City concourse gets a breath of fresh air

Warren of tunnels is now scrubbed daily.

Posted: August 10, 2007

As a sensory experience, few things can match Philadelphia's Sherwood Forest in August.

For the uninitiated, Sherwood Forest is what police and public works crews call part of the concourse below 15th Street linking Suburban Station with tunnels to City Hall, the Municipal Services Building, and the Broad Street Subway.

It's a copse of concrete columns inhabited not by Robin Hood's Merry Men but by a band of homeless people seeking shelter from the elements. And in August, when Philly's temperature and humidity soar, the pungent odor of urine-soaked concrete is unforgettable.

But help is here.

The Center City District, the privately funded organization created to improve cleanliness, safety and the quality of life downtown, has begun tackling the quality of life below ground along 31/2 miles of corridors connecting the subways, Market East Station and the Gallery, Suburban Station, and much of South Broad Street's Avenue of the Arts.

For the first time, at least in anyone's memory, crews are cleaning the concourses 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

"It's a huge task," said Paul R. Levy, the Center City District's president, and one as important to the city's reputation as the state of the streetscape above.

On June 1 the district began cleaning city-owned parts of the concourse under a three-year $700,000 contract.

Then, on Aug. 1, the district started providing the same services on SEPTA's parts of the concourse under a three-year $1.6 million contract.

It's one of those all-too-rare examples of differing public agencies joining to improve the public arena.

"I think the whole idea was that the Center City District has a proven track record of doing a good job at this," said Joan Schlotterbeck, commissioner of the city Department of Public Property.

And by pooling money the city and SEPTA spent separately on concourse-cleaning contracts, Schlotterbeck said, both parties get 24-hour cleaning, something neither could afford before.

Round-the-clock cleaning is important, Levy said, not just to keep ahead of the trash but also because it sends a message that the city cares about its public spaces: "It's just not enough to clean, we also have to be seen cleaning."

Schlotterbeck said she had already noticed a difference in the concourse's condition.

On Thursday morning, Sherwood Forest was not much prettier - concrete is concrete, after all - but it was trash-less and not nearly as malodorous as expected.

The change did not cost anyone a job. Almost all 49 workers and nine supervisors on the newly uniformed "Concourse Division" came from crews of two private contractors that used to do the job, Levy said.

The employees are all union members; all got raises, and those coming from SEPTA's side picked up additional worker benefits.

Only a few chose not to take the offered jobs, Levy said, mostly because the shift hours were different.

Nor will the service cost the Center City District additional money, important to 2,000 downtown property owners, commercial tenants, and employers who fund the district through a property surcharge.

Cleaning the city's concourses is more complex than it seems, as SEPTA learned when it did a $63 million renovation of Suburban Station, completed last summer.

The big problem was figuring out who owned and was responsible for the concourse and its 123 entrances, the legacy of a patchwork of deeds and easements stitched together over more than 75 years of urban development.

Some of it is owned by SEPTA and some by PATCO, the Port Authority Transit Corp., which operates the subway-surface rail line between Center City and South Jersey. Other parts belong to the city and scattered pieces to private owners whose buildings have below-ground entrances on the concourse.

The result was that some parts were never cleaned by anyone.

In March 2006, SEPTA's Juan Torres, assistant general manager for public and government affairs, contacted Levy and Schlotterbeck to see if they were interested in consolidating the task of cleaning Center City's underground.

"From the standpoint of the public and pedestrians," Torres said, "they don't know whose building it is and, really, they don't care. But they do blame us."

Levy, who has headed the district since its founding in 1990, was eager to take over the job. For all the praise he and the district have received for cleaning and promoting Center City, the concourse was literally the city's seamy underside.

"It's one of the largest parts of the city, and it simply left a perception that the city doesn't care," Levy said.

One problem the new Concourse Division will not tackle is the homeless who make "Sherwood Forest" and other parts of the underground their home.

Although district representatives have become more involved in working with city homeless-outreach teams in trying to help the homeless above ground, those who live in the concourse pose a whole new set of challenges.

"We will be routinely cleaning, but we are not prepared to address the issue of the homeless there," Levy said. "We are just not set up with the support from the police and other agencies to do this."


Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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