Sunday, November 04, 2007

Why Does a Philadelphian Cross the CSX Tracks?

More than 120 people descended on Schuylkill River Park Sunday afternoon, but they didn't come to stroll, bike, blade, garden, play with their dogs, or relax on a bench. They were there instead to evaluate three possible routes for a new bridge over the CSX tracks. As I wrote in my Friday column, the city is under a federal court order to construct a ramp alternative to the Locust Street grade crossing by October 2009. But by the end of the three hour public meeting, it was clear that each of the options would take its toll on Schuylkill River Park, the wonderful mixed-use neighborhood enclave designed by acclaimed landscape architect John Collins.

The event was a commendable effort by its sponsors - Fairmount Park and the Schuylkill River Development Corp. - to gather public input about a bridge that will loom large over both the park and the Schuylkill Banks recreation trail. (It was an especially refreshing contrast to the top-down process used to choose a design for the South Street Bridge. ) Sunday's event was the culmination of a design study that was proposed and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. With a $195,000 Pew grant, SRDC was able to hire HNTB Engineers and Menke & Menke landscape architects, which identified the three most feasible routes and worked up some very pretty renderings.

The renderings were a little too pretty, if you ask me. They made all the options look palatable, when really the best option is probably none of the above. (Look here Monday for the renderings.) The renderings were also a bit deceptive because each version showed overpasses decked out in attractive, high-end architectural finishes. But as the SRDC and Fairmount Park acknowledge, there isn't even enough money to build a bare bones, concrete overpass, nevermind a fancy brick-trimmed and arched one.

It was the prettiest of the pretty ren-derings, the red option, that came in for the harshest criticism. This proposal calls for a 1,000-foot-long, combination ramp-overpass-ramp (not 400 feet, as I was told last week. That appears to be the length of the structure once it crosses into the park.) . The red option would start near the trail's current end point, Locust Street, span the CSX tracks, and fly over the dog park, before landing as a curving earthen berm in the middle of the park. There seemed to be near universal agreement on Sunday that the curved berm, which would rise as high as 15 feet, would divide the park like the Berlin Wall and dangerously reduce visibility inside the park. Although some admired the concept for its sculptural quality, most agreed there were too many problems.

The green option, which would run along the northern edge of the com-munity garden, didn't fare much better in public comments. Although it looks fairly harmless and direct as a thin green line on the map, the renderings revealed that this overpass would require a heavy-duty series of switchbacks before its conclusion on 25th Street. It would displace some six to 12 garden plots, which would have to be recreated by taking land from another section of the park. Worst of all, the switchbacks would create a 30-foot-long wall - that's equal to the width of two rowhouses - along 25th Street. The wall would probably block views into the garden. It unlikely to be an attractive feature in the park Think of the clunky Walnut Bridge staircase on 24th Street - only wider.

Given these two un-appealing choices, quite a few people said they favored the yellow option. It's a long, straight run from the trail's donut at Locust Street, but at least the ramp would hug that unused strip between the park fence and the railroad tracks. The beauty of this proposal is that it only dips its toe into the park itself. It lands on a strip of unclaimed asphalt between the dog run and the basketball courts. The downside is that bicyclists zooming down the ramp into the park might clash with pedestrians, children and dog walkers. But this could be mitigated somewhat by placing a large bollard at the base of the ramp, where it empties into the park. That would force cyclists to dismount, and walk their bikes into the park. Tim Kerner, an architect and planner, noted that it was the only option that "didn't take a nice area and make it worse."

One other thing to consider with this option is that it could become a heavily used park entrance if Penn ever gets around to building its pedestrian bridge across the Schuylkill. But from what I gleaned in a recent interview with Penn officials, that river crossing isn't going to get off the drawing board for at least another 30 years - if ever.

Although most people attending the discussion accept the argument that the city has no choice but to build the court-ordered overpass, a few people pointed out that the exercise bordered on the absurd. Paul Levy, head of the Center City District and an SRDC board member, says he's concerned about inserting something so intrusive into a successful public park. A couple of people said it's crazy to gobble up park land when there is a large asphalt parking lot just north of the community garden, owned by developer Carl Dranoff. Could the city acquire air rights and land the bridge there? (I decided it would be a nightmare for me to take part in this discussion.)

You also have to wonder about the wisdom of sending people on an 1,000-foot-long detour from Locust Street when there will soon be a connecting ramp to the trail from the South Street bridge. It's true that the South Street bridge is 2,000 feet south of Locust Street. But is the inconvenience of traveling the extra 1,000 feet really worth spending $4 or $5 million in public money on an enormous detour ramp that will forever alter the character of these serene and well-loved green refuges?

And here are the proposals in plan:


27 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

I feel as though this is moving at a rather brisk pace. That park is a beautiful and much loved area of the city, and Schuylkill Banks is turning into a great success as well. It seems foolish to rush into this so hastily and threaten the success of BOTH parks... please, please, please, do this right. please.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not a tunnel under the tracks? You would need less overhead clearance, as people are shorter than trains, so the ramps could be shorter. How much more would that option cost?

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: tunnel under the tracks

It is spooky enough navigating the subway at or after dusk, and those areas are arguably more trafficked than a tunnel under the CSX tracks would be at night. There's certainly no way we would see security staffing or anything like it to monitor activities here. It is likely that the City would be asking for lawsuits in the short term, and the tunnel would end up disused by all but vagrants, the homeless, and would-be criminals in the long term.
A tunnel would be bad urban design to say the least.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

actually, a tunnel is a good idea. It could be well lit for security and safety. as for homeless people, graffiti or lawsuits, your bridge over idea offers the same spaces. the area under these giant ramps are just as cozy for the homeless and opportune for crime as a short tunnel would be. the giant ramps are creating a "tunnel" underneath them.

the problem is accessibility for someone in a wheelchair causes the ramps to be so long. I say CSX should only be able to idle infront of or beyond the crossing so not to block it. They should pull up a few feet. that way you are only waiting to cross as the train passes which takes just a few minutes.

lets not forget, they have another set of tracks on the other side of 76. Why can they not reorganize to use that one for idling and what have you?

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

COME ON INGA!

That is not very good reporting. As someone who has worked on one of the designs for the bridge I can say with certainty that the problem stems from the need for wheelchair access. There is a wheelchair ramp already at market street, however there MUST also be a wheelchair ramp on this overpass. that is the source of the problem. The wheelchair ramps can only ise at a certain rate, and there must be "rest" areas where there is no grade every 30' or so. (heck out the one at market st)

There was talk of putting the ramp conection onto the new south street bridge design, but obviously that will not be completed before this bridge has been ordered to be done.

So you have this problem.

Solutions anyone?

Please do your homework Inga. I generally trust that you have, have I been wrong? This looks bad for you.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The TUNNEL is the way to go
The people that did the study must have looked into it
Can we hear a response from them?

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though a tunnel sounds like a good idea there are problems constructing one at this location including:

1.Length - For handicaaped accesibility, the tunnel needs to be the same slope as a bridge ramp. A tunnel needs about 10-ft. vertical clearance. Add to this about 4-ft of structure to support the trains above. To go down 14-ft. at a 5% slope, the tunnel (or trench) would have to be 280-ft. long on each side of the tracks!
This would serve as a huge scar on the park.

2. Drainage - The bottom of the tunnel would be below the water table because of the proximity of the river. Costly pumps would be needed to keep it dry.

3. No amenities - At least with a bridge there is an opportunity to view the river or the parks or just sit at an overlook and read a book. No one walks through a tunnel for any purpose other then to get out the other end.

4. No Landing- There would be no landing or connection point to serve the future U of P pedestrian bridge over the river.

5. Security - Tunnels are a security nightmare.

6:44 PM  
Anonymous TEB said...

What EXACTLY happens if the bridge isn't completed by 2009? I've seen lots of government projects delayed for reasons good and bad. If this one needs to be delayed to save a park, so be it. Good public spaces are too precious to waste because of artificial time tables.

6:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any word on the renderings?

8:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Americans With Disabilities Act ruins design. All the money we've spent making public and private facilities wheelchair-friendly could have probably cured paralysis or invented a stair-climbing wheelchair.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a crazy waste of time and money. revise the agreement between the City and CSX to delay the deadline until the South Street bridge is completed.

12:11 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

We have one very short tunnel under the Chestnut Hill line near where I live. Until SEPTA fenced off the tracks, everybody avoided the tunnel and just walked across the tracks—a very bad idea. The tunnel was dark except on very bright days, not clean, not well maintained, and a little scary. It's true that SEPTA bears some responsibility here, but tunnels are generally a bad idea without provision for lighting, budget for ongoing maintenance, and budget for security.

Unfortunately, agencies looking for cuts to balance their budget give very low priority to this kind of maintenance. Tunnels may be a good idea in principle, although it's hard to see that they would be a real solution to the problems outlined in this posting. In practice, tunnels quickly deteriorate because maintenance and security money are among the first cuts any agency makes.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe all these ADA requirements are really just a way to prepare the United States for the impending Dalek takeover. http://www.historyvortex.org/DalekLeaders.html

2:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't help but wonder why the current access point from Locust isn't being considered as the bridge's point of origin. There is unused space back there that could have all the necessary switchbacks without sacrificing park space or creating bicyclist/pedestrian/canine collision hazards. The parking lot could even be left intact by doing this.

3:04 PM  
Blogger LiberaL said...

What exactly would happen if the bridge was designed without wheelchair access? Presumably, certain funding sources would not be available, but it would also be cheaper. Is this feasible?

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inga:

One thing that is misleading about your story is the length of the path for the "red" or "bowl" option.
You stated, "This proposal calls for a 1,000-foot-long, combination ramp-overpass-ramp not 400 feet, as I was told last week." All three options will involve walking close to 1,000-ft. to cross the tracks. If you have to rise 23-ft to clear the tracks, then the ramps ON EACH side of "bridge" must be 460-ft. long to maintain an ADA acceptable 5% grade. I am sure that the South St. bridge ramps will also involve walking 1,000 ft. up, over, and down to cross the tracks.

So I wouldn't trash the red path because it is 1,000 long since all 3 options are close to this length. By the same measure, I wouldn't push the South St. bridge ramp alternative as it will be 2,000 ft. away and it will also involve a hefty walk to cross the tracks.

8:11 PM  
Blogger timkerner said...

A few comments...
SRDC has a responsibility to pursue an alternative to the track crossing because that's the legal agreement by which the track crossing is currently open. As Rasphila pointed out, any trip through a Septa tunnel makes a convincing case against that idea.
Wheelchair accessibility (which requires an 8% slope with occasionally landings)is necessary and desirable - there is no good reason to exclude those with wheelchairs or walkers from the bridge.
The red scheme is longer than the other schemes because it is designed with a gentler slope so the path through the park would not require railings. Although this scheme is a creative approach, it would divide the park in two and also put the bikers in collision course with the informal activity - ball and Frisbee throwing - that typically occurs in the bowl.
The yellow scheme is clearly the best choice and it is worth noting that a centrally located river overlook and a connection to a recreational trail are usually considered park amenities.

9:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Penn's proposal to build a bridge over the river connecting to Locust walk - wouldn't it make sense to incorperate the design of that bridge in with this one?

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not an elevator for those with bikes small children and wheelchairs; and a set of vertical stairs for those who can climb them? Something like the new El stop crossovers built by SEPTA.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. I doubt that the Market/Chestnut St. ramp ever been used by someone in a wheelchair. The physical effort is far too great. And for the same reason, I doubt if any of the proposed bridge designs would get wheelchair use.

2. My fear and suspicion is that as soon as a bridge is built, CSX will fall back into its bad habit of blocking the Locust Street crossing when it wants for as long as it wants.

3. There's only one good solution: get CSX to agree never to block Locust St. for more than 10-15 minutes.

11:09 AM  
Blogger DJCarbon43 said...

I just went by yesterday and today to check it out, and I think that by far the most elegant solution would be to run a ramp up to the walnut st. bridge on the east side of the tracks, and one back down on the path side.

This would have the advantage of not destroying Taney park (or whatever its being called these days), and providing wheel chair access between Walnut and Locust sts. without a massive detour, and access to the trail from the bridge.

I was thinking maybe a small plaza extending over the unused space above the CSX tracks, next to Sweat, and attached to the bridge connecting the two ramps.

Everyone is looking south (of the grade crossing), which baffles me, because there is going to be a ramp from the South st. bridge once that construction is complete, not more than a few thousand yards away.

thoughts?

7:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The red plan is the best.

Thousands of joggers and bikers get direct access to Spruce Street.


Other plans force everyone through the park.


So a couple of plots are lost for the greater good.


Inga seems to always want the minority to win and the majority to suffer.

12:17 PM  
Blogger DJCarbon43 said...

@anonymous: Are you familiar with the definition of troll?

You are making pretty bold assertions for someone unwilling to show their name.

"Inga seems to always want the minority to win and the majority to suffer."

Where exactly does this train of logic follow from? If you are going to attack someone, at least back up your claims with evidence.

But perhaps you yourself have a vested interest in one of the alternatives.

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why don't they elevate the entire park above the tracks and slope the path along the river up to meet it. That way the entire park is over the tracks. Sure the river will be a bit farther below you at that point along the trail but you could make your way across to the river at any point in the park.

8:38 AM  
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1:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since the 1960's a separate foot bridge has been proposed to cross the Schuylkill in the Locust Street alignment to link the Philadelphia's two most active and interesting pedestrian areas: center city and penn's campus: connecting rittenhouse square with college green. This proposal is being overshadowed by everyone's concern about how the schuylkill trail will connect with Taney Park and the new South Street Bridge. Another matter deserving attention is how the Botanic Trail will finally connect with Bartram's Garden. Since a new ramp is planned to be built up to the North East side of the bridge
from the Schuylkill Trail at Taney Park, why not build another ramp on the South West side of the bridge near the Hollenback Building to connect to the service road along Penn's Lower River Fields to allow the trail to follow the west bank of the Schuylkill to Bartram's? Inga you did a great job covering the ramp proposals at Taney. Nice job finding the imagery in plan! Do you really not like the Cret version of the new bridge?

12:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since the 1960's a separate foot bridge has been proposed to cross the Schuylkill in the Locust Street alignment to link the Philadelphia's two most active and interesting pedestrian areas: center city and penn's campus: connecting rittenhouse square with college green. This proposal is being overshadowed by everyone's concern about how the schuylkill trail will connect with Taney Park and the new South Street Bridge. Another matter deserving attention is how the Botanic Trail will finally connect with Bartram's Garden. Since a new ramp is planned to be built up to the North East side of the bridge
from the Schuylkill Trail at Taney Park, why not build another ramp on the South West side of the bridge near the Hollenback Building to connect to the service road along Penn's Lower River Fields to allow the trail to follow the west bank of the Schuylkill to Bartram's? Inga you did a great job covering the ramp proposals at Taney. Nice job finding the imagery in plan! Do you really not like the Cret version of the new bridge?

12:21 AM  

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