Friday, November 09, 2007

What's behind (or, in front of) City Hall's concrete adddition

Not surprisingly, Philadelphians reacted suspiciously this week when workers started constructing a cinder block structure at the northeast corner of City Hall. What new act of official vandalism could be perpetrated now against Philadelphia's great civic center?
Well, suspicious minds can rest easy. The city is a constructing a wheelchair ramp for the disabled, which will feed into the new security entrance. The 24-foot-long ramp, which was more than two years in the making, was meticulously designed by Joseph Powell of Buell Kratzer Powell "to look as if it were something that had always been there."
The cinder blocks will be faced in three-inch-thick panels of rusticated granite that were selected from a Quebec quarry to match the stone at the base of City Hall. Although the individual sections are not the exact dimensions of City Hall's stones, they have been sized in a proportional relationship to the originals.

The design was approved after a lengthy vetting process by the city Historical Commission staff. Two changes have been ordered since the above rendering was completed: The stair rail has been eliminated. And the design of the metal side rail has been simplified. It will looked more picket-like, Powell said, and will be topped with brass finials.
There may be a lesson here for Schuylkill River Park, which is now furiously trying to design a 1,000-foot-long ramp to go over the CSX tracks. (see post below). If it took two-plus years to create a handsome 24-foot ramp for City Hall, is it humanly possible to design a decent park ramp many times that size, with many more complications, in just two years?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Images of Schuylkill Park Bridges

See post below.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

See Broad Street in a New Light

The Center City District is determined that you see Philadelphia's great buildings in a new light. Having previously turned City Hall into a Victorian tart (see post here) for Christmas in 2004, the downtown business improvement district now plans to give some other landmarks an extreme, if temporary, make-over for this holiday season. The CCD will draw its light sabers at precisely 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 7, (speeches start at 5:30 p.m. at the Bellevue) with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony blasting down the Avenue of the Arts in accompaniment.

First to get to bathed in light will be the Terra Building, a University of the Arts tower on the southeast corner of Walnut Street. I saw a test lighting in red, white and blue the other night that looked fairly understated in comparison with the heavy duty Victorian gilding planned for McKim Mead and White's marble columned temple at Chestnut Street (above), now the entrance to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The Merriam Theater and two University of the Arts' buildings at Pine Street, John Haviland's austere Greek Revival hall and Anderson Hall, will also be colorized for the rest of the year. Being a holiday promotion, there will be food and some free goodies. The son et Lumiere show is designed jointly by the Lighting Practice, Artlumiere, Philips Lighting, and Vitetta.

Their intent was to find a clever and fun alternative to the usual Christmas lights, and to make us look afresh at buildings we pass all the time. It's unclear if the five custom-designed light costumes will work together as an ensemble, but it's a good bet that they will be anything but serene. But it's nice to know that if the lights turn out to be a little gaudy, at least they won't color Broad Street forever.

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: