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Franklin Square access restricted until June due to Lantern Festival

Stephan Salisbury, Culture Writer

Updated: Thursday, April 21, 2016, 3:01 AM

Fences draped in black indicate that Franklin Square is not fully accessible at all times.

Franklin Square, one of the original five squares of Philadelphia and notable for its lively resurrection over the last decade or so, has been surrounded by a tall chain-link fence draped in funereal black cloth, blocking all view of activities within.

A pedestrian walks through Franklin Square surrounded by Chinese Lantern Festival flowers nearthe entrance at Seventh and Race Streets. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Showing the juxtaposition of uses, a Chinese pagoda overlooks a children's playground. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Fences draped in black indicate that Franklin Square is not fully accessible at all times. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Photo Gallery: Franklin Square access restricted until June due to Lantern Festival

The square, first obstructed last week - as a for-profit company began setting up colorful displays and decorations for a privately run festival - will remain obscured, with limited access, for at least seven more weeks after Friday's opening of the Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival.

Scheduled to close June 12, the festival is among the longest private uses of public space in recent memory and raises questions of how long might be too long.

For Old City resident Joe Schiavo, vice chair of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, it's "a little disconcerting" that the "entirety of the park" will be obstructed for two months.

Access to the public square - through two entrances - will be free during the workday, but beginning at 6 p.m., when the daily festival revs up, the black-draped gates will close and entrance will be by ticket only - $17 for adults, $12 for children to age 17, and free for those 2 and younger. The festival will run from 6 to 10 each evening, according to Amy Needle, president and chief executive of Historic Philadelphia Inc., a private nonprofit organization that leases Franklin Square from the city.

"We all agreed the square should remain open and free during the day, and that because the lantern festival is magical at night, we would charge in the evening. This time of year, Franklin Square traditionally would not even be open after 7 o'clock," Needle said.

(There are different open hours for different parks that are all theoretically part of Fairmount Park. Rittenhouse Square, for instance, is theoretically open until 1 a.m. - but it is walkable around the clock, as was Franklin Square.)

During the day, visitors to Franklin Square will be able to ride on Historic Philadelphia's carousel, and make purchases from food concessions. The playground on the west side of the square is outside the opaque fencing and will be accessible at all times via a small gate on its north side.

The extended closure raises the question of whether the city places any time limitations on events run by private partners who operate and maintain public spaces. City officials say there is no hard and fast rule.

"The park will remain open at night ... when it is not normally, and there will be a fee associated with it," said Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of parks and recreation. "So to me, [the festival] actually adds value. . . . I think it will be a huge draw for people and an economic driver, not just for the park but for surrounding businesses, hotels, restaurants, boutiques, you name it."

Chinatown is just blocks away, and Historic Philadelphia officials say they have consulted with the Chinatown Development Corp. during festival planning.

The festival, a carnival-like attraction, is sponsored by Tianyu Arts & Culture Inc., a Spokane, Wash.-based subsidiary of a corporation based in Zigong, Sichuan Province, China.

Needle said any money made from the festival will be divided between Tianyu and Historic Philadelphia, which would use its share to maintain square operations.

Cari Feiler Bender, a spokeswoman for Historic Philadelphia, said: "Tianyu put up most of the money, so they are getting most of the ticket revenue. Historic Philadelphia is getting a percentage of the gross receipts."

Bender said she did not know the exact percentage.

Historic Philadelphia, which runs the Betsy Ross House and other attractions in the historic district, has leased the square since 2006 and is credited with its revival.

The group is responsible for square maintenance and a number of concessions and events, and can hold private events there without a permit, according to city officials. The city, however, did require a permit for the festival - to cover the providing of additional city services.

"There are no fees assessed to HPI, because they have a lease to use the park," said a spokeswoman for the city office of parks and recreation.

This is the first time Historic Philadelphia will charge for entrance to Franklin Square. (Discounted visitor parking will be available at the Independence Visitor Center garage on North Sixth Street.)

George Matysik, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, said the private use of public parkland is "not unprecedented." After all, he said, the great Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was built entirely in Fairmount Park.

"I don't think anyone has delegated anything to the private sector," he said. "The private sector has shown much more interest in activating public space, and the city is responding."

Schiavo, of Old City, pointed out that once the city turns to the private sector for financial support and assistance, that assistance can easily slide into dependence.

"It becomes difficult to back away from it," he said.

To Ott Lovell, the two months given over to the festival "is a small price to pay" for the benefits - increased park activity during normally slow periods, a new use, hoped-for economic impact on the surrounding area, and a new cultural experience unfolding over an extended period. She also noted that Historic Philadelphia will benefit from new revenues.

The festival in Franklin Square is not an isolated example of private use of public space. Last year, a corporation mounted exhibits on Eakins Oval for a week. The private Center City District operates Dilworth Park year-round and sets the rules. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (also technically part of Fairmount Park) is regularly shut down for big events, including the private two-day Made in America Festival.

Now Franklin Square has become a staging space for a two-month privately run festival.

"I don't know that I've really thought about that," Ott Lovell said when asked if there was a limit on such uses. "We as a department deal with things on a case-by-case basis. And I think we've exhibited very good judgment with regard to accessibility of space, creating equity in public space."

ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594 @SPSalisbury

Stephan Salisbury, Culture Writer

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