Changing Skyline: The city has lost control of its sidewalks

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Councilman James F. Kenney , here on Arch near Broad, thought Philadelphia building sites littered with chain-link fences were just part of big-city living - until he visited New York.

There are close to 1.5 million people living in Philadelphia, and every one of them is a pedestrian at one time or another. Yet City Hall sometimes seems surprised to learn that people travel on two feet.

Pity Philadelphia's walking majority. Its precious sidewalks are increasingly being taken in brazen landgrabs by the city's powerful construction industry, which erects flimsy chain-link fences to mark turf, sometimes for the sole purpose of allowing contractors to park for free. The pedestrian's daily passage is further challenged by smelly dumpsters, concrete barriers erected in the name of homeland security, and awkwardly designed wheelchair ramps.

Why not spread out? It costs nothing in Philadelphia for builders to occupy the public sidewalks. Stay as long as you'd like, too. No one in City Hall is keeping tabs of how long the fences are in place.

Twenty years ago, when Center City was deadsville, perhaps those lapses didn't matter as much. But since then, downtown has evolved into an archipelago of churning construction sites.

To avoid crashing into all the ad-hoc construction barriers, pedestrians now zigzag from one side of the block to the other. Unarmed and unprepared, they have no choice but to dive into the perilous stream of fast-moving vehicles before regaining the protected shore of a sidewalk. That dip into traffic defeats the point of construction barriers, which are to keep pedestrians safe.

James F. Kenney, an at-large city councilman, had always assumed this was the way it worked in all big cities. Then he took his family on a trip to New York and discovered that not once was his trajectory interrupted on Manhattan's crowded streets, even though it has at least five times as many high-rise construction projects as Philadelphia.

Instead of battered chain link, Kenney found an orderly arrangement of sidewalk sheds that guarantee New York's sidewalks are always open for business. The structures usually involve a sturdy wooden roof held up by an allée of metal poles. If it's impossible to build over the sidewalk, contractors must carve a safe passage in the street.

The sheds do more than keep the way clear for pedestrians. They enable merchants to continue serving their customers - and stay in business - during lengthy projects. They also provide safe storage and staging room for construction crews, and help shield everyone from falling debris. Contractors must illuminate the underside of the covered walkways with a string of bulbs so they're safe at night.

When Kenney saw those lights, he really saw the light.

Why, he wondered, doesn't Philadelphia require sidewalk sheds? Why doesn't it insist on safe-passage corridors? And why doesn't it charge developers for appropriating the sidewalk for their own use?

He got to ask those questions last week during a City Council hearing he requested on pedestrian obstructions. Kenney brought in a New York construction official to testify, along with witnesses from Philadelphia regulatory agencies, design groups, and the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind. They offered their thoughts while a video loop of some of the city's worst sidewalk hogs played in the background, courtesy of the Design Advocacy Group. Now, Council is trying to determine the best way to implement changes.

No one is suggesting it's easy to erect a 400-foot tower while thousands of people pass underfoot every day. Just walk by - if you dare - Ten Rittenhouse at 18th and Sansom Streets. The project occupies every inch of its crowded site. Both sidewalks are blocked, along with parts of the traffic lanes.

The other morning at rush hour, those barriers had been pushed deep into 18th Street. Behind the 18th Street fence, two cement mixers whirled, while on Sansom a construction hoist moved building material. Meanwhile, a large generator stuck out into the remaining open lane on 18th Street, an important thoroughfare.

It looked as if someone had just air-dropped an immense factory into the heart of the city. My first thought was that the site didn't just need a shed over the sidewalk, it needed a shed over the whole street. After all, falling debris doesn't always land where you think it will.

Maybe, as the developer's lawyer argued last week, there isn't much room to organize the intricate ballet of construction. On the other hand, there's a parking garage next door. Couldn't the contractor have rented space there, at least for storage? Ditto for the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, which blocks two sidewalks across from City Hall, despite having a parking lot for a neighbor.

But why bother renting space when the sidewalks are free?

Kenney believes the best way to reclaim the public way for pedestrians is to start charging developers for sidewalk time. He also would require sheds or other forms of safe passage for all large projects, so no one ever has to risk life and limb running with the cars.

Some developers complain that Philadelphia's narrow colonial streets and tight building sites make it impossible to emulate New York's strict guidelines on pedestrian passage. Whatever new laws are eventually adopted, regulators in the Streets Department and the Department of Licenses and Inspections should be allowed some discretion. At the same time, L&I inspectors should get reinforcements, paid for with sidewalk-rental fees.

You have only to walk around Center City to see the callous disregard for the public's space. At the Architects Building, which is being converted to a Kimpton Hotel, the developer usurps 17th Street just for two port-a-potties. Workers' pickups were lined up recently behind the construction fence along Sansom Street, while an adjacent parking lot sat half-empty.

The worst offenders by far are government agencies such as PennDOT and the state Department of General Services (DGS). Anyone who walks across the Market Street Bridge to 30th Street Station is likely to bump into PennDOT's Jersey barriers at 29th Street without any warning.

And two months after DGS razed two historic buildings on North Broad Street for the Convention Center expansion, concrete barriers continue to occupy the sidewalk and a lane of traffic. DGS has also annexed the Arch Street sidewalk, though no construction has started.

"You'd think they'd be more concerned about this since the Convention Center is still active," Kenney marveled during a walking tour. Most conventioneers come on foot from nearby hotels.

With all those obstructions, Philadelphia's boast of having the most walkable downtown in America is going to be a harder sell. It's time, Kenney argues, to make good on the claim by taking back the sidewalks for everyone who lives - and walks - in Philadelphia.

 


Changing Skyline:

Watch a video on sidewalk issues at http://www.philly.com/inquirer/multimedia/17466079.html


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