When streets give way to plazas

The small triangle bounded by 23rd Street, South Street and Grays Ferry Avenue isn’t much to look at. It’s small. It has a non-functional fountain. And a big chain is the only barrier between the triangle and Grays Ferry.

That may be about to change, however, thanks to a new city program that’s aiming to convert underutilized parts of the roadway into “pedestrian plazas” ― in essence, tables, chairs and some open space in what used to be roadway. The idea is popular in New York, which turned part of Times Square into a huge pedestrian plaza by taking away several lanes of traffic.

Philadelphia isn’t looking to do anything quite so drastic. Instead, according to Andrew Stober, chief of staff at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, which is spearheading the project, the city is focusing on “angles in the street grid that have created unused space.”

Stober added that the city’s focusing on areas outside of Center City with slow-moving traffic ― posted speeds can’t be greater than 25 miles per hour ― but that are near attractions like neighborhood commercial corridors “that generate significant volumes of pedestrians.”

The South of South Neighborhood Association’s efforts to transform that intersection ― program coordinator Andrew Dalzell says plans have been in the works for years ― was part of the inspiration for the pedestrian plaza plan.

(The other group interested in a pedestrian plaza was the Passyunk Square Civic Association.)

Right now, the city is getting ready to put out a request for proposals to test out five pedestrian plazas throughout the city.

Bids are due Oct. 3, and the chosen projects should be in place by next spring.

Essentially, Stober said, the city is looking for community groups to come up with a plan to put down some sort of barrier ― like boulders ― between pedestrians and traffic, as well as things like planters to enliven the space.

Applicants will also have to provide for maintenance of their plazas, as well as general liability insurance ― so they’ll need to be incorporated to bid for a slot.

In return, the city will paint the plazas green to distinguish them for the surrounding street and will also tap into $400,000 in Streets and Commerce department operating funds that have been made budgeted for the project. Money can be used to buy maintenance equipment or furniture and other amenities.

Applicants will also need community support, such as a letter from their district councilperson, as well as from community and business groups, to be considered.

Stober said that, if the city pulls the pilot program off, it will be a “pretty low-cost way to have high impact in communities” and added that the program could expand to other intersections. And the city might also allow the plazas to alter the existing street structure to install things like features designed to reduce stormwater runoff.

Dalzell agreed. He said that Grays Ferry Avenue near the triangle is a “vestigial” remain from when the street ran in both directions. Now, since 23rd Street runs the same way, that portion of it isn’t useful and would work better as a communal space ― part of the group’s efforts to address the lack of public space in the neighborhood.

The triangle was originally going to be redeveloped by the Schuylkill River Development Corp. for use in a trail. When that plan fell through, the neighborhood group stepped in and began an outreach campaign.

A design consultant came up with six possible looks, and the group has also commissioned a traffic study of the site. Any plaza needs to take into account the five or six parking spaces used as loading zones by adjacent businesses, Dalzell said, adding that the plaza would strive to be “parking neutral” and may end up adding spaces on South Street to make up for any that would be removed by the plaza.

As for the pedestrian plaza program, Dalzell calls it “really important. The fact that they want to reclaim asphalt away from the car for everyone else is a huge statement”.

Contact the reporter at acampisi@planphilly.com

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