A to-do list for Philly before the pope, Democrats arrive

Tara Jennings adjusts her seat on an Indego bike before riding home from work in Philadelphia. (MICHAEL PRONZATO / Staff Photographer)

Company's coming.

First Pope Francis and his throngs of followers in September, then the Democratic National Convention next July. Having cleaned up nicely over the last two decades, Philadelphia is eager to show off its bustling streets, sophisticated food scene, boundary-pushing cultural offerings, and shiny new buildings and parks.

At the same time, we have good reason to be nervous. SEPTA's recent transit-pass follies haven't exactly inspired confidence in our ability to pull off a big show.

We also have a history of things going awry when the world is watching: There was the lack of air-conditioning at the Civic Center during the brutally hot Democratic convention in 1948, the first outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at what was then the Bellevue-Stratford in 1976, and the police raid on a puppeteers' warehouse during the Republican convention in 2000.

But let's remember that Philadelphia has been hosting conventions since the first Continental Congress in 1774, and next year's DNC will be our 11th nominating party since the Whigs gathered here in 1848.

We can do this, people.

The good thing about a deadline is that it focuses the mind. And the coming events are a good excuse to tackle pesky improvement projects we've been avoiding. So, we'd like to suggest a collective to-do list - small things that can be done right now for the papal visit and more ambitious undertakings for next year's DNC.

Market Street mess. Three years from now, East Market Street will be a shopper's paradise, but right now, the street has all the appeal of a drunk after a bender. Its broken sidewalks are speckled with black spots of compressed gum. Windows of shuttered stores are caked in dust and the doorways give off emanations of who-knows-what. Yet the Great Gummy Way will be a main route for visitors trekking between Pope Francis' speech at Independence Mall and his Parkway Mass.

We can't speed the renewal, but we can dispatch a phalanx of Center City District street-cleaners to power-wash and fumigate everything from City Hall to Front Street.

How about adorning the sad hulk of the Gallery and the construction site across the street with large renderings of the finished buildings? That would signal that East Market is on the way up.

While we're at it, how about a bath for the Mitchell/Giurgola-designed transit canopy at Eighth Street, which looks like it hasn't been cleaned since it was created for the Bicentennial.

Feeding the homeless. There are more than 150 homeless people who live near the Parkway and receive free meals at a small park across from the old Family Court. How to accommodate them with dignity on a revitalized Parkway is a puzzle the city and nonprofits have been wrangling with for years. This spring, the city solicited proposals to run a temporary, tented site for meals and services in northwest Center City.

Bill Golderer of the Broad Street Ministry, which is part of a group working on the issue, believes the pressure of the papal visit and the DNC could speed the creation of a permanent facility.

Wouldn't it be great, he suggested, if "something really big and positive could emerge" from these events? We agree.

Trash-can the place.The solar-powered Big Belly receptacles installed in 2009 were supposed to crush Philadelphia's litter problem and save the city a bundle on collection. Instead, they're a Big Belly flop. The brown bins are so begrimed and covered with graffiti even responsible citizens are loath to touch their handles. Replacements with foot controls are still months away.

In the meantime, how much could it cost to go back to basic mesh trash cans?

Worthy gateways. Almost every civic leader's bucket list includes fixing up points of entry for the city. Current plans include improved streetscaping along the Market Street Bridge and extending the University City District's Porch at 30th Street Station to the east side of the bridge, with a welcoming party of food trucks. But what about the blight and graffiti visitors see as they enter the station?

"Cleaning up the Northeast Corridor is one of those projects people have been talking about for 20 or 30 years," said Harris Steinberg of Drexel's Lindy Center for Civic Engagement. He's worked with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to hatch a plan for these portals. How about seeding the corridor with sunflowers, which are beautiful and help break down toxins?

Speaking of gateways . . .How much longer can Philadelphia use chain-link fence to gate the courtyard of its magnificent City Hall? New, historically compatible gates have been approved. Let's install them.

Right up our alleys.Philadelphia's colonial-era backstreets are among its most distinctive and charming physical features, yet we've allowed them to be monopolized by Dumpsters and used as open-air restrooms. It's time to take back our alleys and make them fit for pedestrians.

Good targets: Ranstead between Dilworth Park and Liberty Place; Cherry between the Parkway and the Convention Center; Chancellor Street between Rittenhouse Square and 16th Street; and the less-kempt blocks of Sansom Street.

In a recent newsletter, the CCD suggested the number of commercial Dumpsters could be reduced if businesses collaborated on trash storage. Maybe that's doable for the DNC, but conditions could be improved right now with better enforcement aimed at keeping sidewalks clean and open.

Some narrow streets - Filbert between Seventh and Eighth; Sansom from Broad to 15th - are full of architectural delights. Imagine what quirky destinations they could be with pop-up vendors and a few sidewalk tables.

We're on the right trail. The last decade has been a golden age of park-making in Philadelphia, but two capstones - the Reading Viaduct and Bartram's Mile - will have to hustle to open in time for the DNC. Phase one of the Rail Park could be done if funding is secured, said Paul Levy, head of the Center City District. Let's pull out the stops and get them ready for next summer.

A close call. If you want your guests to feel at home, provide places to recharge their cellphones.

Rather than clutter Center City's overstuffed sidewalks with another piece of street furniture, incorporate outlets into existing features, like the solar-powered Indego stations. Or, better yet, bus shelters, so you can charge up while you wait.

When's the bus coming? We'd like to think SEPTA Key - the long-awaited fare-payment system - will be ready for the DNC. Hopefully, it also will be working on Regional Rail then.

While we're upgrading: Why can't SEPTA install digital signs with real-time bus information?

Pope-a-potties. Yes, the city is stockpiling hundreds of porta-potties for the relief of the masses during the papal visit, and is even promising to clean them three times a day. (Let us pray!)

But this town should have installed self-cleaning, public toilets long ago. How about one in Dilworth Park, which was completed last year without public restrooms? Toilets could also be installed on surface parking lots along Market Street for the long pilgrimage to Independence Mall.

Let's drink to that. Attempts to extend Philadelphia's 2 a.m. bar closing for the 2000 Republican convention fizzled, but the city may be more receptive today. Because conventioneers do their haggling in the evenings, they can't start celebrating until they leave the sports complex, often after midnight. Let's show them Philadelphia doesn't roll up the sidewalks at night anymore.

Get on your bike. Presumably, when the city finishes its current street-paving spree, the bike lanes no longer will look like random patches of white paint.

Along with remarking existing lanes, the city plans to create a continuous route from 30th Street Station to the sports complex in time for the DNC, including a buffered lane on JFK and one down Broad Street. It's hard to imagine conventioneers making the 4.6-mile ride on a hot July day, but it will be great for the rest of us come fall.

Neighborhood attention. This remains a city with more than its share of poverty, crime, and blight. The Badlands are still bad. The Logan Triangle, the subject of so many out-of-town news stories during the 2000 Republican convention, is still a neighborhood-size hole. Schools are in crisis.

Andy Frishkoff of LISC Philadelphia sees the DNC as a chance to highlight inequality, but without the usual "poverty tours." Instead, he suggests busing conventioneers to the Mantua Promise Zone, where a public-nonprofit partnership on home repairs is already underway. Let's invite our guests to pitch in.

"It doesn't ignore the problem," he said, "but we're in solution mode."