Street fires up momentum for 'Ben Station'

Posted: January 13, 2006

Mayor Street said yesterday that he has jumped on board the "great idea" to rename 30th Street Station in honor of Benjamin Franklin and has sent a letter to Amtrak endorsing the change as a way of highlighting the founding father's 300th birthday celebrations.

"I think it's a great idea. There is nothing special about calling this place '30th Street Station,' " Street said in remarks to reporters at City Hall. "But here we have a huge national hero. I was for the idea immediately."

The proposal to call Philadelphia's main Amtrak stop Benjamin Franklin Station - first reported by The Inquirer in December - originally came from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a local philanthropy that is the lead sponsor of the congressionally chartered Tercentenary Commission. Pew began to lobby Amtrak privately for "Ben Station" in August and said it was willing to pick up the multimillion-dollar cost of changing the station's signs and stationery.

Those negotiations seemed to lag after they became public in December, in part because of the negative public reaction, said H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, whose foundation is also supporting the tercentenary.

According to Lenfest, Pew has "abandoned" its plans to rename the station. But a Pew representative insisted this week that "the conversations are continuing."

Officially, Amtrak says the same thing.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rendell expressed lukewarm feelings yesterday about altering the historic name of Philadelphia's main train station. He "could live with Penn station or Ben station," press secretary Kate Philips said. But "the governor doesn't think the city should spend a lot of energy on this."

Even one of Pew's own board members, Anderson Pew, sounded half-hearted about the idea. "Am I opposed? No. Am I am wildly enthusiastic? No," he said. "I certainly wouldn't want to see it crammed down the throat of Amtrak or people of the city."

According to an Amtrak source, who asked not to be identified because of turmoil at the troubled railroad, the renaming is nearly a done deal. The source said a contract with Pew, specifying its financial obligations, is being vetted by Amtrak's top management.

In his Dec. 13 letter to Amtrak chairman David Laney endorsing Pew's proposal, Street used language that suggests the name change had been approved:

"Amtrak's announcement sometime later this winter will be a terrific addition to [the Franklin] festivities. I look forward to meeting you on that occasion."

When Pew's president, Rebecca W. Rimel, first raised the idea with Laney in August, she stressed that the best time to announce the name change would be Jan. 17 - Franklin's birthday and the official start of the yearlong celebration. But the Amtrak source said it was unlikely that the Pew contract would be ready in time.

Pew would not comment on the contract's status. But Meryl Levitz, head of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., said yesterday that "my understanding is that the paperwork is going back and forth."

During his remarks yesterday, Street said that he never received a response from Laney and did not know whether the station would be renamed.

Laney did not respond to messages left on his answering machine at his Texas law office.

Since it became public, Pew's proposal has divided Philadelphians into two distinct camps.

Frank Keel, a veteran public relations executive who worked briefly for Street, dismissed the change as a bad idea. "Thumbs-down," he said yesterday, after hearing the mayor's remarks. "I'm a traditionalist. The euphoria over Ben Franklin's 300th birthday has to have its limits."

But some say that "30th Street Station" sounds generic and does not honor the impressive gateway, one of America's most beautiful rail depots.

Others want to retain the historic link between "Pennsylvania Station, 30th Street Station" and the once-great Pennsylvania Railroad. After its bankruptcy in 1970-71, the Philadelphia-based company was among the railroads that formed Amtrak.

Opponents also object to the change because the station's name is a geographical marker that distinguishes it from Amtrak's North Philadelphia Station. If the station is renamed, they fear it would inevitably be nicknamed "Ben Station" and might be confused with the Penn Stations in New York and Newark, N.J. It's been known as 30th Street Station since it opened in 1931.

Street's endorsement letter is likely to give Pew's proposal a boost. His remarks came one day after The Inquirer's Commentary page published an article by Levitz, advocating a new name for the station.

Although she acknowledged that Franklin's legacy has been honored with a bridge, a boulevard, a public square and a museum, she wrote, "giving our train station a name instead of a number would be another worthy legacy."

But the Philadelphia Weekly this week joked that the proposal "shows the Pew Charitable Trusts is running out of ways to spend their money."

The charity maintains more than $4 billion in assets. Redoing all the signage at the train station is expected to run a mere $3 million.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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