Monday, September 15, 2014
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Changing Skyline | South Street Bridge: Phila. deserves better

You can give Philadelphia's traffic engineers this much credit: Their design for a rebuilt South Street Bridge is a big improvement over its scary, interstate-strength Walnut Street cousin. But then, wooden huts were an advance over cave living.

No matter how many turrets and stainless-steel railings are pasted on this deeply flawed scheme, the current design remains a lost opportunity for Philadelphia. The engineers have dutifully outfitted the proposed span with bike lanes and a ramp connection to Schuylkill Banks park, yet there isn't an ounce of poetry in its steel bones. After a decade of tinkering with its design, the bridge promises to be little more than a chute for efficiently moving traffic onto the most frightening of the I-76 entry ramps.

If city leaders were seriously interested in branding Philadelphia as a vital modern metropolis, they would have long ago seized on the $50 million bridge project as a chance to make a statement, erect a dramatic gateway to Center City, and forge a gracious pedestrian link between two dynamic neighborhoods. Instead, traffic engineers have been allowed to run the show, with no meaningful direction from the mayor's office or city planners. Now, the engineers tell us that the bridge's condition is dire, and that they must start work on a replacement next year.

There's still time to transform the Schuylkill crossing into the bridge Philadelphia deserves, but it will require quick action and imagination. We live in an age when engineers increasingly delight us by stringing gossamer steel hammocks across mighty rivers. London's Millennium footbridge, by Arup, Foster & Partners and Anthony Caro, wowed the world with its laser-beam look and engineering gymnastics. Santiago Calatrava's name has become synonymous with winglike spans that appear to take flight. A thrilling bridge could help Philadelphians see themselves as energized participants in a globalized culture.

Recently, I went strolling along London's Thames waterfront in search of inspiration. Philadelphia and London share many qualities, including rowhouse-dominated streets that haven't changed in a century and an ambivalence about skyscrapers. I went to check out the Millennium Bridge, but I was instead struck by the less-heralded Hungerford Bridge, located between the Waterloo and Westminster crossings.

One glimpse of Hungerford told me that the design could be the key to lifting the South Street Bridge project up from mediocrity. Like South Street, Hungerford started out as a 19th-century railroad bridge with only a ribbon of sidewalk for pedestrians. Instead of building a new crossing, the British firm Lifschutz Davidson kept Hungerford's old red-brick Victorian structure and strapped two broad pedestrian boulevards onto its sides, using a cable-stay system. Walking across the suspended, 12-foot-wide sidewalks is an exhilarating way to get to Royal Festival Hall, and a good perch for admiring London's skyline.

Despite the tepee of white steel cables that support its walkways, the 2002 Hungerford project cost just $50 million, the same sum budgeted for the prosaic South Street Bridge. And unlike their British counterparts, Philadelphia's designers don't have to worry about encountering unexploded Luftwaffe bombs in the river muck.

The two bridges have much in common. The original Hungerford structure, designed by the colorful British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, achieved its present form in 1875; South Street's anonymous concrete span rose as a trolley drawbridge during the 1876 Centennial events. Hungerford was modified several times; South Street became an automobile and pedestrian crossing in the 1920s.

Like the South Street Bridge, Hungerford had become obsolete for modern times by the 1990s. But rather than replace the worn Victorian with something that was merely more efficient, London officials insisted on a crossing that commemorated the city's railroad past and celebrated its future. Since it wasn't immediately clear how to accomplish that goal, London held a design competition to find someone with a creative solution.

Philadelphia, of course, can't simply slap Lifschutz Davidson's hanging walkways onto South Street. Although the Schuylkill is appealingly narrow at South Street - just 300 feet - the bridge must also span an unusually complex obstacle course that includes multiple rail lines, the expressway, and Schuylkill Banks park. But some form of suspended walkways might be a way to ennoble the pedestrian experience, without reducing the width of the car lanes.

The problems with the bridge design go back to its conception. Once it became clear that the crumbling concrete needed fixing, city engineers defined the problem in the language they know best: traffic flow.

Right now, motorists heading straight across the 56-foot-wide bridge sometimes get stuck behind drivers waiting to turn onto the I-76 ramps. It's an annoyance, but engineers made fixing the back-up their top priority. They asked the designers - Gannett Fleming and H2L2 - to include two dedicated turning lanes for the expressway ramps. That meant adding 21 feet of roadway to the bridge deck.

Because of space constraints, the widest the bridge deck can be is 83 feet. Once engineers accommodated the turning lanes and two 5-foot bike lanes, there was room left only for two 9-foot-wide sidewalks. As a result, the span's new "pedestrian-friendly" walkways would be just a single foot wider than those on the claustrophobic Walnut Street Bridge. If the South Street crossing doesn't function as a neighborhood connector now, why should it be any nicer when there are more car lanes and traffic can move more swiftly?

Perhaps as compensation for those mean little sidewalks - just wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side - the city had H2L2 dress up the bridge with four mesh and stainless-steel lookout turrets. The tapered shape is supposed to evoke the original piers, but the tinny towers lack the integrity, refined detailing, and heft of the original bridgeman's post. If anything, they resemble stylized lighthouses. But since the drawbridge operator didn't guide boats, it's a meaningless reference.

Generous sidewalks are far more necessary on a bridge than such pasted-on decoration. It's natural for people to be fearful of high places, especially over water. Because of that, John Gibbons, a planner with the firm that helped write the new master plan for the Center City Residents Association, believes a good bridge would give pedestrians about 30 percent of the real estate. But on South Street, pedestrians get only 21 percent. If people feel uncomfortable, they will scurry across the bridge, hardly stopping to notice that it offers the most photographed panorama of Center City's skyline.

The engineers may be right that South Street Bridge traffic backs up. But just because a bottleneck exists doesn't mean a city is obliged to fix it. It's a matter of priorities.

It's the job of city leaders to make the call. The South Street Bridge can be a pedestrian space that brings two parts of Philadelphia closer together - or it can be one that pushes them farther apart.


Changing Skyline |

Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at http://go.philly.com/

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Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.
Inga Saffron Inquirer Architecture Critic
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