Art Commission approves public space expansion at Headhouse Square

The long-awaited renovation of the Headhouse Plaza on 2nd Street inched closer to implementation Wednesday, receiving the approval of the Art Commission.

There has been talk for decades of redesigning the plaza, which lies between South and Lombard Streets on 2nd Street. Currently the wide central expanse of 2nd Street is mostly occupied by a multi-modal parking lot—it contains 40 parking spaces, an Indego station, and a SEPTA bus roundabout—as well as the popular Lombard Street Fountain.

The plan put forward by the South Street Headhouse District would reorient it to pedestrian uses while preserving much of the parking. Earlier this year, the Art Commission gave conceptual approval to the proposal. Now they’ve given it full approval, although the applicants will have to return again to address the public art they hope to install on the rejuvenated plaza.

The plan would expand the non-automobile oriented area south from the fountain, creating a genuine plaza. Traffic-calming and pedestrian safety measures will be installed as well. These include building the pedestrian island out to the curbline of South Street to break up the lengthy crosswalk across 2nd Street into two more easily traversable chunks.

Plan for Headhouse Plaza (Art Commission, June 2017) | Ambit Architecture
(Ambit Architecture)

New canopy structures will be built on both ends of the plaza, with lighting embedded under the roof to illuminate the interior. The median toward South Street will be expanded to include green space, a brick bench, and an Indego Station (currently the bike share system is wedged in among the parking spaces). Nearer to Lombard Street the median will be enlarged into a plaza, and will include a pavilion, a seating area, and additional green space. Eight additional pedestrian-scale lights will be installed, in addition to the existing two.

To accommodate all this, one-fourth of the 40 parking spots will be eliminated. The commissioners wondered if such an act would provoke controversy, as parking is the third rail of both Philadelphia city politics and urban design.

Michael Harris, executive director of the South Street Headhouse District, assured them that the plans have been workshopped extensively with community groups and near neighbors. Over the years many plans have been floated to totally eliminate parking from the plaza, which he deemed an unreasonable demand. But the current plan offered a middle ground.

“The plaza hadn’t been touched in 60 years,” said Harris. “It’s ugly, utilitarian, and no one likes it the way it is. We have looked at the parking a lot, and at peak times it is certainly full. But the majority of the time it’s not and there is a lot of space.”

In service of the idea of transforming the area into a park, not a parking lot, the buffered curb around the Lombard Street Fountain will be expanded to give a greater sense of safety to the kids who frequently play in and around it.

The commissioners also fretted about the prospect of using removable parking bumpers to delineate spaces. Harris and his team propose to use these tools to replace the crumbling five-foot curb that runs down the middle of 2nd Street (where the parking kiosks are now located). Under the new plan the five-foot median would be removed, making everything level curb to curb. Then removable parking bumpers would be installed, allowing them to be removed when the block is used for special events. Harris assured the commissioners that a special key was required to remove the parking bumpers and that tampering would be unlikely.

Harris hopes construction will begin on the plaza later this month and expects that it will take five-to-six months. Next summer, a more pedestrian friendly plaza will await the residents and visitors of Queen Village.

Other items approved include the design for the new head houses as part of an overhaul of Market-Frankford line’s 5th Street Station, the addition to the historic Chestnut Hill fire station on Highland Avenue, and the extension of the Delaware River Trail from Sugarhouse Casino to Penn Treaty Park.

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