Summer days are upon us and we’re busy working on district plans, zoning remappings and other planning projects. With staff changes and vacations, however, we will be taking a break from posting on Philadelphia Planeto for the summer.
We hope you all have a safe and fun summer and check back with us in the fall.
Take a Ride on the Trenton Line
Who doesn’t love spending their morning commute sitting in traffic? Or what about trying to get to the Northeast from Center City and vice versa and finding out that it’s going to take much longer than you thought it would?
It’s no secret that the I-95 reconstruction is affecting travel times. That’s why a group of stakeholders have joined forces to address alternative forms of transportation that can have an impact long after the I-95 work is completed. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, SEPTA, PennDOT, Bucks County, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission have been working on a study entitled Non-Motorized Access to Regional Rail Stations on the I-95 Corridor (a draft will soon be publicly available for comment and input). The study focuses on improving both pedestrian and bicycle access to some of the stations along the Trenton Line Regional Rail Line to make the use of regional rail stations both a more feasible and attractive option for all potential uses, including those who might usually drive.
The study area for the plan includes some of the stations along the Trenton Line- Holmesburg Junction, Torresdale, Cornwell Heights, Croydon and Levittown- that mirror I-95.
Preliminary analysis was done along the entire corridor to further understand the potential impacts of I-95 reconstruction for I-95 users, the impact on alternative modes of transportation and the current users of the Trenton Line. The research included information on topics such as the length of the ride from the selected station to Suburban Station in Center City, the amount of existing bicycle parking at each of the stations, the number of parking spaces at each station and the usage of the existing parking as well as commuting patterns of those who currently use the stations.
Let’s take a closer look at the two stations that are in Philadelphia- Holmesburg Junction and Torresdale. As its name suggests Holmesburg Junction is located in the Holmesburg/ Upper Holmesburg neighborhood on Rhawn Street between State Road and Tulip Street. There are a variety of civic institutions near the station including Holmesburg Prison and the Philadelphia Police Academy as well as recreational opportunities for nearby residents.
For each station in the study strengths, weaknesses and opportunities were identified. Some of the strengths for Holmesburg Junction include the fact that it is located in an existing job center that has supporting bus service and commercial activity. In addition to enhancing the existing strengths, there are additional improvements that can be made in the Holmesburg Junction station area. For instance, the existing overpass leads to both real and perceived safety risks and bikers have a challenging time crossing both Frankford Avenue and Torresdale Avenue as users of the Pennypack Trail. The study recognizes that there are potential opportunities for improvements regarding not only bicycle and pedestrian access but vehicle access and parking and revitalization around the station as well.
Torresdale Station is located in East Torresdale on Grant Avenue between James Street and Tulip Street. Similar to Holmesburg Junction, there are recreational opportunities and parks close to the station. Both the Torresdale- Frankford Country Club and Fleuhr Park are located near Torresdale Station and there are also a variety of civic uses nearby such as Holy Family University and Glen Foerd.
The stabilizing presence of Holy Family University is a major strength of the Torresdale Station, providing both a destination and a quality neighbor. Additionally the density of the homes around the station, in some areas, provides an excellent opportunity for residents to walk or bike to the station, especially since there is express service to Center City from the Station. There are some weaknesses that the report highlights, such as the fact that despite the residential density near the station, the existing street network makes walking to the station a little challenging and that it is worth investigating ways to improve both the lighting and ADA accessibility at the station. One exciting opportunity that the study discusses is providing improvements to the Poquessing Creek Trail and connecting it to Tulip Street. Not only would this help both walkers and bikers access the station but could also increase use of the trail.
Detailed recommendations are also made for the Cornwells Heights, Croydon and Levittown stations, each of which will be vetted by additional stakeholders. The full draft of the report should be available soon for comment, so let us know what you think!
The New Fairmount Park
Our own Department of Parks and Recreation has been exceptionally busy as of late, working with Penn Praxis to produce a plan entitled, “The New Fairmount Park.” Hot off the heels of last year’s Praxis-driven look at the Parkway, and how to maximize its utility, beauty, and accessibility, this plan takes it up a notch and then some, offering a look at both East and West Fairmount Park, the heart (or maybe more accurately, lungs), of the citywide park system.
The document – an interactive PDF best viewed in Adobe Acrobat - was a bit like a trip to the playground as a small child: so many routes to explore, so many ways to have fun. We’re thinking this choose-your-own-adventure format was an intentional move on the part of the plan’s creators, evoking possibility, exploration, and fun. Or maybe it’s just the latest Adobe feature and we’re not up to speed. Either way, it makes the act of pouring over the details all the more enjoyable.
Early criticism describes the plan as lacking in ambition. We’d characterize it as being in keeping with much of this administration’s extensive planning program: The New Fairmount Park focuses on existing points of strength, describes bite-size, early action implementation steps, and emphasizes tangible and conceivable projects as stepping stones to bigger aspirations.
- Restoring pedestrian/bike access to the Columbia Bridge. Say what?! We’re gonna come right out and confess that we were not aware that this freight rail crossing used to welcome a greater diversity of traffic. This existing asset could solve a tricky engineering problem with (relatively) small investment, namely, how to connect the upper levels of the park on the outsides of the river drives with all of the higher-visibility energy of MLK and Kelly. As envisioned, this bridge would take you from the Boxer’s Trail, an under-discovered gem of a route on the east side, to MLK Drive.
- New grandstands on an accessible Peter’s Island. Now we’re talking! Visible from the current Kelly Drive grandstands, Peter’s Island is a nice feature to look at from a distance, and an interesting traffic divider for those lucky enough to be out on the water, but few have enjoyed an afternoon on its shores (legally, anyway). The New Fairmount Park would connect the MLK Drive side of the river (which is much closer) to the island, and build new grandstands to take in the drama of the final 500 meters of the race course. It’s rare for Philadelphia to open up entirely new landscapes to its residents. This is an exciting opportunity to do so.
- A signature pedestrian bridge across the river at or around Fountain Green Drive. Now we’re really in business. While it’s hard to argue that this is very high up on the city’s list of infrastructure priorities, it’s one of those breathtaking design gestures that the world’s greatest cities have found a way to build. Superfluous though it may seem, it is not without potential for significant civic benefits.Beyond new views, a postcard spot for tourists, or even the chance to woo a starchitect to the city, this project is a home run for the way it could dramatically shorten the distance to important destinations across the park from one another. A trip with children from Smith Playground to the Please Touch Museum is currently unthinkable on SEPTA, and circuitous at best by car for those who have them. Heck, the whole notion of taking in both sides of the park in a single visit probably sounds pretty weird to most. Few options for getting from A to B segregate the park into distinct sections, each of which feels like its own experience. A connection here opens up all kinds of possibilities not just for visiting the park, but for generally getting around.
We encourage you to explore the plan further. These big ticket items are not the most inevitable pieces of the plan, nor do we have any bright ideas about when or from where or how the funding might emerge to study, design, and build them, but we applaud Parks and Recreation for focusing its big ideas on new infrastructure that would open up access and lower barriers to recreation for so many adjacent residents in the Lower North and West Park districts, and for Philadelphians in general.
Wonky Wednesdays: Land use surveys
Planners are on my block surveying land use, again. Why not just use Google StreetMap?
Ah, Google StreetMap, if we had to pay for the number of times we use you each week, we probably wouldn’t be able to afford it. There’s no faster or better way to get a visual orientation to a place on-line. Yet, when it comes to ground-truthing and observing all of the details of a structure, a street block, the neighborhood – well Google’s street camera doesn’t replace the up close and personal visit. That’s exactly what PCPC staff will do (again) this summer in the South and River Wards districts – get out from behind our desks and pound the pavement surveying land use. Land…use you say? Yes, land use (no hyphen contrary to popular belief). Here’s a quick summary of why the survey is necessary and what we do with the data.
What is Land Use?
When Planners categorize various activities or uses that take place on a piece of property, this is called “land use.” There are actually lots of ways to categorize land use. The typical method is by the activity occurring on the land, or if the land is entirely occupied by a building, the activities occurring inside it. Since a building, like the Gallery, can have many related activities (shopping, eating, transit), broad categories are used to define what the activities have in common like Commercial, Industrial, Residential, or Institutional. Land use could also be defined by a combination of activity, ownership or type of structure. Take a post office for example. Post offices are owned by the U.S. government and are open to the public. They serve an entirely commercial enterprise of shipping and receiving packages and letters. From one perspective a post office can be an Institutional or Civic use representing either public ownership or a public good. From the activity perspective, are post offices any different than a UPS or FedEx store? No, so PCPC classifies land with a post office as a Commercial land use.
PCPC uses a land use categorization system primarily based on activity, at least at the broadest category. We have a system of 9 broad categories followed by a second level of 16 more defined categories and a third level that really gets into the nitty-gritty and adds in a dimension for the structural type of building, if applicable. For example an apartment building is Residential. Apartment buildings, are also a higher density of use with more individuals living within the same structure. So at the second level we’d call this Residential High Density. Now to get really specific at the third level we can describe the number of units or distinguish apartments from hotels, boarding houses, dormitories or a residential care facility. To get at this third level, Planners need to do visual surveys. Unless you plan to buy a low flying drone from Amazon in the near future (just saying), there is no other way to get real-time information about uses. Assessment data is a good source, but until recently, wasn’t always the most up to date and Google Streetview can be years old.
How long does it take to survey a planning district?
First, we work in teams of two whenever in the field. MORE
Thank goodness Thursday: A bridge too far . . .
THE WISSAHICKON VALLEY: AN ENCUMBERANCE TO THE COMMUTER’S PARADISE
Like most cities, Philadelphia’s bedroom communities have spread ever outward and have been burdened with the constant struggle of commuting and congestion. Samuel Frederic Houston – heir to Henry Howard Houston’s development legacy and estate – proposed a grandiose scheme for the “Cathedral Bridge,” a direct connection between Chestnut Hill and Roxborough over the Wissahickon Valley that would facilitate the rise of Cathedral Hills, a new community modeled as a Garden City. Anchored on the call for superior traffic and commuter patterns, this new vision for Philadelphia’s “well-to-do” in the north and west of the city (i.e. Chestnut Hill and the Main Line), though a stretch, perfectly encapsulates the urban planning and development policies of the era.
The preliminary idea for this plan appeared publicly in 1910, but was not further investigated until a 1920s traffic study of a route to connect Chestnut Hill, Roxborough, and the Main Line. Lacking significant traction on the full scope of his original plan, little of the original project was further designed and even less came to fruition. Scaling down the project, the sole development was a post-World War II ranch-style housing development that encompassed a shopping center, what is now Andorra.
Planning for Andorra began in the 1950s, when Saarinen, Saarinen and Associates produced conceptual plans for the Houston Estate. The plans provide an interesting insight into what could have been. This proposal was entitled Land for Large Scale Development in Suburban Philadelphia, and has interesting parallels to the components included in plans today: commuting distance, social amenities, natural amenities, and growth trends. However, the standards and values placed on each of these components are now very different. This proposal championed low-density development typologies that are auto-oriented and void of any mixed-income considerations. Another interesting difference to note is the proposal’s outlook on “natural amenities,” not as an active or recreational area that is for the people. Instead, the proposal gives the impression that the land is there to be preserved, as part of the view and beauty of the community, to retain a piece of “wilderness.”
The Wissahickon Valley today is one of the city’s greatest assets, as not only a piece of “wilderness,” but an active space to escape the city and cars. Aside from the visual piece of infrastructure overhead, this proposal would have brought at least one other piece of the urban world close to the park: noise. It is impossible to say exactly what impact the additional development and high-traffic bridge cutting across the Wissahickon Valley Park would have had on the community and landscape, besides at least temporarily improve traffic circulation. Perhaps planners today would be investigating the conversion of the Cathedral Bridge into a pedestrian bridge.
 Duffin, J.M. 1989. Henry Howard Houston Estate Papers, 1698 – 1989. Collection Guide. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/faids/upt/upt50/houston_hh_est.html
 Duffin, J.M. 1989. Henry Howard Houston Estate Papers, 1698 – 1989. Collection Guide. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/faids/upt/upt50/houston_hh_est.html