Death By A Thousand Curb Cuts

 

602 S. 8th, where two curb cuts have been requested | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

602 S. 8th, where two curb cuts have been requested | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

What do we expect from a development parcel? If you are the owner of the parcel, you expect, at the very least, to make some money. If you’re a city official, you’d like the parcel, if it is indeed vacant or underutilized, to throw off some tax revenue to fund city services. You may also hope the development adds value to the surrounding properties by adding amenities or leveraging a neighborhood’s strengths, like walkability or density or beauty.

If you’re a Philadelphian, you’re probably not accustomed to expecting that the development might make the city more attractive, more lively, or more interesting. You may not have realized that was an option. But, in fact, it’s one of the foremost goals of the new zoning code.

7th and Bainbridge | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

7th and Bainbridge | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

In Bella Vista, where I live, that expectation has been undermined for the last two decades by a stream of poor quality and unimaginative new buildings that give nothing to the street. And at the ground level, where we experience the city, most of these new buildings give us a vinyl garage door–or as in the above photograph a wall of strange, unsettling gates–for the pedestrian, a slap in the face.

In her column last week, the Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron made the point that parking garages deaden the downtown street. But the effect of inserting private parking into the neighborhood street is still more pernicious, for there is likely less at play to counteract the detrimental anti-urban effects.

One the reasons the curb cut is relatively easy to insert into our neighborhood streets is also why it’s so detrimental to Philadelphia’s urban rhythm: the relatively intimate scale of the street. With almost no grand neighborhood boulevards, we rely for street life on the small play: the flower box, the architectural detail, the window display, the bench. The curb cut interferes with that wonderful rhythm, and turns what might be a rewarding walk into a stroll to nowhere.

Near 9th and Christian | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Near 9th and Christian | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

In the last decade particularly, dozens of “curb cuts” for private garages have been granted in Bella Vista. This was the case principally because until the new zoning code, a curb cut was required by law (the idea was to remove the burden of extra cars from the street). But the garage, which acts like a repellant to street life, was also unfurled as a weapon of control: for Bella Vista, endowed with South Street and the Italian Market–part of a powerful urban concentration I called in Song of the City “the bazaar”–was dangerous and offensive, vulgar and hot, loud and lurid, disturbing and rippling, violent, gritty, ribald, and strange. In other words, it was a fascinating and alluring place to live. But the neighborhood was also suffused with drugs and addiction and organized crime and a great deal of shouting, cancers that were spreading from the bazaar onto the quiet upstanding “residential” streets around.

The garage was a useful antidote for what had become by the mid-1990s a fearful time. Architecture here and all across the city was used to defend, not to invite or invigorate. But times have changed. Not only is the curb cut no longer legal for new development in Bella Vista, but residents and business owners who moved to the neighborhood because it was lively and dense and interesting want to retain that character despite the damage that’s already been done. Such was the sentiment at a recent neighborhood meeting, when a curb cut on Bainbridge was proposed. (I was one of many who spoke out against the garage; the Zoning Board of Adjustment has yet to issue its ruling on the case.)

602 S. 8th Street | Image: Googlemaps

602 S. 8th Street | Image: Googlemaps

Now, two more garages have been requested for two row houses to be built near the corner of Eighth and South Streets. No really first rate city would consider private house garages immediately adjacent to a major shopping street, but that hasn’t stopped the owner of the parcel from requesting them. He will undoubtedly claim that he won’t be able to sell the houses for enough money without the garages. But why should taxpayers subsidize his bottom line when he is taking away one of our neighborhood amenities, public parking, and ultimately reducing the value of the neighborhood itself? It doesn’t have to work that way, for the buildings that are built there really should make our neighborhood more attractive, more lively, and more interesting.

I was struck by the conversation in the comments on our article about the proposed development that would replace the Third Regiment Armory on South Broad Street. Readers lamented that so few people concerned about strong urban design showed up at the meeting to voice their concerns about what is truly a terrible, reactionary development proposal. Well, if you care about strong urban design for a key neighborhood along the border of Center City and South Philadelphia and believe as I do that additional curb cuts are dangerous for the health of the city, then I encourage you to attend the community meeting about the proposed development at Eighth and South. That meeting will take place at Palumbo Rec Center at Tenth and Fitzwater Streets next Tuesday, March 12 at 7:30.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



13 Comments


  1. So depressing. We seem to live in a city where convenience trumps everything. Not only did these developments reduce the tax base the City needed, it scared the landscape for those who didn’t want their first floors turned into garages.
    Even though it has its own challenges, can you imagine what Dublin would look like if convenient parking was the dominant consideration?

  2. Philadelphia’s comprehensive plan, Philadelphia2035, rightfully calls for an increase in the city’s tree canopy to the current 19% to 30%. Where do street trees fit in the above pictures? Where do pedestrians receive shade? Where is the storm water intercepted and filtrated? How much do we as a community have to sacrifice, so that a developer may profit on a one time transaction and for a single resident to park conveniently. We should not be building car-dependence into neighborhoods that have all major amenities within short walking distances and which are well served by transit.

  3. Agree completely, and the trends in the article are neatly summed by Mr Marcus above, right questioning “building car-dependence into neighborhoods” that have amenities and transit all well within reach. Trying to have it both ways, auto-suburban with an urban address, doesn’t work in either direction.

    And it’s worth mentioning that a curb-cut takes out more than a single street-parking space, and two of them serving adjacent buildings take out about three street spaces.

    The gated-area in the article’s photo recalls a west-coast trend that is also anti-urban and disturbing. In coastal communities where it is legal, any property with a setback can fence the area from the street. The trend is to make the idea of a “gated” fence obsolete, enclose lawn/yard/walk/steps, and simply wall it off. The developer can then work a garden or pool area into the setback and add that into his equation as property square-footage. The owner accesses the house from the back, gains an outdoor residential area, and the pedestrian gains nothing. With street life already an endangered species, relentless gating and fencing creates a bleak prospect for a “walk”. (message : get into the car and drive to a theme park..?)

    Philadelphia may need a lot of things, but more cars, packed closer to center city, isn’t one of them.

  4. I agree with the Author’s intent, which is to foster a good walking experience. But I’m not so convinced that curb cuts and garages are such a detriment to that goal; I rather like stretches of road unlined with parked cars. In response to J. Donahue’s comment, I likewise agree that we shouldn’t attempt to build suburban lifestyles into urban spaces, and in particular we shouldn’t just blindly move to accomodate unlimited car use. But it strikes me that more curb cuts would lead to fewer cars, not more, since public parking would be scarcer. Maybe it’s more about the balance between car use among visitors vs. residents.

    I’ve always viewed the curb cut discussion as one of on-street parking car owners vs. developers, and as a non-car owner I don’t have much to say. I was at the same community meeting the author mentioned, and he’s right that there was a lot of sentiment opposing the garage due to its impact on street life and walking life. I was surprised to hear this sentiment, and it’s still not obvious to me what the impact is.

    • Street parking is ugly, but it’s preferable to curb cuts, which are much worse than just their ugly appearance.

      • While garages may not look great, they do serve a purpose. In Pennsport, there were always parking problems because each house owns at least 2 cars. With all the new developmnent, it has become a nightmare to find street parking and it’s only going to get worse.

        • I think the point is no matter how many cars we try to get onto a city block some people will always have a desire to have more and it must stop somewhere. Garages only encourage more driving in the city when we have a pretty decent public transportation system. Furthermore they take away more than one space for each garage so they become counter productive if your goal is to have parking on the street.

  5. Difficult to make any definitive statements here regarding regular car use with or without on-site parking; there are a lot of ways to parse this.

    But presumably new developments with on-site garage parking encourage more car use in the city; that’s not much of a leap of faith. They’re not built to appeal to non-car-users who would prefer to walk, bike, or use public transportation. They’re built to be sold to car users.

    From the developer’s point of view, it amounts to a larger number of potential buyers, perhaps a more affluent buyer. From the citydweller’s point of view, it amounts to a campaign of suburbanizing what had been an urban, pedestrian cityscape. And as above, remaking a walk around town into a gauntlet of characterless surfaces, locked, blank doors.

  6. I realized the evil of curb cuts for private garages a bit ago when trying to find parking near center city on a block full of single garages for the row homes. It is simply absurd and counter productive to make private parking to alleviate parking congestion when the result is destroying on street parking.

    I feel there are solutions and compromises, but that would be something like a curb cut leading to communal parking for a half dozen cars or something, only then would you free up street space without destroying on street parking.

    • I agree , having a curb cut kills a spot on the street . And why the hell do people want to put suburban style housing in Philly ? I love my car but if I can leave it parked and take transit I will. Perhaps any developer who wants to build more than a few houses should be forced to include a car condo , their own garage . One entrance
      many cars . You want a car in Philly , you gotta pay !

      • I agree that in the city having a car is something which s painful and should be to a degree. Don’t get me wrong, I love my car and the freedom it gives me, but the city could use less cars, not more. Private parking should be something which owners in city should have to get at their own expense at minimal cost to everybody else in terms of destroying on street parking and the street level environment.

        However, in order for congestion to really slow down we need to push things like bikes and public transit. That means friendlier bike routes and better public transportation. SEPTA needs to step up its game.

  7. Curb cuts are great for cyclists, you can easily change lanes (between the street and sidewalk!)a few times along a block. Nice when the traffic is thick and the street is narrow. Also, they cut your chances down of getting doored.
    I don’t expect this viewpoint to be respected by drivers or pedestrians, though.

    • Nobody respects that because it is ridiculous, and I am a cyclist. There are pretty much curb cuts on every block anyway without saturating blocks with them, and it is not hard to hop a curb anyway.

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