The Benjamin Franklin Parkway makes a stunning backdrop for a victory parade, a papal visit, or a concert like, say, Made in America — no one in Philadelphia city government is disputing that. But are those blockbuster events really the best use of the space? What about its status the rest of the year, as an eight-lane highway stretching from the Rocky statue to Logan Square?
Those questions have been in play as the city — for the first time in a generation — has been working to map out a cohesive vision for the Parkway. Before Mayor Kenney apparently blindsided Jay-Z over the concert’s cancellation, it had been a careful process, conducted through a series of wonky studies and a few bold experiments.
The latest of those experiments opens on Friday: an expansion of the Oval+ pop-up park that sprawls from Eakins Oval all the way to 20th Street, reclaiming the northbound outer lane of the Parkway from vehicular traffic — and, city officials hope, proving the theory that this space could become a major leisure destination without causing a calamitous traffic jam.
“I’m a Philadelphian. I get that events on the Parkway are as important to Philadelphians as city pools,” said Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, who emphasized that she was not in the room for the Made in America decision. “But it’s a very hard discussion around how many, how big, how often. Concerts, races, walks, celebratory parades — we all want more of those — they’re all part of the Parkway experience. But what we’re thinking about is: What else should be part of the Parkway experience?”
In the last five years, the city, in conjunction with residents’ groups and the cultural institutions that comprise the Parkway Council, has brought in planners and consultants to examine everything from traffic patterns to public perceptions. A study of major events on the Parkway, released this spring, raised a broad range of concerns: neighbors’ noise and trash complaints, cultural institutions’ worries about the negative impact of major events, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s susceptibility to physical damage.
Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble said Thursday that the study “certainly influenced the administration’s desire to move large-scale events into more sustainable locations.” The city plans to negotiate soon with Jay Z’s Roc Nation on an alternative place for Made in America, she said in an email.
The study noted that “of particular concern is the potential damage to parts of the PMA collection resulting from proximity to excessive noise.” The PMA did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Jeff Zapfe, president of Acentech, an acoustic consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass., said a concert was unlikely to cause more vibration than, for example, the excavation underway for the museum’s new wing. (He has not consulted with the PMA.) He added, “Buildings and art are probably more tolerant to vibration than you might think — probably transporting them around inside the museum on carts subjects them to a lot of vibration as well.” He said typically the most concern would be for frescos or works that are already degraded.
The event study also uncovered other concerns about the Made in America concert: In a survey of 540 Parkway visitors, people cited Made in America as the event that most detracted from their enjoyment of the Parkway and that made it difficult to dine, shop or access museums in the area.
Still, what the research may have shown the most is a divide between visitors to the Parkway on the one hand, and the residents and institutions that surround it on the other.
More than 60 percent of visitors said they like music festivals on the Parkway. A survey of area residents — a sample that skewed older (87 percent were over 35) and less diverse (94 percent were white) — was far less favorable. Just 26 percent said they like having music festivals on the Parkway. “Our Parkway is a PUBLIC treasure and, as such, should be used only for public (not for-profit) events,” one respondent wrote in.
Parkway institutions are likewise irked by the crowds. The Barnes, for one, doesn’t even bother opening on July Fourth.
“We really can’t compete with all the free programming offered by Wawa Welcome America,” executive vice president Peg Zminda said. Major events are hard on Barnes staff and visitors, she said, but she supports them if, like the NFL draft or the Pope’s visit, they raise the profile of the city. “I think [there should be] some selectivity around things that are held on the Parkway that are very meaningful, and not creating all that disruption for things that could happen in other places,” she said.
The report did, however, note at least one thing that everyone seemed to agree on: Better communication is needed. “Opportunity exists for the city to increase transparency around decision-making,” the authors noted.
That seems self-evident in the aftermath of Jay-Z’s outraged commentary for Philly.com: “We are disappointed that the mayor of the City of Philadelphia would evict us from the heart of the city, through a media outlet, without a sit-down meeting, notice, dialogue, or proper communication.”
But beyond this week’s media maelstrom, city leaders have been working toward a bigger-picture reexamination of the space.
“There is a vision for the Parkway, and it’s a citizen-centered vision,” Ott Lovell said. “We know now that if we activate the space, people will come. It’s a tested, proven concept.”
A 2013 plan called “More Park, Less Way” developed by PennPraxis set the tone, and last year the city turned its Oval+ pop-up into a research hub, gathering data through surveys, interviews, visitor counts, time-lapse photographs and monitors that counted the number of WiFi-enabled cell phones passing through the space. Now, it’s progressed to a more detailed examination of what that space might look like, particularly the 14-acre swath that includes Eakins Oval and the frenetic traffic circle that curls around it.
“What we heard from people is they want even more family-friendly activities at the Oval, they want more family-friendly activities on the Parkway, and they want a safer way to get to the Oval with their loved ones,” said Jamie Gauthier of the Fairmount Park Conservancy.
That was the seed for this year’s expansion of the Oval+, with the theme “More Park, More Play,” spilling onto an additional 1.5 acres and blocking a lane of traffic along the northern perimeter of the Parkway from 20th to 23rd Streets. There’s the perennial beer garden but also a climbing structure, a misting pavilion and other spaces to sit, gather and lounge.
“It’s about making the Oval and the Parkway a more whimsical space,” she said.
This year, for the first time, the Oval+ will also extend onto the lawn of the Barnes, where an interactive outdoor installation called the Canopy will float above temporary lounge areas, bocce courts and lunchtime Thursday jazz concerts, creating a connection to the Parkway that the museum has been lacking.
Zminda said the installation represents a larger effort by the Barnes to present a more welcoming face toward the Parkway.
“We felt this was an opportunity to reach out to families, and maybe not take ourselves so seriously in the meantime,” she said.
The Rodin Museum, too, will participate with extended hours and a beer garden oriented toward the Parkway.
In the fall, Ott Lovell said, the city will take what it learns from this year’s five-week pop-up and begin work on a broader conceptual plan for the Oval and the stretch of the Parkway surrounding it.
For instance, she thinks the Parkway could easily slim down by at least one lane. She noted, after all, that the Vine Street Expressway is half as wide and carries eight times the traffic. This summer’s test could prove it.
Selling that idea in City Hall wasn’t easy. “Risk-taking is not something that’s really embraced in city government,” she said.
And, she added, “if it doesn’t go well, it will come back on me.”