Monday, August 20, 2007

CCRA Attacks SS Bridge Design

The Center City Residents Asso-ciation has launched a major assault on the city's planned design for rebuilding the decaying and structurally deficient South Street Bridge. In a strongly worded letter signed by President Vivian C. Seltzer, and mailed Aug. 8 to a full-page worth of city officials, the neighborhood group complains that the Gannett Fleming/H2L2 design will insert an inappropriate, interstate-scaled bridge into a fine-grained pedestrian neighborhood.

I made some similar arguments in my Feb. 9 post and recent columns. But the group's letter shows just how widely held those concerns are. "It appears evident," the CCRA letter complains. "that the principal design criteria for the Bridge were to feed more traffic to and from existing ramps, and to accommodate large trucks" - hardly the conditions necessary to promote an evening's stroll between Center City and the Penn campus.
That's just the warm up. Not only is this the wrong bridge in the wrong place, the CCRA argues, but the new design will actually be "less safe to all users, including an estimated 4,000 pedestrians and 1,000 cyclists" who cross daily. The group predicts that wheelchair users will be especially vulnerable as turning motorists whip around the newly curved corners that will lead to the world's most scary highway access ramps. The group is especially irked that the city and PennDot are investing $50 million in deluxe turning lanes, without doing squat to make those merge-or-die ramps on I-76 any safer. "It seems only logical that any bridge design should be compatible with a future ramp redesign," the letter argues. Sounds reasonable to me.

Like anyone who has ever glanced at the official rendering (above), the CCRA was thoroughly non-plussed by the pasted-on design elements the city intends to use in a pathetic attempt to disguise the standard highway bridge. "Of even greater worry, however, is the opportunity the proposed semi-enclosed stainless steel towers create for high-risk hiding places for muggers, convenient urinals, trash receptacles and as targets for vandalism."

None of these are new complaints. But coming from a well-run, influential neighborhood group like the CCRA, these points ought to carry weight with the decision-makers, if not John Street, then certainly mayor-to-be Michael Nutter. Up until now, the Streets Department has stubbornly stuck to its position that 1) this is the only way to build a new South Street Bridge, 2) it's too late to think about it any more, 3)and besides, a nice bridge would cost too much. The department's engineers - and other city officials - should be required to read Saturday's stunning Op-Ed in the New York Times by David P. Billington, a Princeton University professor and renowned bridge expert. The article was written in response to the Minneapolis bridge collapse, but applies equally to the South Street Bridge. He maintains that bridge designers have gotten lazy and simply insert one-bridge-fits-all highway designs into any situation. Billington says American engineers need to start designing bridges that are specific to their place and task - and also beautiful. In this case, the place is a dense rowhouse neighborhood with a postcard-worthy view of the Center City skyline. The task is to make that a view that everyone can enjoy, whether they're traveling by foot, bike, wheelchair or car. Maybe it's time for someone in City Hall to sign up this guy Billington as a consultant.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The proposed bridge should be redesigned to be more pedestrian friendly, and to be beautiful. It is a great opportunity to create a signature photogenic bridge that will become an icon of Philadelphia and known worldwide.

Or, repair the existing historic bridge!

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be cheaper and therefore more likely to have a new bridge designed.

It costs more to design a nice bridge. Espicially when we fight like hell against the idea.

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Streets Dept. is, in this regard, pathetic. As Inga points out, none of this is new. I had a meeting (as SOSNA rep) TEN YEARS ago (back when the ETA for new bridge was 2003!)with Streets engineers and made precisely these points (trucks, turning radii, insufficient walks, bike paths, the whole enchilada). And I'm sure I wasn't the only one, even back then. I guess in their world of non-accountability to the public, it's "my way or the highway"...
-Bob G.

12:14 PM  
Blogger DJCarbon43 said...

It gets worse. Inga, you forgot to mention the streets department's lovely game where at first they said "Its too early, its to early for factoring design in...." and then overnight it became "too late". Excuse my youthful temper, but WTF!

12:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been following this issue since I was a junior urban studies major at Penn. Back then, the South Street Bridge was supposed to be the project where the city finally "got it right" correcting all of the myriad design blunders made with the Walnut Street Bridge project of the early '90s.

How disheartening after a decade of discussion to see the EXACT same formula with the South Street Bridge 15 years later: insert green steel highway bridge into dense urban fabric neighborhood. Appease pesky neighborhood groups by adding minimal sidewalks and stick on some prison-like towers.

Surprisingly, the one voice I have not heard from on this design is Penn, which should be directly involved, considering its recently revealed eastward development plan encompasses and attempts to humanize the gritty industrial rail area between Franklin Field and the S.S. Bridge.

Inga, do you know anything about Penn's current position on the bridge design and whether they plan to demand something better or even contribute a share toward any increased cost for an appropriate bridge?

6:28 PM  
Anonymous Sean DL said...

Seeing how Penn wants to make their own pedestrian bridge on Locust, I don't think they care about the South Street situation much..

3:34 AM  
Anonymous secretdoor said...

in Providence, RI they are building a new highway bridge for the I-195 spur, leading into the city. it only has to carry highway car traffic, so it doesn't have the more complicated challenge of serving the multiple scales & speeds of pedestrians & bicyclists.

however, the engineer considered many structural and aesthetic factors in how the bridge defines the approach to the city, how its shape frames the skyline and interacts with the geometry of the hurricane barrier (which it runs right next to), even down to the paint color of the metal arches in relation to the sky and the water...

basically, they could have just put in a standard crummy "green highway bridge", without thinking about any of these things, but by combining an analysis of the bridge's context and aesthetics, with decisions about its structure and proportion, the government & design team gave us what promises to be a beautiful yet humble & unpretentious gateway bridge.

I don't remember the engineer's name but I know she is one of the few woman bridge engineers out there.

3:54 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

Dallas is undergoing a discussion-battle over the bridge design-cost issue with their Trinity River bridges See..
the scale are larger, but the same issues are relevant (highway ramp access, aesthetics, cost, etc).

10:49 AM  

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