June 01, 2016
Say ciao to The Piazza in Northern Liberties, and hello to The Schmidt's Commons (yes, it's still got the official "the.")
The plaza, owned by Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has struggled to find the right mix between bumping event space and relaxed public commons lined with 500-or-so residences. It alienated neighbors with booming concerts, then got called too quiet and boring when the concerts got nixed.
""You can't [have] regular events where some group of people ... is confronted with 5,000 people drunk off their asses and incredibly loud music, which is what it was in the past." – Matt Ruben, president, Northern Liberties Neighbors Association
Now, it's got a new name and new tenants who will help steer the plaza in the right direction. Coworking space WeWork opened on Wednesday and will bring up to 350 workers to patronize 2nd Street businesses every lunch hour. Wahlburger's restaurant is setting up shop. And the Landmark Americana restaurant group will bring brewing back to the plaza for the first time since Schmidt's Brewery shut down in 1987.
"It's not just [a change] on the surface — it's based on a real improvement [to] their understanding of what this place can be," said Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association.
The Piazza never worked as an actual European-style piazza, he argues, because of the realities of how it was situated in the neighborhood. Foot traffic is mostly restricted to 2nd Street, so it couldn't just rely on people passing through at a steady pace from all directions.
"It always should have been more of a commons than a piazza; it has to be a more of a destination," said Ruben. With the new changes, he thinks, "It's going to be a place they want to gather; it's got to be a place where people work."
Related story: Co-working firm WeWork headed for the Piazza
WeWork is taking care of the work part, in particular. It's got desks for up to 350 people in the old Schmidt's Brewery building and has already signed up local companies like PiperWai, City Fitness and Meet Me Inc., based in New Hope. The company took special care to build amenities for the entire neighborhood, like an event space with a full catering kitchen, stadium seating for film screenings and a game room.
“We’ve allocated much more space in this building for events and places [where] the community can come together, whether they’re our members or not,” said Dave McLaughlin, WeWork's general manager in the eastern United States and Canada.
The coworking space is about 50 percent filled, but hopes to be at full capacity with perks like month-to-month leasing and access to the WeWork network of 50,000 members worldwide. That size allows the company to negotiate benefits like health insurance rates for a tiny startup, and members have access to a global forum where they can ask anything from "Anyone want to hire a Facebook developer?" to "Who can tell be about import regulations in Vietnam?"
Perhaps most importantly, Kushner Companies has hired a new event coordinator to overhaul its public programming. It's trying to make up for the Radio 104.5 summer music series in 2014, which left neighbors furious about the noise, nuisances and general public debauchery that accompanied the raucous concerts.
"You can't [have] regular events where some group of people ... is confronted with 5,000 people drunk off their asses and incredibly loud music, which is what it was in the past," said Ruben.
So instead of a rock concert, The Schmidt's Commons will host a free chamber concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra on July 24. There will still be plenty of events — some of them low-key like community yoga and Phillies games on the Jumbotron, others more ambitious like the 2nd Street Festival — but they're more in line with what's appropriate for a dense residential and commercial neighborhood.
"After listening to our residents, after listening to the community, it's now a natural time to move into a new phase and elevate it," said Sean Gavin, the Commons community manager.
Ruben applauded the change in direction.
"Revitalizing the programming is great, not only to bring back more programming but bring back the right kind of programming," he said. "You've got to curate the space properly."
He admits it is a major challenge. He chided online commentators for simultaneously complaining that the Piazza was too loud and too quiet, saying that they needed to "chill out."
"What people need to understand is that it is not easy to activate the space and keep it active enough while keeping the vibe good. ... It's all too easy to just kind of stand back and make yourself sound cool by talking about how uncool the Piazza is," said Ruben.
It's tough to find the right balance, but if management can cross that tightrope walk, then Schmidt's will get a second shot at being the neighborhood anchor it always promised to be.
Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated Dave McLoughlin's title.