotel space, as it currently stands, is essentially large enough to handle either Convention Center business or the business-traveler and tourism business typical of any major downtown, but not both.
Clearly, then, if the expansion of Convention Center business represents a new normal, more hotel space is needed. And, seeing as Center City’s existing hotel space is oriented around Center City needs — not Convention Center needs — the majority of this space will need to be oriented around the Convention Center.
With that all in mind, then, let us consider what kind of space is available around the Convention Center. For this project, I have exclusively considered sites that are (a) relatively un(der)developed that (b) offer easy apparent connections to the Convention Center concourse. A lot that faces Race Street wouldn’t be useful, then, because there is no direct connection to the concourse anywhere along the Race Street side, save at Broad — the concourse can be understood as following Broad and Arch streets.
I have tried to favor larger sites in order to yield spaces akin to the Loews or the Marriott, but I recognize this is not always possible. The Marriott, in particular, is quite an extensive facility that sprawls over four buildings and involves three distinct mastheads; it is more likely that most new Convention Center hotels would be more akin to the Loews or the main Marriott building in size.
I have identified some seven distinct development sites, each with its own challenges and opportunities. Let us examine each in turn, beginning at the northwest corner and moving clockwise.
I. The Race-Vine Site
The only hotel space directly adjacent to the Convention Center’s 2011 expansion is a relatively small Aloft in the former public utilities building at Broad and Arch, an Aloft that is itself a recent entrant to the city’s hotel market. It is perhaps because of this that the Convention Center’s Broad Street side tends to be underutilized, mainly used by conventions whose footprints lie mostly or exclusively in the 2011 annex. It is also where the bulk of the significant available space adjacent to the Convention Center lies.
Conveniently, the Race-Vine site lies directly across Race Street from the Convention Center concourse. Direct access is thus easily achieved by means of e.g. a skybridge, or an underground passageway should this not be favored. About half of the site is a surface parking lot, with a very forgettable low building facing Race between Juniper and Watts. It also lies adjacent to Broad Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, and to the Race/Vine Broad Street Line station.
The main challenge the Race/Vine site imposes is its Broad Street face. Historically, most of the buildings along this stretch of Broad had medical offices and such in support of Hahnemann Hospital across the street, but with its closure earlier this year, such services are obsolete in this location and will likely be moved elsewhere or liquidated altogether.
Much more significant for the architect are the extant buildings. I am unsure whether any are on any historic register, but I am sure that any proposal that entails the demolition of any of them will likely put them on one in no time flat. Most of Broad is fronted by handsome period commercial midrises; a talented and enterprising architect can reuse these to impressive effect while putting the majority of a convention center hotel’s more space-intensive functions in new-build sections along the large parking lot between Juniper and Watts streets. It would be fairly easy to build a hotel with a thousand keys or more on the Race-Vine site.
II. The Hahnemann Site
Just across Broad from the Race-Vine site, and cater-corner to the Convention Center, lies the Hahnemann Hospital site. This is, in point of fact, the large urban hospital that closed earlier this year, according to rumor, for luxury condos and/or a hotel, the latter being what we are currently interested in.
Hahnemann Hospital is a large, rambling complex of structures arranged in an L-shaped pattern along 15th and Vine streets; a large parking lot occupies its southeastern corner. These buildings, having recently been in use, can be assumed to be structurally sound, and offer extensive opportunities for a variety of uses. In particular, for our interests, a hotel would make sense stretching along the property’s Race Street frontage, which is mostly a parking lot but inclusive of a low-lying building at the far corner of 15th and Race. Such a structure would easily be similar in size to the main Marriott building at 12th and Market.
A fairly significant issue arises when considering connections to the Convention Center across Broad, however. Broad Street is more than just a thoroughfare; the North Broad viewshed is meant to be one of the city’s most iconic (which is a major reason why the Convention Center’s 2011 annex fronts it so monumentally). A skybridge across Broad would be frowned upon, to say the least; instead, a direct connection would have to be built underground, if at all.
This may end up being easy or difficult. The Broad Street Line runs, naturally enough, under Broad Street, but it lies far enough down for its Race-Vine to have north and south concourses that cross the tracks. Because the southeast corner of the Hahnemann site abuts the Race-Vine station’s southern concourse, the construction of an all-weather connection between the former and the Convention Center would necessarily entail an enlargement of it; such an enlargement, however, would need to sprawl across Race in order to reach the Convention Center’s Broad Street Atrium, with the attendant worries about public utilities this involves. It would also in all likelihood be a necessary compromise for the construction of a new Convention Center hotel with a weatherproof connection at the northwest corner of Broad and Race.
That said, outside of this hiccup, the Hahnemann site is perhaps the best available Convention Center-adjacent potential-hotel site, with a potential size sprawling across the entire block and a natural footprint that is mostly parking lot and, by all appearances, relatively easy to build on. Indeed, that’s probably what Paladin “Healthcare” had in mind this whole time.
III. The Reyburn Plaza Site
A block south of the Hahnemann Hospital site is the Municipal Services Building, which sits on a barren, windswept plaza mainly inhabited by giant board-game pieces. This is known as Reyburn Plaza, and at one time, it was the largest open space adjacent to City Hall. Now, however, it is the third wheel of City Hall open spaces, a forgotten relic, by all appearances, of the 1960s.
The opportunity Reyburn offers is evident: it is a large space, adjacent to both the Convention Center and to City Hall, that is completely unbuilt-on. Unfortunately, that’s where the challenges begin.
Of all the sites presented in this list, Reyburn is, without a doubt, the most technically challenging to build on. This is because it sits on top of significant underground infrastructure including the Subway-Surface trolley tunnel Center City Commuter Connection railroad tunnel abutting each other on the south side of the site — and the Broad Street Line making a detour off Broad and around City Hall’s clock tower, one of the largest piles of stones in the world. Securing a solid foundation for a major building here is a significant structural engineering problem.
Add to that that Reyburn Plaza is still technically zoned as open space in the City plan, despite the fact that it is, by all appearances, functionally useless for the task (the original Reyburn Plaza configuration had a bandshell where the Municipal Services Building now stands), and that the Municipal Services Building itself extends well into the potential building site here under the plaza, and you have the kind of infrastructural hot mess that only the most intrepid, well-connected, and deep-pocketed hoteliers would even dare face.
And of course you had all the problems of getting across Broad Street to the Convention Center’s atrium that you had at the Hahnemann site!
All that said, for the not-inconsiderable challenge of developing Reyburn, there is considerable reward. This is easily the most iconic unused potential building site in the entire city. A canny developer might be able to get the City to move out of an aging and poorly designed Municipal Services Building in favor of newer, better-designed space elsewhere (Site IV, for example?), consolidating the entire block and producing a confection that can swing more easily than the northern two sites between Center City and Convention Center needs.
In short, the Reyburn site has the highest risk for any enterprising hotel developer — and, potentially, the highest reward.
IV. Site IV
Yes. This is literally the most boring site on this list. It’s a City-owned parking lot behind the Criminal Justice Center, across the street from the Convention Center’s Arch Street concourse. It’s not particularly large, but a tall building might be able to squeeze an adequate room count in. This site is so forgotten that even most locals forget that there’s a parking lot here.
That said, while Site IV is undersized relative to the other sites presented here, it is, without a doubt, the easiest to get done, especially if one’s idea of “getting it done” amounts to a clone of the Home2Suites down the block — and it’s also readily zoned for whatever ambition the develop may have, including, perhaps, Brook Lenfest doing a reprise of his W/Element project down at 15th and Chestnut.
V. The Gallery II Site
The Gallery (now styled the “Fashion District of Philadelphia”) is a regional shopping mall built in Center City in two phases, the original around 1977 and its annex around 1983. Having been undermaintained for a decade after it was divested to the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) during the merger between what were then the two largest shopping mall companies, Simon and the Rouse Company, it closed in 2015 for extensive — near-gut — renovations before reopening earlier this year.
It is also notorious in the Philadelphia development community for having been designed to support three high-rises on top of it — one at 9th and Market, one at 10th and Market, and one at 10th and Filbert — none of which have ever been built. High-rise pads that, one may note, are also quite convenient to the Convention Center.
The Gallery II site proposes using both of the Gallery II pads — the ones, that is, along 10th Street — for a new Convention Center hotel.
The upside to this proposal is that the really annoying structural work is already done. The foundations for a pair of 20-story towers already lie embedded in the shopping mall, which makes it easy to achieve room counts. Unfortunately, the downside is that this is perhaps the most spatially-constrained of all the proposals: short of capping the atrium, something I would imagine would be anathema to PREIT, there is little (if any) space for providing amenities like a large ballroom. Add to that the fact that attempting a physical connection between the Gallery II caps and the Convention Center would involve snaking a structure over Jefferson Station and probably leasing out the relevant floor in Jefferson Tower and we have a fairly tricky — but not impossible — potential hotel site to work with.
VI. The Greyhound Station Site
A Greyhound bus station lies immediately north of the Gallery adjoining a parking garage with a Hilton Garden Inn on top. This latter hotel is actually a temporary facility: the structure was flung up in anticipation of the 2000 Republican National Convention nearly twenty years ago.
Is this site viable? With luck, Greyhound will move to 30th Street when a new intercity bus hub gets built there as part of Philly District 30, and once Greyhound moves, this site becomes viable — and moreso — quite attractive.
The main issue the Greyhound Station site would need to contend with is the large Gallery parking garage. Ideally, the redevelopment of this site would shift the garage east, onto the former bus station parcel; a hotel in this space could thus have a direct (skybridge) connection to the Convention Center Concourse by 11th and Arch, a hotel tower adjacent to the Convention Center between Filbert and Arch, and events space (as well as more hotel towers) atop the parking garage, accessible by a skybridge over 11th, most likely from the hotel’s main tower’s main amenity deck.
This proposal could well also involve an expansion of the Reading Terminal Market, one of the country’s biggest foodie destinations, on its ground floor, in an era now occupied more-or-less exclusively by parking ramps.
As with the Gallery II proposal, though, the major weakness of the Greyhound station site is the fragmentary nature of the parcels. A redevelopment involving the Gallery garage will likely involve its replacement and the daylighting of an endarkened stretch of 11th Street and hence the construction of multiple interlinked buildings on multiple parcels.
VII. The Combined Site
Exactly what it says on the tin — a site that combines the Gallery II and Greyhound Station sites above! Such a proposal ameliorates the major weakness of the Gallery II site (the lack of suitable space for e.g. a ballroom) by essentially envisioning the Gallery II tower pads as an annex of the Greyhound Station site. This in turn yields, across a complex system of parcels, enough space for a hotel with a room count to rival the Marriott’s campus on the other side of the Convention Center, with at least three major towers available on the 11th Street parcel and two Gallery pads alone, and two more on top of the replacement parking garage inherent to the Greyhound station site proposal.
There’s an impishness to this site not found in any of the other proposed convention center hotel sites: a sense of a unified campus leaping from one underutilized space to another in one of the country’s densest downtowns, a building at play several stories in the air with only a tangential relationship with the ground level. At a certain level, the combined site is the most aesthetically pleasing due to this relationship to the cityscape below. It is ungrounded, light, part of the city yet simultaneously apart from the city.
Thus, the Combined site is perhaps optimal for a hotelier wishing to install a hotel campus with multiple mastheads the equal of Marriott’s at 13th and Filbert: one can easily imagine two, and perhaps even three, mastheads in a single interconnected facility here, one that is in the main relatively easy to construct due to the extant structural cores embedded in the Gallery and the likelihood Greyhound will move in the hear future.
I hope these seven hotel sites have given some hopeful developer ideas about how to approach the problem of constructing new convention center hotel-type space adjacent to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a space whose business has radically expanded in the past few years and which is now starting to push the limits of what Center City’s current hotel inventory can do.
Event services firms (e.g. Freeman, GES, etc.)’s employees within the Convention Center generally estimate the facility needs a whopping 10,000 (!!) more hotel rooms in order to meet the existing demand, much less any further growth in the facility — that would be equivalent to some ten more Marriotts around the building. Here I have identified space for perhaps up to six. Let’s get building!