A bridge too far

Designed for vehicles, not pedestrians, a rebuilt South Street Bridge could widen the psychological divide between West Philadelphia and Center City.

A good bridge should connect people as well as places, but Philadelphia has been saddled with too many bridges that separate them both.

The worst offender, by far, is the Walnut Street Bridge over the Schuylkill. Built in 1990 by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the river crossing imposed a half mile of highway interstate on a townhouse-scaled street. It turned the street into a speedway, while making pedestrians feel as if they were trekking across the Sahara. The concrete expanse widened the psychological distance between Center City and West Philadelphia.

Those failings are no longer water under the bridge. The city is about to reconstruct another high-profile Schuylkill span, the South Street Bridge. The Walnut Street crossing is being held up as a cautionary tale.

The city Streets Department, which is overseeing the work this time, has made it a point of pride not to let history repeat itself. The city "won't get another Walnut Street Bridge," the chief bridge engineer, John Lutz, vowed in an interview. "This will be a crown jewel. If it doesn't come out good, you can shoot me. "

While it is nice to hear a city official offer some serious accountability, the burden should not be his alone. If the $45 million South Street Bridge is to be the seamless connector that Philadelphia desperately needs, other city agencies must get involved - and quickly.

Unfortunately, no one at the city Planning Commission has been consulted, not even executive director Maxine Griffith. Although the design process is entering the home stretch, the Streets Department has yet to present the design to the Philadelphia Art Commission, which by law has final say on aesthetic issues.

This is not simply poor bureaucratic manners. Although the current scheme is superior to the Walnut Street Bridge, it falls far short of the promised perfection. It is hard to imagine other big cities allowing engineers to run the show on a project so intertwined with its planning aspirations.

Ideally, the new South Street Bridge should be an opportunity to repair some of the damage caused by the Walnut Street crossing, a state bridge whose overriding design concern was to save money. It is a chance to create a new civic landmark, to knit together two disparate parts of the city, and provide a gateway to the increasingly important university and hospital district in West Philadelphia.

The design falls short of those goals. It is a confusion of interests, solving some problems, worsening others.

Motorists would get lots of extra room to maneuver, but pedestrians would get barely an inch of additional space, even though brigades of people walk across the bridge every day.

Cyclists would get bike lanes in both directions. Yet there is no connection from the bridge to the river bike path, an important amenity being built just below the span.

These lapses are not entirely the fault of Lutz and the Streets Department. They understand that the South Street Bridge has to be more than a way to cross the river without getting wet.

But because no one told them what else the bridge ought to accomplish, they have devoted themselves to making a prettier bridge - the un-Walnut Street bridge. To that end, they hired Philadelphia's H2L2 Architecture/Planners, which has added old-fashioned surface details that the bottom-line Walnut Street Bridge lacks.

This time, the concrete piers would be scored to resemble stone and topped with glass-enclosed pilot houses. Other details will be worked out over the next year by the consulting engineers, Gannett Fleming, of Valley Forge. Although the design is not particularly ambitious, it can't help looking good compared with the Walnut Street crossing.

Decoration and style, however, are a small part of what makes a welcoming bridge. Given the South Street Bridge's strategic location between two important neighborhoods, it needs to be conceived holistically to take into account its complex urban environment.

The bridge's first task is to minimize the sense of separation between Center City and West Philadelphia. The Schuylkill is only 300 feet wide in Center City, narrower than many sections of the Seine in central Paris, yet the distance here feels greater.

Unlike the Paris bridges, those in Center City tend to hover above street level, alienated from rhythms of city life. Even if the bridges can't be made to ride lower, visual design tricks could make them seem rooted in the mix of houses, shops, offices and museums.

South Street Bridge isn't just a transportation project; it is an economic development adjunct. The universities and hospitals of West Philadelphia have become the city's largest employers. Yet many of the people who work there live elsewhere. The South Street Bridge should be designed to draw them to this vital area.

But the way things look, sidewalk barriers along the West Philadelphia railroad lines may end up being as forbidding as the welded-metal fence there now, blocking the view of majestic Franklin Field stadium. There also seems to be little interest in improving the connection to SEPTA's University City station, a key link to the airport.

The engineers have focused on nuts-and-bolts traffic issues. The new South Street Bridge design, like the Walnut Street span, would succeed mainly in getting cars to move more efficiently onto the Schuylkill Expressway. Traffic lanes would widen from 9 to 11 feet, and the bridge would get dedicated turning lanes to keep traffic from backing up on the bridge at the notorious "merge or die" expressway ramps.

Faster-moving cars don't exactly create the atmosphere of an urban gateway - especially when the sidewalks would be a measly eight feet, the same width as the unwelcoming ribbon on the Walnut Street Bridge.

Eight feet is wide enough for pedestrians to pass without awkward jostling, but not wide enough to create the right level of comfort on a bridge, where there is nothing over the edge but a drop into the abyss. Eight feet is not enough room to encourage a lazy stroll or to leave room for promenade touches such as benches and planters. Ten feet would be better.

Since the project was conceived, the idea of widening the bridge has guided the project. In theory, the city could have simply renovated the existing structure. But according to Lutz, the deck was so badly deteriorated that it made more sense to tear most of it down. The new bridge will rise from the existing piers, sunk when construction began on the original drawbridge during the 1876 Centennial celebrations. The bridge hasn't been overhauled since the 1920s.

With modern construction techniques, engineers can expand the deck width from 56 to 82 feet at its widest point. Of the extra 26 feet, roughly 16 feet would go to cars and 10 feet to bike lanes. Pedestrians might get a foot more room at some points.

Progress needs to come in bigger steps. The Streets Department is missing an opportunity to integrate the bridge into one of the most important new transit networks in the region, the Schuylkill River bike path.

The path now runs without interruption from Valley Forge, along the Manayunk towpath, to the Kelly Drive paths, to the newly restored Waterworks. By spring, the paving should extend south to Spruce Street and later to South Street, according to John Randolph, president of the Schuylkill River Development Council.

Once that path is finished, someone living in, say, Manayunk could bicycle directly to the South Street Bridge, then to West Philadelphia, and get a train to the airport.

But since the $1 million needed for a bicycle ramp wasn't included in the bridge budget, Lutz said the best his engineers could do was leave a notch where it could be added. This is penny-wise. It will be easier and cheaper to build the ramps while the bridge is under construction.

The bridge work, expected to take a year and a half, is to begin in late 2004. Detouring traffic will be a major disruption for the city.

But it will be worth it if Philadelphia finally gets a bridge that brings people together.

Inga Saffron's e-mail address is isaffron@phillynews.com.