If The Parkway Were A Pizza, It’d Be Awfully Plain

 

The Free Library to the left, Family Court Building to the right, with the section of the Vine Street Expressway to be capped in the foreground | Photo: Hidden City Daily

For some fifty years, the gospel of Jane Jacobs has been playing like a drumbeat in our ears. Create density, mix uses, activate the urban landscape (and make us better humans)! Now, a pastor, Eric Jacobsen, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, has joined the chorus with his second book on Christianity and urban design, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic Press, 2012). “A city is like a pizza, and a neighborhood is like a slice of pizza,” he writes. “Just as a slice of pizza should contain all the ingredients of the pizza, each neighborhood should contain all the things we enjoy and value about the city: homes, coffee shops, ball fields, churches, grocery stores, and so on. The suburban experiment that was so influential in the 20th century involved dividing up the functions of the city into different zones: housing, shopping, office, recreation. This works about as well as eating the elements of your pizza in different courses: you’re still getting the same nutritional value, but you’ve lost the joy of your pizza.”

Jacobsen isn’t presenting anything new, certainly. There are any number of books on my shelf that say the same thing. But his participation in the conversation points up the difficulty in altering patterns of investment and corporate behavior. Institutional investors, real estate developers, insurance companies, and corporate decision makers are enmeshed in a system that penalizes the pizza.

And indeed, those of us who want some pizza have to keep demanding it. Even amidst Philadelphia’s traditional streetscape the Modernist insistence on segregating land uses endures. Given the city’s institutional-based economy–with eds and meds and cultural uses taking up more and more physical space–single-use ghettos prevail. Despite some attempt at ground floor retail around the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, for example, a booming sterile city within a city is emerging.

The separation of uses is easy for us to criticize in this post-industrial era, but it isn’t always wrong (as Alex Vuocolo reported last week, the people who live near the port or I-95 in Port Richmond might attest to that). And moreover, big cities allow for hierarchies of land uses. Imagine if every district of the city had an even mixture of uses. Pizza would get old pretty quick.

Still, the most confounding of Philadelphia’s single-use districts is the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a veritable museum ghetto that often becomes desolate at night. With three new institutional projects in the works–the Mormon cathedral, a proposed Holocaust museum, and the fledgling Envision Peace Museum–the Parkway appears to be condemned to sour monotony.

The Granary project under construction, 20th and Callowhill Sts. | Photo: Hidden City Daily

Or is it? The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation has just issued a request for qualifications to developers for the repurposing of the Family Court Building on Logan Square. A boutique hotel there, as some envision, would create a new dimension to the space. Also, a $100 million Whole Foods supermarket and apartment complex appears to be in the works at 22nd Street. The Granary, with its traditional urban design, will bring residential and retail uses to the edge of the Parkway.

City, Center City District, and Fairmount Park officials, together with the State of Pennsylvania and the Pew Charitable Trusts, have been attempting to augment the single use reality; over the past decade they’ve implemented a number of improvements along the Parkway to animate it and make it more pedestrian friendly. These projects have been extensive, leaving us with better pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, lighting, street trees, parks and fountains, cafes, and programmable spaces such as Sister Cities Park and the future Paine’s Park. And more improvements are coming next year to the 1600 and 1700 blocks.

In addition, officials in the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation have launched an “action plan,” which already went through a community engagement process and will be released in the coming months, to identify projects that can be implemented in the next three years to help better connect the Parkway to surrounding neighborhoods.

These interventions will be “low investment” but are meant to have “high impact,” meaning they’ll make the Parkway’s public realm livelier and more attractive on the cheap. While the details of the plan have yet to emerge, the thinking exploits some of the successes of The Porch at 30th Street Station, so expect even more pop-up cafes in strategic places, increased recreational opportunities, and design features such as gateways and exemplary landscapes.

Looking east from 22nd St. over the Vine Street Expressway | Photo: Hidden City Daily

While these projects old and new make a hostile space more inviting, they won’t fundamentally change the pattern of land use in a way that would satisfy Jane Jacobs, Pastor Jacobsen, or real estate economists. For that to happen, we need to plan for more intense uses at the edges. And to do that–on the southern edge at least–we need to cap the Vine Street Expressway between 20th and 22nd (a partial cap is already in the works in front of the Free Library at 20th Street). The cap between 20th and 22nd–the single most effective and lucrative investment to make–would create immediately valuable land for ambitious development linking Center City to the Parkway.

While officials have given up on fundamentally altering Eakins Oval in front of the Art Museum–it is only open space large enough for major festivals and stages–the triangle to its immediate north (between 23rd and Spring Garden Streets and Kelly Drive) could be developed in a way that draws on the energy of the adjacent Fairmount neighborhood.

Triangle bounded by Spring Garden Street, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Art Museum Drive | Photo: Hidden City Daily

The northern edge will also benefit from the development of the City Branch for transit or park uses. But while that’s unlikely to have immediate impact, SEPTA could consider rerouting buses so that they more adequately and intentionally serve the Parkway. At present, no bus routes traverse the Parkway, a policy that must have been made by devilish Modernists in the anti-urban 1950s.

About the author

Greg Meckstroth is an urban planner/designer, freelance writer, and recent Philly transplant. Greg received a Master of Community Planning from the University of Cincinnati in 2009 and has spent the last few years bouncing around the private sector planning world, more recently moving to Philly to work for a nationally renowned design firm in Center City. He also writes for Flying Kite Media and blogs at the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog. Twitter follow: @GMeckstroth.



11 Comments


  1. You state that the proposed changes isn’t enough to make the parkway lively. I’m curious what things you would propose to make the parkway more accessible.

    I’ve often thought about this and even came up with a few ideas to improve the parkway. Most of my ideas can be seen in the map below:

    https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=214637047255405542196.0004c7c6fd0b15fe4acd0&msa=0&ll=39.96209,-75.174615&spn=0.008371,0.014162

    My thought is to put apartments/offices along the parkway with ground-floor retail, reduce the traffic lanes and also add in a few cross streets so that the parkway wouldn’t feel so much like a highway.

    The buildings wouldn’t be more than say 6 stories, think of the Parisian model. I also realize that building on the ball fields on the parkway wouldn’t be a popular idea, however there are many ball fields in Fairmount and Francisville that are rarely used and even more space in the rest of Fairmount park

    • I agree with your 23rd St. idea – extending it south and connecting it to Park Towne Place. From a transportation perspective, the best thing that could be done to the Parkway is institutionalizing as many road connections as possible, eliminating repetitive asphalt, and creating more urban block sizes.

    • The ball fields in Francisville and Spring Garden are heavily used already – almost daily. Last year they were playing ball the week before Christmas, so don’t think that’s an alternative to the Von Coln field. It’s not.

  2. What’s the plan for the partial cap you refer to in front of the Free Library? More park space or something built?

    • There is a plan to cap the small triangle in front of the library and hope to cap the adjacent rectangular opening. Doing so would just create a more contiguous plaza in front of the library. –ed.

  3. A bus or light rail that hugs the curb running in front of the museums would make sense. With large windows
    to take in the beautiful buildings as it goes along. Using the city branch as a bus route would be a tragic mistake.
    Viaduct greenes proposal to use the 3 mile space as a park / bike trail would invite many more people into the
    area. The parkway is lovely but to often it feels like your next to a highway. The parking lot in front of the art museum always seems out of place , couldn’t that space be repurposed for somthing more than just parking?
    All the parks and cafe’s are great but that lot stands out like an abandoned house on a parkway full of great
    museums.

  4. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of retail the Granary will bring and what will fill the space once Whole Foods relocates.

    Capping 676 will go a long way if there is willingness to develop the spaces between the museums. I don’t see this as a forum to debate the city branch as much as deciding how Philadelphians view this boulevard.

    I do feel there is some serious reconfiguration needed. I don’t see the reason for the large medians and split lanes. Is this supposed to resemble the Champs Elysees or Roosevelt Blvd?

    Also, it appears that the avg. Philadelphian doesn’t realize this is actually an unfinished product. We need an organized effort from the city for upscale cafes, restaurants, retail and even some offices. Nothing really pushes through outside of Museums though. I don’t think we need to police the functionality as much as solely the architecture here, because right now it feels like communist Russia’s attempt at a Parisian Blvd. Especially, with the uninspired apt buildings on the walk up. JFK house to Parktowne Pl.

    It looks nice in aerial shots though.

  5. Even if it is just for museums the Parkway is a boulevard that most cities would die for and can only dream about. There’s already plenty of changes taking place to add more retail, nighttime activity, and recreation to the Parkway and surrounding blocks, anyway, so we don’t have to wring our hands about those things so much. Why can’t we just appreciate what we have for once and brag about it instead of looking for things to criticize? You think grand boulevards and public plazas in other cities are so perfect?

    And so there’s traffic. It’s a grand boulevard in the middle of downtown of a huge metropolitan city; you can’t have something like that without plenty of traffic. It’s the way big cities are. Remember the Parkway every time you here someone whine about Philadelphia’s “restrictive Colonial Era street grid” and how it limits development or when people say we don’t have grand boulevards like New York, etc.

    • It’s very hard to imagine any of the very wonderful changes that have occurred on the Parkway over the last decade without there having been first thoughtful and careful criticism, deep interest in the history of the place and how it developed, love of the city–what it is and what it might be–and the very hard work of planners, visionaries, government officials, foundations, and the private sector. There is no change without “hand wringing,” and great cities such as this one are confident and complex enough to withstand a little self-analysis.

      Had Paul Levy of the Center City District not looked at the Parkway critically, researched the history of its design, found that in fact the original design of the Parkway had never been fully implemented, and then become inspired, excited, and motivated by the challenge of capturing at least the spirit of the original design (which had been shunted quite quickly by the overwhelming presence of the automobile), there wouldn’t have been $2 billion invested in our grand boulevard. The fact was the Parkway was a shadow of what a great urban boulevard might be and its now most certainly headed in the right direction. But that’s after enormous effort, a pathbreaking institutional move (the Barnes), and constant fundraising for infrastructure improvements–all during a period of scarce resources for the public sphere.

      I wonder why it would be inappropriate or demeaning to compare Philadelphia to other cities. We at Hidden City love Philadelphia, invest most of our time thinking about it, encourage our readers, members, and audience to explore, take part, discover, celebrate, imagine, and embrace this wonderfully imperfect place. But Philadelphia didn’t develop somehow separately from New York or Boston or Baltimore–or Paris or London for that matter–but as part of a system of western urban development and we have a shared history and face shared challenges. Cities the world over learn from each other, steal ideas, and try to do out do one another, often in search of the same demographics of people who will come to live and invest. Is it somehow wrong to observe what other cities do with the hope of learning from them, or becoming inspired?

      The rest of our time we–and so many others so actively engaging in shaping and reshaping the city–spend advocating for better planning, better preservation policies, better contemporary architecture, better journalism, etc., because this city deserves all that, not because we don’t appreciate all the wonderful things that we have (we are pathological urbanists here, after all, in love with all the ugliness and beauty a city can produce). There is a big difference between a nagging negativity, which you will never find in the pages of this website (but from the occasional reader comment), and reflection, analysis, contextualizing, and exploration. If that is somehow whining, then our intent is being very much misinterpreted. –ed.

  6. I really respect the opinions of the writers on the site along with anyone commenting it. Honestly, finding this site and being engaged in it alone shows that each reader must strongly feel for Philly in some way.

    That being said, the parkway is a great asset for this city. I do agree that most cities should be envious of having such a luxury, but I don’t hold Philadelphia in competition with lower cities. I look at Philly and wonder how can it be the undisputed best city in this country.

    This is why anyone would want public transportation to be better. This is why we can compare the parkway with it’s inspiration (Champs Elysees) and see where there is room to improve, and also why we can look at other cities, NYC (fifth avenue, central park) or Chicago (magnificent mile) and see where Philly can take that next step.

    The parkway was a forward thinking concept based on Paris to apply to Philly’s grid. 150 years later, there is no reason to dissolve the inkling to keep pushing this city to where it can be. Cutting this short because I went out tonight x-(

  7. Greg, there actually are two bus routes that run the upper Parkway–the 38 and the Phlash.

    The original City Beautiful plan for the Parkway has always been to connect Fairmount Park with Center City. There has always been a tension between two competing visions on how to do this: does one use the Parkway as an axis to extend Center City to the park? or to extend the park to Center City? The latter is today predominant, and both of us are of the argument that it’s just not very good urban design.

    What the City wants to do is add small-time investments in improving the park and its programming (small cafés, active recreation, etc.). I think, however, that the best real solution is to rethink the Center City-park connection and upzone on the park-zoned parcels along the Parkway. The Calder parcel, Park Towne Place lawn, the ballfields between it and the train track, the two parcels on either side of Rodin, and van Colln would all be parcels I want to densify (with appropriate shifting of active-recreation resources, of course).

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