A proposed 6-foot-high fence cutting across the center of Independence Square has been scrapped and a less intrusive - and far less costly - security plan has been developed for Independence Hall and the rest of Independence National Historical Park, The Inquirer has learned.
The wrought-iron fence triggered intense controversy and nearly uniform local opposition when it was suggested last year as the centerpiece of the park's proposed post-9/11 security plan. It has been replaced with a flexible system of movable bollards and chains.
The hip-high bollards, which will not be sunk into the park soil or through its walkways, will snake their way behind Independence Hall between Fifth and Sixth Streets, following the contours of the square. Their purpose will be to limit access to the back of the hall.
Armed security guards will patrol the area.
Independence Square, where the Declaration of Independence was first read to the public on July 8, 1776, has never been cleaved by a fence. It constitutes some of the most symbolically potent ground in the park, providing a direct link to the nation's founding events and figures.
"This is huge," said Ann Meredith, head of Lights of Liberty and president of a coalition of local businesses and residents. The coalition opposed the Independence Square fence, as well as earlier efforts to permanently close Chestnut Street in front of the hall.
"We feel thrilled," she said. "This reads more like a stay-off-the-grass sign than an antiterrorist fence."
Amid criticism from public officials and residents, park officials announced in October that the fence plan would be shelved and a new plan developed.
U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), who was highly critical of the fence proposal and who worked with the National Park Service to come up with an alternative, said yesterday the new proposal was "a good plan" that would provide security and flexibility.
"It's not going to please everybody who wants to have totally unfettered access as before 9/11," Specter said, "but I think it's a good balance."
City officials could not be reached yesterday. Dennis Reidenbach, park superintendent, said the new proposal resulted from the heavy public criticism of the proposed fence last summer.
"A large percentage of the public was in opposition to the fence," Reidenbach said. "We're committed to working with the public."
Because the park already had some bollards and chains, he said, officials decided to "build on what's already in place."
Since 9/11, park officials have struggled to address security concerns.
On the one hand, officials say privately, the Interior Department has pressed for elaborate security provisions in line with Bush administration policies.
On the other hand, residents and businesses around the park have been unhappy with what they view as overly disruptive and restrictive measures the park has proposed or implemented.
The new plan calls for the elimination of security screening at Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center. Instead, a routine bag check will be performed at both sites - much like what is done at sporting events and concerts.
Magnetometers and X-ray machines now in use at the hall and the bell will be eliminated. No security building will be constructed along the west side of the Liberty Bell Center and bag checks will be performed at the center's north entrance.
The interior of the first Supreme Court building, commonly known as Old City Hall, where screening for Independence Hall now takes place, will be returned to its prescreening condition - a place for the park to present the activities of the early Supreme Court to visitors.
A small tent will be erected between the east wing of Independence Hall and the Supreme Court building to serve as a bag-inspection area for the hall.
All parts of the security plan will be reviewed annually, park officials said, to determine whether they are still necessary.
Meredith, whose group prefers an unobstructed park, said the new proposal represented "the best possible solution at this time."
"That said, a critical element of our acceptance is that we take the park service at its word that this is a temporary measure, that it will be reviewed annually and removed as soon as possible, and Independence Park will be restored to its original democratic, historic and majestic state," she said.
Reidenbach said the proposed security plan would be completely funded, if Congress approves, with $843,000 already in the National Park Service fiscal 2007 budget.
The previous security plan, which included the fence, would have cost about $2 million for the square alone, and more to erect a new screening facility west of the Liberty Bell Center.
When they initially began considering a fence and related measures in 2004, park officials said the total security costs would be about $7.5 million.
The security proposal will be available for review on the park's Web site: http://www.nps.gov/inde/
The public can comment until Feb. 23.
The park has scheduled a public question-and-answer session for 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 1 at the Independence Visitor Center, Sixth and Market Streets.