There are certain Philadelphia phenomena that have always defied logical explanation. Why can't the Eagles win a championship? Why do Penn's Landing projects always fail?
High on the list of what I've come to think of as the "Mysteries of Philadelphia" is this one: Why is South Broad Street, which should be one of the city's stateliest avenues, among the last places in town you would choose for a stroll?
It's hard to believe, but we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of the effort to revive that comatose boulevard by renaming it the Avenue of the Arts. A mix of branding and building, the Rendell-era campaign helped to wake up the blocks immediately south of City Hall by encouraging theaters, concert halls, and residential buildings to cluster there. But the campaign soon ran out of steam, and the blocks between Pine Street and Washington Avenue remain pocked with too many empty lots, gas stations, and drive-through restaurants.
The nonprofit that Ed Rendell founded in 1993, Avenue of the Arts Inc., is about to give it another try. Having hired a new president, Paul S. Beideman, a former banker specializing in real estate, the organization held a kind of speed-dating exercise with four design teams to generate ideas for quickie, low-cost improvements, funded with a $25,000 gift from developer Carl Dranoff. It will announce a winner Monday.
It's refreshing to see such an ideas competition staged in Philadelphia, even though, from the public's perspective, the process was far from ideal. The proposals from the four teams were put on display in the lobby of the Hyatt at the Bellevue only 10 days ago. There was no real public conversation about what is wrong with South Broad Street or what the avenue might become. Detailed presentations to the jury were given behind closed doors.
Maybe it was the compressed time frame, but none of the entries displayed at the Bellevue succeed in articulating a comprehensive vision for the avenue. What they offer instead is a collection of small ideas, some of them good. If the jury is smart, it will cherry-pick the best.
It is probably a symptom of our cash-strapped times and diminished expectations that most of the proposals involve temporary interventions, like using vacant lots for food truck plazas, farmers' markets, beer gardens, bike-rental stations, and performance venues. Such things can't hurt, and they might get people on South Broad during daylight.
All the teams suggested inserting pocket parks along the avenue. One group, led by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Studio Bryan Hanes, went even further and imagined enormous twin parks at Washington Avenue, connected by a bridge over Broad Street. Two teams also suggested greening the parking lot in front of the stylish, but underappreciated, 1950s city health center at Lombard Street.
After examining so many similar proposals, what struck me is how parks have now become the panacea for all our failed urban spaces. That's a big turnaround from a decade ago, when the city wouldn't countenance a new park because of the maintenance costs.
Blame the success of Sister City Plaza, Hawthorne Park, and the pop-up Porch at 30th Street Station, along with a surge in downtown population. The problem now is that there is a real danger in overestimating the healing power of parks.
Parks alone won't bring us to South Broad. All they can really do is make the experience nicer once we've already decided to be there.
One of my two favorite ideas was LRSLA's suggestion to erect a kunsthalle, or public art gallery, in a temporary, warehouse-like structure on an empty lot at Washington Avenue. The huge space would be a great place to display large sculptural works that don't fit in the galleries at the city's art museums.
I also liked Cairone & Kaupp's idea to widen Broad Street's sidewalks to create a Parisian-style allée of trees, by eliminating street parking and two lanes of traffic.
Still, even these proposals don't get at the crux of the problem: Despite its central place in the city's grid, South Broad lacks a clear identity. It isn't a shopping destination or a tony residential address, like Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Its upper end, near City Hall, is no longer an office corridor. Only the recent concentration of theaters has given it a mission.
In the future, however, the Avenue of the Arts is likely to become the Avenue of Apartments. Once the population gains critical mass, stores, services, restaurants, and art galleries will follow. And then we'll finally have a good reason to take that stroll down South Broad Street.
Contact Inga Saffron
at 215-854-2213, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ingasaffron.