Thursday, July 23, 2009

The High Line, the Reading Viaduct, and the Future of Chinatown

Source: Chinatown Neighborhood Plan

By Greg

The first section of New York City’s long anticipated High Line – the abandoned 1930s rail viaduct transformed into an elevated park – is now open. And the response has been impressive. According to The New York Times, after having been open for a month now, the park draws up to 20,000 visitors daily. When all sections are completed the High Line will be a mile-and-a-half-long park, floating over several West Side Manhattan neighborhoods.

Although still under construction, the High Line has already captured the imagination of New Yorkers. According to the Times, the High Line has organically developed its own “economy” and “arts scene.” A friend of mine recounted running into a crowd on one section of the High Line, just in time for a makeshift “cabaret,” performed by neighbors from the porch of a nearby apartment building. This kind of unusual park, cityscape vista, and opportunity for quirky urban culture is compelling, surely making some folks in other American cities with abandoned railroad viaducts green with envy.

Case in point: In Philadelphia, architecture critic Inga Saffron recently wrote about the High Line, including praise for the work of the University of Pennsylvania’s James Corner, who was part of the High Line design team. Saffron lauded the High Line, calling it “a delightful new way to experience the city,” and asserted that it “should be a model for Philadelphia’s unloved Reading Viaduct.”

Saffron is referring to Philadelphia’s own abandoned elevated rail bed, constructed about 100 years ago, and used until the mid-1980s. Today the abandoned Reading Viaduct cuts through the “Chinatown North” neighborhood, branching off to the west for about .35 miles to Broad Street, and to the northeast for about .6 miles, terminating at Fairmount Avenue and SEPTA’s active regional rail tracks.

Some Philadelphians have been interested in reusing the Reading Viaduct as a park, for more than a decade. In 2003 a diverse group of locals formed the Reading Viaduct Project to drum up support for preserving the viaduct, transforming it into a High Line-esque park. In 2004, design studios at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University focused on re-imagining the viaduct in this way.

However, all Philadelphians are not in consensus about the viaduct’s future. This disagreement surfaced from 2002-2004 during the process of creating the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan. This planning process was coordinated by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), and developed by the design firm Kise, Straw & Kolodner (KSK), involving seventeen different stakeholder groups, including Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), Asian Americans United (AAU), and Callowhill Neighborhood Association.

In the “Chinatown Neighborhood Plan,” published in December 2004 the Reading Viaduct is just one element, but it is clearly an important piece of the Chinatown puzzle. For those not familiar with Philadelphia Chinatown’s political and historical context, here’s some quick background: Since the 1960s the Chinatown neighborhood residents and businesses have been in the streets fighting major development projects that have encroached on their community. These include the Vine Street Expressway, Gallery I & II, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center. All of these projects were built.

As such, the 2004 neighborhood plan describes a community that has slowly been hemmed in to the south, encouraged to look north for future expansion. Additionally, Chinatown has seen rapidly rising residential prices, creating a stated need for affordable housing in the community so that it can continue to serve as an ethnic and cultural gateway.

This background explains some of the controversy over the Reading Viaduct issue. Some in the Chinatown community see the land under the viaduct as dark, dirty and unsafe. At the same time, some see it as prime real estate for the public sector to gain control, demolish the viaduct, and redevelop the land as much needed affordable housing. Some also see the viaduct’s diagonal northern spur as a hindrance to positive growth, creating a swath of small, triangular parcels that cut through the neighborhood.

Yet, others in Chinatown and Callowhill see the potential for an elevated park as a very positive element. The Chinatown plan clearly shows this diversity of opinions and apparent lack of consensus. It includes statements like: “This massive structure is viewed simultaneously as both an obstacle to redevelopment in Chinatown North and as a potential elevated ‘rails to trails’ linear park space.”

Through a multi-year process, the plan’s creators worked hard to build consensus and compromise. The published plan offers such a compromise solution: “Initial thinking on the future disposition of the viaduct has traditionally focused on an ‘either/or’ scenario: complete removal or complete preservation. An alternative scenario is the possibility of selective demolition and the retention of certain segments of the viaduct.”

The images in the plan illustrate how this solution could work. The quarter-mile, masonry-supported spur west to Broad Street would be retained and transformed into a park. The northern spur would be retained for about .2 miles, up to Ridge Avenue, where it would ramp down to the surface and connect with a planned new “town square” park, surrounded by mixed-use development. In this compromise solution, the remaining .4 miles of the northern spur of the viaduct would be demolished. This compromise would allow Chinatown to develop its own “dramatic downtown overlook or ‘sky park’” while also clearing some land for redevelopment.

The viaduct compromise is just one element of the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan. Others include capping a portion of the Vine Street Expressway for a new community park, the aforementioned town square, mixed-use development, affordable housing, and streetscaping. In addition to the viaduct park, the plan also calls for substantial surface park construction.

Also in 2004, the Philadelphia Commerce Department commissioned an environmental study to establish cost estimates for the potential demolition or reuse of the viaduct. When it came out, just after the neighborhood plan, the study showed that demolishing the whole viaduct would cost about $36 million. Demolishing the sections identified in the neighborhood plan would cost about $11 to $13 million. Meanwhile remediation and capping would cost about $5 million. The plan does not assess the costs of building a true park on the viaduct (New York spent $152 million on just the first two sections of the High Line). So the short of it is that demolition would be expensive, remediation and building a park would be much more expensive.

Cost and feasibility aside, after the 2004 planning process, it seemed that the various factions had found some common ground. Keep part of the viaduct for a park, and take down other sections for community development. However, a meeting in Chinatown last night, revisiting the 2004 plan, showed that such consensus has not yet truly occurred. The meeting at Holy Redeemer Church drew a crowd of over 100, featuring John Gibbons of KSK, John Chin of PCDC, and Laura Spina from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Barry Seymour, DVRPC’s executive director, was also on-hand.

The audience members, aided by Mandarin and Cantonese translators, asked questions about a variety of topics. However, the viaduct seemed to steal the show. After John Gibbons described the neighborhood plan, including the viaduct compromise, Sarah McEneaney of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association stood up and explained that the Reading Viaduct Project is still committed to saving the “entire” viaduct and that there were petitions at the front of the room.

She was followed by Andy Toy, past chairman of PCDC, who explained that the vision in the neighborhood plan is “a compromise that allows the viaduct to stay in place.” The rest of the audience remained fairly quiet on the issue, and one resident had never heard of the viaduct – showing that it had not yet gained the mass public awareness of New York’s High Line. There was no resolution to this issue, and so far as the viaduct is concerned, clearly more dialogue needs to happen.

For those focused on turning the viaduct into a park, it is critical to realize that this vision does not currently have the political support to move ahead. The community stakeholders who are still at odds need each other to achieve their desired ends. As such, a success for the viaduct and for Chinatown North will rely on compromise, with stakeholders bridging their differences, acting in concert around a shared vision. As Andy Toy said at the meeting, “We can’t move forward in any way if we continue to disagree.”

At its core, this issue is not just about the viaduct, but about the historic dynamic between Chinatown and the rest of the city and region. The Chinatown residents and business owners must be empowered to determine their neighborhood’s destiny. At the same time, it is important for the community stakeholders to recognize the potential significance of the viaduct as a powerful regional asset.

The Chinatown Neighborhood Plan lays out a strong vision for a physical compromise. Whether the stakeholders can agree to rally around it will determine their ability to convey a shared vision – necessary for generating political support and funding. Whether the stakeholders can find common ground will ultimately determine the fate of this neighborhood’s urban landscape, and Philadelphia’s shot at getting its own floating park.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Market for Design

By Ariel
It is ironic that at the same time the City of Philadelphia is facing considerable constraints on the choices it can make regarding its budget, Philadelphia as a whole has quite a few choices regarding the creation of public spaces in and around the city. The Center City District is advocating the rehabilitation of Dilworth Plaza and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation is hosting a design competition to redo Pier 11.

When projects such as these are criticized it is often on the basis of issues related to site lines, the nature of the preservation of historic elements and other design specific criteria. And well they should. However more basic questions undergirding public (and private) investment in these spaces need to be asked first. This is not to say that Dilworth Plaza and the concourse beneath it do not call out for attention, or that creating a visionary civic space on the Delaware has the ability to be the catalyst for change on the waterfront. Rather it means that the nature of those interventions depends on a variety of issues that are not so much in the realm of design criticism but relate more to market forces and economics, the bugaboo of urban design.

An illustrative point might be Philadelphia’s failed pedestrian thoroughfare experiment along Chestnut Street. In 1976 the city spent over $7 million dollars to create a pedestrian thoroughfare that stretched from 6th to 18th Street, blocking Chestnut Street to all but bus traffic. The failure of businesses and the migration of activity one block south to Walnut Street are all blamed on this street closure. The lesson Philadelphia learned was that street closures are a bad idea. It’s a shame, because street closures, and the pedestrianization of public spaces are wonderful urban amenities. The thing is that they need to be more targeted; not simply smaller (and able to grow with demand) but they need to be appropriate to the retail mix of the street, and yes, they need to accommodate parking as well. All of which is to say that one needs to approach street closures (and all other public spaces) with a bit of an economic eye towards demand and need.

The redesign of Dilworth Plaza features too prominent features, a lawn and walkable fountain. The basic supposition is that if you build it, “it” being a lovely patch of grass to picnic for lunch, they will come. However Love Park has for years remained an underutilized space for workers lunches and I suspect Dilworth Plaza is not the right location for Bryant Park-like; placing a respite oriented picnic spot in such a highly (foot) trafficked area would discourage workers looking for a break. I’d argue that investing similar amounts of money in redoing Love Park, increasing green space, and sidewalk accessibility, would provide a much more popular amenity for workers.

And therein lies the rub, because there is no way so much money will be spent on re-doing Love park, while Dilworth Plaza, sitting atop train station (and not a parking lot) it has a few more constituencies and is eligible for all sorts of federal transit dollars. Big projects and public spaces are designed according to the impetus of the big players building them, and not the market forces demanding them.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fairmount Park Forever

By Ariel

The Urban Sustainability Forum continues to impress; tonight they brought together a wide range of speakers from St. Louis, Portland, and our own backyard to talk about Parkland’s Use and Protection. Lucie Springmeyer, the Executive Director of the St. Louis non-profit Forest Park Forever and Zari Santner, the Director Portland Parks & Recreation were joined by Michael DiBerardinis, the Commissioner of Philadelphia’s newly formed Department of Parks & Recreation in a panel discussion that ranged from park planning to fundraising.

Springmeyer’s work with Forest Park Forever (FPF) was particularly impressive as it illustrated the flexibility that enables park systems to thrive, grow and prosper. A few key principles have helped Forest Park continue to serve its 12 million annual visitors, and ensured that the park (500 acres larger than Central Park) remains relevant, over 100 years after its creation.

For one, FPF ensures that no development or non-natural use of parkland can be built without replacing similar acreage elsewhere in the system. More over the design of recreational activity abides by strict guidelines that preserve the wildlife; the golf course is designed according to standards set by Audubon International. FPF has established a delicate balance that proves that evolution, change and preservation do not have to operate at opposite ends.

However where FPF stands firm is in ensuring a superior level of maintenance. No new construction is begun without appropriate additions to the maintenance trust. The trust is governed by both the City and FPF who have equal votes in its administration and ensures a close working relationship between the city which owns the park and the friends group which has raised over $100 million for the parks rebirth.

How did they raise so much money, half of it from private sources? They did it by ensuring that all their work was built on time and on budget. It’s funny how powerful that word pair is, “on time and on budget” is, but it proved both to private donors and public partners that they could be trusted with their money. Portland Oregon asked its citizens to approve a $10 million bond and their management of public funds was rewarded by another bond approval five years later.

Parks are a unique public service, not only are they universally loved but their good stewardship is easily evidenced. If anything, the most important part of parks is that very stewardship; it is that maintenance of trails and relationships that allows parks to bloom.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Architectural Tour of Fishtown


Young Involved Philadelphia continues its 'Explore Philadelphia' Summer Series with an exciting and insightful walking tour of Fishtown.

Situated to the northeast of Center City, Fishtown figured prominently in Philadelphia's great industrial age of the late 19th/early 20th century when it was developed to house many of the workers who were employed by the major industries that built factories in this part of the city. Discover how Fishtown's residences are going through restoration as it becomes a sought after location in which to live.

We'll head over to Memphis Taproom after the tour to enjoy some afternoon lunch and drinks (lunch and drinks not included in ticket cost so be sure to bring extra cash.)

This tour is brought to you by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Buy tickets ($10) here.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Is Removing I-95 a Possibility?

By Greg

I know I said the next few posts would be about planners and implementation, but I want to note that the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an editorial today suggesting that Philadelphia should consider either covering over some of I-95 or removing it and rebuilding the highway as a surface urban boulevard. This editorial followed up on an article last week by Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron on the same issue.

For those of you who are not from Philadelphia, I-95 is an expressway that runs along the eastern side of the city, and that many have blamed for cutting the city off from its Delaware River waterfront. As part of the Central Delaware Riverfront Planning Process, endorsed by the City and led by Penn Praxis, rethinking I-95 was a major issue in the visioning workshops.

Last December I blogged about this issue of rethinking I-95. The reason for that post was a speech by John Norquist, the president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and Milwaukee's former mayor, in Philadelphia, in which Norquist called on Philadelphians to remove I-95, replacing it with an urban boulevard, and reconnecting Philadelphia to its waterfront.

A number of cities (New York, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Portland, etc.) have done exactly this: removing highways (some with higher traffic volumes than I-95) and replacing them with boulevards. Nobody knows whether this is a possibility in Philadelphia because nobody has seriously studied alternatives to rebuilding I-95. Yet, PennDOT will have to rebuild the highway over the next 15-20 years giving Philadelphia a once-in-a-generation opportunity to study and rethink its future.

It is good to see the Inquirer pushing the envelope. However, in order to get any serious support for rethinking Philadelphia's connection to its waterfront, it will take some serious action from citizens and decision makers. Let's see how this issue unfolds.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Sad Dog This Greyhound


By Ariel

Recently I traveled to Hilton Head, South Carolina, via Greyhound bus. A friend of mine who had been abroad for the past two years was vacationing with family in the Palmetto state. I was both broke and eager to see the South, so Greyhound seemed like a wonderful idea, despite the twenty hour trip time.

Greyhound is a critical part of our national transportation system; not only does it serve those who cannot afford to travel via rail or air, it provides access to rural areas not served by the same. Thus it is a national shame that it's such a terrible way to travel.

I suppose the first indication of the problematic trip to come was the four scheduled transfers I would have to make; every time one has to change vehicles there is an opportunity for something wrong to happen. Thing is, the trip actually had at least seven changes between Philadelphia and Beaufort. While the trip down was without incident coming back a bus driver not only placed an unscheduled pit stop, but his break took four times as long as he mandated us to have (he said, “be back in five” but he took twenty, minutes). This meant that we were forty five minutes late for our 3 AM connecting bus to DC. Greyhound, which was normally pretty scrupulous about having an extra bus to accommodate excess passengers, did not have any buses ready to take the entire bus full of people traveling north and we waited until six in the morning before we caught the next transfer. Miscommunication and lack of information were endemic on the return trip, drivers not sure of connections, ticket agents giving information contrary to drivers’ understandings, etc.

Transportation is as much about information as it is about reliability, and Greyhound failed in both regards.

What was even more ironic was how little of the US I actually got to see. While I had not made it out west to the grand deserts, or long plains of Kansas and Nevada, I had assumed that the difference between the South Carolina and Delaware would be more pronounced. Good Magazine recently profiled the loss of distinctive highway rest-stops across the country, shuttering due to shrinking state budgets and ballooning McDonald’s concessions dotting interchanges and the like. However its not just a matter of unique architecture. It’s the entire roadway, the landscape of the system. While states have begun to build “context sensitive” roadways — highways and interstates that are more sensitive to the topography and local context — our national highways are still anonymous and say little about where we are driving. I mean any state with such towns as Coosawatchie should celebrate its local heritage along the highways in more ways than just signage.

It's this anonymity, lack of reliability and misinformation that drives most Greyhound customers crazy. I did not see one person happy to be traveling by Greyhound. It wasn’t just that the drivers were forced to lecture us about good behavior at the start of each trip (sad not simply because of the resigned and exasperated tone with which they gave that speech but that it was necessary at all). Rather people were obsessed with people cutting in line and the manners of the people around them; with so much out of their control people looked for some way to exert control of their environment. The only point of humanity during the whole trip was when the bus driver woke us up to announce that Michael Jackson was dead.

Greg suggested in one conversation that BoltBus, a subsidiary of Greyhound known for catering to college students and urban professionals, is proof that Greyhound discriminates against the poor (i.e., if BoltBus can run on time, with clean buses and friendly customer service, why can't Greyhound do that for the rest of the system?)

While I suspect that there are matters of scale that wouldn’t translate, the criticism at the heart of this is right. However this is not a matter of one single carrier. In their recommendations for the next transportation authorization bill, “The Route to Reform,” Transportation for America calls for a national transportation system “that allows for seamless travel using multiple modes, vehicles, or transportation providers.” Traveling from a big city in Pennsylvania to a small town in South Carolina should be easy and reliable (and multi-modal) for people of all income levels.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

What Is the Planner's Job?

By Greg

I attended a community planning meeting last night in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Tioga. The several dozen residents in this disinvested area surrounded by Temple University’s health system buildings, congregated in a local church and listened as the planners discussed the latest ideas for improving their community.

Tioga is one of a handful of communities in Philadelphia that has seen lots of planning and little action. Some of the residents have watched and participated in over 50 years of planning. Yet vacant homes and lots dot every block. Trash blows in the streets. There is crime, drugs, and lack of basic services.

The meeting ran nearly an hour late. The residents had lots to say. Some community members expressed distrust of the planners. Others wanted to see a certain issue addressed. Some were afraid that the plan would bring gentrification, rising taxes, and displacement. Others were afraid of the opposite: that nothing at all would come of this plan, just as with decades of prior plans.

The planners attempted to answer the residents’ questions, while moving through their market analysis and urban design ideas. However, many in the crowd seemed unsatisfied. When it came to issues like realizing the concepts in the plan or protecting residents from gentrification, the planners had little to contribute. Their answer was largely that this was the job of City Council. The plan was just a set of concepts, the planners explained to the crowd. Transforming the plan to reality relied on City Council introducing legislation, active community groups taking initiative, and private developers investing.

The planners were answering honestly, but this meeting (and dozens of others like it that I have attended) exhibited an important question. By passing off implementation to policy makers, are planners really satisfying the needs of communities? Does the planner perhaps have a new responsibility in today’s world?

Planners in Philadelphia and nationally have dramatically reshaped their roles over the past forty or so years. Today planning necessarily is a balance of offering expert design ideas, while not standing in the way of the community’s ability to have a voice and shape its own destiny. This democratization of the planning profession was once groundbreaking; now it is commonplace. The new question is: what is the planner’s role once the plan is complete?

Often planners see the plan as the end of the journey. They step away, and leave it up to policy makers to implement the plan. The problem is, too often the policy makers don’t really understand how to go about it. Of course the planners in Tioga cannot really be blamed. We have processes, agencies, roles, funding constraints, and hierarchy that set the boundaries of how far the planners can and should go.

But perhaps this paradigm could change. What if the plan were the beginning of a process, rather than the end? What if part of the planner’s job were to connect the plan concepts with the appropriate policy makers, and to help those policy makers follow through? What if high-level city officials gave the planners a stronger role in the process of spending city money and enacting policies?

Is the planning profession ready for this paradigm shift to planner as facilitator of plan implementation? Are other city officials? Will the city power structure allow it or embrace it? How will communities react? These are the questions I will discuss in the next few posts. Stay tuned.