Is Philly ready for greatness? Maybe, maybe not (Broad Street Review, 9/23/2014)

Source: Broad Street Review
Date: September 23, 2014
Byline: Gregory Heller

I’ve been to Dilworth Park three times since its grand opening on September 4th. The first time I was rushing to a meeting and was about to walk around the north side of City Hall. Then I remembered that Dilworth Park was open, so I cut through City Hall as we used to do in the days of yore. It was midday, and the space was full of business types with suits and cell phones. Dilworth Park looked clean, new, and expansive. There wasn’t anything there to blow me away, but it felt good.

Soon thereafter, I read Inga Saffron’s review of DP in theInquirer, which basically rips DP and Center City District a new one. Then I read Victor Fiorillo’s article in Philly Mag titled “Everybody Hates Dilworth Park.” I felt the way one does after going out on a great first date, but then you talk to a friend who also dated the person, and you learn she’s actually completely insane.

A week later, I found myself at DP in the evening. There were a dozen or so people in the park. The water jets are pretty dramatic at night, lit up, popping out of the dark pavement. I stopped for a few minutes to watch. Again I liked DP. But why were those articles so hostile? I was confused.

The third time was charmless

The third time I visited was a gloomy Sunday, and half of the water jets were turned off. The park felt barren without the fountain element — big and gray and desolate. People were passing through but nobody was sitting around enjoying the park. I started to see the park’s imperfections. It felt bland and monotonous.

I was also turned off by the signs that say “This is the entrance to transit, not to the emergency room. No skateboarding allowed.” I have friends who skate and are smart grown-up people with real jobs, and I’ve learned that the way we treat skateboarders says a lot about how cool/uncool our city is. Can you imagine if there were a sign that said, “This is a corporate lobby, not a coffee shop”? That’s basically the same thing. The signs in DP are not cute; they’re snarky and rude and need to go.

I ended my third visit miffed and depressed. I concluded that DP is better than the old plaza. But it also isn’t great.

A look back

Many Philadelphians either never knew or can’t remember what DP was before. Back in the day, it was the site of Broad Street Station, the depot for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The station sat on a weird little parcel, and 15th Street actually divided at that point and ran around both sides of it. When the Railroad tore down the station, the fate of that parcel was uncertain until, in 1961, Mayor Dilworth made a commitment that the City would buy it and turn it into a public park. Architect Vincent Kling created an interesting design that never functioned well and aged even worse.

By the 2000s, the plaza was definitely ready for an update, and in 2010 the Center City District released a set of plans for a revamped plaza. At this point, I was on the board of an organization called Design Advocacy Group (DAG), and I chaired a committee to formulate DAG’s opinion of the proposed plans for DP and come up with an op-ed that we would publish. I led the committee and we wrote an op-ed, but the group’s leadership thought it was too critical of the design. I ended up resigning from DAG’s board, frustrated. The op-ed never got published.

Recently I scoured my email and found the op-ed draft. Two points are worth reviving and reconsidering.

I tried to tell them . . .

The first point was that the renovation should not stop at DP but should also include a redo of the two corners across 15th Street, at Market. If you stand  by the Clothespin, it is striking how DP, though more modern now, is still an island surrounded by traffic. It would have been great if this project could have calmed and pedestrianized that intersection, unifying those three corner plazas into a real civic center.

Another takeaway from the op-ed was its hope that rather than a complete tear-down renovation, perhaps there was a way to incorporate some of the old plaza with the new. I admit that the old plaza had a lot of dysfunction and failure, but it also had some interesting multi-level spaces and sculptural elements that are going to be awesomely retro when people look at photos a decade from now. Wasn’t there a way to build a new plaza and retain some of the old details, building a bridge between past and future? It’s too late for DP, but there are other old downtown spaces still to be renovated.

At the end of the day, DP leaves much to be desired. I know raising $55 million is no easy task. The 41 percent of contracts that went to women- and minority-owned firms is impressive. We have to give credit to pulling off a project that ultimately makes our city better. But it could have been so much better still. Maybe we got our hopes up too much, but after visiting recent urban park projects in other places that blew me away, DP disappointed.

Are we ready to have our minds blown?

There are two possible ways of looking at DP: 1) Center City District and two of our city’s top design firms (Kieran Timberlake and OLIN) failed to deliver on the park’s potential, or 2) Philadelphia is not ready for a mind-blowing civic project because it lacks the political leadership and muscle, high public expectations, and financial wherewithal to build something with the impact (if not the scale) of Chicago’s Millennium Park.

I actually think the second answer, though frustrating, is more likely. On the other hand, DP was planned five years ago, and our city’s psyche is different now. Had the planning for DP begun today, the result may have been quite different. The mastermind behind DP is Paul Levy, the head of Center City District. For years, I have really admired Paul. I believe he’s one of the most important people responsible for Philly’s rebound over the past 20 years or so. I’ve interacted with Paul enough to know that nobody wants to see Philadelphia do mind-blowing things more than he does. It’s possible, though, that he’s just a lot more patient than the rest of us.