How Delaware/Columbus Blvd. came to be

 

Live News from “Delaware Boulevard” (Team leader Gary Hack)

9 a.m.:  The image of a “string of pearls” was the starting point for the working group on the Boulevard. The pearls are parks, or other public spaces carved from the chaos of the city’s patchwork waterfront. The string is the boulevard itself – Delaware Avenue — an element whose character will set the mood of whatever happens on waterfront.

Led by Penn School of Design dean Gary Hack, the Boulevard group quickly chopped up the seven miles into three groups: north, central and south.

The north segment is a potential development bonanza, with several vast parcels of developable land. This landscape is headed into a period of flux, however, as PennDot’s plans to widen I-95 and reconfigure the Girard Avenue interchange make even the location of a riverfront boulevard uncertain.

The central segment encompasses the dense knot of highways, railways and roads around Center City. Discussions of Delaware Avenue inevitably collide with a rather thornier issue: I-95.

“Can I put the 800 pound gorilla on the table right now?” asked Center City District director Paul Levy. “We’ve always assumed we’re stuck with I-95. Can we talk about removing it, reducing it?”

The group agreed to discuss six options of the segment of I-95 south of Vine Street Expressway: Accept it, cover it, obliterate it, reduce it’s number of lanes, separate out thru-traffic and channel local traffic elsewhere, and finally, a plan by Wallace, Roberts and Todd Architects to extend the street grid of Center City to the river.

Levy continued to push the discussion, unveiling a never-before-seen proposal for a new light rail line. The T-shaped line would run trolleys on surface roads from the Sugarhouse Casino in Fishtown south to the Ikea shopping center in South Philadelphia, with an all-important spur linking the river to City Hall and beyond it, to 30th Street Station.

Levy argued that such a high-visibility profile line would achieve a kind of transit trifecta, linking major transit centers, to the Market Street West office district, to the Gallery Mall, Independence Mall and still-to-be developed attractions up and down the riverfront. Future extensions could link it to the new Girard Avenue trolley.

Finally, the south segment revealed itself as a potential site for large-scale public amenities. With a few strokes of Hack’s architect pen, a future scene appeared in which the big box retailers Wal-Mart and Home Depot were gone, relocated to a more logical locale.

As the teams split up for small-group work, traffic engineer Ian Lockwood called upon them to recall a particularly challenging public mandate from the civic engagement sessions: That the large-scale waterfront be recast in the small, walkable scale of Philadelphia’s cherished street grid.

“We’ve got to take this suburban-scale existing thing and try to urbanize it,” Lockwood said. “What that requires is a bold plan.”

As the teams split up, a boulevard that could bring Philadelphia character to its barren waterfront seemed a distant goal.

noon update: Radical Redesign of I-95.

The imposing, impossible, unlovable, unavoidable Interstate 95 has drawn the Boulevard working group into a free-ranging debate between radicals and conservatives.

The radicals, if it’s fair to call them that, are proposing to tear down a seven-mile section of the towering viaduct and replace it with express and local roads. The express would be a mere four lanes wide and carry thru traffic from Allegheny south to the Walt Whitman Bridge. It would also be sunken in a trench, allowing free pedestrian and visual connection between neighborhoods of Port Richmond and Fishtown down thru Center City and Pennsport.

Local traffic would be directed onto a new street-level boulevard, lined with trees and light rail mass transit, built over top the sunken express lanes.

Pushing this perspective, oddly, is a traffic engineer, Ian Lockwood of Glatting Jackson. Lockwood is passionate about pedestrian scale.

“We’ve got one chance to set the design vocabulary for the waterfront,” Lockwood told the group. Without healing the I-95 scar down our waterfront, Lockwood said “we’re going to be limping along, with Philadelphia being very good at doing the wrong things.”

The conservatives, led by Paul Levy of the Center City District, do not stand against the scheme, but aren’t convinced this charrette should be devoted to radical redesign of I-95, a perennial dream which often gets dismissed as a multi-billion dollar pie in the sky.

“We’ve got to decide, is this charrette going to solve the I-95 issue? Because that’s what’s diverting our energies.” Levy said. Levy said he was particularly conscious of funding issues, seeing as PennDot has already allocated $400 million for the reconstruction of the same interstate corridor some would demolish.

PennDot representative Lou Belmonte offered skeptical questions, but didn’t disparage the vision.

“My only skepticism is money,” Belmonte said.

2 p.m. – PennDot Reacts

When Rina Cutler’s time came to speak, the room braced for a smackdown.

The Boulevard working group had just proposed tearing down the I-95 elevated viaduct, running express lanes down a seven-mile trench and funneling surface traffic onto a new Columbus Blvd – a multi-billion dollar plan. Cutler, the influential director of PennDot’s District 6, could have laughed, scoffed or scolded.

But the smackdown never came. Instead, Cutler spoke encouragingly, setting new ground rules for the discussion of I-95, closing some possibilities and opening others.

The pivot point is Girard Avenue.

It turns out, PennDot is about to spend $400 million on the widening and reconstruction of I-95 from Tioga down to Girard Avenue. Although construction doesn’t begin until 2009, the money is in the federal pipeline, and according to Cutler, the project cannot be delayed.

“Portions that are ready to go, are going to go,” Cutler said. A reconstructed Girard segment should last 30 years, so expect it to stick around.

But south of Girard Avenue, Cutler said that anything that can be funded can be done. It will take 20 more years for PennDot to reconstruct the rest of I-95 from Girard down to the Delaware state line, she said, a situation she described as a “ton of opportunity” for innovative concepts.

That leaves open the door for long dreamt-of schemes like sinking the highway, segregating express traffic from local trips, and developing new homes and businesses over the highway. There’s much to be gained – reconnecting long-isolated neighborhoods to the river – if the funding can be found.

“With a lot of money, anything can happen,” she said.

Later, standing by the generous snack bar here in the Independence Seaport Museum, Cutler said she was not always so liberal in her outlook.

“There’s a lot of possibilities that we, PennDot, would not have thought of before [meeting with the design teams]” Cutler said. Without this exchange, she said, “We would have gone and just rebuilt the highway.”

And so the dream of solving I-95 lives on …  south of Girard.

What is Charrette?

Something happens in a good charrette, something magical, something powerful, something that makes a body wonder: What is a charrette?
Absent from dictionaries and rejected by Microsoft Word as a misspelling, “charrette” is the standard form of collaboration in the architecture business.

It’s more fun than democracy and more effective than autocracy – yet the technique of free-form group creativity remains almost unknown in dozens of fields that probably need it.

“I see it as the future of decision-making,” said Martin Rayala, a Kutztown University professor who’s writing a book on the charrette concept, for which he’s studying the PlanPhilly process.

Before I explain, let’s see it at work:

Traffic engineer Ian Lockwood scored a major charrette moment when he challenged the design of a $400 million PennDot project that’s going to bid later this year.

Now we can imagine that squads of traffic engineers have been working on the Girard Avenue interchange of months. But with a few minutes of pen work and open debate, Lockwood managed an elegant redesign of the entire interchange that appears to save space, simplify intersections and extend the city’s street grid to the water’s edge.

Normally, bright ideas like that get sucked into the bureaucratic void. But a charrette imposes a tight deadline and throws everyone together around the same table, high and low, to find a solution.

In this case, PennDot’s Rina Cutler ambled right up to join the running debate. She looked impressed. “It’s not out of the question, gentlemen. We’ll look at it.”

Now that’s a charrette moment.

Two tables over, a little-known idea to reconnect Penn’s Landing to the city is being worked over right before the eyes of state engineers who would have to approve it.  Elsewhere, neighborhood groups that might’ve opposed riverfront development are helping to design it.

I’m told the term charrette is french for cart. When parisian art students faced a critique, the dreaded charrette rolled down the aisle and they tossed their work aboard. The word has since evolved from a dreaded critique to frenzied collaboration.

Problems and logjams certainly come up during the modern charrette. But no votes are taken, no fistfights break out, and the work chugs right along. Why does it work?

“Ordinarily we have the democratic process, where everyone votes for either Option A or Option B,” explains Rayala. “In a charrette, everybody throws out their ideas and the task is actually to accommodate everybody’s ideas. No vote is taken, but as the process continues, suddenly someone says ‘Here’s a third option!’ People come up with ideas that are better than either Option A or Option B.”

That’s what they mean by “flattening the hierarchy.” And that’s the meaning of the word charrette.

8 p.m.  Parks for the people:  Over the last few months, “access” was the closest thing to a mantra coming out the citizen engagement sessions. Up and down the river, from Port Richmond to Pennsport, the cry came from many mouths: Public access!

But what does access look like?

A continuous riverfront trail? A string of small gem-like parks every 1,200 feet? Babylonian gardens on the riverbank?

As the PlanPhilly charrette heads into its 10th hour, several waterfront park concepts have cropped up. None seems more doable than the twin “water’s edge” idea developed by the Boulevard working group.

To the north, the group envisions a large park at Cumberland Avenue to serve the people of Port Richmond and Fishtown.

To the south, the group envisions a mirroring green space at Mifflin Street, to serve the people of Pennsport. A large space just south of the Wal-Mart retail center would link to a riverfront trail snaking behind the Wal-Mart and north almost to Washington Ave.

“The people of Pennsport feel their waterfront has been taken away from them,” group leader Gary Hack said this morning. “They deserve some public amenities to make up for all the development that’s likely to happen down there.”

Each team has now assigned “drawers” to render these ideas for the public presentation tomorrow at 3 p.m. inside the Independence Seaport Museum. “Make it pop,” is the order down the line. They’ll hammer out drawings into the wee hours then roll off to bed, having pushed the city a little closer toward a brighter future.

   

  

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