Small steps toward Ben Franklin Parkway progress

Posted: February 02, 2013

Ever since the Parkway opened nearly a century ago, Philadelphians have been trying to figure out how to fix it.

The grand diagonal that slices from City Hall to the Art Museum is famously modeled on Paris' Champs-Elysees, but the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is no urbane boulevardier's paradise, especially west of the traffic circle we nostalgically insist on calling Logan Square. The crowds thin dramatically as the blocks grow dull and empty. The mere act of crossing from Eakins Oval to the Art Museum steps remains one of Philadelphia's signature terrors.

Over the years, groups have produced plans aimed at making the Parkway a livelier and more pedestrian-friendly place, but without getting to the root of the problem: the lack of density and human activity. Undaunted, the Nutter administration has now come up with its own fix-it plan for civilizing a street that often feels like a prettified speedway.

On Monday evening, the city will release the new strategy at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Titled "More Park, Less Way," it offers a grab bag of quickie, low-cost improvements that draw on the latest fashions in urban place-making, from food trucks to bocce courts.

For all those good, small ideas, the new plan shies away from confronting the fundamental design issues that are the source of the Parkway's failure. It's as if they took the planner Daniel Burnham's famous admonition to "make no small plans" and turned it on its head. Solutions for the worst structural problems, like the killer crossing at Eakins Oval, aren't even addressed, mainly because of high engineering costs.

To be sure, the proposals in the Parkway report will make the boulevard's failings more palatable by boosting the fun quotient. The plan represents a shift in emphasis from a decade ago, when the Parkway's grassy expanses were seen as a reception area for tourists or a parade ground for weekend festivals.

The new report, prepared by PennPraxis for the Department of Parks and Recreation, argues that the Parkway should serve as a daily play space for the city's own residents. The city would create a Parkway manager - a sort of public impresario - to oversee programming, much as the University City District does for the successful Porch space at 30th Street Station. The manager would come up with activities to persuade people to wander over to the Parkway.

They certainly need encouragement. One of the Parkway's greatest disadvantages is the lack of public transit between City Hall and the Art Museum. Oddly, the plan proposes to solve the problem with a Bus Rapid Transit line. Such high-speed systems only work on long routes; the entire Parkway is just over a mile long.

Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis, who is responsible for city parks, acknowledges that the plan "doesn't do everything" to solve the Parkway's problems. The intent, he says, was to create a list of affordable interventions that could be completed during the remaining years of Mayor Nutter's term. "Let's try some things, and then we can amp it up," he says.

The plan is very much a product of its times, in that it recognizes that Philadelphia is being repopulated by a new generation that craves communal gathering spots.

If nothing else, the proposals will increase the spots where people can hang out, play games, linger over coffee, and fire up their laptops.

Many of the improvements would be on the north side near the Art Museum and the Fairmount neighborhood. Big patches of ground that now have no clear purpose, like Eakins Oval and the grassy patch that is home to Mark Di Suvero's red steel Iroquois sculpture, would be redesigned to make them usable parks. Facilities at the Von Colln ball field would be upgraded with more play equipment and, perhaps, a small puppet theater.

On the south side, the city would target the forlorn strip of public land in front of the Park Towne apartments for a series of outdoor rec rooms that could be outfitted with a volleyball court, chess tables, and playground.

The ephemeral nature of the proposals comes from the urban playbook perfected in New York and San Francisco, where pop-up parks and instant plazas are all the rage. The trouble is that those small interventions are usually established in the densely populated heart of the city, where park space is in short supply.

The Parkway has the opposite problem: a lack of population to fill its 65 acres of open ground. It's true, as the report says, that there are 70,000 people within a 10-minute walk. But only a few hundred actually live next to the boulevard.

A dozen years ago, when Paul Levy's Central Philadelphia Development Corp. did a plan for the Parkway, it identified the lack of population density as the main barrier to the boulevard's success. That plan put forward a series of bold proposals, from reconstituting Logan Square as a square to burying the road that circles Eakins Oval.

Those aggressive pedestrian improvements were roundly rejected because it was felt they would spoil the pleasure of commuters. It is a testament to how much Philadelphia has changed that the Nutter administration is able to offer a plan that prioritizes the pedestrian experience on the Parkway.

The ground was paved, in part, by the work Levy did after his 1999 plan flopped. Abandoning the idea of restoring Logan Square, he went to work relandscaping its archipelago of medians, producing elegant new parks in front of the Franklin Institute and the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. Lighting was improved.

After the Barnes Foundation announced its move to the Parkway, the city invested $20 million rebuilding the sidewalks. To reduce the domination of the car, travel lanes were reduced and bike lanes added. The improvements weren't as ambitious as the 1999 proposals, but they were a big improvement for pedestrians.

More tweaks are coming. In the next few years, the state Department of Transportation will cover the I-676 trench in front of the Free Library, creating a front lawn. This spring, the city will chose a designer to redo JFK Plaza.

The Parkway isn't going to be perfected in the next three years. But if enough people can be persuaded to spend their free time hanging out at Eakins Oval, maybe then the city can finally be persuaded to create an easy crosswalk to the Art Museum.


Contact Inga Saffron at isaffron@phillynews.com

or 215-854-2213, or follow

on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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