Monday, December 08, 2008

Last Dash Across the SS Bridge

Gary Hack was in his first days as dean of Penn's School of Design when he was called to an emergency meeting to discuss a new design for the South Street Bridge. That was 1996, he told me during a recent conversation, and he remembers being informed the bridge's closing was imminent. But when he ended his 12-year term as dean this fall, traffic was still speeding across the bridge's pot-holed deck. He isn't the only one who has been fretting about the bridge's replacement for the better part of a decade.

I wrote my first column about the proposed design in 2001, after attending a packed neighborhood meeting at the Greater St. Matthews Church in Grays Ferry. It was clear then that the city was intending to replace the walkable, intimately scaled 85-year-old former drawbridge with a standard-issue, interstate-grade span. The neighborhood was furious and demanded that the Streets Department go back to the drawing board. But when the design was presented as a fait accompli at a second public meeting in February of 2007, not a single important detail had been changed.
The bridge probably would have ended up as the evil twin of the Walnut Street Bridge had it not been for the election of Mayor Nutter later that year and the efforts of a de-
termined group of concerned citizens, led by planner James Campbell of Campbell Thomas , the Democratic Party's 30th Ward Leader Marcia Wilkof, her predecessor Terry Gillen, and - yes - former state Sen. Vincent Fumo. Fumo secured a state grant that enabled opponents to hold a charette last winter that produced a more pedestrian and bike friendly alternative. (see blog post here.)

The changes aren't perfect, but the people who took part in the charette consider them a big victory. They came out in today's sub-freezing temperatures to celebrate with a last trip across the quirky, iron-railed bridge. Members of the Bicycle Coalition were out in force and fleece for a final ride over the bumpy deck. (That's Streets Department Commissioner Clarena Tolson being interviewed in the photo, as Marcia Wilkof looks on.) Trophy Bike's Michael McGettigan arrived just in time to provide the music with his pimped-out radio bike.

And what can we expect when the new bridge is finished, some 24 months from now? "It's going to a be a lot safer bridge than the one originally proposed," promised Kyle Gradinger, one of the planners from Wallace Roberts & Todd who worked on the changes. The new version will have four lanes, instead of the five originally proposed. That means there should be more safe territory for bicyclists and pedestrians. The group also managed to get the signal pattern for the traffic lights changed to make the crosswalk at the infamous I-76 death ramps more manageable. Once Mayor Nutter made it clear he favored a more pedestrian and bicycle friendly bridge , the city Streets Department did a 180-degree turn and began working with the neighbors to implement the changes. They even proposed one of their own: a mid-bridge cross walk to the ramp for the Schuylkill Banks trail. It shows you that mayoral leadership is just as important as federal dollars in determining the quality of Philadelphia's public spaces.
The one change that hasn't been finalized yet is the new design for the bridge railing and outlook towers. But it does seem that the awkward tin boxes in the 2007 design have been canned. The same group that organized last winter's charette plans to hold another one early next year to work out a new scheme. The city will probably be tweaking the design right up the day the bridge reopens. And if all goes well, that could be sometime in 2011.


Blogger tHE iNSIDER said...

So what does the thing look like and who designed it.

9:05 PM  

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