Artful illuminations unveiled on Spring Garden Street, improving connection between Northern Liberties and waterfront

On a cold, December night, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) unveiled some hot new lights that have been a long time coming to the stretch of Spring Garden Street under I-95.

DRWC revealed designs by Cloud Gehshan Associates, the Lighting Practice, and NV5 (formerly RBA Group) for the Spring Garden Connector project back in 2014.* Work to illuminate and improve the streetscape under an interstate highway and the Market-Frankford Elevated line required coordination between PennDOT, Philadelphia Streets Department, and SEPTA, slowing progress. Work on the Connector’s first phase wrapped up last year, adding a bus drop off, curb bump outs, new light signals, ADA-compliant ramps and an Indego bike share station. The second phase were more cosmetic changes: new, bright lights and metal flower print scrims inspired by the street’s floral name.

Not that the lights are a superficial improvement. Colorful LED lights projected through more flower-print screens decorate the overpass walls, softening their industrial edges. But they also make the space feel warmer and more inviting. It’s a safety project.

And it’s already working, said Kate Madara, a Northern Liberties resident who walked through the Spring Garden Connector press conference after getting off the El on Tuesday evening. The lights have been lit sporadically since the summer, when the Democratic National Convention was in town. Around then, Madara switched to using the Spring Garden stop instead of the Girard Avenue stop, after she was mugged there. “It feels safer here,” said Madara, and the lighting helps.

Happy as she was to see the improvements, Madara seemed confused by the fanfare. Other pedestrians exiting the El walked straight through the press conference, some sporting bemused grins and others looking simply annoyed by the unexpected congregation blocking the sidewalk. Ironically, the announcement of the pedestrian safety project led many to avoid the lights and cameras by stepping into the street and walking on the bike lane.

The idea for Connector Streets comes from the Master Plan for the Central Delaware as a means to better link neighborhoods cut off from the waterfront by I-95 and Columbus Boulevard/ Delaware Avenue by creating more inviting pedestrian environments.

The Spring Garden Connector is just one of a handful overpass improvement projects DRWC has been working on. DRWC’s first Connector project added lights, wall-lining scrims and signs to the north side of Race Street back in 2011. The project’s second phase—providing the same treatment to the south side of the street—has been slow going, partially due to a lack of funds and partially due to bureaucratic foot dragging from the DRPA and PennDOT, who have to sign off on projects involving the highway and bridge onramp there. Construction is finally set to begin this spring and should wrap up sometime in the fall, said Corcoran.   

In the interim, DRWC also made less-dramatic improvements to the underpasses at Shackamaxon and Marlborough Streets with improved lights and subtly decorated wall liners but no crowd-drawing colorful light displays.

In about two years, Columbia Avenue will get that kind of multihued upgrade, said Corcoran, calling the designs “pretty amazing.” Design work for the Columbia Avenue connector was completed in 2012, and renderings for public art lighting were revealed in 2013.

DRWC led the Spring Garden project as part of its mission to redevelop the waterfront and make it more accessible to the rest of the city. The Spring Garden Connector is an important link the the planned redevelopment of the Festival Pier site.

The Spring Garden Connector lights are programmable LEDs, so they can rotate through the rainbow, coordinate to match holidays or other themes, said Corcoran, like “ the much hoped-for eventuality that one or more of our sports teams will get into the playoffs.” Right now, looks like commuters like Madara can look forward to being bathed in a warm orange glow sometime next April.

CORRECTION: This sentence mistakenly left out the Lighting Practice and NV5 due to a reporting error.

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