Springtime for Spring Garden Street (Part 1)

Aug. 4. 2009

Part one of a two-part series.

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Click on map

Two improvement projects targeting Spring Garden Street – one local and one citywide – could transform the wide avenue in the coming years into a model of reclaimed asphalt, a leafy, environmentally healthy boulevard that accommodates pedestrians, bicycles, cars and mass transit, focusing on safety, redevelopment, ease of use, and flow.

The local, short-term effort is being led by the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, has a fair amount of funding in place and is set to be implemented in 2010. It seeks to beautify and green the expanse of Spring Garden from Delaware Avenue to 2nd Street, including the cleanup and re-lighting of the street’s ghastly El stop and underpass.

The citywide project is only in its initial planning stages, and funding is nowhere in sight. But its goals are highly ambitious: to turn Spring Garden Street, river to river, into the official connector for the national East Coast Greenway initiative, which seeks to link Maine to Florida via one seamless green trail. To do this, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and other groups would be undertaking nothing less than a complete re-engineering of Spring Garden for its entire length, creating a multipurpose path that would be unlike anything else in the city.

The ‘gateway to Northern Liberties’
Last week, on a rainy Wednesday evening after work, and again on Saturday morning, the NLNA invited neighbors to what they called “on-site brainstorming sessions” at Doughboy Park, a patchy little postage stamp of a respite on the northeast corner of 2nd Street, named for the statue there honoring World War I veterans. With a few bushes and a few trees, the park isn’t much, but at least it is green to the eye, unlike most of Spring Garden east of Broad Street. And it sure is a welcome site upon leaving the exit from the Spring Garden El stop, deep beneath Interstate 95.

Some areas on the west side of Broad (the 1400, 1700, 2000 and 2100 blocks, in particular), enjoy a good number of large trees, providing shade and a visual break for the many state workers, students and residents who populate that end of the avenue.

East of Broad, though, Spring Garden immediately changes into a more empty experience all around. It is less populated by both people and buildings. Certain blocks exhibit remnants of our industrial past. Trees are scarce, and those that are present are scrawny and rooted firmly within concrete medians. There are other square cutouts in the medians with outcroppings of what look like weighed-down tumbleweeds, where trees were never replaced, or never there to begin with.

From 2nd Street to Delaware Avenue is especially barren. (Across Delaware Avenue is the enormous expanse of macadam known as Festival Pier and the old incinerator site, mostly unused and serving as a large, ugly barrier to the river. More than 11 acres in size, it is a source of outrage for many residents of Northern Liberties and other nearby river neighborhoods.)

Just the addition of trees and other vegetation will make an enormous impact, but this project will also include murals, lighting, street furniture and other means of occupying and beautifying the area, according to Matt Ruben, the NLNA’s energetic and engaging president.

“We’ve been trying to observe the area at different times of day, to get a sense of how it changes with the light,” said Leah Murphy, an associate urban designer at Interface Studio, which is managing the public process and a larger, conceptual master plan. “So it’s good that we’re out in the rain. A lot of what we’re looking at is storm water management as well, in addition to the lighting.”

As she spoke, a steady rush of water, slushing down from I-95 above, pummeled the sidewalk across the street, near the newsstand on the southwest end of the underpass.

“One of the biggest focuses is the lighting for the underpass, and just improving the perception of this area,” Murphy said. “It looks a little rough-and-tumble, and safety is a big issue. In many ways, this area is the gateway to the Northern Liberties, and … is not very attractive.”

Murphy said that there is already a fair amount of funding in place. Ruben said it includes $100,000 from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and the William Penn Foundation.

Transport Workers Union Local 234, which recently re-located its office nearby, contributed $30,000. The Mural Arts Program, through PennDOT, kicked in $50,000 (serendipitously, Mural Arts had applied for the money to beautify the underpass independent of the NLNA effort; they are now working together). The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, with additional money from the William Penn Foundation for its “TreeVitalize” tree plantings program, is giving about $30,000 for street plantings and 500 hours of staff time. The total project budget is roughly $200,000.

“I think $200,000 is a great start, but we realize doing everything we’d like to do on this site will take more than that,” Ruben said. “We hope this project will leverage additional resources in the future, and help spur the revitalization of the old incinerator site at Delaware and Spring Garden.”

Ick factor
Then there’s the underpass, a block-length stretch beneath I-95 that is the home of the foreboding Spring Garden El stop. “A little rough-and-tumble” would be an understatement of the underpass.

“It’s like a place to go to get stabbed,” said David Patricola, a programmer at Thomas Jefferson University, as he emerged from El on his walk home to Liberties Walk. “Lighting is the biggest thing to start with. Put up some murals like everywhere else. Some type of design other than decades’ worth of mildew.”

Safety is indeed a large issue with the underpass, which feels dark and threatening even on a bright sunny day (and even if you’re 6-foot-3 and well in excess of 200 pounds). The entrance to the El (and the exit; they are on opposite sides of the street), features ancient pigeon-spikes atop Market-Frankford Line signs, and revolving stainless steel bars that serve as doors. It looks like the rear service entrance to a prison.

“Yeah, and I use this twice a day,” said Sarah Puleo, who takes the El to her job at the General Services Administration in Center City. She stopped by with her four-month old boxer, Willow, to hear about the plans. “It needs something beautiful, something that will bring this all together,” she said, motioning to the neighborhood around her.

Patricola’s point about mildew was not just about aesthetics. Crime aside, the underpass is downright unhealthy and, rather objectively speaking, disgusting: redolent of urine, its walls are grease- and grime-coated, with piles of fossilized bird excrement everywhere. The ceiling (that is, the underside of the highway and El tracks) is heavily rusted. When it rains, commuters are almost guaranteed to get wet, with rainwater filtered through asphalt, train tracks, piping and concrete.

Still, I-95 is not going anywhere any time soon, and the underpass is not without its merits – or at least its potential – neighbors and planners say.

“I don’t usually recommend that people waste their money on an underpass, but this one has a very interesting space, when you look around,” said Todd Bressi, a consultant to the Mural Arts Program and other clients around the country. Glancing across to the south side of the underpass, Bressi observed the massive pillars holding up the interstate, with large rectangular views of the underpass walls between them. In the gloom, he called the spaces “little mystery tableaus,” which just possibly is the most optimistic description of the tunnel in years.

Also, the desolation of the underpass does not exist in a vacuum. Immediately to the east, commuters walk by empty, hard-bitten parcels on the north side of the street through to Front Street. Parking lots dominate the rest of the area, with a strip mall on the south side (home of the city’s best-known strip club, Delilah’s Den) and the pedestrian-neutral Riverview Place.

Bubble it
In addition to the NLNA’s series of informal, open-forum community meetings about the initiative over the rest of the summer, the group also set up an online, collaborative Google Map of the project area. The interactive site is collecting thoughts about possibilities and desires. The comments show up as bubbles along the map, which can be viewed by clicking on them.

“I want to see the focus of this project be the underpass,” said one bubble-commenter (who signed the remark, “Ira Upin”). “While it is the most deplorable section of the [quarter]-mile stretch of the overall project, it has the potential to be the most dynamic element. The physical structure of the underpass exists as a grand frame for the space that it covers and surrounds. With the proper design of the existing materials coupled with the creative lighting, this space could become an exciting destination day or night.”

Working with the NLNA are the architects at DIGSAU, Interface, and City Play, the NLNA’s design, planning, and landscaping consultants.

Prepping for the bigger picture
The Delaware Avenue to 2nd Street project is not just a means of prettying up a dismal stretch of roadway. It’s also of-a-piece with major efforts underway to re-connect Philadelphia’s neighborhoods to the Delaware River, which can actually be seen, if only barely, when emerging from the eastern side of the Spring Garden underpass and El stop.

These efforts constitute “a vision which depends on small-scale and short-term interventions like this one,” reads the Interface Web site.

“There are a lot of people interested in Spring Garden Street,” said Jeff Goldstein, an architect and a principal with DIGSAU. “And the Water Department has identified it as a ‘green street.’”

Goldstein was referring to the department’s Green Streets pilot project, where Northern Liberties is one of three model neighborhoods. It is a sort of early testing phase of what has emerged into the city’s overall “Greenworks” program within the still-new Sustainability Department. The Green Streets project uses “green” tools such as street trees, landscaping, water-absorbing “vegetative swales,” rain barrels and other methods of energy conservation and storm water management.

The leaders of the NLNA project also want any changes that are made to be adaptable to the grander vision of Spring Garden Street as a whole that is slowly emerging from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. Beautifying and greening the area from Delaware Avenue to 2nd would only help with plans to make the entire road into a connector for the East Coast Greenway.

“We’re aware of everything that they’re looking at,” Goldstein said of the PEC. “We’re making sure that what we do here does not interfere with those future plans, but actually helps to make them more of a reality.”

As a connector for the East Coast Greenway, Spring Garden is envisioned as completely revamped – a “facility” with a multi-purpose trail, separate from the roadway, that would bring joggers, bicyclists and walkers from the Delaware River directly to the Schuylkill River.

“We have enormous feedback from stakeholders that Spring Garden Street is just such a compelling logic that we should just go forward with it, right away,” says Patrick Starr, vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. “Someone said to me, ‘It’s almost too obvious not to proceed with.’”

Coming Thursday:
With a feasibility study in hand, it’s time to get down to “the nitty-gritty,” Starr says. He’ll talk about the challenges in the design phase yet to come, and the project’s considerable unknowns. Among them: cost, and a timeframe. 


Northern Liberties Neighbors Association: http://www.nlna.org/

Interface Studio, “Spring Garden Greenway:” http://interface-studio.com/currently/spring-garden-greenway-collaborative-map/#current  

DIGSAU: http://www.digsau.com/

Philadelphia Water Department Watershed Information Center: http://www.phillyriverinfo.org/home.aspx

TreeVitalize: http://www.treevitalize.net/


Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

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