Boulevard of contradictions

Photo courtesy of Brad Maule/ www.phillyskyline.com

March 24

This is the first in a series of articles on plans aimed at restructuring or re-designing certain parts of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, from street signs to the development of major museums. Coverage will include the reporting of long-term desired outcomes as well as the more short-term, concrete facts of city planning for the Parkway, and projects that are in approval or implementation stages.

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Whenever the Eagles play on Monday Night Football, you can count on camera crews being dispatched to certain iconic Philadelphia locations: Independence Mall, or one of the cheesesteak palaces in South Philly, or the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Images wrapped around commercials and at halftime are lively and full of locals and tourists at the mall, or at Jim’s, Pat’s or Geno’s. But from the Art Museum, the networks might as well use stock footage. National football fans are never told it is the Benjamin Franklin Parkway they are eyeballing, the western anchor of a charming, diagonal boulevard spanning from the Second Empire-style City Hall. You won’t see any faces painted green, because you won’t see any faces.

Aside from sweeping shots that take in the expanse of the skyline, the camera is there for one person only, and he is fictional – Rocky Balboa, in statue form, at the base of those museum steps.

In between, the Parkway serves as an attractive connector for the cameras, with set-back stately buildings, statuary, trees and multiple lanes of speeding vehicles.

“It’s one of these great places that most people experience via vehicle,” said Alan Greenberger, an architect and a new Philadelphia City Planning Commissioner. “If you ever walk on it, it’s kind of dead, and it shouldn’t be dead. It’s this great monument to the City Beautiful movement, it has great architecture, and yet the walking on it happens very rarely.”

This is hardly news to city developers, planners, municipal officials and any citizens who might find themselves near the boulevard about an hour after a major event has happened there. Want a cup of coffee? You’re going to have to hunt for it. A beer? Let’s see, there’s Mace’s Crossing and … Mace’s Crossing. If you’re emerging from the Rodin Museum, you’re not going to spot it. If you know where it is, it’s a 10-minute hoof.

Philly’s version of the Champs d’Elysses is beautiful but desolate. It is teeming in culture but empty of street life. It is inviting but often dangerous. The views from a distance make the Parkway seem spectacularly laid out, but up close, its sidewalks and crosswalks are barely navigable in spots.

But all that is slated for change. At least, that’s the general consensus after a decade of study and tentative planning. How quickly that street life will come, though, is anyone’s guess. When ground will be broken for new museums is still up in the air.

Rina Cutler, a longtime official with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Philadelphia Parking Authority, might speak for the new Nutter administration when she says that it’s very early in the redo process. Cutler is the new deputy mayor for infrastructure and transportation.

“I am certainly aware that there’s been a whole lot of discussions with a whole lot of different folks with what should happen,” she said. “I don’t know that we’re far enough along.”

No ordinary street

Cutler can’t be blamed for reticence. More than 100 years after construction started on the Parkway, issues that factor into its renaissance are immense. They involve complicated infrastructure and myriad city departments with jurisdiction over public and private spaces. Stakeholders – those with decision-making powers – include the Fairmount Park Commission, arts institutions, hotels, the archdiocese, developers and neighborhood groups, for starters.

“It’s a very important traffic corridor and a beautiful part of the city with many of our major celebrations,” said Gary Jastrzab, acting executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. “It is certainly something that the Planning Commission staff regards as very important. It’s a very important part of the image of the city and we regard it as high on the priority list.”

Looked at from the air, vast stretches of the Parkway are more park than city street. From JFK Plaza (a.k.a. “Love Park”) to Logan Circle, the streetscape is fairly urban. Municipal buildings, condominiums and hotels are reasonably accessible from the main sidewalks. Approaching 18th and Race in the afternoon, the Bell Atlantic building casts its shadow across the boulevard and the Four Seasons Hotel is at the corner, while across the street to the north is the Roman-Corinthian façade of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. The Logan Circle Fountain can be a leisurely mid-city diversion, provided one knows how to safely access it, on foot, at 19th Street.

From 20th Street west to the Art Museum, though, it is all greenswards and mini-groves. Even the Park Towne Place towers have a considerable trapezoid of lawn between them and the Parkway sidewalk, precluding any Parisian style lingering at hypothetical outdoor cafés. Eakins Oval is, in polite terms, a study in potential. Not only is it hostile to pedestrians as a not-particularly-obvious entrance to the Art Museum, but it’s not the prettiest place to be, once in its midst. A parking lot for 80-plus cars juts into the Oval like a shiv. Often, even at public events, blue police barriers keep walkers out.

Off to the south, a jogging trail stretches toward the Kelly Drive paths beyond the Art Museum. Getting there is easier these days, but sometimes it seems foreboding if not illegal. Cars exiting from Martin Luther King Drive tend to go into Monte Carlo mode at that particular stretch, and even crossing at improved street markings is a rush to a healthy person’s adrenaline. It is largely the same to the north, with Pennsylvania Avenue the barrier between the bifurcated, unpeopled park settings and the gentrified neighborhood of Fairmount, with its rowhouses, restaurants and pubs.

“In the prior administration, there was a lot of work done – the Commerce Department did a Parkway study that we [the Planning Commission] had input into,” Jastrzab said. “Some improvements could be made, but some recommendations of that study had to do with the area from Logan Circle to Eakins Oval without really addressing Eakins Oval.”

Jastrzab said traffic schemes need to reduce the raceway feel on the local, outermost lanes while restructuring the innermost lanes – what he calls “the true parkway part of the Parkway.” That is the first step in changing the width of the streetscapes to promote better usage for pedestrians, he said.

Infrastructure: ‘Lots of moving parts’

The Parkway, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. It does not even stand alone in a manner that the Kelly and Martin Luther King drives do – they are clearly part of Fairmount Park, with hardly any buildings or institutions that interfere with their operations. Ingress and egress points are fairly straightforward. Not so the Parkway, which is many times as wide, bleeding into other streets in spots and sitting atop the buried Vine Street Expressway.

“Over the years, there were expensive propositions, and I think the Streets Department did not necessarily agree with some of the things having to do with traffic,” Jastrzab said. “Some changes to Eakins Oval require a major restructuring of some of the streets, involving bridging over some sections. Part of one area where a new street was directed would have been on the site of [the proposed Franklin Paine skateboard park]. It was just a very expensive proposition. There are other traffic engineering issues that I think the Streets Department had issues with.”

That might be an understatement. Myriad hypotheticals will have to be considered before major changes to the streetscape can occur: Entrances to proposed new museums. Off-ramps, or turns, for access to new Schuylkill River parks, such as the skateboard park. Parking lots and garages. And there’s something that could not be foreseen a century ago when the Parkway was being designed: the Vine Street Expressway.

“The Center City District plans are a good first step,” said Cutler. “We’re going to have to align a schedule with what’s going on underneath. Whatever information exists is going to need to be updated and/or re-done.”

That means lots and lots of money, funding that won’t be coming just from a group of deep-pocketed stakeholders. Some of it will come from $60 million targeted for the “cultural corridors fund,” a piece of a larger city bond issue approved in late 2006. But that money will be spread around among the cultural institutions themselves. Other municipal bond issues will have to be considered, along with economic development financing vehicles.

“Part is planning and part is transportation – the rebuilding of the bridges of the Vine Street Expressway … the Parkway sits on its roof in several big sections,” Cutler said. “There are a lot of moving parts.”

City-park, park-city

Like most people with an interest, Jastrzab and Cutler followed closely the efforts of the Center City District (CCD) and the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation (CPDC) to kick-start changes to the Parkway. The organizations are a unique partnering of public-private improvement and renewal organizations.

New artists’ renderings of theoretical Parkway streetscapes have been appearing regularly since at least 1998, when CPDC got a $500,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation to study changes to the road that might add to the city’s economic resurgence. That year, a veteran city tourism and marketing executive told the Philadelphia Daily News that the Parkway “is lovely to look at,” but “impossible to use.”

The following year, CPDC Director Paul Levy emphasized that his purpose was not to present a new, final plan, but to present alternatives for an improved Parkway and facilitate public discussions. In that, he has succeeded.

Since then, millions of additional dollars have come in for new lighting, pedestrian crossings and large-scale plans, furnished by the Pew Foundation and others. In 2004, Levy introduced an updated design that included more input from Parkway institutions. Instead of more residential and commercial construction, it sought to better balance elements of a Parisian boulevard with the traditions of a green, park-like setting.

That balance, Greenberger said recently, is going to be important, because he feels the idea of extending the city to Fairmount Park got turned around over the decades.

“Instead of bringing the city out to the park, it was about bringing the park into the city,” he said. “I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive at all. Urbanizing would be bringing buildings closer. But there’s a great memory – the pictures in people’s heads – of the park in the city.”

He explained that the handful of times each year that people get to the Art Museum, they look out over the great eastern steps and see a vast, appealing expanse of greenery with statues in the foreground and the Center City skyline, an image that is easy to conjure. Less easy to recall is the entrance to, say, the Academy of Natural Sciences, or the Please Touch Museum, or the Free Library.

“That’s a powerful image and we shouldn’t lose that, yet at the same time it should be full of life.”

Progress: Parkway-esque

Also in the past eight years, two significant development plans for museums have taken root and seem likely to come to fruition. The Calder Foundation, the legacy of three generations of sculptors, selected a site across from the Rodin Museum. And the internationally renowned but financially troubled Barnes Foundation declared its intention to move from Lower Merion to the site of the current Youth Study Center, near the Free Library.

Whatever happens – the controversial Barnes move, for instance, could be further delayed – city officials seem realistic about the timeframe for change on the Parkway. For that matter, Philadelphians, subconsciously or not, seem to be of like mind. After all, plans for the Parkway go back 130 years. It has evolved in the fashion of the city itself – slowly, steadily, accelerating in relatively short bursts of growth.

Originally the “Fairmount Parkway,” the boulevard was first conceived in the wake of the Civil War, amid plans to improve and highlight the city for the coming 1876 World’s Fair. In a move that would later be replicated along the Delaware River waterfront and in other sections of the city such as Old City, hundreds of buildings were destroyed to make way for the diagonal roadway. But demolition didn’t occur until 1907, after decades of political wrangling, when Horace Trumbauer, Clarence Zantzinger and Paul P. Crét developed a Parkway plan for the Fairmount Park Art Association. Although ground was broken, 10 years elapsed before the Fairmount Park Commissioners adopted a formal design by urban planner Jacques Gréber.

Wrote David Brownlee, a University of Pennsylvania arts and history professor, as quoted on the CCD’s Web site: “The Parkway was first of all a work of confident idealism, an emblem of the Progressive Era’s City Beautiful movement, which aimed at nothing less than the conversion of America’s turn-of-the-century industrial cities into urbane centers of art, commerce, and civic life.”

By the 1920s, traffic was moving on the Parkway. Within a decade or so, some of the institutions that planned to move into grand structures had done so. But very few: the Art Museum and the Franklin Institute among them. A convention center, concert hall and federal court building were just three buildings that never came to be. And after twenty more years, anything pending for the Parkway – grand or modest – was shelved indefinitely as the Great Depression groaned on. Improvements have been mostly cosmetic, aside from road construction. As the 20th century moved along, the Parkway became increasingly important for vehicular traffic between Center City and the river drives.

With that kind of timeframe as a backdrop, Levy sees the Parkway’s history as a sort of tonic for frustrated ambition. “The Parkway was started in the 1880s. If I learned anything …”

Levy paused to chuckle.

“I like to tell people that the Parkway teaches patience. Things take a long time there – longer than I’d like – but it’s all moving in a positive direction.”

In that vein, Levy is excited about the construction of a café under way right now at 16th and Cherry streets, between the One Parkway and Three Parkway office buildings. Other improvements are expected to be announced publicly by the summer.

In the weeks to come, we’ll tell you more about those projects, along with how things look from the perspective of the Fairmount Park Commission.

To weigh in with Parkway-related commentary or news, contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

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