The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is rather like Philadelphia as a whole: There’s a lot to love about the place, but the sight of so much squandered potential can be hard to take.
From Eakins Oval, looking northwest at the monumental steps and edifice of the Art Museum, the scene is magnificent. But turn around 180 degrees, and you’re staring at a parking lot inexplicably situated on some of the most prime public real estate in the city.
The new Sister Cities Park, across 18th Street from the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, may just be the most captivating 1.75 acres in the city, capturing, as Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote, ” the refined whimsy of Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens” and packing it “into a space a quarter the size of Rittenhouse Square.”
Of course, to get to the park from the new $150 million Barnes Foundation museum, tourists first must walk past makeshift homeless encampments.
You see this sort of schizophrenia up and down the Parkway. You emerge from the fabulously renovated Rodin Museum into a wooded glade, and then must play a tense game of real-life Frogger, darting through eight lanes of heavy traffic just to cross the Parkway.
And yet, despite its fickle qualities, the Parkway is probably Philadelphia’s “most beautiful and iconic civic space,” as deputy mayor and city parks chief Michael DiBerardinis likes to put it.
That would have been a hard argument to make a decade ago. But the recent improvements to the Parkway – from massive new facilities like the Barnes to modest touch-ups like wide and well-painted bike lanes – have made the grand boulevard vastly more inviting.
“The Parkway has changed from a place you want to drive through to a place you want to linger,” said Harris Steinberg, executive director of Penn Praxis, the wing of Penn’s School of Design that works on real-world urban planning projects (full disclosure: I also write for PlanPhilly, a Penn Praxis-affiliated news outlet).
Still, the Parkway isn’t close to reaching its full potential yet. And so Penn Praxis and the City of Philadelphia held a series of community meetings over the last few weeks, soliciting ideas on how to make the Parkway more inviting (Penn’s Project for Civic Engagement moderated the sessions). In a few months, Penn Praxis will write up its recommendations for the next phase of Parkway improvements.
The recurring theme is: more Park, less Way.
“The intersection of highway and park has really been a point of tension for the last 50 years,” Steinberg said at a planning session this week in Fairmount.
Since the days of Edmund Bacon, cars have had the upper hand on the Parkway. On a typical weekday, about 20,000 vehicles use the boulevard.
As though the basic highway-pedestrian incompatibility weren’t challenge enough, the Parkway is also expected to serve both as host for the city’s biggest events and as the city’s cultural headquarters, making it a major tourist destination.
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On top of that, there’s huge interest in making the Parkway more of an everyday stop for Philadelphians. After all, it seems a shame to set aside such a grand swath of the city solely for tourists and the occasional outdoor concert.
So, what’s to be done?
For now, Penn Praxis and the city are thinking small, and that seems appropriate. A ton of city, state, private, and Center City District money has already been sunk into Parkway improvements over the last 10 years. The big anchors are in place, and they’re pretty phenomenal.
What’s left now is filling in the blank spaces in between, making pedestrians more comfortable and persuading Philadelphians to take to the Parkway on foot or bike, even when they don’t have out-of-town guests.
That could mean touches as modest as kiosks where people can pick up a newspaper and a cup of coffee; installation art, preferably the kind that children can clamber over; and simple landscaping or small parks (dog runs and adult playgrounds have been mentioned) for those stretches of the Parkway that are now nothing more than sidewalk.
Somewhat more ambitious would be finding spots along the Parkway or Pennsylvania Avenue where cafes or restaurants make sense. And surely we can figure out something better for Eakins Oval than a surface parking lot.
All of that seems doable, neither too expensive nor too controversial.
But then there’s the question of the cars. Bigger pedestrian islands or some traffic-calming infrastructure might help a bit.
Closing lanes permanently or even just on weekends? That might be a nonstarter.
Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler, who oversees the city Streets Department, is not exactly warm to the idea of throttling back traffic flow on the Parkway.
“It’s a major thoroughfare, which, by the way, is owned by the state. So I’m not sure that closing that on a regular basis is something I could recommend,” Cutler said. “I don’t have a real clear sense of what the object of the exercise is.”
But the object couldn’t be clearer. If the Parkway really is Philadelphia’s “most beautiful and iconic civic space,” then it needs to be at least as pleasant on foot as it is at 40 miles an hour.