UPDATED: Society Hill, city, reach sidewalk construction agreement

Society Hill Civic Association and the city have reached an agreement that the association says will allow new ADA-compliant sidewalk ramps and related work to be completed without detracting from the neighborhood’s historic nature.

In short: The use of cheek walls – curb-like structures that are built to support building foundations when achieving the proper sidewalk slope leaves a foundation partially exposed – will be avoided when possible, and made of brick when necessary. The ramps will be largely made of brick, matching the neighborhood’s sidewalks. Near particularly historically important structures, the existing brick will be reused. The concrete portions will be gray, and SHCA gets to pick the precise shade.

“We are very satisfied with the agreement,” said SHCA Board Member Rosanne Loesch, who led the association’s efforts. Work is expected to resume in late summer or early fall, and wrap up before winter, she said.

The city is happy, too, said Stephen Buckley, assistant managing director for the city’s office of transportation, in an email. “The City’s primary objectives concerning curb ramps are: 1. To comply with the stringent dimensional requirements of the code to ensure safety and usability; 2. To construct them using materials and methods that maximizes ramp durability and long term code compliance; 3. To design them to be sympathetic with the fragile historic fabric of our neighborhoods.  We believe that the agreement advances all three of these objectives.”

More happiness as well at the Philadelphia Historical Commission: “The Historical Commission is satisfied that the agreement protects historic resources and greatly appreciates that the Streets Department has worked diligently to overcome the preservation and other concerns of the community,” said Executive Director Jonathan Farnham.

The sidewalks are tied to a larger streets improvement project. While not every street is slated for resurfacing at this time, the boundaries extend from Front Street to Broad and from South to Market.  Federal law requires the corner crosswalk ramps to be brought up to current Americans with Disabilities Act standards whenever streets are resurfaced. Work began in March, but then stopped shortly thereafter when SHCA raised concerns over a cheek wall adjacent to a historic property at 3rd and Delancey and the colors of the ramps and textured inserts, which serve to alert visually impaired people that they are about to enter a crosswalk.

The color of the inserts was bright red, not the brick-red color that the association had earlier approved. But beyond that, SHCA and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia said that the city should have done a more thorough review of the historical impact of the project, since Society Hill is a National Historic District and federal law requires a historic review when federal money is used.

Of the project’s originally projected $7.55 million cost, $3.67 million is covered by federal stimulus funds granted to PennDOT and funneled to the city.
A historic review has taken place, with representatives from SHCA and other historic neighborhoods, several city departments, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Philadelphia Historical Commission, The Preservation Alliance and PennDOT taking part. In the federal review process, these participants are called consulting parties. The solutions came out of those meetings, Loesch said, and the city sent an agreement to Society Hill last week.

“The city has gone a very long way to meet our concerns about having the design properly reviewed for a National Historic District,” she said.

Buckley said he did not yet know what cost impact the changes in materials or the pause in the work could have on the bottom line.  “We are still involved in negotiations with the contractor concerning cost. At this point it is premature to comment on pricing,” he said. “We do not know if the contractor will be pursuing delay claims at this point in time.”

The ADA requirements are very precise, and failing to meet them could result in a loss of federal funding. All parties have said they want to meet the ADA requirements not just because the law says so, but because they want the streets to be more easily used by as many people as possible.

Eugene Blaum, spokesman for PennDOT District 6, said the proposed solutions are fine by PennDOT. “The ramps can be built to meet the federal requirements using the combination of concrete and brick,” he said. “I’m comfortable with it,” said Chuck Davies, District 6’s engineer in charge of design. His office must review the design of each intersection within the district, which includes Philadelphia and Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties.

Loesch said that a few details remain to be worked out. Preservation Alliance Executive Director John Gallery said that the discussion and draft documents have looked positive, but the Streets Department has to reconvene the consulting parties to finish up, and until that happens, he did not want to comment further.

According to SHCA, the city has agreed to avoid cheek walls – those curb-like structures next to foundations – whenever possible. When the re-grading of the sidewalk exposes a foundation, workers will examine it, and if it is structurally stable and water tight, no cheek wall will be constructed.

Necessary cheek walls will not be made of concrete, but of brick. And before the city builds one, according to information emailed by Loesch, the city will talk to an SHCA technical consultant on the design.

A parging material will be applied to the foundation to both waterproof the wall and provide a barrier between the cheek wall and the foundation. This would allow a building owner to later remove the cheek wall and shore up the foundation with historically appropriate materials instead.

Two cheek walls, adjacent not to buildings, but to planting bed retaining walls, will be removed. But any others that are already constructed will stay in place – all parties thought the risk of foundation damage was too high. They will be tinted a dark gray.

Ramps that have already been completed will be replaced with new ramps that meet the terms of the agreement, Loesch said.

The portion of the ramp walking surface that does most of the sloping will not be made out of brick. The truncated dome mat, which is a federally required signal to the visually impaired that they are about to enter an intersection, will be black. The rectangle surrounding it will be gray concrete. The various parts of the ramp that surround this section – the wing-shaped structures at the sides, and the brick “landing area” above the sloping section, will be brick, however.

The city wanted to use concrete on the areas that would see the most foot traffic because of concerns that the bricks would heave during our freeze-thaw cycle and pose a safety hazard, Davies said. It is also anticipated that maintenance costs will be lower.

About half of the total ramp will be made of brick, he said, although that will vary according to the conditions at each intersection. 

Society Hill chose black mats because the color should recede into the background, and because many of the neighborhoods’ historical accents are also black, including ironwork and bricks interspersed with red ones in some of the oldest buildings, Loesch said.

Originally, Society Hill wanted every part of the ramp to be made of brick. Instead of cheek walls, the civic wanted the city to fortify exposed foundations with historically appropriate material.

The civic association “conceded” on these points in order to reach an agreement that included other elements it considered vitally important, Loesch said.

Loesch said Society Hill hopes for this kind of thorough historic review of future projects from the get-go.

“We are hoping that this project will serve to remind the City that all street projects should be reviewed for our district because of the double level of protection Society Hill has – national historic district and preservation under city law of 99 percent of its properties,” she said in an email.

“We think review is appropriate and desirable both from our standpoint and the city’s – it is a district (among others) that remains a huge tourist attraction and revenue generator and is one of the city’s very desirable residential neighborhoods. And we feel that our neighborhood is more than a collection of individually protected properties – there is a whole context and environment where sensitive aesthetic overview needs to be exercised.”

“We believe that the new design will become the standard for brick sidewalk ramps within historic districts in the City,” Buckley said.

The Historical Commission will continue to advise the streets department as it upgrades ramps throughout the city, Farnham said.

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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