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Saving the Sidewalks

- March 3, 2009

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by Adam Krom and Kyle Gradinger

Reprinted by permission of AIA Philadelphia.

"South Street, the hippest street in town!" yells the driver of the Duck Boat. As the World War II amphibious craft lumbers through traffic, the tourists take in the sight of people from all backgrounds strolling on one of the funkiest streets in Philadelphia.

The public realm of South Street is classic Philadelphia: small storefronts, apartments, shop doors, and display windows face sidewalks that are about 12 to 14 feet wide. Thousands of pedestrians jostle past each other, competing for space with parking meters, vending boxes, sandwich board signs, light posts, and building stoops. On top of it all, this bustling sidewalk is sprinkled with cafés that fill the air with pleasant chatter and savory aromas. South Street's narrow sidewalk is a very fragile habitat, but somehow there is just enough space to make it all work. The result is one of the more exciting public spaces in Philadelphia.

Given the fact that the sidewalk vitality of South Street is so important to the identity of the street, one could expect that developers would be seeking to enhance and extend this vibrant pedestrian realm. But this has not been the case for some recent developments. At the southeast corner of Broad and South sits 1352 Lofts, a handsome new condo building with ground floor shops—the classic mixed use building so typical of Philadelphia but designed with a contemporary flair. The building was finished this summer, but the certificate of occupancy was held up over the issue of a narrow sidewalk—a very narrow sidewalk.

Because the site of 1352 Lofts site slopes slightly, the developer built a block long, concrete platform so that all of the retail doors could be accessed from the same level. Following the trend of multiplying sidewalk cafés, the developer took advantage of the platform by making it wide enough for outdoor dining. Ordinarily, al fresco restaurant seating would be good for urban vitality, but what the developer eventually constructed was a wide, fenced patio space that narrowed a twelve foot sidewalk down to two or three feet between the patio and the street curb. Wheelchairs and baby strollers had difficulty squeezing by. Two pedestrians passing one another? Forget it.

As soon as the construction fence at 1352 Lofts came down, neighborhood resentment went up. According to one City Hall official, the number of phone calls and emails complaining about the patio was "immense". The City took action and, after months of negotiations, reached a compromise with the developer in October. The compromise required the developer to jack hammer the patio back to within five feet of the building—and no café tables or chairs would be allowed to clutter the new "raised entrance plaza". Now the city is left with an awkward, empty concrete plinth on South Street, but at least pedestrians will be able to continue on their way.

1352 Lofts shattered the fragile ecology of the pedestrian realm by compromising the primary purpose of the sidewalk—pedestrian movement. The lack of understanding about how sidewalks work is a growing problem in Philadelphia. It is not just a question of leaving enough room for the pedestrian to squeeze by. The pedestrian requires habitat like any other creature—and this habitat is being eroded.

On the other side of town, Brandywine Realty Trust is proposing to construct a massive mixed-use development facing the Schuylkill River between Walnut and Chestnut Streets named Cira Centre South. The mixed-use project is intended to transform the former Post Office lands into a major node linking Center City to University City over the forlorn viaducts that span the river and the railroad tracks. In conceptual terms, this project is exactly what Philadelphia needs. The concern is how the development meets the sidewalk.

The Basics of Good Sidewalks

Vibrant streets like Walnut Street near Rittenhouse Square or the aforementioned South Street have certain recognizable characteristics. Perhaps most importantly, they are never boring to walk down. Human beings expect a steady stream of visual stimulation. A good rule of thumb espoused by Jan Gehl, an urban designer from Copenhagen, is that a pedestrian needs a visual stimulus every few feet or walking will grow tedious or boring. On Walnut Street, buildings create a human scale at the sidewalk by providing numerous individual storefronts, building entrances, and architectural articulation.

There are other environmental factors that can impact a pedestrian's choice of route. When walking, time becomes relative. In an interesting and hospitable environment, walking distances seem shorter. Glaring sunlight, strong winds, and unwelcome details such as intrusive utility meters make walking less pleasant and can lead to empty sidewalks. Good lighting, shade trees, plantings, interesting paving patterns, and pleasant places to sit help attract pedestrians. Much of Center City is a pedestrian paradise because its streets feature these pedestrian-friendly amenities.

Preliminary renderings of Cira Centre South suggest potential problems with the pedestrian experience. Although the project faces the river and Schuylkill Avenue, it lies behind an open moat of railroad tracks. Things are only slightly better on 30th Street, which is dominated by an eleven story parking garage that will take up most of the block and create a steady stream of cars crossing the sidewalk. Entrances to the building are relatively few. Even though the project has ground floor retail space, uniform glass walls at street level probably will not create the human scale seen along the vibrant parts of Walnut Street in Center City. Architectural lighting and sleek design will create a dramatic profile on the skyline, but the ground floor may not create the inviting pedestrian connection between Center City and University City that the area needs.

How Philadelphia's Pedestrian Realm is Unraveling

In Philadelphia, sidewalks are too often treated as an afterthought, rather than the lifeblood of the city. There are few requirements or even guidelines for developers to use when creating the streetscape. Parking is required for most housing developments by the zoning code, and developers are building rowhouses throughout the city that meet the sidewalk with a blank garage door. These garage doors not only work against the principles of enjoyable streetscapes, they create a hazard to walking while removing on-street public parking spaces in favor of a private driveway. Further visual assault is created by the utility companies who have begun mandating that gas and electric meters be installed on the front of houses instead of the traditional location in the basement, sideyard, or alley.

The Streets Department is responsible for approving projects in the public right-of-way, but it doesn't have the design skills or manpower to review every project in terms of its impact on the pedestrian environment. The Department of Licenses and Inspections, or L&I, is responsible for ensuring that buildings are safe—not that they are pleasant. Many design decisions are made by the Zoning Board of Adjustment—a review panel composed of citizens with no formal training in architecture, urban planning, transportation, or landscape architecture.

The case of 1352 Lofts provides an example of how the broken design review process fails to protect Philadelphia's pedestrian environment. The developer claimed that his project was approved by the Streets Department, which countered that the drawings they approved did not include the patio design. L&I didn't concern itself with the portion of the building in the right-of-way. Because of this fragmented permitting process, the developer of the 1352 Lofts was able to construct the concrete patio by playing one agency off of the other. Nowhere in the process was there an agency responsible for ensuring the quality of the South Street sidewalk.

How to Plan for Good Sidewalks

Philadelphia needs to protect and enhance its pedestrian realm. The good news is that tools are available to make pedestrians a priority in the design and development process. Rather than reacting to development proposals as they happen, other cities use these tools to be proactive in shaping the public realm.

Zoning can be amended to address issues such as minimum ground floor transparency, build-to lines, maximum distances between building entrances, and restrictions on the number and location of driveways that cross sidewalks. Many cities use form-based design controls to emphasize the creation of viable sidewalk environments. Philadelphia's Zoning Reform Commission can include basic requirements into zoning classifications to encourage pedestrian-oriented streets.

Pedestrian design guidelines and a pedestrian master plan would set standards and recommendations for developers to follow when creating the streetscape, but they are not binding like zoning laws. The recommendations in Portland's Pedestrian Design Guide range from environmental comfort factors such as providing trees, benches, and awnings to safety standards addressing parking garage entrances, lighting, and crosswalks.

Many cities across the country use federal money to pay for a Pedestrian and Bicycle Coordinator. This staff member is charged with reviewing development plans to protect the pedestrian interest and working with transportation planners to develop and enforce pedestrian design standards. By treating pedestrian-related projects as transportation projects, Philadelphia can ensure that sidewalks receive adequate attention and funding.

Loving the Pedestrian

In the era of global warming, peak oil, and a rise in downtown living, the pedestrian has a noble and proud role to play on the urban stage. If we expect the pedestrian to flourish, we must provide good urban habitat, and this means regulating development as if pedestrians matter.