Market Street’s infamous “Disney Hole” site seems to be in danger of becoming an actual, physical hole in the ground again.
And not on purpose this time.
The property on Market between 8th and 9th streets was excavated in 1999 to build a DisneyQuest mini-theme-park. Disney soon abandoned the project, leaving a giant crater that remained for several years until it was paved over and turned into a parking lot.
But nature…adores a vacuum? A large section of the lot’s asphalt near the Market Street side appears to have been sinking, cracking, and buckling into the space below for some time now.
Could the pavement be yielding, perhaps, to the earth’s lingering desires to host 90s attractions like Bill Nye’s CyberSpace Mountain roller coaster and the Virtual Jungle Cruise, highlights of the sole DisneyQuest that ever opened, in Chicago?
Or does the nascent sinkhole augur yet another development plan that will, finally, bring something other than parking to a prime downtown property that has now been vacant for nearly half a century?
A peaceful (undulating) scene
This isn’t the first time the parking lot in that location started sinking, according to Center City District President Paul Levy.
“There was a period of time before DisneyQuest when the lot literally had sunk probably 8 to 10 feet down,” Levy recalled. “Obviously, no criticism of anybody back in 1977, [but because of] water or something or other, it began to sink. So that was clearly a problem.”
He recalled describing the location at the time as “the only self-excavating site in the city.”
It isn’t clear how long the lot has been sinking this time around. The current owner, developer Ken Goldenberg’s Goldenberg Group, and parking lot operator SP Plus didn’t return messages.
Online records from the Department of Licenses and Inspections don’t show any investigations or violations since 2014, and older reports focus on cleanliness and other issues rather than structural problems.
An L&I spokesperson promised the department “will inspect and issue the required violations per the code” when told about the situation by Billy Penn. She declined to predict what those violations might be.
A number of cracks in the asphalt appear to have been repaired a while ago, including a 20-foot or so winding gap that’s partially filled with a layer of incongruously bright white concrete.
An operator booth has been built to accommodate a steep slope down to a drain grate, with the back wall higher than the front. A small pond that formed in a deep indentation toward the middle of the lot is ringed with a series of dried-out high-water marks, like rings on an ancient oak.
It made for a peaceful scene on a recent afternoon. A small bird sipped from the water’s edge and drivers carefully navigated the lot’s ridges and hillocks.
Recently, the subsidence has advanced enough that it has begun attracting attention from passers-by on the Market Street sidewalk.
“So uh, does the city plan to address the Disney hole collapsing in on itself?” Twitter user @JawnWalsh posted on a Sunday morning in mid May, alongside a photo of the wavy parking lot surface.
“This looks like the Logan triangle,” wrote user Chris Olley, referring to the North Philly neighborhood that tragically sank into the dump it was built over.
Stymied efforts amid a development boom
Eighth and Market was once a prosperous (and ostensibly, more geologically stable) spot.
The famed department store Gimbels opened there in 1894, across the street from its rivals Strawbridge & Clothier and Lit Brothers. Gimbels operated there for more than 80 years, until 1977, when it relocated to the nearby Gallery mall (now the Fashion District). A Chicago company took over the property and razed most of the grand store building.
Foreshadowing current developments, the resulting hole was filled in and turned into a parking lot, only to start sinking. In the 1990s, Goldenberg acquired the site and partnered with Disney on the ill-fated theme park.
The next proposal from the developer came in 2013: build a casino on the site. Like the current Sixers arena proposal for the Fashion District, the project faced opposition from Chinatown leaders. The state gaming control board ended up awarding the casino license elsewhere.
So the Philadelphia Parking Authority built a 30,000-square-foot parking lot instead.
Before the pandemic, Market East was on something of an upswing. The Gallery mall was revamped into the Fashion District, and on the 1000 block National Real Estate Development built its multi-structure East Market project with residential, office, hotel and restaurant components.
Levy, of the Center City District, believes the property’s central position on the Market Street corridor could make it a good spot for another multi-use development.
While the pandemic may have permanently reduced demand for office space, he said foot traffic and residents have largely returned.
“It’s a site that connects the residential areas and the health care areas to the south to Market East and to Chinatown to the north,” Levy said. “There’s a real opportunity for the owner to look beyond the surface parking lot at this point and to think about what are the things that could really activate the street.”