With cafe and exhibit space, plaza will link PAFA

The idea has been 10 years in the making. It was the Convention Center that finally took it over the hump.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is making the most of the huge glass wall across the street that will be the entrance of the expanded Convention Center.

Next week, ground will be broken on Lenfest Plaza, an outdoor public space — including a cafe and sculpture exhibition space — directly in front of the Convention Center. The plaza will take over one block of Cherry Street. The one-lane road is now permanently closed to traffic between Broad and Carlisle streets.

The plaza, named after local philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, is designed to draw pedestrians from the Convention Center to the Parkway and the so-called “Museum Mile.”

“This is the portal when they leave the convention center,” said Lenfest. “So this plaza is very important to the future of the Academy.”

The grandfather of Lenfest’s wife, Marguerite, was once a student at PAFA.

The plaza will connect PAFA’s two buildings — the old Frank Furness brick building and the newer building across Cherry Street that was once an auto showroom — into a campus. It will be open 24 hours a day, and include a dramatically curved bench and public art displays.

The benefits of Lenfest Plaza may work in two directions — in addition to drawing people west toward the Parkway, officials at both PAFA and City Hall hope the plaza will revitalize Broad Street to the north. For years, the Academy has struggled with its position on the wrong side of City Hall.

“It has not been an ideal location,” said PAFA chairman Donald Caldwell. “North Broad was not booming. The Convention Center wasn’t there. It wasn’t an area that everybody always felt comfortable visiting. Now we think people should feel different about the location.”

There may be a new problem looming to the west. A new family court building is planned for the corner of 15th and Arch – between Lenfest Plaza and the Parkway. That building — already the subject of debate due to an alleged conflict of interest among legislators, lawyers and developers — would put a loading dock in the path of pedestrian traffic.

Caldwell wants plans for that building to be revisited, and perhaps relocated.

“We create this beautiful gateway,” said Caldwell. “We want to make sure we don’t immediately take away from this gateway by having something that isn’t welcoming.”

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