Sunday, March 09, 2008

How to Redesign SS Bridge

In an impassioned, 11th-hour effort aimed at convincing city officials to reconsider a harsh, automobile-oriented design for the new South Street Bridge, about 75 residents, planners and traffic engineers spent three hours on Saturday morning pouring over engineering drawings and satellite images. Like the recent brainstorming efforts for the Delaware Waterfront and the Kimmel Center, the design charrette helped clarify the community's values and identify some creative strategies for making the project better.
The sad part, of course, is that residents were acting in desperation. They were forced to hold the charrette now, just one month before the city Streets Department plans to bid the $54 million bridge project, because the Street Administration left the design of the city's the most important new bridge entirely in the hands of traffic engineers, without any thought about the role it plays as a neighborhood connector and symbolic urban gateway. Not surprisingly, the engineers came up with an interstate-style span that that will increase the psychological divide between Center City and the University of Pennsylvania area. Now they are claiming it's too late to change the design because the bridge is exfoliating concrete at a rapid rate and could become dangerous.

So, there isn't much time to reconfigure this bridge from an interstate speedway to a neighborhood gateway. But as organizer and planner Jim Campbell told the group, "If we do nothing now, nothing is going to be done. We can influence what choices are made." The charrette was a good first step, but Campbell and others conceded that the only hope for getting a better bridge now lies with Philadelphia's elected officials: Mayor Nutter, Council President Anna Verna, Sen. Vincent Fumo and Rep. Babette Josephs (who attended the Thursday night session). Ward Leader Marcia Wilkof urged participants to write letters encouraging them to show the kind of leadership that John Street failed to display. No doubt she's right, but I'm always amazed that Philadelphia officials still need to be nudged and cajoled into taking an interest in a major civic construction project as important as the South Street Bridge. As one of the most photographed perches in the entire city, this bridge will shape Philadelphia's public image for generations.

It was heartening that one of the Streets Department's most progressive engineers, Dave Perri, participated in Saturday's discussion, and was willing to offer both practical advice and a sympathetic ear. While he cautioned that "there isn't time to do a complete redesign" because of the bridge's poor condition, he said it is still possible to make some improvements to slow down traffic and increase the comfort zone for pedestrians and bicyclists on the new bridge.
Here are some of the most interesting ideas I heard from the break-out groups:
-Use crash barriers to separate the car lanes from bike lanes. That means engineers won't have to put an ugly crash-rated fence along the bridge's outside edge and can instead use a handsome decorative railing.
-Incorporate pedestrian lights into protective bollards that double as crash barriers.
-Add a traffic light on the east side of the bridge, where it intersects with the ramp from the Schuylkill River Park. That will slow traffic and make it easier for walkers and bikers to get to and from the park safely. It's almost hard to believe that, in the current design, you'll exit the park ramp directly into the whizzing bridge traffic.
-Eliminate the tin can look-outs and use the savings for sidewalk improve-ments. Several people said the design (see post below) looks like garage elevators.
-Reconsider the plan to demolish the beautiful arches leading the bridge on the east side. The city will not only save money and preserve a historic structure. Keeping the stone arches will retain the odd curve that forces motorists to slow down as they approach the bridge.
-Extend construction from 18 months to 24 months and eliminate excessive overtime costs. Use savings for pedestrian improvements.
-Write letters to politicians to let them know that the city residents value Schuyllkill river crossings that feel like a continuation of the city's streets - not a highway interloper.


Blogger PalestraJon said...

I know that you care a lot about this issue, but the interest of the entire city is at stake, not just the Schuylkill Park neighborhood. Someone is going to get killed by a chunk of concrete sooner rather than later. The design of this bridge in no way a "symbolic urban gateway." It is one of many bridges across the Schuykill River. The fact also is that it is an interstate highway exit and must be able to handle the traffic coming off the Expressway. That being said, surely there is room for aesthetic improvements--retaining the arches and providing some decorative railings would be a good touch. Still, the existing bridge has been a junkyard reject for over 20 years. The new design will not deter anyone from using the bridge who currently uses it.

Where I would recommend that you focus this energy is in getting Penn to build the pedestrian bridge at Locust Street sooner rather than later. That is the structure which will bring the neighborhoods together---not the South Street Bridge. Only the completion of the Penn Praxis plan will eliminate what now is a one mile break of civilization from
26th Street to 36th Street.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Twain Paine said...

I agree with you Ms. Saffron. For years, the South Street bridge was the first center city bridge I encountered when driving into the city from the Wilmington area. It was often the where I exited I-76(and crossed the bridge) to enter the city's street grid, and is a major urban gateway. It's symbolism should not be understated.

1:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While slowing traffic is a noble idea this is still a highway offramp.

Backing up traffic 24 hours a day with restricting designs does not really account for the fact that pedestrian will only be utilizing the bridge during specific times.

Traffic already backs up on the offramps leaving vehicles sitting out into 60 MPH left lane traffic.

Causing delays to benefit pedestrians on Walnut - Noble.

Causing delays to benefit pedestrians on highway ramps - DEADLY.

9:23 AM  
Blogger DeWitt said...

Inga, hopefully your readers will consider filling the following questionnaire. Someone posted a link to it over on Phillyblog.

9:43 AM  
Blogger mattymatty said...

As a former student a Penn who lived in the Gray's Ferry neighborhood, I used the bridge daily for two years. While the bridge is a highway off ramp as anonymous above notes, it is also used by pedestrians at all hours of the day and night. That is, in its current condition, a miracle. The current bridge is unsafe for pedestrians who must run through traffic to safely cross. Ms. Saffron is correct in that the bridge should be much more than is planned currently and I am gratified to know that there are people working hard to change the city's mind in this matter.

The city has an opportunity to remake this bridge into something that the city and its residents can be proud of. It is possible to accomodate both pedestrians, cyclists, and cars safely, while doing so in an attractive manner.

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ANYone who can't comprehend how much of a gateway this bridge is needs to travel more, and make it a point to go visit some of the world's most notable bridges --

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it humorous that the city has been telling us that bridge is "safe" for all these years, especially after parts have fallen off, and now that the actual work is to be done, and AFTER the horrible bridge tragedy a few months ago, suddenly it's using it as an excuse to move forward.

I'm not saying stop the design now, I'm saying that pedestrians that walk the bridge have as mnuch right as the people that DRIVE the bridge. As for palestrajon's comments, I think your missing the mark, and if you ever really think that pedestrian bridge will be built in the next 20 years, if at all, then your wrong.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Philadelphia cityscape needs a bridge that will reflect its continued growth and renaissance for the next 30 years. Safety is obviously a top priority, but this construction is not a bandaid that can be built and modified a few years later. We have to live with the design for years to come.

Why should we live with a bridge designed primarily around highway traffic, esp. trucks? My wife walks to work over this bridge as well as a lot of our friends. I wonder if the detractors of the re-design are from the suburbs and care little about the cityscape and ped/bike safety. Philadelphia is a CITY where people walk, not just drive their cars. What was appealing to my family and one of the reasons we stayed was that the city is so walkable.

Also, the South Street bridge offers an amazing view of the Center City skyline, especially at dusk. The view should be enjoyed while walking on the bridge.

11:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was a student I rode my bike daily from West Philly to Broad and Pine across the Bridge. It was scary and dangerous thirty years ago and it is far past the time when improvements need to be made. What has changed is the fact that more environmental changes will take place in the next thirty years. Will there be the same demand for cars or will there be more bikes?

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The bridge need not be an extension of 76. The same arguments about traffic needs were used in favor of the defeated cross-town expressway that destroyed many vibrant South Street businesses and would have, were it to have been built, reduced the south end of Rittenhouse into a ghetto.

Residents apparently don't want large trucks coming into the neighborhood from 76, really fast bridge traffic and unsafe pedestrian, bicycle and handicapped use. Gee, is that asking too much? Shame on them for living there and wanting to preserve their quality of life!

There is no good reason to build crap design. Word has it that this has resulted from Penn wanting a compressed construction schedule for business reasons that pertain to A SINGLE ACADEMIC SESSION. Can you say Penn Relays? Their wishes drove up the cost of the bridge by $5 to $12 million. No wonder there's no money for intelligent design.

Michael Nutter must put down his foot and not let this complete fiasco take its ugly and unsafe form.

11:59 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home