Thursday, December 25, 2014

Ronnie Polaneczky | Plan restores dignity to national icons

TODAY THE National Park Service releases a revised security plan for Independence National Historical Park. I was able to review the document this week, and here's my verdict:

The Park Service got it right.

What a wonderful shock that is, considering its post-9/11 history of security overkill at America's birthplace of freedom. Given that last July the park wanted to bisect Independence Square with a 7-foot-high fence, there was no reason to hope that the new plan would show restraint.

But the proposal not only scraps the obtrusive fence and reduces the size of the security perimeter of Independence Square, it substitutes simple bag-checks for the airport-like magnetometer scanning currently required of visitors to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

It also does away with those bike-rack barriers, dismantles the Liberty Bell's ugly, prefab security hut and restores dignity to Old City Hall - where the first Supreme Court met - by removing security screening from it altogether.

Once these changes are in place, hopefully by summer, the area will look more like its convivial pre-9/11 self than many ever dreamed possible.

What's more, the Park Service promises an annual evaluation of the plan to ensure it continues to balance the need for security with our forefathers' intention that the area remain accessible to the citizenry.

Has hell frozen over, or what?


 

According to Dennis Reidenbach, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, the park took to heart public opposition to the fence proposal, which had also outraged powerful pols who hated how the cradle of liberty looked like a prison yard.

"We really think this new plan is prudent and reasonable," Reidenbach says of the design, the most unexpectedly lovely feature of which is a bollard-and-chain barrier that will elegantly meander around Independence Square.

The barrier may seem low-key, he says, but it'll work well as a security device since it'll be paired with other, sophisticated safety measures he can't disclose.

So far, the plan is a hit.

"This is the best solution proposed since the bike racks were erected in the wake of 9/11," says Ann Meredith, president of the Independence Mall Business and Resident's Coalition, an indefatigable advocate for easy access in the historic area.

"That the bollards are not going to be permanently placed in the ground is a testament to everyone's goal of one day eliminating them and returning the park to its nearly 300-year-old tradition of openness."

John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, says the bollard and chains are "thoughtfully integrated" with the square's landscaping.

And U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a harsh critic of the fence plan, says he's pleased that security in the park will no longer give the impression that "we've conceded to the terrorists" by making an armed camp of the site.

The icing on this cake? Its cost is about $843,000 - far less than prior proposals with pricetags approaching $7 million.

It's just wonderful news.

Given how critical I have been in the past of Park Service decision-makers (I once referred to them as "despicable bastards"), it's only right that I now applaud their creative stewardship of cherished symbols of freedom.

If the new plan is approved - there's no reason to believe it won't be, barring unexpected federal budget rearranging - it will "restore the primacy of liberty as the central and enduring value in our nation's history."

That's a quote from the late Judge Edward Becker, defender of free access in the historic area, who uttered the line when the city reopened the 500 block of Chestnut Street, which had been shut down after 9/11.

Becker died last year, before he could see the rest of his beloved Independence Mall returned to the citizens whose rights he championed.

Wherever he is today, here's hoping he's smiling. *

On Feb. 1, the Park Service will discuss the plan from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Independence Visitor Center, 6th and Chestnut streets. To view it, go to http://parkplanning.nps. gov.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky

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