At Chinese Lantern Festival, partial fence to let public in only part way

The new fence for the Chinese Lantern Festival is being designed by landscape architect Brian Dragon so that sections can be folded back during the day, when the park will be open to the general public.

The private group that manages Franklin Square set off a small firestorm last year when it cordoned off the public park for six weeks so it could charge admission at night to the Chinese Lantern Festival. That festival will be back in May for another extended run, the group, Historic Philadelphia, announced Tuesday. And so will the fence.

This time, the eight-foot-high barrier has been redesigned so it can be partially opened up during the day, when anyone is allowed to wander among the square's pathways without paying an entrance fee. Instead of the blackout curtain that made the park look like a top-secret construction site, people will be able to access the greenery, both physically and visually, through staggered breaks in the enclosure.

Historic Philadelphia, which came up with the fence in response to criticism of last year’s event, described the new design as a compromise: It allows the festival to continue without sending a harsh message of exclusion. “We definitely heard you,” said the group’s president, Amy Needle, referring to the critics.

Half a fence is certainly better than a whole fence. So why does it feel like the public is just squeaking in through the cracks?

Like more and more parks in Philadelphia, and in other American cities, Franklin Square is now managed by a public-private partnership. That marriage with the nonprofit Historic Philadelphia was arranged by the city in 2006 as a way to improve the condition of the park, which was then the least loved and used of William Penn’s original Center City squares. In those dozen years, Historic Philadelphia has transformed the raggedy block at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge into a manicured wonderland that draws a million visitors a year to its attractions.

But there is always a trade-off for outsourcing public land to private managers, and it is epitomized by the compromise fence, which allows people in and keeps them out at the same time.

Designed by landscape architect Brian Dragon, the new fence is an improvement over the fabric-draped chain link used last year. The enclosure will be constructed in sections that can be folded back during the day, creating a feeling of transparency and civic welcome that was sorely lacking last spring. Dragon is also replacing the funereal black fabric with a cream-colored scrim decorated with bright red Chinese motifs.

Unfortunately, that civic welcome will be rescinded every evening of the five-week run.

Because the heavy scrim keeps car lights from competing with the lantern show, there can be no festival without the fence. Come 5 p.m. — an hour when the spring sun is still high in the sky — the movable sections will pivot, and the square will again be enclosed by an eight-foot barrier. Any adult who wants to enter Franklin Square will have to buy a $17 ticket. The only way to avoid the situation would be to not hold the festival.

That was never an option. Because Historic Philadelphia must constantly raise money to keep Franklin Square in tip-top shape, the lantern festival is an irresistible cash cow, one that attracted 92,000 visitors. Last year, the group took in $300,000 from the event, more than a third of its annual $850,000 operating budget. 

Gov. Rendell, who dreamed up the partnership for Franklin Square when he was mayor, was on hand at Tuesday's announcement. He defended Historic Philadelphia’s decision to bring back the festival, saying, “I have a news bulletin: It costs money to run parks.”

Yes, it does. But it doesn’t logically follow that the only way to obtain those funds is to hold events that limit the public's access to its own parks. There are other ways to raise money: concessions, pop-up gardens, one-night parties. The city could even provide more funds.

Much like the recent Rittenhouse Square sitting ban, which was initiated by the private friends group, and the limits on political protests at Dilworth Park, managed by the Center City District, the debate over how to manage our park is a reflection of the nation's current struggle to maintain a public realm that is truly public. The pressure to privatize what was once public — our schools, our transit systems — is only increasing.

In that context, a partial fence that lets the public part way in can only be considered a partial solution.