Tuesday, July 10, 2007

City To Developer: Make Way For Pedestrians!

It was clear from the minute that developer Samir Benakmoume poured himself a generous concrete terrace in front of his pricey new 1352 Lofts, that South Street's footpath wasn't big enough for both his grand schemes and the public. Now there's hope that Philadelphia's pedestrians can take back their sidewalk. A reliable source tells me that city lawyers will go to court Thursday (Yes - it really is Thursday, at 1:30 p.m., before Judge Glazer in Rm. 426) to demand that Benakmoume jackhammer what he disingenuously describes as a wheelchair ramp.

Benakmoume's raised platform, which runs almost the entire length of the 1300 block of South Street, is no ordinary sidewalk encroachment. As I described in a June 22 news story, Benakmoume annexed a six-foot-wide strip of public space. That leaves just three measly feet for the rest of us. But even that narrow ribbon is a gantlet of street lights, parking signs and planters. If you're an able-bodied adult, you might be able to squeeze single-file down the block; if you're pushing a stroller or in a wheelchair, well, just fuggetaboutit. You can build all the fancy condos you want, but cities are nothing without their sidewalks.

Benakmoume has been claiming that the Streets Dept. approved the ramp as the only reasonable way to make the ground-floor shops wheelchair-accessible. Not true, says William P. Mautz, who oversees the city streets and sidewalks. He told the developer's Rimas Properties back in May that the platform was "unacceptable," and refused to grant his retail tenants a Certificate of Occupancy. It looked like they would just stand around and make angry faces at one another until the City Law Department stepped in.

Clearly, Bankmoume underestimated the public outrage against his land grab. The blogs have been boiling over with fury: Phillyblog, Young Philly Politics, Outside In and Design Advocacy Group. Things got so hot over at Phillyblog that Benakmoume's people started using words like "libel" and the administrator pulled the thread, prompting a new thread on free speech in the blogosphere.

The Design Advocacy Group understands that this case isn't about just one obnoxious bump in the sidewalk. Benakmoume's actions mock Philadelphia's claim to be among America's last walkable cities. DAG has launched a petition campaign for the platform's removal. (150 signatures as of Monday) But the group's leader, Alan Greenberger, says the Benakmoume blockage is just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of equally egregious impediments around the city: Check out the abandoned construction trailer behind the Rodin Museum on Hamilton Street or the trailers that turn 15th Street into one lane south of City Hall. DAG is recommending that the next administration create an "Overseer of Sidewalks"

Let's start making a list of these invaders of the public realm now. Send your nominations here.


Blogger Niel said...

Thanks very much for your continued coverage, Inge. We over at PhillyBlog are indeed concerned about this issue, and there will be PB representation at the hearing on Thursday.

Regarding other such grabs, that ridiculous decaying construction site in the 2100 block of Hamilton is a pet peeve of mine, since I ride the bus past there every day on the way to work. But there also is (or was as of a few weeks ago) a spot in the 600 or 700 block of Bainbridge with two construction sites facing each other, *both* of which have blocked off the sidewalk, so that for maybe 20 feet the pedestrian has to walk in the street.

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Our sources say that this hearing is actually Wednesday... TOMORROW, July 11th at 1:30PM.

Just to be on the safe side (I plan to attend) I'll show up Wednesday July 11th since that's the date I have, unless this has been moved by the clerk.

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. Sidewalks are for walking. How about all the outdoor seating at restaurants that are also invading all the sidewalk space? Notably Portofino on Walnut and 13th; and Mixto on 12th and Pine. There are many more. And let's not forget all the illegal bike riding on the sidewalks as well.

1:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great, great job on 1352 Lofts. The commitment of you and so many others to an orderly and attractive center city is heartning.

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jones at 7th and Chestnut has seating which is right behind a bus shelter leaving little room to walk on an extremely busy corner.

Across the street is a new restaurant (737 or something like that) that fills the whole sidewalk.

3:19 PM  
Blogger sebastian said...

An 'Overseer of Sidewalks?' I thought the city already owned them? Does this mean another Municipal Job will be created and given to someone non-deserving?


4:01 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Excellent points, both in the post and in the comments. We need walkable cities, and we need sidewalks that are alive. Blocking the sidewalks works against both goals.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous B.Zimmerman said...

I am a transplant fro San Diego. I have often questioned the practice in Philadelphia of closing sidewalks.
In San Diego, developers are required to provide safe pedestrian ways past construction sites. If the sidewalk must be blocked, then build a walkway along the curb around the obstruction.

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Vince Dean said...

Speaking of sidewalk encroachment, I was harassed a second time, on July 7th by a doorman at the Barclay condominium on Rittenhouse Square for allowing my Westie to sniff the planter on the sidewalk. I was told there is a dog park across the street. I informed on both occasions, this is a public sidewalk and if you don't want dogs peeing on your planters, don't put them on the sidewalk. He then said: "this is aprivte condominium."
After speaking with the manager Michele Roque, I'm left with the impression this is their policy. I think it stinks and I am mad as hell!!! It's time to take back our sidewalks! Anyone for a puppy parade ?
OH and don't forget Rudeg !

10:49 AM  
Anonymous mdhatter said...

Where I live someone stopped a church from opening because the ramps were not to town spec and also not to the Americans with Disabilities Act spec, despite being told all that at the design stage, they proceeded.

A church! It sat, with no occupancy permit, for almost 6 months, while the church fought it.

they lost. they fixed it.

Sounds like Philly needs a little bravery.

Close the building until it is fixed. Block all curb cuts to the garages, bar the doors.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an Interior Designer and I know that I had to go through so much red tape just to get a permit for an existing sidewalk cafe (new owners of hotel renovated and changed name of an existing restaurant in the hotel space). When I put together the drawings with a slightly changed table layout, it was brought to my attention that manhole covers & grates around trees in a sidewalk were considered an obstruction. What should have been a no brainer sidewalk seating layout, turned into a major headache for me. As it turns out, I basically reissued the previous layout from the cafe. I guess what it actually presented and what is reality is different most of the time.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I seem to remember an Inquirer piece many years ago about parking problems in Center City. It seems Vince Fumo helped some developer buddies build townhouses with garages that were not ever approved by the city - garages which sucked up many, many public parking spaces.

Wouldn't it be nice if they fixed that, too?

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Notto said...

b.zimmerman, I'm still in San Diego and find it very frustrating for a pedestrian.

This is Southern California, and cars rule. Sidewalks appear and disappear without notice. The UCSD campus is practically an island, from the pedestrian's viewpoint.

As someone still pushing a stroller, I want to add that I am immensely grateful for the American's with Disability Act. If not for the many curb cutouts and ramps and elevators built for wheelchairs, you'd need an offroad stroller to take junior out for a walk.

Even ADA isn't enough. A shopping plaza near me in the UTC area (with high-density, by SoCal standards, condo and senior housing) offers no way for wheelchairs and strollers to enter other than to share a lane with cars.

Defend your sidewalks with all reasonable means, Philly.

And if that doesn't work, get unreasonable.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

New Marathon Grill at 10th and Walnut.

They have outdoor seating on 10th street which makes walking north-south impossible for more than one person at a time as you approach the corner.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous scott b said...

Sidewalk dining is the most widespread intrusion into pedestrian space. But we can't always eat out of a bag in front of our computers. We have to live. And now the city lives - much more so than it did a few years back. Sidewalk restaurant seating gives something back to the city as it takes up space.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel there is some digression from the original point but-- to Scott B on "giving back to the city" what has it given back? Noise pollution? Loitering?

The city should charge these restaurants with sidewalk seating rent for using city space and maybe the city could in turn lower our taxes.

12:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me, the worst offender has always been the snotty crowd at Rouge, blocking the sidewalk with chairs crowded around the tables to take up as much pavement as possible. I've always wondered -- if someone slips and falls in a sidewalk space, is the restaurant liable? Shouldn't they be, since they're getting additional real estate on the sidewalk?

7:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's just as bad when restaurants take over the sidewalks with their 'outdoor cafes'. I think Caribou Cafe is the worst. Try taking a wheelchair past it sometime.

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The worst "sidewalk" space...about one foot in width on the west side of N.22nd Street just south of Race Street. Who ever built the houses put the steps in the wrong direction. Not that they need the steps because the houses all have driveways in the back so the front entrances are never used and appear abandoned.

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Tom said...

Three feet is not much room. A person could easily trip and fall on the raised platform. I think a few good "trip and fall" lawsuits might get the developer's attention.

4:07 PM  

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