For drivers cutting through the city of Philadelphia, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, fashioned after the Champs-Élysées, is a grand and convenient artery, but on foot it can be an unwelcoming and inaccessible expanse. PennPraxis, along with government officials, presented a new plan, “More Park, Less Way,” this week at the Academy of Natural Science that seeks to revitalize the Parkway, stretching from City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by increasing activity through the development of green space, improved pedestrian and bike access, and enticing programming and amenities.
Harris M. Steinberg, Executive Director of PennPraxis said the proposal, designed for the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, is building on the successes of other like projects such as Bryant Park in New York City and The Porch at the 30th Street Station.
“This isn’t a new model but looking at those lessons learned and being committed to making quality public spaces,” said Steinberg.
The brunt of the report focuses on a portion of the boulevard running from Logan Square to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which Steinberg said “has the most amorphous public space and the least amount of density and amenities.”
PennPraxis zeroes in on four specific sites along the boulevard to upgrade and redevelop into parkland, including Eakins Oval, Iroquois site, Von Colln Memorial Field, and Park Towne Place. The vision goes beyond just adding green space. It is centered on bringing events, art installations, and food kiosks to the parks. The report states that 70,000 people live blocks away from the Parkway, and the hope is that this new mix of activities, amenities, and improvements will engage the nearby community on a daily basis.
Mike DiBerardinis, Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources, says their first priority is to “reclaim Eakins Oval,” a traffic loop in front of the art museum. The city plans to remove the surface parking that occupies much of the seven-acre space and clear the way for concerts, public art, temporary horticulture projects, and pop-up dining. A programming schedule is expected to be ready in the next few months.
The Iroquois site, just to the north of Eakins Oval and next to Fairmount, will be transformed into a pedestrian-friendly park with walking paths, a play area for children, and possibly space for art installations. Farther down the boulevard, the Von Colln Memorial fields will remain a place for recreation, but the perimeter will be updated with enlarged sidewalks to accommodate exercise and children’s play. There will also be an area devoted to gatherings and food. And on the other side of the parkway, the 3-acre Park Towne Place will provide a variety of activities including walking paths, bocce and volleyball courts, and chess tables.
But for Philadelphians to use this new green space, they will need better access. The report offers a number of solutions that address this fundamental problem from adding sidewalks around Eakins Oval to bumping up public transportation and completing the bike lanes along the parkway.
“If we do the green spaces–no matter how well they are designed–if they don’t provide pedestrian access, it is going to be a big mistake. I think we will manage both of them as equal priorities,” said DiBerardinis. “To put one above the other doesn’t serve the interest of the action plan, the city, or residential units.
This plan comes at an appropriate time when the city has made significant improvements to the streetscape, and a number of cultural and civic projects along the boulevard have come to fruition, including the opening of the new Barnes Foundation. With only a few years left in Mayor Nutter’s term, the administration is eager to implement these recommendations.
“My goal is to get as much of this done as quickly as we can. The administration is in a 3-year time frame,” said DiBerardinis.
Now that the planning phase is over, the next steps require the sticky logistics of funding and management. DiBerardinis said Mayor Nutter has committed to put city capital dollars towards the parkway. “Once budget process is in motion, we can have a sense of what public dollars are available and then leverage that with philanthropic groups who have an interest in the plan,” he said.
But for this report to take shape, Steinberg points out that a management entity needs to be in place to oversee the maintenance, fundraising efforts, and programming. “We’ve had a tremendous response from the community,” said Steinberg. “We need to claim the space, put some temporary things up, get people out there, improve the concept and then get it all built more permanently.”