Stand in the center of Philadelphia’s redesigned Shakespeare Park on Logan Square and you might think you had been transported to Paris. The new circular plaza has been threaded with an intricate Elizabethan paving pattern that turns it into a majestic forecourt for the Free Library’s French-inspired palace. Bracketed on the west by a small amphitheater and a lush lawn, the space begs for a staging of one of the Bard’s plays.
But move a little to the east of this urbane refuge and you quickly discover you’re no longer on Prospero’s enchanted island. Just beyond the buffer of perennials, a gaping breach opens up in the earth. Down below, the roar of the I-676 traffic continues just as it did before PennDot undertook a three-year, $75 million project to reconstruct the city streets that span the highway. That deep scar across Philadelphia’s midsection, a vestige of 1950s highway planning, remains largely intact.
Now that the obstacle course of cones and detours is starting to be removed from the Parkway and the expressway, we can finally take stock of what this road work accomplished. PennDot undertook the project to reconstruct seven aging crossings between 18th and 22nd Streets. Each span over 676 was completely rebuilt to last 75 years. Though many of the improvements are invisible, motorists will no longer have to contend with torrents of water running down the underside of the deteriorating bridges and crusts of white efflorescence.
In the old days, PennDot would have simply rebuilt the bridges and called it a day. But the way the state’s traffic engineers think about road projects has evolved, and their designs are starting to acknowledge the presence of pedestrians and cyclists. For this project, PennDot went above and beyond its usual standard to include a trio of public spaces that help mitigate some of the damage done to the Logan Square neighborhood when the highway was rammed across the northern rim of Center City.
And yet, PennDot could have done so much more. The reconstruction of the western half of 676 was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to cap the crosstown trench that separates Center City from its northern neighborhoods, and Philadelphia blew it.
Of the four remaining public squares given to the city by William Penn, Logan is the one that has taken the worst beating from the automobile. The opening of the Parkway in 1917 effectively turned the gracious neighborhood square into a landscaped roundabout orbited by a scattering of disconnected traffic islands. When 676 came through in the late 1950s, it tunneled a moat on the north side, further isolating the library and the former Family Court Building. Poorly maintained, the tiny patches of concrete in front of those two grand neoclassical buildings became feeding centers for the homeless.
The city has been gradually trying to undo the damage. Over the last decade, the Center City District rescued the two traffic islands on the east and west sides of Logan Square and turned them into real parks. PennDot’s road work has now enabled the city to reclaim three more pieces — in front of the library, the old Family Court Building, and on the north side of the Franklin Institute. All were designed by Ground Reconsidered, the landscape architecture firm that established the template for the Parkway’s recent streetscape improvements.
Shakespeare Park is by far the most spectacular. It’s the only spot in the entire 676 reconstruction where the expressway cap was extended. PennDot added a mere 6,500 square feet, but the extra space gave the landscape architects room to play. The circular plaza provides the Free Library with a generous outdoor room for holding community events, which are crucial to bringing in new patrons. Along with stepped seating, the park offers a generous lawn bordered by plants that make appearances in Shakespeare’s plays — yarrow, rosemary, indigo, geraniums. (The city plans to celebrate the park’s opening with an event called Oval+, an extension of its Eakins Oval pop-up.)
It is hard to believe, but the original design of 676 left the library and Family Court without sidewalks along the south side of Vine Street. The reconstruction finally puts them back. Ground Reconsidered’s design also broadened the walkways facing Logan’s roundabout, making it easier to stroll around the perimeter, from Sister Cities Park to the newly greened Family Court Park (renamed Pennypacker Park), to Shakespeare Park. Because the western tip of Shakespeare Park pushes out onto 20th Street, it shortens the crossing to the Barnes Foundation.
The new Franklin Institute park is also a huge boon to that institution. The landscaped plaza, which was created by realigning Winter Street, provides a gracious new drop-off for museum visitors and moves the caravan of buses off 20th Street. Almost a quarter acre, it pushes into the street, narrowing the crossing distance to the Barnes and the lively residential corridor emerging along Callowhill Street.
As nice as the parks are, the project demonstrates PennDot’s limitations. Though other transportation agencies have revived severed neighborhoods by capping highways, that was dismissed as too expensive for 676, even though no cost estimate was ever prepared.
Philadelphia bears some of the blame for the missed opportunity. The city never pressed PennDot for a cap in front of the library and former Family Court Building, which is supposed to be converted to a luxury hotel.
Admittedly, all the focus over the last decade has been on capping I-95 and reconnecting the waterfront. But as the neighborhoods north of Center City repopulate, it’s becoming clear that the 676 canyon needs remediation, especially in the dense area between 11th and 16th Streets — between Chinatown and the emerging Mormon compound. Mayor Kenney acknowledged the need for such a cover at a transportation forum last year, when he called 676 “monstrous” and referred to it as the “not-so-great-wall of Chinatown.”
If anything is certain, there will be more highway-repair projects in the coming years. If Philadelphia ever hopes to make its neighborhoods whole again, it should start preparing now so it can demand highway caps in the places where they will do the most good.