Philly’s Avenue of the Arts to spend $100 million greenifying South Broad Street

Three decades after South Broad was designated as an arts destination, the Avenue of the Arts will be refreshed to attract more pedestrians.

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A rendering shows what the Avenue of the Arts will look like under the new plan, called Avenue of the Arts 2.0. (Provided by Avenue of the Arts)

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The organization that maintains Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts plans to make $100 million worth of physical improvements to the downtown section of South Broad Street.

Avenue of the Arts, Inc., hired the architectural firm Gensler and landscape designer OJB to bring extensive greenery, seating and art installation spaces to the portion of South Broad Street designated an arts destination hub in 1993 under then-Mayor Ed Rendell. The avenue and its immediate environs contain 73 restaurants, 10 performing arts venues and 10 hotels.

“Broad Street is the spine of the city. The Avenue of the Arts component is from City Hall to Washington Avenue. It’s 10 blocks. But those 10 blocks are packed,” said developer Carl Dranoff, who has built four apartment buildings on South Broad — including Symphony House and 777 South Broad — and sits on the board of Avenue of the Arts.

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“What we need is a refresh on the Avenue of the Arts,” he said. “Everything here was installed approximately 30 years ago in 1993. The world has changed quite a bit since 1993. We’re bringing the Avenue of the Arts up to the next generation and beyond.”

Median strips will be ripped up and rebuilt as raised beds for trees and shrubbery. Similar planters will be installed on the curbside of the sidewalks, snaking around utility poles and suspended over subway vents in a way that will not inhibit airflow, according to Dranoff.

Some sidewalks will be widened, encroaching into what are now traffic lanes used mostly for loading. South Broad will maintain two lanes of traffic in each direction, but Dranoff promises that the new plan is pedestrian-focused, using greenery, space and art to make the avenue more inviting.

“We are changing the infrastructure on South Broad Street to make the sidewalks wider and greener so that pedestrians will be shielded from the cars. It will be also safer as a consequence,” he said. “There will be much more room for outdoor venues, not just restaurants but for artwork, for sculpture, for pop-up performances by all of our performing arts venues.”

The plan will be implemented in phases, with the first expected to begin in early 2025 on the 300 block of South Broad, where both the Kimmel Center and Dranoff’s new ArtHaus buildings sit. The so-called “pilot block” will test out how the greenery and installation concepts interact with both pedestrians and existing infrastructure. That is expected to be finished by April 2026 and will inform how other parts of the plan will be executed.

The makeup and energy of the avenue changes as it runs south from City Hall, becoming less dense and more residential as it approaches Washington Avenue, where a major apartment complex is now under construction. The renovation plan breaks down the 10 blocks into three distinct zones, each treated with a slightly different design concept befitting its makeup.

A rendering shows what the Avenue of the Arts will look like under the new plan, called Avenue of the Arts 2.0. (Provided by Avenue of the Arts)

Blocks heavy with restaurants will offer spaces conducive to outdoor seating, and blocks with performance art venues will feature spaces for pop-up art installations and performances.

“We want to bring seating and standing space so that people and families can come down here and enjoy a picnic lunch on a park bench,” Dranoff said. “That will be similar to park benches in Rittenhouse Square that have an armrest in the middle of the bench to inhibit anyone sleeping, and also places to just stand and look around and lean.”

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Fundraising is already underway by Avenue of the Arts. Executive director Laura Burkhardt says the campaign is still far away from its goal, but a seed donation of $1 million from City Council’s budget for capital improvements puts it on the right foot.

“This falls right into [Mayor] Cherelle Parker‘s plan for our cleaner, greener, safer city,” Burkhardt said. “It’s a big step for us. We have not had the support from the city that we had enjoyed during the days of Rendell. Mayor Kenney was very supportive of helping us get this plan done and contributed money to building this master plan. The city is very enthusiastic about this plan. Council President Johnson drives down the street every day and he wants it to be clean and green just like everyone else.”

South Broad Street is a complex mixture of maintenance and ownership. It is a state highway, Route 611, but the median strip is maintained by the city. The sidewalks are a blend of private and city responsibility. It is undergirded by an electrical grid maintained by PECO, and SEPTA runs directly underground.

Carl Dranoff standing on the median on Broad St.
Developer Carl Dranoff, who sits on the board of the Avenue of the Arts, stands on South Broad Street on the median strip that will be rebuilt as a raised bed for trees. (Peter Crimmins./WHYY)

The Avenue of the Arts plan will make needed infrastructure maintenance underground and public improvement above ground. Burkhardt said the median strip, in some places, has started crumbling onto the SEPTA subway concourse. The strip is also a popular photo opportunity with its dramatic view of City Hall.

“We will need to create an Instagram spot,” she said. “We definitely will be creating a spot for that iconic photo that everyone takes when they graduate or get married or any celebration. We’re going to make it look pretty.”

Landowners, residents, and businesses along the Avenue of the Arts, all support the plan according to Dranoff. The entity holding the most real estate along that stretch of South Broad at the University of the Arts, which recently shuttered leaving the future of its assets uncertain.

Burkhardt said she will miss the presence of UArts students who contributed to the creative energy of the Avenue of the Arts but is confident the university buildings will soon be occupied again. She points to recent gains along the Avenue of the Arts: at one en, Insomnia Cookies has established its company headquarters across the street from City Hall; at the other end, the Post Brothers and Tower Investments are nearing completion on the first phase of an enormous, 1.8-million-square-foot residential and retail complex on Washington Avenue.

“We have to create an environment where people feel comfortable walking around and experiencing all that the Avenue of the Arts has to offer,” she said. “We’ve got 20-foot-wide sidewalks. Why aren’t more people eating outside?”

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