At 30th St. Station, a plan for gateway to city

Posted: July 17, 2011

Amtrak is getting ready to create a master plan for 30th Street Station, hoping to make the neoclassical landmark a more welcoming gateway to both West Philadelphia and Center City.

The 78-year-old train station serves more than seven million Amtrak, SEPTA, and NJ Transit passengers a year, but it's isolated by a river, two expressways, a cordon of busy streets, and a wasteland of parking lots.

For pedestrians, the area around the station is "about as inhospitable as the surface of another planet," said Bob Francis, vice president for university facilities at Drexel University.

Many changes are already in the works.

Drexel, intent on filling the void between its campus and the station, last month spent $21.8 million for 3.6 acres of parking lots on the western doorstep of the station for future university housing, academic buildings, or commercial space.

And on the south side of the station, construction crews for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation are building a 55-foot-wide pedestrian plaza with lights and granite benches as the foundation of a Station Square aimed at transforming that block-long desert into an oasis. The plaza will be mirrored by another one across Market Street, in front of the old 30th Street Post Office building, which now houses the IRS.

Amtrak is working with PennDot, Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, city officials, SEPTA, and other groups as it prepares to draw up the master plan. The agency is still waiting on funding to proceed, and the plan could take a year or more to complete.

The neighbors and users of 30th Street Station have told Amtrak that they want a station area that is more pedestrian-friendly, provides better access to SEPTA's subways and trolleys, and makes a better connection between the bustling precincts of West Philadelphia and Center City. About 16,000 people work within a quarter-mile of the station.

"Finding a way to knit the city together better is of very high interest to us," said Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia deputy mayor for economic development and chairman of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. He said the lifeless stretches on the west and east sides of the station needed to be invigorated to make a "seamless" link with both sides of the Schuylkill.

One of the holy grails for planners, Greenberger said, is a better connection between 30th Street Station and the area around the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Parkway.

"Now when you come in from New York or some place to visit the Art Museum and you come out on the 29th Street side of the station, you can see the museum, but you can't get there very easily," Greenberger said.

The train station as a connector "is really critical for the fabric of the city," said Matthew Bergheiser, executive director of the University City District, which will install raised planters, trees, and chairs and tables on the new Station Square plaza.

Bergheiser envisions bustling foot traffic, outdoor performances, and food kiosks so "you can have life, like you have around the great European train stations. That's been missing here."

He sees possibilities for a space like Midtown Manhattan's Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library.

Francis, of Drexel, said the area around the station and the old post office "could be one of the great urban plazas" if infused with street life and softened by greenery and human-scale additions to reduce the impact of "those two buildings that look so fortresslike."

Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, said Amtrak's master plan offered a chance at "balancing vehicular needs and pedestrian needs" and attracting development to the western edge of Center City.

"The opportunity to rethink the pedestrian experience is a very good one," Levy said. And he said planners should look at ways to open the traffic bottleneck next to the station created by the narrow funnel onto the Schuylkill and Vine Street Expressways.

The proposed master plan for 30th Street Station will be similar to Amtrak efforts under way for its stations in New York, Washington, and Boston.

It will, Amtrak said, look at "investments in state of good repair, functional improvements for circulation, improved intermodal connections to SEPTA subway and bus lines, and improved intercity bus linkages to extend the passenger rail/bus network reach into new areas."

Amtrak has interviewed about two dozen organizations, agencies, and neighborhood groups as it prepares to issue a request for proposals for the master plan.

At the same time, Amtrak is proceeding with a long-term vision for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor that calls for an additional Philadelphia train station below SEPTA's Market East Station in Center City. That would leave 30th Street Station to handle regular intercity Amtrak trains as well as SEPTA and NJ Transit trains.

The master plan will examine ways for subway and trolley riders to make a better connection to 30th Street Station. A winding underground tunnel that once connected the station to adjacent stops on the Market-Frankford subway and the surface-subway trolley lines was closed three decades ago after a passenger was assaulted in the passageway. The entrance of the tunnel in 30th Street Station is now covered by a bar and restaurant.

Subway passengers now use a stairway or an elevator to get to street level and cross 30th Street and the station's inner road to reach the station.

SEPTA and city officials have little interest in reopening the tunnel or digging a new one. Instead, they said, they'd like to improve the aboveground trek.

Byron Comati, director of strategic planning and analysis for SEPTA, said "processional features" such as a canopy over the pedestrian path "would allow for a much more pleasant walk." And, he said, an existing street vendor's stand should be moved to give travelers better access to the subway entrance.

PennDot is spending $50.9 million to repair the 80-year-old underground bridgework that carries the West Philadelphia streets over the web of train tracks beneath 30th Street Station. About $12.5 million is for reconstruction of the roadway and sidewalks on Market and Chestnut Streets, including the pedestrian plaza next to the station.

The aboveground work will be done by the end of this year, while below street level, construction will continue for an additional year, project manager Joe Sullivan said.


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

 

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