‘We’ll get more furniture’: South Street officials say Headhouse Plaza is a work-in-progress

The new public space in Headhouse Sq. now has parking and lighting for evening events. It is meant to be “inviting to people,” not off-putting, said SSHD director Mike Harris.

Mike Harris, Executive Director of the South Street Headhouse District, said the redesign of Headhouse Plaza added 8 new ADA ramps, a walkway, expanded curb lines and added lighting to the block. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mike Harris, Executive Director of the South Street Headhouse District, said the redesign of Headhouse Plaza added 8 new ADA ramps, a walkway, expanded curb lines and added lighting to the block. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The executive director of the South Street Headhouse District has heard some complaints about the newly unveiled Headhouse Plaza. Descriptors like “uninviting,” “bus station vibes,” “updated parking lot,” and “anti-people” are not what he was expecting.

“Why would we go through all of this and build the plaza to tell people not to come here?” said Mike Harris, who has run the neighborhood association for nearly a decade.

“This is supposed to be inviting to people,” Harris said about the new plaza. “The programming will be inviting to people. We put seating benches out. We’re going to put more furniture out, we’ll put umbrellas out, and we’ll figure it out.”

The redesigned Headhouse Plaza on 2nd Street between Lombard Street and South Street in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The plaza, which stretches from South to Lombard on 2nd Street, extends along the middle of one of the most-visited spots in the city.

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It feeds into tourist destination South Street, and stands across from the Headhouse Shambles, a historic open air space that hosts a popular weekend farmers market, among other events.

Before the renovation, a concrete strip divided two sides of car parking along the median. Now that concrete is replaced by a wider brick walkway. To many of the critics, though, the renovation doesn’t look like something that took close to a decade of planning.

“We worked really hard on this, we listened to the community, we spent years planning this,” Harris said, pointing to a handful of people sitting on the cement benches as proof that some like the new setup.

“The place has not really been touched for 65 years,” he added, “so this is a major overhaul of this active space.”

Local firm Ambit Architecture, which is headquartered on the square, provided the design.

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As the plaza currently appears, there isn’t much foliage to provide shade. There are about a dozen concrete slabs for seating. In an opinion piece published in Billy Penn, local blogger and curator Conrad Brenner wondered why the revamp didn’t include public restrooms.

2nd and South Streets in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Removable parking, bike share, and lighting for evening events

Harris described the Headhouse Plaza design process as a difficult one where many resident and business-owner needs needed to be met. It required many compromises, he said.

For example, while many people would have liked parking gone altogether, it was a thorny issue. Parties landed on the current layout, which has three-quarters of the amount of street parking previously available.

One of the first design proposals also included a visitors center with a cafe, but Harris said they scratched the idea so as not to take away more square footage — or compete against the many local businesses that surround the plaza.

That’s part of why the $3 million project took so long to complete. Funding came from a slew of sources, including the city, the Philadelphia Water Department, and the state, according to Harris.

Infrastructure improvements and stormwater management changes were responsible for much of the delay between 2017, when the city Art Commission greenlit the final design, and last year’s construction launch, Harris said.

The hope is that residents, visitors and business owners will take advantage of Headhouse Plaza — day or night.

For evening happenings, the two maroon canopy structures have downward-pointing lights, and the small trees on the plaza have lights pointing up. The wheel stoppers that mark parking spots are removable, creating the potential for a full street takeover for larger events.

Harris said he and the planning board at the South Street Headhouse District are listening to the comments, and want people to know there’s more coming.

For example, there will be an Indego bike share station, plus bike racks where people can lock up their wheels before taking a stroll.

“There’s things that are still going to be worked on, there’s things I’d like to see change,” said Harris. “We’ll definitely get more furniture out here, but it’s just a matter of … let’s get it open, let’s see how it gets used, and then we can continue to build off of that.”

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