Central: Washington Ave. to Spring Garden

Live news from the Central design (Team leader Richard Bartholomew)

It’s 8:30 a.m.
and … we’re off … button-downed architects and sweater-vested bridge engineers working with nicely-suited community organizers to try and create a new Philly waterworld of sorts.  A new civic space, one uninhibited by I-95, with space to play and perform and purchase and dance on the piers, if possible.

   But, at first, said Central City group coordinator Richard Bartholomew,  the group had to figure out what they had, what had to stay, what could go, and what potential problems might exist.

     They all got right into it, standing up, hands on khakis, leaning against the table and drawing in various erasable colors on the blown up river map.

    And at the end of the hour, the answer was: We don’t really know anything.

    The markers come out: pink and blue and purple and red. (don’t worry if you can’t keep track of what means what, it’s kind of unclear and there’s lots of erasing.)

    What’s historic? Dave & Buster’s might not be historic, but the pier might be. Does that mean all piers are historic?  How about the Seaport Museum, where this meeting is being held. 
    And what about all these memorials? Vietnam. Korean, Scottish, Irish. Can they be moved to a bigger public space? 
    Then there’s the housing. Some of it is historic, particularly along Queen Street. Some of it is brand spanking new and just being sold. What comes into play and what doesn’t?

      But the big granddaddy hanging over this group, is the rush-rush of I-95, the Godzilla barrier that keeps the city folks from hanging out down by the dockyard. Well, that and all the contaminated land. And the fact that there’s not much there, except for a few box stores, dance clubs and a funky boat or two.

      By 10 p.m. tonight, this fearless crew is determined. They WILL have a plan. They WILL have an image. They will have a dream of what is to come.  Even if, as Dick Meyer says, he has to annoy people to bring them out of their shell and get involved.
      “Until someone says something great and you think “Wow!” that’s where we want to be,” he says. 

11:15: The whole area, from Washington Avenue to Spring Garden is a challenge, Richard Bartholomew says. It’s a funny shape. You’ve got weird ramps.  And then you’ve got up to 14 lanes of rushing traffic, the highway leading to the wilds of New Jersey in the north to the tropics of Florida to the south..

     Forbidding? Yes.  Impossible. No.

     Out comes the tracing paper. If we draw it, it could happen.

     Move I-95? Build a bridge over it?  Move it into the River and tunnel it under the shipping channel?  What do you do with a behemoth?

     Maybe, you can make the monster smaller. Easier. Narrower.  One person suggests creating a new form of I-95, a stacked highway. Where heading south is on top, and going north is on the bottom.  There’s already something quite like it – the bridge going to the airport, says Meyer, an architect. He’s all excited about this possibility.

      Charles Davies, a bridge engineer, was not so excited. At another table in the back, he thought the stacking idea was too expensive. To cover the highway and build on top would be too temporary – the “ceiling” material would only last 50-75 years.

      He was drawing a new idea – to simply move Delaware Avenue on top of the highway, opening up new space between Ben Franklin Bridge and Spring Garden.  People could just drive along with easy access to the waterfront, he said.

     But how would folks having dinner at Cuba Libre in Old City get to the evening show at the waterfront?  “How they do now,” he said.  And that’s the problem – they don’t.

     At the other small table, Yan Wang, an architect, knows the problem. He lives in Upper Darby but rarely goes to the waterfront. Why? The barrier.

      Instead of tackling I-95 specifically, Wang was drawing a bigger dream. He envisioned the green system of Fairmount moving through the city and down to the waterfront. The intensity of the city? That would follow along, almost as two additional highways of urban and green down to the water.

      He had already drawn his vision of what would lay ahead … an open area with shops and green space and trees and people on bikes and walking and chatting. A sort of Inner Harbor in Baltimore meets Faneuil Hall in Boston meets South Street Seaport in New York.

    “You have to create a space where people live their lives and not just a place for visitors,” he said. “You go to Times Square and it’s not New York people, it’s international people and local visitors but no one lives there. We don’t want a Times Square, it needs to be mixed use, a place where local people want to live and visitors also want to come.”

    It’s 11 a.m. Three hours down. Eleven hours to solution.

    Lunchtime: Davies, the sweater-vested bridge engineer (his official title is Assistant District Executive for Design for PennDot), won.  The plans for the Center City waterfront section now reflect I-95 tucking under Columbus Avenue, not one highway stacked on the other..

    It allows for more space. It won’t be as big of a problem.  Developments for public “blobs” (we don’t know what they would be yet – parks or theaters or whatever) are circled in orange and magenta, with a walkway drawn in green from Washington all the way through Green Street.

     Things are moving along. Then Craig Schelter drops by. He used to be a member of Philadelphia’s planning commission, and has walked this walk and dreamed this dream before.  As 10 excited members circle the blue table, it’s blueprints, its maps and just the beginning of a dream on tracing paper, Schelter shakes his head.

     The first drops of rain fall on the Center group’s parade.

     How could I-95 be dug into the ground when, because of the water pressure from the Delaware, it’s actually pushing to come out of the ground? Schelter says.

     How do they plan to handle the Ben Franklin Bridge? And the subway coming up out of the ground around Vine Street? And what about the Vine Street Expressway?

      How are you going to handle traffic that wants to go straight on 1-95 and the ones that want to get out to 676 and the Ben Franklin Bridge and into the city?

       What city is getting the kind of money Boston got for the Big Dig and how would the city be able to afford it?

         There’s a collective pause.

         Joseph Schiavo, the Olde City representative, says … “we were encouraged to be dreamers here.”

         “ I know!” said Schelter, “that’s why I was silent.”

         Again, a collective pause.

         “You call that silent?” asked one participant.

          Afterward, over a turkey sandwich, Bartholomew, the urban architect, and Schiavo say they’re not surprised – or dissuaded by the commentary.  They understand where Schelter is coming from, but maybe he just sees things through the eyes of the past, and the solutions of the past. They are trying to find new solutions.

          After lunch, all of the planning sessions gathered round to view each other’s work. The Center City’s plan looked good, but there was much concern about sewers and cost and flooding and groundwater pumping. 
     “It wouldn’t just be expensive, it would be incredibly expensive,” said one man.

         But Richard Bartholomew, the urban architect, thinks the cost can be offset by the land exposed from the plan. There’s gold in that real estate, he said.  Condos with river views. New development.

         This afternoon: what to put on all that “new land”. 

      4:30 p.m.: They all thought they had put I-95 behind them. They were wrong.

        After a lunchtime crowd criticized the plans to place Columbus Avenue over I-95, thereby bringing the city closer to the water, and making the highway less of an obstacle, Richard Bartholomew took a step back and started again, sort of.

         A new member, Alan Greenberger, an architect with MGA Partners, had a suggestion. As he was wandering around the city the other night, he noticed that Market Street and I-95 are at the same elevation, but Market Street does not go all the way through.  Make it, he said.  Then create a bunch of intersections so the city can get to the waterfront and I-95 (which, he said, isn’t that big of a thoroughfare anyway) doesn’t get in the way.
       Davies, the structural engineer, disagreed.  You can’t call I-95 a boulevard, he said. Not gonna happen.
           The thing is, Bartholomew said, PennDOT is about to redo that section of I-95 anyway. This is maybe a once in a lifetime chance. We might as well take it, and run. Get it out of the way.
    And once we do, he said, and we open up all this land – what should go there?  Besides that big giant casino elephant that we can’t discuss, of course.
      Open space! Condos! Low-rise buildings with restaurants on the bottom and residential on the top! 
      How high can we go? 35 feet? 65 feet? More?
      Laura Spina, a planner for the City of Philadelphia, suggested a mixed approach – with higher buildings towards the end of the seven miles – more towards Northern Liberties and Fishtown and down towards the docks.  And in the middle, lower structures more in tune with the historical aspects of Center City.
       Those who lived in Fishtown were not so thrilled by that idea.
        And not everyone was thrilled with a park either. Why would people go to that park, when there’s Fairmount Park? Wouldn’t it just be – dead space?
       If only it could be more like … Chicago? Where that city just created Millennium Park, a mix of art and architecture, parking and protected parklands.
       It could happen, everyone agreed, if Philadelphia had the money.
      “Well, they just paid $38 million for a painting,” one woman pointed out.
      “Yeah, and now there’s nothing left,” said Bartholomew.
       As the group headed into the twilight of the day wishful thinking began to fade into reality. What does Philadelphia want? And what would the city pay for?

     7 p.m.: The sun was setting and a full moon rose over the Delaware, as the Center City group slowly colored in the pieces of a wishful thinking waterfront.
    It was like a little kid’s coloring fantasy. On the tables, there were markers, thick and thin and smelly (we liked the lemon), several kinds of colored pencils and a box of pastels.
    Yan Wang sat at the largest table, a full-length waterfront image in front of him. Slowly, he drew what would be (maybe) over what is now;  a city with access to its waterfront, with I-95 tucked away tidily under Columbus Avenue.
    Suddenly, Chestnut and Walnut Streets reached all the way down to the river, and roads that once ended short of a water view were extended down to the new Columbus Avenue.
    In yellow, he outlined the areas to be up for bid – maybe for housing on one side, retail on the other.  There was lots of green too, blocks of trees, squares of parks.
     Of course, there were still problems to be solved. The new plan closed off I-95 access except for Race Street to the north and down by Home Depot on Columbus if you wanted to head south. But those would be issues to be smoothed out later.
    “I like being able to come here and imagine and dream,” the architect said, as he stood on the Seaport Museum terrace and looked at the darkening sky.  “It’s a lot more fun than – “here’s a problem, fix it.’”
     At the other end of the table, Michael Nairn sat, dreaming of the city of lights. He and his group were trying to imagine a new end to Spring Garden Street. One that would be an image, more than just a place.
     “We’re thinking of open places in Paris and Amsterdam,” said the University of Pennsylvania urban studies professor. “The good thing is that now, it’s empty there, you’re not constrained.”
      Maybe there would be a water feature, said city planner Laura Spina. Something like a fountain, but animated. And a station for water taxis, and concession stands and bathrooms and things that people not only want but need.
       And they hoped for an observation deck, maybe one like at the Seaport Museum, where people could stand outside and watch the full moon over the water and dream of what could be.
       Throughout the long day, there had been naysayers. What’s the point? They said. We’ve tried to do this before. It hasn’t worked. It’ll never work. There will never be enough money, or solutions or time.
        But Nairn, who is also a landscape architect, says he can’t think that way.
        “If you don’t think about it, dream it, envision it, think of things that have never been thought of, you get mired in the same old waste products,” he said. “Things have the funniest way of coming true. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but they insinuate themselves into the consciousness. 
       “It’s saying: This is possible.”




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