South Street Bridge update

Over the past few months, workers have been ripping down the old South Street Bridge, which has straddled the Schuylkill River since the 1920s. As of late April, demolition is about 75% complete. The main span and piers are gone, as are the sections spanning the CSX and Amtrak lines. The two SEPTA spans still remain in place.

“The demolition over electrified railroad lines is tedious,” explained David Perri of the Streets Department. “It has to be done overnight.”

As the old bridge disappears, the new one is rising to take its place. According to Perri, the pile driving is almost 60 percent complete. The new bridge will have 11 piers. Two have been finished, and three are being worked on.

When asked if there were any major construction issues, Perri responded that work has been proceeding smoothly and on schedule. “The project is going well,” he said in an April 18 interview. “The traffic issues were not as bad as we anticipated. The traffic calmed itself and found alternate means rather quickly, such as the Walnut and Chestnut Street bridges. The complaints about the construction process have been relatively few so far, and we are responding when they do come up.”

If work continues at its current pace, Perri believes the new bridge should be open in December 2010.

There are still a few aesthetic issues that need to be hammered out. The South Street Bridge Coalition, which spearheaded a movement to make the bridge friendlier to bikers and pedestrians, continues to press for revisions to the design of the bridge’s towers.
Jim Campbell, president of the Coalition and a partner at the architecture firm of Campbell Thomas, feels that ultimately the public will remember the bridge not for its new safeguards for pedestrians and cyclists, but for its looks.

“We’ve already gotten about twenty changes on the bridge plan, but in 20 years what people will have an opinion about is the aesthetics,” said Campbell in an April 17 interview. “It’s just the nature of the architecture profession. The towers are the last piece, and they will be the thing that people will remember the most about the bridge, not that the original plans called for a five lane highway.”

Immediately after its early 2007 unveiling, the original “five lane highway” design was blasted by community leaders and architecture critics. Many felt it was just another utilitarian traffic funnel, which marginalized non-automobile users. The addition of steel and glass towers to the span, meant to recall the original watch towers on the 1920s bridge, did little to dampen the criticism.

“The engineers have dutifully outfitted the proposed span with bike lanes and a ramp connection to Schuylkill Banks Park, yet there isn’t an ounce of poetry in its steel bones,” declared Inga Saffron of The Philadelphia Inquirer on February 9, 2007. “After a decade of tinkering with its design, the bridge promises to be little more than a chute for efficiently moving traffic onto the most frightening of the I-76 entry ramps.”

Campbell feels that much progress has been made in the two years since the original plan was released, but he still hopes that the redesigned bridge towers will be a major improvement. “There was substantial negative reaction to the earlier towers in the community,” Campbell said, “so the Streets Department has been working with H2L2 and Gannett Fleming [the bridge’s designers] to come up with something more friendly.”

When asked about the new working relationship between the South Street Bridge Coalition and the Philadelphia Streets Department, Campbell could not have been more pleased. “Things are going along extremely well,” he said. “I am ecstatic with the new attitude of the Streets Department. It’s our hope that this last piece [the redesign of the towers] will lead to a great final product.”

The revised tower designs will be made public shortly before the Arts Commission review, scheduled for early May. Campbell hopes that they will garner a positive reaction from the community.

David Perri echoed Campbell’s optimism. “H2L2 and Gannett Fleming are looking to changes to the currently approved gazebos,” Perri said. “Working drafts of the revised tower designs were shown to the community on March 18 and March 30. We are incorporating feedback into the evolution of the design. We need to get to the Art Commission to approve of these revised designs by their May hearing date. A more finished version of the towers will be released to the public shortly.”

A revised set of sketches will be unveiled to the community at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 27 at the Philadelphia School, located at 25th and Lombard.  Marsha Wilkof, Democratic Ward Leader of the 30th Ward, and James Campbell, president of the South Street Bridge Coalition, will be in attendance.

Posted by By Steven B. Ujifusa

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