Dilworth Park, transformed into a beckoning public realm, officially opens

Family members Richardson Dilworth III and Noel Newbold at the opening ceremony of Dilworth Park on the west side of City Hall.
Family members Richardson Dilworth III and Noel Newbold at the opening ceremony of Dilworth Park on the west side of City Hall. (JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 06, 2014

By a most exacting measure, the newly opened Dilworth Park already seems a success: hundreds of Philadelphians endured more than an hour of speeches under a blazing sun Thursday and still wanted to stay and kick the tires.

"Gorgeous," was the assessment of Rochelle Schwartz, 66, of Center City, after first wandering the park and then making her way underground to the gleaming new transit concourse.

And so it is.

What previously was an ill-conceived, uninviting melange of staircases, a sunken courtyard, stone walls and an empty granite field on the west side of City Hall has been transformed into a beckoning public realm with fountains, a cafe, ice skating in winter and swooping glass "headhouses" that serve as grand entrances to the subways below.

Although about a third of the park is still to be completed by Thanksgiving, the most significant portion was turned over to the public with a celebration Thursday that included the Temple University Marching Band, stilt walkers, a Rocky impersonator and enough elected officials to fill a small nation's legislature.

Among the speakers was Mayor Nutter, who called the transformation of what was Dilworth Plaza "one of the most exciting projects the city has seen in the last fifty years."

Private-public partnership

The $55 million remake has been driven by the Center City District, under the leadership of Paul R. Levy. Planning started in 2007, five years before construction began. The design and construction team included KieranTimberlake, Olin, Urban Engineers, Gilbane Building Co., and Daniel J. Keating Co.

The project evolved into what Levy called a "model private-public partnership."

That partnership is evident in the funding. Major contributors include the state ($16.35 million), the Center City District ($15 million), the Federal Transit Administration ($15 million), the city ($5.75 million), and SEPTA ($4.3 million). The William Penn Foundation provided $1.2 million.

While that largesse ensured the project's success, it also guaranteed that the grand opening would be a lengthy affair as a representative for each contributor was given time to speak. Which meant the waiting crowd heard from Nutter, Levy, U.S. Reps. Allyson Schwartz and Chaka Fattah, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, just to name a few.

Regardless, the generally back-patting speeches did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the regular Joes and Janes who turned out for the festivities.

Donny James, 60, of West Philadelphia, waited for more than a half-hour for things to get underway because he had heard so much about the project.

"It is really nice. It brings out City Hall. It brightens it up," James said, as he sat at a small table outside Rosa Blanca, the park's new cafe, operated by chef Jose Garces. "Now we just have to make sure nobody messes it up, you know, with urine and litter."

That task will fall to Levy's Center City District, which has a 20-year lease to run the park and will provide security and maintenance.

Sitting with James was 79-year-old William Shields, of South Philadelphia.

"This is going to be great for the city," he said. "It gives the city a whole new image downtown. I just love Philadelphia."

Beneath the new Dilworth Park, SEPTA unveiled new entrances, elevators, and turnstiles, part of a $12.5 million makeover.

The first customer through the new turnstiles - equipped to handle both existing passes and future "smart cards" - was Lou Hoffer, 30, of Center City.

"It's fancy," said Hoffer. "It feels like New York."

SEPTA's upgrades are a prelude to an eventual $100 million overhaul of City Hall Station and 15th Street Station, two of the the busiest, and most dilapidated, subway stops in Philadelphia.

"Thanks for being patient," Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler told a gathered crowd. "Next is the complete transformation of City Hall Station."

The upgrades unveiled Thursday include three elevators - two connecting the upper concourse to both sides of the Market-Frankford Line and one connecting the upper concourse to the eastbound trolley platform.

Two additional elevators will open soon, one from the park level to the upper concourse and another from the park level to the westbound trolley platform.

The future of SEPTA

"Today, we're getting a look at the future of SEPTA," said Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's deputy general manager.

Newly tiled entrances give customers visual cues to the different subway lines - orange for the Broad Street Line and blue for the Market-Frankford Line.

Other upgrades include new lighting, security cameras and fire-alarm systems.

The new turnstiles were built to accommodate SEPTA's long-delayed "smart card" fare-payment system.

The system is now scheduled to be in operation on all subway, trolley and bus routes next year, with Regional Rail installations to be operational in 2016, SEPTA officials said.

All that lay below the party Thursday. And party it was long after the dignitaries finished up and headed back to their offices.

With a day-long program of dance troupes, drum corps, string bands and more, the park kept bouncing. A tour of the grounds late afternoon found benches full, Rosa Blanca still hosting a crowd, and scores of passersby just drifting through checking things out.

And there were children, racing madly through Dilworth Park's fountains, squealing.


chepp@phillynews.com

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