Friday, June 19, 2009

Does Dilworth Plaza Design Have Too Much Transit?

Here's today's column: Dilworth Plaza, Take Two. This is a followup to an earlier assessment I wrote in February about the Center City District's effort to remake the Rizzo-era public space in front of City Hall. You can also read it on

By Inga SaffronInquirer Architecture Critic

Most public space projects in Philadelphia tend to stew for years, so let's give the Center City District credit for placing its redesign of City Hall's plaza on a fast track. The drawings started making the rounds of Philadelphia's various design commissions earlier this year. Now, the CCD has released its "final" design for Dilworth Plaza.

Let's hope they're using that term loosely.

There's certainly much to admire in the plaza's renderings, which show a simple lawn, a flat multipurpose area, a cafe, and two curvy transit headhouses, wrapped in a cottony pouf of trees. But peek below the surface, specifically to the underground transit area, and this $45 million design by KieranTimberlake and Olin still has some miles to go.

The CCD's vision for Dilworth Plaza, completed only in 1977, is really two projects in one. It's an effort to create a worthy public space in Philadelphia's civic heart, one that is more park and less plaza. Yet, it's also a major transit project intended to provide a gleaming gateway station for the city's underappreciated underground rail network. The problem is that the transit portion is dictating the design of the public space in ways that are good for neither.

That's not to diminish the need for better transit stations. Both the plaza and SEPTA's City Hall station are in a disgraceful state. What should concern city and SEPTA officials is the grandiosity of the CCD's proposed transit room, which would span nearly two blocks below the plaza.

Let's remember that there is already a warren of underground transit facilities in the two blocks west of City Hall, ranging from the Broad Street subway station to the Penn Center concourses to Suburban Station's regional rail platforms. Is another big transit space below Dilworth Plaza really going to make this mess cohere?

Admittedly, a dank, winding corridor already exists under Dilworth Plaza, linking the city's Municipal Services Building to South Broad Street. It was created by Philadelphia's late master builder and planner Edmund Bacon as part of a then-innovative scheme to integrate transit, government services and the workplace.

Bacon imagined Philadelphians streaming into Center City by rail to pay taxes and obtain permits at the MSB's underground counters. Without stepping above ground or crossing a city street, people could follow the concourse to shops or a job in one of the interconnected Market Street office towers.

If the scheme was a bit utopian then, it's definitely outmoded today, since people increasingly pay bills and access city services online. We also understand now that people prefer to go about their business up on the sidewalks, in the light of day.

The CCD's Paul Levy recognizes that the concourse needs help. His organization, which is funded by downtown businesses, recently took over maintenance and has greatly improved its cleanliness. That experience is partly what got his private group interested in redesigning Dilworth Plaza.

The area, both above and below, is unnecessarily complex, with cumbersome changes in levels and inexplicable twists and turns.

Levy's initial concept was to simplify: Smooth things out on the plaza. Create a straight corridor below from north to south. Olin's simple, almost minimalist, plaza design acts as a welcome low-fat side dish to City Hall's ultra-rich facade. So far, so good.

But the transit portion has taken on a life of its own. Instead of just straightening out the underground passage, Levy and the designers now propose a large "transit room" - a full-size train station, really - that would provide a centralized entry for underground rail. For the first time, entrances to the city's two subway lines would face each other in one space.

But the proposed room is so vast that Levy is already talking about installing graphic panels to liven things up, perhaps with historical details about the construction of City Hall. "We think of them as one more reason to come down and take transit," explained Levy, the CCD's president.

Hmmm. Anytime history panels are needed to make an architectural space interesting, alarm bells ought to ring.

They're a sign that the transit room is overscaled. Subway riders don't linger in a station in the same way as suburban commuters, whose trains may depart only once an hour. It's also worth noting that more than 75 percent of riders now access underground rail from the area west of 15th Street. That's where the Market Street office towers are.

This is important because the centerpiece of the redesigned plaza would be two swooping glass headhouses leading to the proposed transit room. Designed by architect Richard Maimon of KieranTimberlake, they are very elegant structures, suggesting in their curves a giant circular frame for City Hall. But does Philadelphia need them?

I suspect that transit dominates the two-prong design because that's where the money is. Since the plan would provide SEPTA's subways with much-needed elevator access, Levy hopes to tap into federal transportation funds for at least a third of the $45 million cost, with the state and the CCD picking up the rest.

There may well be a case for making Dilworth Plaza the city's central train station. You can argue, as Levy has, that the city's subways should be more welcoming to tourists, who will be spending more time on Broad Street once the Convention Center shifts its main entrance there.

But to be convincing, you can't look at the plaza in isolation. The city needs to understand the role played by each of the three squares in this municipal plaza-land, as well as the plaza space in front of the Penn Center and Centre Square towers.

Every one of these spaces has a transit entrance. Perhaps Dilworth Plaza would be better off with different structures. A real restaurant pavilion would be nice, not just a cafe.

The city is belatedly forming a committee to look at the bigger picture. Meanwhile, the Dilworth Plaza redesign keeps chugging along, collecting city permits. Next up, the Art Commission on July 1.


Anonymous RickW said...

I feel the glass headhouses cut the plaza off from the wide opening and view down Market St. I feel that space should be open and inviting people in. I don't know if this can be done or not.

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inga, the design suffers from the same problems as the original assumes this is a transit gateway, it is not. Bacon incorrectly (seems he had a lack of common sense here) people would want to do their business underground, they didn't. Moreover, the whole plaza was a poor idea. It's underutilized because they put it in the wrong place. They should have left broad st as city hall's western boundaries and put the plaza west of Broad (on top of 15th). The transit gateway people use is west of 15th. People simply don't use city hall to get to the subway or Regional Rail, this is particularly true with the opening of Market East. Worse, the city owned concourses are flat out disgusting. I'd like to see more commerce there, including in City Hall itself. I'd like to see a cafe and tavern in the courtyard of city hall, giving people reason to linger there. Let's hope they do a better job than with Cafe Cret which doesn't have the facilities necessary to cook.

10:51 AM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Anonymous makes some very good points here.

11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

first of all, Inga, is there anything you do like? It must be so hard for you to pick out an outfit every day.

second, I will never, never eat in the concourse level - even at comcasts new digs - after seeing a huge rat in the former burger king in suburban station. cant even imagine what is behind those walls.

why didnt they put the casino on dilworth square? no ownership problems there. Casinos are the answer for every on of society's problems.

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

The interior rendering from the paper edition doesn't look much better than the existing underground concourse. And just imagine when that glass ceiling gets as dirty as the glass subway entrance across the street. It seems to me that the underground concourse could be reduced in size by at least half.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The new transit councourse under Dilworth Plaza will be a significant improvement over the current maze of narrow, low-ceiling passageways with frequent twists, turns, and steep up and down stairways that currently serves as Philadelphia's most important transit transfer point. A transit rider decending from one of the new kiosks will be able to clearly locate the entrances to all three rapid transit lines instantly, each will be directly from the concourse. In terms of the location of the kiosks, I can't think of a better use for a central public space than for the central hub of the city's public transit system and gateway to its diverse nieghborhoods.

11:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If it were up to me City Hall would be demolished and the land it sits on would become Centre Square once again. The building has outlived it`s usefulness and has always been a monument to government corruption.It would become a public green space with the William Penn statue placed in the middle. And all of the statuary on the City Hall building would be placed in the Art Museum or along the Parkway.

7:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

City Hall isn't going anywhere and if it did, the building would be make a fine hotel and public plaza. The problem with the idea of the "transit gateway" funeling everyone in is that they will be coming from west market, largely. The major transit points at 16th and market, 15th and market (clothespin), and 15th and JFK (which deserves it's own entrance so users don't have to cross JFK. the hallway is there (it leads to the MSB) but there's no access to street level. There's really noting great you can do with Dilworth plaza for transit. this is an improvement except the glass headhouse which is useless. It's overbilled as a solution though, it will simply be less bad.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Jesse said...

I believe this is a programming issue. As you rightly point out, Inga, subway commuters are not going to linger they will move swiftly through no matter how much nicer the space.
If people are going to truly take advantage of Center Square it will take a wholesale masterplan which includes the ground floor and courtyard of City Hall. A Visitor's Center like the former one at Love Park and a move of the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia to Dilworth Plaza and the Ground Floor of City Hall respectively would be a start. This along with the transit connection could create a true gateway to Philadelphia for tourists, conventioneers, commuters, and residents alike.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Davis said...

The glass headhouses are dreadful - not elegant. They'll soon have the same pigeon ... as the one on the opposing side of 15th Street. A horrible mistake.

I echo Al Holm's critique, frankly - the existing design was good in many ways and merely needs to be tweaked.

12:09 PM  

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