Final South Street Bridge design selected

Aug. 18
By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

In a mildly surprising split-decision, Mayor Michael Nutter’s preferred design for the South Street Bridge – four lantern-like pillars that will visually anchor the rebuilt structure – was preferred over two other schemes presented by architects.

The pick was officially known as “Option 3,” presented to the public on July 24 by a team from Philadelphia’s H2L2 Architects. It was no secret that most of the designers preferred Option 2, which involved more subtle pairings of spires at the four load-bearing columns, with an effect that would have been more torch-like, with eight top lights and long, concrete panels at oblique, inward-facing angles, capable of carrying interchangeable bits of literature or images.

“I think we did become enamored with scheme 2 because it was so different,” explained James Templeton, the architect at H2L2 who was the main influence behind each of the three designs. “But ultimately when we weighed all these issues and all these items … I agree with it – I think this is going to be very dynamic.”

Though it was revealed that Option 3, with its heavy, skyline-altering emphasis on lighting, was the mayor’s fave, in the end, the decision came down to four people – Nutter, Acting Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Alan Greenberger, Transportation Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler and Streets Department Deputy Mayor Clarena Tolson. Greenberger, an architect, preferred Option 2, but was alone – Tolson and Cutler sided with Nutter, sources close to the process said.

Hundreds of LED lights within large panels of frosted, impact-resistant glass will illuminate the new, wider bridge, once it is built. The trapezoid-shaped lanterns will vertically hover in four spots above the bridge’s walkways, while hanging below the underside of the roadway in the same locations, creating a dominating shimmer on most nights to that portion of the Schuylkill River that connects Center City with University City.

“Ultimately they decided that this was probably the best thing for Philadelphia,” said Templeton. “It’s certainly more open. All three schemes would have been appropriate. People did like the idea of being under a canopy, if it started raining on their journey across the bridge. This is the only scheme that has that.”

Templeton also said that the design was the least graffiti-prone of the three choices. “That’s a legitimate concern, and as architects, it something that we sometimes ignore,” Templeton said. “We realized this thing has to be maintainable, it has to be simple.”

The South Street Bridge is now nine months into its 21-month re-birth, and the finishing touches – described Monday evening at the final gathering of the South Street Bridge Coalition at 23rd and Fitzwater streets – will not be in place until late Spring of 2010, said Jack Lutz, chief bridge engineer.

“We are on time and on budget,” Lutz said, adding that work has progressed to the point where most demolition was complete, and that the first girders were to be installed Monday night and early Tuesday morning.

Lutz said bridge work was tough, and that the South Street Bridge tear-down and re-construction was “probably the most difficult project that the Streets Department has ever dealt with.”

The public had input on the process, but it was made clear that the decision-making process would come from City Hall. The basement church, where the last two meetings were held in July and again on Monday, was full. There was no disapproval stated by anyone in attendance. 

Greenberger, in addressing the crowd, congratulated them for the four design principles put forth by the community that guided the decision: to be walkable and bikeable in addition to drivable; to be comfortable and safe for pedestrians; to act as a beacon for the city; and to reflect that it connects two major neighborhoods.

In the end, he said, the chosen design was indeed the most robust, and “highly maintainable.”

“We’re delighted and anxious to move ahead,” Greenberger said.

Marcia Wilkof, Democratic leader of the 30th Ward, ended the presentation with special thanks to prison-bound former State Sen. Vince Fumo, who helped fund a design charrette in early 2008 that gave legs to the South Street Bridge Coalition, prompting a series of meetings with the then-new Nutter administration’s Streets Department, along with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Contact the reporter at

PlanPhilly (July 24, 2009):

PlanPhilly (“South Street Bridge Saga, July 14, 2008):

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