The Parkway is a disaster — let’s fix it! (Broad Street Review, 10/28/2014)

Source: Broad Street Review
Date: October 28, 2014
Byline: Gregory Heller

As the Benjamin Franklin Parkway approaches its centennial in 2017 and 2018, a group of scholars and urbanists are planning a multiyear celebration of the parkway’s role in Philadelphia. The steering committee asked me to participate in their planning group, and though the invitation flattered me, it also gave me pause. Does the Parkway really deserve a multi-year celebration? No. Why? Because, as hard as it may be to admit, the Parkway was a mistake.

The idea of a boulevard connecting Philadelphia’s center to Fairmount Park originated as early as the 1850s. In 1891, a group of “prominent citizens” presented City Council with a petition endorsing the concept. James H. Windrim, the city’s director of public works, drafted the first plan and the concept was approved by the City Councils (there were two of them back then) in 1892. Thanks to the Republican machine government that thrived on graft from large civic construction projects, the plan moved forward.

City Beautiful

In the early 20th century, the progressive design community was enamored with the City Beautiful movement, inspired by grand boulevards of Europe, as well as Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the 1902 McMillan plan for Washington D.C. The Fairmount Park Art Association commissioned a plan for Philadelphia’s boulevard by a group of well-known designers: Paul Cret, Clarence Zantzinger, and Horace Trumbauer. After much debate around the configuration and alignment of the roadway, the plan was completed in 1907 and was put on the official City Plan in 1909. The voters approved a $1 million loan to finance the boulevard.

In 1917 the Fairmount Park Commission hired French landscape architect Jacques Gréber to revamp the boulevard design. As a result, Logan Square was converted to a circle and the Library and Municipal Court buildings were designed to evoke the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The overall approach was to make Philadelphia’s boulevard an homage to the Champs Elysées.

Construction started in 1917 and the boulevard opened to traffic in 1918. The construction required the demolition of 1,300 properties, displacing thousands of individuals and businesses. In 1937, City Council named the boulevard the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The Parkway was built as a grand avenue, lined with trees and great civic and cultural buildings, to get people from downtown to the park. While it sounds good in theory, it just doesn’t work in reality. As built today, the Parkway is a large, high-speed roadway that is bereft of activity and hard for pedestrians to cross. Not that pedestrians have many reasons to walk it in the first place; after you get past Logan Square, you can count the number of widely scattered destinations on one hand.

The biggest thing to happen to the Parkway in recent history was the Barnes Foundation’s arrival. While it was an amazing achievement to bring the Barnes to Center City, adding one more set-back building to a scattered collection of destinations did not significantly change the dynamic of the Parkway

“A museum ghetto”

Numerous writers have highlighted the Parkway’s shortcomings. For example, in a 2012 article on Hidden City, Greg Meckstroth called it “a veritable museum ghetto that often becomes desolate at night. . . . [T]he Parkway appears to be condemned to sour monotony.”[1] Pulitzer-Prize winning architecture critic Inga Saffron began a piece about the Parkway: “Ever since the Parkway opened nearly a century ago, Philadelphians have been trying to figure out how to fix it.”[2]

Jane Jacobs, the most famous urbanist commentator of the 20th century, also detested the Parkway. Jacobs was a notorious hater of the City Beautiful planning, which embraced monumentality over walkable urbanism. One article quoted her bashing the Parkway: “The library has no business being out here and neither do the Art Museum or the Franklin Institute.”[3] As much fame as our city gets from the Rocky steps, imagine how many more visitors the Art Museum would get if it were downtown.

In his book “Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” Penn art history professor David Brownlee skewers the 1950s-60s Urban Renewal planning that resulted in the Vine Street Expressway, the ugly Park Towne Place apartments, and Love Park as having a detrimental effect on the Parkway.[4] While he’s partially right, these elements are not the root problem. What is the root problem? According to Inga Saffron it’s “the lack of density and human activity.”[5]

The Parkway looks good on the Fourth of July and during the marathon. But otherwise it’s an underutilized, poorly planned, highway wasteland of an urban space. We should face up the fact that as much as we love the view from museum steps, and the boulevard of flags on the evening news, the Parkway is a disaster and the city would be better if it were never built.

So what do we do about it?

Let’s fix it.

Center City District/Central Philadelphia Development Corporation has been working toward that goal for at least 20 years. Recent improvements spearheaded by CCD include two new cafes (Café Cret and Logan Square café), re-landscaping of three parks, and a number of other modest, but impactful interventions like lighting and pedestrian improvements.

The Department of Parks and Recreation and Penn Praxis put out a plan last year called “More Park, Less Way,” that proposed a number of small-scale interventions. Inga Saffron criticized the plan stating, “For all those good, small ideas, the new plan shies away from confronting the fundamental design issues that are the source of the Parkway’s failure.”[6]

Center City District’s Executive Director, Paul Levy, is a self-proclaimed “raging incrementalist,” who has spent his career showing the impact of steady, focused change.[7]  However, in 1999 CCD produced a plan for the parkway that was not incremental in the least; it was disruptive and transformative, but it was also shot down and never implemented. After seeing the 1999 plan dismissed by the powers that be, it makes sense that CCD and the City would turn to a strategy of smaller, more attainable projects.

However, that more ambitious plan was 15 years ago, and perhaps today’s Philadelphia is ready to try again with the kind of big, disruptive ideas that will be necessary to turn the Parkway into a successful urban space.

The 1999 plan, called “Completing the Benjamin Franklin Parkway,” had several big ideas, including completely altering the lane configuration of the boulevard to make it more pedestrian friendly, and improving the crossing by the Art Museum — including sinking traffic under a grade-level crossing.[8] I like both of those ideas. However, there was another big idea that I think needs to come first and that is ready for a second try: turning Logan Circle back into a square.

Squaring the circle

Logan Circle is basically a traffic rotary. It creates a barrier that destroys the urban fabric in the northwest quadrant of Center City. Jane Jacobs described Logan Circle this way, “discouraging to reach on foot, and is mainly an elegant amenity for those speeding by, it gets a trickle of population on fine days.”[9] Things haven’t changed much for Logan Circle in 54 years. Given its critical location at the midpoint along the Parkway between the Art Museum and City Hall, and the final transition before Center City devolves into an expanse of ten-lane traffic, Logan Square stands a chance to become reconnected to the surrounding urban fabric.

It’s a not crazy idea. It used to be an urban square, just like Rittenhouse, Washington, and Franklin Squares. And before Jacques Gréber had his way, the previous plan was actually to keep Logan as a square. Transforming it back would not be a new idea so much as reclaiming an original plan for the Parkway that was better and less disruptive to the urban landscape.

A park rather than a traffic circle would have a number of benefits. It would draw more walkers into the northwest quadrant of the city. It would greatly improve property values of the buildings around it and unify the surrounding communities. It would potentially open up new parcels for residential and retail development. It could accommodate amenities like additional cafes and a playground. The openings over the Vine Street Expressway could be decked to create a more welcoming approach to the Free Library and the planned Kimpton hotel. The new square could potentially include underground parking to accommodate commuters and visitors to the Franklin Institute and other destinations.

Who’s with me?

Let’s start now in making the Parkway a more successful urban space by building the coalition needed to convert Logan Circle back into a square. It’s going to take time and a lot of support and money, but it will be worth it. We will reclaim about 20 acres of prime Center City land, shrink the Parkway down to a more manageable length, and bring the activity of downtown closer to our cultural boulevard.

Instead of spending 2018 celebrating the history of the Parkway with scholarly talks, let’s set a goal of celebrating the opening of a new Logan Square — a reclaimed urban neighborhood and a victory for Center City.

 Above right: Logan Square was a circle in 1865. The intersection in the foreground is 20th & Vine Streets. The large domed building (left) is the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The pedimented building (right) on Race Street between 18th and 19th Streets is Wills Eye Hospital (now the site of the Four Seasons Hotel). Logan Square was converted into Logan Circle in the 1920s. (via Wikipedia)

Above left: Image by David Slovic from the 1999 Center City District plan “Completing the Benjamin Franklin Parkway”; used with permission.

[1] Greg Meckstroth, “If The Parkway Were A Pizza, It’d Be Awfully Plain,” Hidden City, November 29, 2012 (http://hiddencityphila.org/2012/11/if-the-parkway-were-a-pizza-itd-be-awfully-plain/)

[2] Inga Saffron, “Small steps toward Ben Franklin Parkway progress,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 2, 2013 (http://articles.philly.com/2013-02-02/news/36686556_1_parkway-manager-fix-it-plan-small-plans).

[3] Frederick Pillsbury, “I Like Philadelphia… with some big IFs and BUTs,” The Sunday Bulletin Magazine, June 24, 1962.

[4] David Brownlee, “Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art” (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989) 115-116.

[5] Saffron.

[6] Saffron.

[7] “raging incrementalist” quote from  Joann Greco, “Challenges for Viaduct Project: Ownership, community and cultural implications, a large and diverse space, and civic ramifications,” Plan Philly, March 22, 2013 (http://planphilly.com/articles/2013/03/22/challenges-for-viaduct-project-ownership-community-and-cultural-implications-a-large-and-diverse-space-and-civic-ramifications).

[8] Central Philadelphia Development Corporation, “Completing the Benjamin Franklin Parkway,” 1999.

[9] Jacobs 93