Planning Commission takes a small stand for the sidewalk

“Sidewalks, their bordering uses, and their users, are active participants in the drama of civilization versus barbarism in cities.” – Jane Jacobs

Expeditious but inviting, leaderly but democratic, and with a sharp read on Robert’s Rules of Order, Joe Syrnick knows how to run a meeting. Syrnick, the president of the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, displayed these qualities during a turn as acting chairman of the Planning Commission last week, in Alan Greenberger’s absence.

Procedurally, he’s a natural. On questions of public space, he’s a brawler.

“I think this is a really bad idea,” Syrnick said last week, referring to a proposal that would allow a set of steps at Drexel’s University Crossings building at 3175 JFK Boulevard to extend more than seven feet into the footway. “I think this is poorly conceived. You’re taking more than half the sidewalk, which I think is very, very selfish here.”

The developers, American Campus Communities in partnership with Drexel, originally presented their plans for the building renovations at the Planning Commission’s last meeting in June. At that time, the Commission asked for a 45-day extension so that the team could figure out how to maximize the pedestrian space. The changes presented at last week’s meeting didn’t satisfy Syrnick or the other Commissioners.

“This is not a backwater trail,” Syrnick said. “This is smack-dab in the middle of an active and growing university community. It’s getting more and more active here … These stairs, if you come right out of the building, you not only walk right out into the sidewalk, you step directly into the sidewalk, which I contend is substandard to begin with, so I think that’s bad design.”

He continued, “There are clearly ways you could alter those steps to make them way better than this. I recognize it wouldn’t be as elegant an entryway. And last [month], my colleague Alan Greenberger, during the presentation,  sketched up about three different alternatives in a minute-and-a-half. He’s a talented guy, but he did it in a minute-and-a-half. So I really think you can do better here.”  

To drive the point home: “I think we should aim for something higher than this, especially in this area, which has a lot of new architecture, most of which is pretty well planned and pretty well carried out. To go and do something like this, I think, is just wrong, wrong, wrong. And it sets a precedent. I’ll guarantee you that if this gets approved we’ll have other developments from all over the city coming in and pointing to this as the new standard. And shame on us if we let that happen.”

Matthew Koenig, an architect with Barton Partners, said the team thought it went through the right process, consulting Drexel (which supports the encroachment) and the Streets Department and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who introduced the bill authorizing the encroachment. He said they’d revised the proposal to leave five-and-a-half feet of sidewalk, up from five feet.

“We think it’s an intelligent opportunity to provide a handicapped entrance and maintain the front door,” he said. “Obviously, you guys have a difference of opinion about the sidewalk and what we’re trying to do here.”

Syrnick, who said his gripe was only with the stairway and not the ADA ramp, called for a motion.

“Don’t forget,” said Syrnick, somewhat resignedly. “We are making a recommendation on this bill to City Council. No matter what we recommend, Council will do with it, perhaps, whatever they want. So, sometimes this is just sort of a little academic exercise we go through here. Although I think valuable today, I hope.”

Manny Citron moved for disapproval of the bill. Patrick Eiding seconded. The motion carried unanimously.

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